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?

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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 ;)

Crystal is a 33-year-old Australian living in Chicago. Founding member, does HR stuff, writes now and then.

Crystal has written 324 articles for us.

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