MIRAHwith BENJY FERREE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (July 13). $13.50. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Though many musicians yearn for that one big hit that'll catapult them onto the radar of influential tastemakers, that breakout moment can be as much a curse as a blessing for an emerging artist.
'Member when Ben Folds Five released Brick? The maudlin hit, out of step with the rest of the eccentric alt-rockers' catalogue, became the slow dance ballad of choice for North American college kids. All those newly minted fans just wanted the Five to deliver more Bricks; no coincidence that the band dissolved into solo projects within three years.
And beware the sad story of raspy belter Joan Osborne, whose syrupy One Of Us ruined her chances of making it as a mainstream blues mama.
The same calamity could've befallen wonderfully winsome indie pop songstress Mirah, whose meticulously detailed, slightly folky tunes were little more than cult curiosities till she released 2001's Advisory Committee (K).
Enthralled by that album's opening track, the tympani- and strings-driven Morricone explosion Cold Cold Water, hipster critics gleefully heralded Mirah's new orchestral direction. But nobody bothered to ask the singer herself whether expansive mini-symphonies were her wave of the future.
"There have been so many times when I've felt trapped by the reputation of that one song," she exclaims on the line from her Portland home. "I get a lot of weird e-mail requests, and this one dude randomly sent me a message asking if I'd write a song for his film. I was into the idea for a while, and we were e-mailing back and forth until he said, really casually, 'Uh, I was thinking it could sound like Cold Cold Water.' That was it for me.
"I started touring before I had anything out, and I loved it. Crowds were great even though they hadn't heard my songs before. But somewhere around my second album I realized people weren't happy when I played newer songs. Don't get me wrong," she hastily adds, "- it means so much to me that people love my music. But at the same time, it's frustrating. I can't do anything I want because people want specific things from me. Guys, let go!"
Any Mirah groupie who can't see (or hear) beyond Cold Cold Water is missing out. The singer/songwriter's solo work is fantastically varied, from her sweetly spare cover of Springsteen's Dancing In The Dark to the hiccuping, straightforward heartbreak folk of Don't Die In Me to the deconstructed scratchy beats of last year's Joyride remix album.
Beyond that, she's a sucker for challenging collaborations. Her latest project is a multimedia performance piece with Spectratone International, led by cellist Lori Goldston, accordion player Kyle Hanson (both of former Mirah collaborators the Black Cat Orchestra) and animator Britta Johnson.
Their song cycle about the secret lives of insects, based on the work of entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, will be released on the CD Share This Place (out in August on K).
"I'm less and less able to focus on one thing at a time," Mirah admits. "And I'd hate to do the same thing over and over. I feel like it'd just bore me to the point where I'd stop altogether."
The supergeek actually almost reached that point a while back when, exhausted by the lack of privacy and transient nature of touring musician life, she up and quit... temporarily.
"I took a year off, got a job at the farmers market, moved in with my girlfriend and ran a marathon. I loved it!
"After the year was up, I made a conscious choice to be an artist who does this for a living," Mirah explains, her voice quiet and serious. "I'd never done that before - I was just holding the reins of this thing that was moving along. And I've started making very different choices in terms of my career. It took me three years to get a booking agent, cuz none of the other independent artists I knew had one. It was very looked-down-on as being non-DIY, but DIY," she whispers, "can be exhausting.
"My secret escape plan is to be a voice for quality animated feature-length films. Obviously, I'm satisfied enough with my life that I'm not pursuing that path for now, but it's a little exhausting to give so much of myself to my profession. Just the fact that whenever I release a project I do interviews where my person is on display... that wasn't ever my intention.
"Maybe I should think about playing weddings and bar mitzvahs!"
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Mirah talks about the genesis of her new Share This Place collaboration with Spectratone International and Britta Johnson
Mirah reflects on whether pioneering indie K Records still serves as a viable model for business in today's music industry.