Record Club: Holly Miranda’s “The Magician’s Private Library”

When were you first introduced to Holly Miranda?

Although I was a fan of The Jealous Girlfriends, my first direct encounter was mid-last year at the Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson-curated Vivid Live festival in Sydney. There was no band or production, just Holly and her telecaster and keys and boots in the underbelly of the Sydney Opera House, handing her heart and soul to an audience who hung off every note. I was transfixed.

It’s been almost a year since The Magician’s Private Library was released in the US. I mentioned earlier that this strange anxiety prevented me from selecting it for our record club sooner. Having just witnessed Holly Miranda deliver two gut-wrenching performances at the Sydney Festival, I understand where that comes from now.

Watching Holly perform is, I imagine, like watching someone open a vein. Listening and relating can at times feel like imposing, like you’re unwittingly stepping across a personal boundary and into a private space filled with her truth. And her stare from the stage, should you catch it, well that’s just one of the most intense and unnerving things. There’s this sense that her music tells her secrets and they’re so real and honest that I feel instinctively protective of them. It’s dramatic, I know. But it’s ultimately why I find Holly Miranda and her music so compelling and also so difficult to discuss.

You had some questions about The Magician’s Private Library, and Holly’s answered them below. But first I wanna hear your thoughts. What was your first impression of the album? Did that change with further listens? What did you like, or dislike, specifically? What is your favorite TMPL song? What is your favorite Holly Miranda cover? How did you feel about the production? Have you seen the songs performed live? Isn’t the cover art the most perfect thing?

Use the comments, tell me everything. Here, I’ll start:

I started writing my record club notes on Christmas Day and, feeling somewhat stoned and sentimental, scrawled: “if Holly Miranda is the magician, Dave Sitek is a wizard and my heart is their motherfucking cauldron.” Although astoundingly embarrassing, it’s a sentiment that still stands up sober. The Magician’s Private Library excites me because it’s like nothing I’ve heard before. Holly Miranda and producer David Sitek (TV On The Radio, Maximum Balloon) stock talent and vision in equal parts, and the combined result is dark and exotic and grand.

Of course, The Magician’s Private Library wasn’t intended as some self-aggrandizing title – it’s a phrase that Holly Miranda’s uncle apparently once used to describe Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. But I feel it’s also fitting for this album’s fantasy, those abstract arrangements, the layers of synths and strings and organs and horns  that build its ethereal soundscape. I was equally fond of NME’s description:

“There’s a rare neurological condition called synaesthesia, in which senses are jumbled in the brain, so the sound of words are perceived as tastes, or music as colours. With her first solo album, Holly Miranda has managed to pull off a similar sort of psychic trickery: listening to this record feels like leafing through a box of old photographs. It’s a beautiful, unnerving experience that rattles on long after its final notes fade.”

There were some less enthusiastic reactions to the celestial feel, one of them being that Holly Miranda’s skill and singularity is overshadowed by Sitek’s sorcery, that those layers are so deep that they’re actually impenetrable. I think this interprets the heart of the record to be something that lies hidden underneath its cloud, rather than the whole. Maybe some of you agree. Another thing is that it can be difficult to make out the lyrics. It’s true, it is – although I personally found that the lyrics had little impact on the way the song made me feel.

One of the things I appreciate the most about The Magician’s Private Library is the way it doesn’t necessarily rely on those lyrics as narrative, I feel the melodies convey its stories just as effectively. “Joints” and “Forest Green Oh Forest Green” (featuring TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone) are examples. But when the lyrics are clear, they cut. Like in “Everytime I Go To Sleep”, a stirring track that lures you in with a sweet jewelry-box jingle before throwing a lyrical jab to the stomach: Everytime I go to sleep I kick and scream and dream a little bit, violently awakening to what’s real is really bullshit.

Similar things can be said for my favorite track, “Sleep On Fire” – a stripped down, sleigh bell (!) laden  tune that delivers for me the most memorable moment on the record: Sleep like your bed’s on fire, ‘cause it just might be.

But enough about my feelings, let’s get on to the reason you’re really reading: Holly Miranda took time out from her Australian tour to address some of YOUR questions and comments about The Magician’s Private Library and her career.

What did the early demos for The Magician’s Private Library sound like? Was it just you and a guitar or piano, or did had you already started to create some of the other sounds heard on the album?

HM: They were all different really, some were very basic and some I experimented more with sounds and noise maker. I have a pretty extensive collection of noise makers. i.e. bells, horns, flutes.. I call these instruments noise makers because I don’t really know how to play them, but really anything can be an instrument… I’ve even mic’d a noisy heater before. Here is one of the demos for TMPL, along with a silly stop motion video I made for it (once upon a time).

P.S. Here is a demo that didn’t make it onto the record.

What was Dave Sitek able to bring to the album that no other producer could?

HM: Dave Sitek is one of the greatest producers around, he is fearless and brilliant, and furthermore he is a very dear friend. For me personally, I have had a hard time trusting producers or anyone really who wants to take your music and change or expand on it, but that’s WHY you hire a producer! Working with a producer can also almost be like working with another songwriter, which any musician knows writing with someone else can be a very touchy thing (depending on how precious you are with your songs). So to be able to enter a studio with my friend who I trust personally and I absolutely love what he does professionally (check out TV On The Radio, Celebration, Maximum Balloon) was a blessing. He challenged me and pushed me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to go in, but he also knew me and knew what I could do and just let me do it. He is one of a kind.

Considering the detail on the album (organs, strings, horns, bells etc), were you at all concerned during the recording process about translating the album live?

HM: No, I never once thought during the recording process about how I’d pull this off live. That would be so limiting. It wasn’t until I was meeting with labels and someone asked me “How do you plan to perform this” that I thought about it really hard. I realized that I hate going to see a band live and hearing the exact replication of the album. I wrote these songs on guitar or piano, so I knew I could play them that way, but getting to interpret them depending on what other musicians I have around me has been really fun and challenging. I can do it solo, duo, with the four piece band, or sometimes (usually in New York) I get to play with the full horn section and guest vocalist from the album. The songs get to change and grow, which I think is very important.

Although, sometimes I think how interesting it would be to approach recorded music the way Fela Kuti did. He would write a song, play the crap out of it, and once it was recorded he never played it again live. That doesn’t really work in this industry or culture, but I can see why that method would be attractive.

I’ve always been curious about what the scratching sound is at the beginning of “Joints” … it sounds like pencil on paper …

HM: Yes, you are correct. We mic’d my friend Nicky sketching in the live room. I’m sure I have the drawing somewhere, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was… I think maybe it was a tripped out tree.

TMPL feels quite intimate … is it difficult to put personal material out into the open?

HM: I think it was really hard when I was 16, to step up on stage and sing my little songs. At this point, I’ve been doing it so long that it just feels like second nature. What I’ve found through time and performing is that ones I think are the most personal tend to be the most universal. I also think that sharing our stories is how we evolve as humans.

Is there a particular message or feeling that you hope people will take away from The Magician’s Private Library?

HM: Take whatever you want from it. I guess in an ideal world I would want that to be ‘hope’ or ‘inspiration’.. but in reality I’m just sharing my story, that ancient method of singing the past. I hear a lot of people say that my music is depressing, but that’s just your perspective. I’m not here to cheer you up, if you want “happy” music turn on the radio. You probably won’t find me there… but most music I hear on the radio doesn’t make me feel happy. What makes me feel good is knowing I’m growing and expanding my mind. Again it goes back to evolution, we need to learn from each others mistakes as well as their successes to expand the collective consciousness. This is my truth, and how you take that is up to you. Your relationship to the music and what touches you doesn’t have much to do with me after its out there. That’s up to you.

I’ve heard a few critics interpret this album to be about dreaming – would you say that’s correct?

HM: No, not really. The dreaming theme was never a conscious decision. I really don’t know why that happened. I rarely remember my dreams.

What environment do you find most conducive to creating?

HM: Traveling, being on a plane is when I write the most.

I’ve seen a video where you say that your song “Pelican Rapids” is about equality, inspired by Prop 8 – as a queer artist do you ever feel that there’s an expectation that you’ll speak out about discrimination?

HM: I don’t feel any pressure but from myself to speak out about injustice.

What is your favorite piece of music you’ve recorded?

HM: The Magician’s Private Library, as a whole, is the most proud I’ve ever been of anything I’ve done.

Is there a particular song that you wish you could have collaborated on?

HM: I’ve been so blessed to collaborate on so many cool things, I recently sang on a Theophilus London song, I contributed to the Maximum Balloon album, I’ve sang with so many friends (Scott Matthew, The Antlers, Dirty On Purpose, TV On The Radio). I don’t have any wishes, just gratitude for what I’ve been a part of.

Do you think you’ll ever do a covers album?

HM: Yes, someday. There was an EP called Choose To See that Rough Trade released with the record. It’s five or six covers I recorded. If you can find it (as they say Down Under) “good on ya!”

What make is the acoustic guitar seen in your music videos?

HM: Ummmmmm, I think it’s just this little cheap Ibanez I had to buy quickly after another guitar’s neck snapped while traveling. The pickup is crap, but the guitar itself sounds gorgeous.

What are you focusing on in 2011?

HM: Writing and recording a new record, writing a graphic novel, spending time with my loved ones and making sure they know how much I appreciate and love them, painting, spending more time outside enjoying nature (surfing, biking, boarding). It’s hard to do these things when you spend most of your life in a van driving to the next city… it’s hard to have much of a life. I’m going to get a life in 2011 ;)

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Crystal is Autostraddle's HR Director. She resides in Sydney, Australia, where she wears black clothing almost exclusively and listens to Green Day as enthusiastically as she did at 13.

Crystal has written 296 articles for us.

35 Comments

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    Thank you so much for the interview!

    I’d seen Holly Miranda’s brief series of live songs with Marques Toliver (also amazing) on youtube before buying the album for the record club. I thought “Everytime I Go To Sleep” would have been my favorite track based on that performance (if you haven’t seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELqfKqbxmh8 ). I love the use of pizzicato. I love the line “one cold night they’re gonna put my heart in the ground.”

    But it’s not what’s been getting the most play. “Canvas” is. Something about the ambient noise in the background track (if I’m hearing it right) and just… the way the song is structured, lends itself to being the soundtrack for any given evening.

    I really appreciate that the album / Holly Miranda’s music was viewed as “the ancient method of singing the past.” The personal quality to the music isn’t just cathartic in the modern sense of the term, but also in that old (theatrical, Platonic) way that takes the audience on a trip too, and lifts them and drops them into emotions they might not have had before they listened.

    That was super hard to write without sounding like a pretentious twatface. I tried like four times. I love you, Autostraddle?

    I just mean to say: I dig this. Thanks for this installation of the Record Club.

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      “That was super hard to write without sounding like a pretentious twatface.”

      That was my #1 feeling when i finished this article.

      I liked what you said about music that drops the audience into emotions they might not have had, nicely put. Also thanks for the link to the holly & marques video, stunning performance.

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    well I love The Magician’s Private Library but my question is about the unreleased song “Mark My Words”. I thought it was incredible performed live and I’ve watched it on youtube countless times, but I want a studio version I can put on my ipod! Will it be on the next record? Seriously, such a transfixing song.

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    This was great!

    I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the The Magician’s Private Library because I saw her live first and it kind of spoiled me for anything recorded… I feel like the album kind of loses everything in the mushy/blurry sound, if that makes sense. But I think she’s brilliant and I’ve hunted down all the best bootlegs/youtube vids out there!

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    I realised, after listening to TMPL, that most albums that I love forever I tend to like on a gradual level. This was just like it. I listened and was not enomoured but was sufficiently intrigued to keep going for more and the more you listen is like finally you start speaking her unique and mesmerising language.
    I am usually a person that gets annoyed when music is too slow for me to move along but some few and special songs are just too good to not love them. The entire album is solid, consistent and completely unique. I truly feel like she takes me to a different world were I get to feel all this beautifully painful and hopeful emotions so alien to me. I dunno I might just be talking nonsense but I truly feel like she connects to the music more than most singers. I feel like she’s singing right next to me, living those experiences, telling me all about them…

    In terms of favourite song I hate picking a favourite in albums like this because I believe they are too heavily entertwined in telling one collective story to choose…just like the dark side of the moon, one song alone is beautiful but listen to the album and you understand it better…you like it much more. so no favourites here….but my favourite cover is definitely Tool’s Aenema…I love tool and honestly I like Holly’s cover better. she just has that transcendental thing in her voice. Love all the covers…she should definitely do a covers record…

    And here is where I accept something I feel horrible about. I had tickets to see her in London (which got changed due to the volcano) but when the new date was set I had already got tickets for Barcelona…I hated not going but shit I didnt. I hope she comes back and i’ll get to experience her brilliance live

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    This is so well done! I love how you made it a conversation between us and holly.

    I’m happy you picked this album because it’s not something I would have listened to on my own accord. Her voice is amazing! I can see why some people might say it’s a little hidden under layer but once my ears got used to it I started to really appreciate how unique and well crafted it is.

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    Thank You Crystal! This is beautifully written. It’s nice to read something written by someone so passionate about the subject. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about Holly Miranda before seeing her live with Tegan and Sara last year. I was mesmerized. It was simply beautiful. Her voice is just unreal and her sound is so… creepy. I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but it all just seemed so creepy, in a good way. It felt like I was intruding on something so personal to her but I liked that she let me in. This all just sounds so stupid. I’m having a hard time describing this and I’m not sure if it’s because of the music or the wine I’ve been drinking. Anyway, I really like the music and this record has become one of my favorites.

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    Gah this album. I remember telling my sister to listen to this album but I had such a hard time describing why it was so good. I keep thinking I have the perfect words to explain it, but it evolves with each listen. Its just lush and honest and beautiful. Thanks for this crystal :)

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    I feel like this isn’t something I would normally like, and for the first three songs I was right, I wasn’t a fan until then I got to Waves. For some reason that song was a real turning point for me, something clicked, I got it. I’m on my second run through now, and am surprised at how much I’m loving this. Lyrically, she somewhat reminds me of Brand New

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    This is an album that I had to listen to several times through to wrap my head around. It’s still not all the way wrapped. It was very different from the usual type of stuff I listen to, definitely more complex. Beautifully done. I liked the comparison to synaesthesia, it’s album that makes you feel, not just hear.

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    This is a brilliant article! Thanks Crystal!

    Love Holly Miranda, fave was def Pelican Rapids when I saw her but it’s not on TMPL! Deffo check it out think there’s lots of live versions of it on YouTube!

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    My first impression, like literally within seconds of playing the first track, was how different this was from the live set I heard last year when she opened up for a Tegan and Sara concert. I can’t say I like the live performances or the album versions of her songs better but it does add a different dimension to Holly Miranda as an artist. In any event, I was skeptical but I ended up being pleasantly surprised with the album – and it only gets better with every listen. It’s definitely the most played CD in my car right now, which brings me to another point: I really enjoy driving with this in the car. I find the music very calming yet captivating all the same. Sure, it’s not happy music but it’s not really depressing music either, you know? There’s an intensity there, if that makes any sense. Which is probably why my favorite tracks are ones where the vocals are most prominent: Waves, No One Just Is, and High Tide. If I had to pick a favorite though, it’d be No One Just Is, and I especially love what I guess is the bridge of the song around 2:00 – 2:30.

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    There’s a brilliant muted quality that emphasizes atmosphere, almost as if it swallows the words. It’s beautiful, really, and more than anything else, it creates its own secluded world separate from reality, which appeals to our sense of escapism.

    Wonderful album, wonderful article.

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    Didn’t really like the “I’m not here to cheer you up, if you want “happy” music turn on the radio. You probably won’t find me there…” comment.
    There are good radio stations, especially on the internet, where you hear lots of “cool and depressing” music, if you will.
    I think it comes off somewhat arrogant and Ms.Miranda should be happy if radio stations play her stuff (more) because her music will reach out to more people.
    The first time I heard one of her songs was on the radio… I then bought the album on itunes…
    Think about it, Ms. Miranda.

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    I love her music but some of her covers melt my heart. A covers record would be amazing. She sings from her soul and it hits yours on the way out. Her truth speaks to yours in the way, as she so eloquently puts it, the expansion of our collective consciousness binds us as humans. Her words and her voice.. Her voice!.. convey that raw bleeding, beating, breathing kind of feeling. The kind that makes you feel like you’re soaring out of your body with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Wonderful article and great interview Crystal.

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    I did not like the cd at 1st. So different than what I usually like. But, the more I listen, the more I love it. Holly is my new fav female singer. Great article. I am disappointed she will not be touring soon. Just when I found her, she decides to take a break.

    And, I agree, her covers are wonderful. Music is very much this girls’ life.

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    Good interview, thank you.
    This is really one of those albums that gets better and better the more you listen to it. I can’t say I like the entire album, but most of it and my favorite tracks are Joints and Sleep on Fire. Sweet Dreams is kinda happy btw, no?
    Anyone who plays guitar knows that is an Ibanez but what make?
    Shame Holly won’t be touring, would love to see her live. No festivals either?
    I think her record label needs to promote her more.
    Sitek did a good job, I like the sound of the album.
    And yes the cover art is very nice :)
    I have to say one negative thing about her guitarist that I’ve seen in live clips- what’s the story with him? A lot of mistakes and I’m really not digging him at all.

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