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Spotlight On: Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn—Don’t Call Her a Singer-Songwriter

Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, a.k.a. Mirah, emerged in the early 2000s as a leading figure in the Olympia, Washington lo-fi scene that produced artists like the Microphones, Beat Happening, and the Blow. In the decade-and-a-half since, she’s earned scores of steadfast fans and critical kudos with her ever-changing, always-earnest music and her restlessly creative collaboration. (Recent examples include a joint effort with Thao Nguyen, of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, and a concept album with Spectratone International that’s entirely about insects.)

On her newest LP, Changing Light, Mirah is solo in more ways than one: in 10 songs, she examines from several different angles a bad breakup that sent her reeling from the Pacific Northwest to Brooklyn. The album that resulted—out on vinyl this week—is her most mature work yet. Ironically enough, I caught up with Mirah a few days before she and her new partner went on their honeymoon.

It’s kind of funny that you just got married, considering your album out now is basically a breakup record.

Just goes to show how how long things take in this business! Or how fast I am; I don’t know. Take your pick.

I mean, do you see Changing Light as a breakup record?

Well, honestly, I put that in the one-sheet because it was the easiest, most concise phrase, and I hate describing myself or my music. Like, when I sit next to somebody on a plane and they’re like, “What do you do?”, I immediately turn into this brat who cannot answer the question, and feel like sort of a loser for not being able to describe what I do after all these years of doing it.

But anyway, calling it a breakup record is not inaccurate, but it’s not particularly illuminating, just the same as calling me a “singer-songwriter” is not inaccurate but not particularly illuminating. Because, you tell me: “singer-songwriter”—what kind of music is that? Really, I’m asking you the question right now: does it sound like one thing, and everybody who gets called a singer-songwriter sounds like that?

No, it’s more like a job position. 

Right. So, the job of my record is to be a breakup record, but I feel like there’s a lot more to it than that.

Well, what else would you want a listener to know?

Just that there are many angles to every experience, various positions for viewing each aspect of our lives… I’m actually trying to say that when you turn the mirror on yourself and really do your work, it makes turning the mirror outwards so much more effective, and you can do all of your work better, and all of your relationships will probably end up being deeper—including your relationship with yourself.

You recorded this album in a number of different places over a number of years. Do you hear all those times and places on the record?

It’s similar to my experience performing a lot of songs live—even really old songs: I’m standing on stage, wherever I am, singing a song, and I can still picture these glimpses of my life at the moment when I wrote the song. And I’m not stuck; I’m not like, “Oh, God, still trying to work through that stuff from 15 years ago!” It’s actually kind of nice; it’s a very interesting way to remain in contact with my own experiences.

How do you think your music has evolved since your last album, 2009’s (a)spera

You’re asking me, “You’re 39 now. Do you feel like you’ve finally grown up, or not?” Is that what you’re asking me? [Laughs.]

Well, the new record sounds very adult to me. 

Well, that’s good. It’s something that’s been a bit of a struggle for me, with my identity as a kind of round-cheeked, smiley, sweet-voiced person who doesn’t really dress like a grown-up. I don’t do the, like, “woman” thing very completely; I think I’m perceived more in a girlish way. But, like, I am a grown-up; I am about to turn 40. So, I’m glad that it finally sounds like I am, because I feel like maybe I finally am.

I think that I’m a better songwriter than I was when I first started out, and I totally value every step along the way. I’ve had some phases of listening to old records and feeling a little embarrassed—like, “Oh, my voice sounds too much like I’m a little kid,” or, “Oh, I can’t believe I put in that lyric”—but now I can look back on my discography and be like, “That’s cool that I decided to do that. I might not make that decision now, but I’m so glad that’s in there.”

You recently moved from Portland, where you were still closely identified with Olympia’s lo-fi/K Records scene, to New York. How do you think that relocation has affected you creatively? 

The move was spurred on by the breakup. I just needed to leave; I needed to just have new everything around me, and I had to leave a lot behind… I had this really positive experience of living in Olympia for a bunch of years after I finished college, and getting to work on these large-scale projects with people—all different kinds of projects: musical ones; rock operas; big, weird fashion shows; parades; secret cafes. We had fun, and we did really interesting things, and we couldn’t have done them without each other.

But after a certain number of years, I started to feel like although we were still close, we’d all sort of started focusing on our own projects, and we were supporting each other in those, but there was more of a sense of individual movement, rather than community movement. So, there just came a time when I decided that I wanted to, and could in fact, move on—move away. It’s been a really positive experience, my connection to the Northwest and my community there, and I’m also really happy about having moved and moved along.

Let’s talk Jewish stuff. Did your parents raise you with a sense of Jewish heritage? 

Yes—my parents also raised us eating macrobiotic foods, and when I was really little, we were really Jewish and really macrobiotic, and then as the years went on, we got less macrobiotic and less Jewish. I mean, less observant. We would do Shabbat every Friday when I was little, but by the time I was in middle school, we totally weren’t doing that and we were totally eating cheese. But yeah, there was definitely a sense of the identity. My mom isn’t Jewish; I admit that to the Lubavitcher guys on the subway platforms during Passover… But when they ask me if I’m Jewish and I want a free menorah, I just say yes. So, it’s like the privilege of being half and half, I guess: sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I’m also queer and I married a cisgendered man, so I’m, like, a multi-identity person.

Probably your most explicitly Jewish song is “Jerusalem.” What inspired you to write it? 

I had been requested to contribute a song to a Hanukkah cassette compilation, and I was fishing around for some inspiration. I had this close friend in Olympia who had been doing some research about Hanukkah, and he was telling me about how the conflicts that were going on were actually really bloody; it’s not just some cute story about the miracle of oil. And then I just started thinking about that. It’s like, OK, the Jewish people have experienced a lot of oppression and violence being perpetrated against them throughout history, and we know this. And then, I just feel like the situation with Palestine and Israel, and the violence that’s perpetrated against Palestinians—the whole situation is just like, how could we do that? And unfortunately, it’s not a unique case—I mean, it happens in families, it happens in communities, it happens in nations, this experience of being abused somehow, and then becoming an abuser.

Do you hear any other Jewish musical influences in your work? 

There are some really beautiful Jewish melodies which I’m so glad are part of my heritage. I listened to some of those from when I was a baby, and I hope they made it in somewhere. But it’s hard to say: what did I listen to more when I was a baby, Hebrew prayers or Stevie Wonder? Stevie Wonder, is the answer. So, I like to think that some of that melodic sense made it in there, and that that comes out.

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