It’s been quite some time since we’ve heard much from Miranda Lee Richards, the folk pop singing/songwriting heroine perhaps most widely known for her involvement with the heavy hitters of mid-late ‘90s neo-psychedelia, like the Brian Jonestown Massacre (of whom she is formerly a member) and the Dandy Warhols. Next Friday, January 29th, will see the release of her third LP and first since 2009’s Light of X. However, in a recent chat she tells me that in those six years she managed quite a bit of self-healing and self-discovering and has come out in a notably more comfortable place. Her latest album, Echoes of the Dreamtime, deals with just that kind of journey, focusing on things such as human agency and the dualities of humanity itself (One of the tracks is actually directly inspired by The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke, perhaps cinema’s most profound living humanist.) The songs are sometimes sunny, sometimes psychedelic, but always poignant, folk pop. In our recent chat Miranda tells me about everything she’s been up to in the past six years and just how that seems to have come out on her latest album.
Izzy Cihak: So I know you recently wrapped up some tour dates with the Dandy Warhols, who are some of my favorite people in music and I know long-time and dear friends of yours. How did that batch of shows go? Any particular highlights?
Miranda Lee Richards: There are certain magical portals of time, and touring is high on the list for me! It is not all fun and games, but in general, I’m doing what I love and set out to do so there is tremendous gratification and fulfillment in that. The Dandy’s were one of my favorite bands and great live from the get-go. They inspired me to want to play music professionally, and are dear friends as you said, so it is an awesome full-circle affair. And I am really enjoying playing this album live – I was very inspired to write these songs, and equally inspired to share them with people. Phoenix, San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles were highlights.
Izzy: You’re about to release Echoes of the Dreamtime, your first album in quite some time. How do you feel like it compares to previous releases, both in terms of sound and the process of writing and recording it? Do you feel like a significantly different artist than that which recorded Light of X?
Miranda: The question is: do I sound like a significantly different artist? 😉 I am very much the same, and very much changed — I know that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron! The biggest difference is that in Light of X, I was seeking the light, and in Echoes of the Dreamtime, I had mostly found it, or at least I knew more places to look for it. The darker songs were written from that vantage point — I was surprised to see darkness again, like saying hello to someone you haven’t seen in a long time.
The process of writing was much the same, although I’ve gotten a bit more sophisticated about the whole thing – I am a much more languid and voluminous writer than I used to be. With Light of X, I would struggle to get a few good lines, squeezing water from the stone. With Echoes, the floodgates had opened in that arena, and I found myself sifting through pages and pages of lyrics. Many of the songs were very long, lengthier than how they appear on the album, and I had written enough for a double record. It was a bit daunting trying to finish and edit, actually. But the mission was eventually accomplished, and there will hopefully be a sequel to Echoes not too far off in the near future.
In terms of recording it, this time we built the tracks around live performances of me playing guitar and singing at the same time. In the past, we’d have tracking sessions with a rhythm section and build around those, but sometimes the plot would get lost. There are benefits to tracking with a band also, so that things don’t get too mellow — but then again, the languid nature is hypnotic, so it’s a tradeoff. “7th Ray” is also the only piano-based song on the record, and Light of X was almost all piano-based songs, which are typically ballads in my case. This album is mostly written and performed on guitar, so it’s more up-tempo, “portable and affordable” than Light of X.
Izzy: And what have been your own personal highlights in those past six years, whether relating to your music or otherwise?
Miranda: These last six years have been transformative for me in many ways. Discovering a form of meditation called Open Heart meditation was very significant, as it got me in touch with my own heart and healed a lot of confusion and darkness I had been carrying around. People always say, “Follow your heart,” and I didn’t know what that really meant! And I also got into the teachings of Abraham-Hicks and Doreen Virtue and that really helped me see things in a more positive light. Witnessing myself evolve artistically and as a singer was a real thrill as well. I also experienced some physical healing, and now mostly follow the AIP diet which has given me more energy and clarity (following it on the road is hard though). Feel free to Google all of these if you’re in need of a little self-help!
Izzy: I really love Echoes of the Dreamtime but “Tokyo’s Dancing” is in competition with a song off of the new Swahili Blonde record for my first official favorite song of 2016, so I have to ask how that particular track came about. It reminds me of like brilliant Americana Twee (Hopefully that’s not insulting…)
Miranda: Wow, I’m in comparison with Swahili Blonde (an experimental band)!? Very cool! Since you put “brilliant” in front of Americana Twee, I’m just fine with that. 😉 I do have a bit of twee and kitsch in my music, but not predominantly so…I awoke with the “Tokyo’s Dancing” melody playing in my head, and set the music to words afterwards. It sounded like “Puff the Magic Dragon” or Pachelbel’s Canon in my mind. The song is a stream of consciousness, full-life existential journey, seeing where we fit into the big scheme of things. It has political and environmental themes, anti-war sentiment, dysfunctional upbringings, self-empowerment, and time travel all thrown in. The Fukushima earthquake inspired the opening line, “Tokyo’s all lit up and she is dancing…”
Izzy: I also really love “It Was Given” and understand that it was inspired by Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which is one of my favorite films of recent years. What was it about the film that you found so inspiring or worth discussing?
Miranda: Ah, yes, that is one of my favorites on the album too, a track I am really proud of! I ended up seeing the The White Ribbon by chance when a friend recommended it at AFI fest (in Los Angeles) in 2009. I almost didn’t go as I was really swamped with obligations from my Light of X release at the time, but I must have subconsciously known that it would inspire me. The basis for the movie was set in a German village just before World War 1. It is beautifully shot in black and white, and there is a lot of silence, every shot a perfectly composed frame. All joy and good faith vanish from the town when a series of petty crimes, disappearances, and vandalism plague it. You’re not sure what will happen next or just how bad it will get; no one can be trusted, and everyone begins to expect the worst. It is the root of paranoia and evil, and you can see how quickly the downslide happens. The song was very lengthy as I attempted to tell the story and recall the various scenes. I had a good outline going, but it was a lyrical puzzle I was having trouble solving. Then I went up on my patio in the sun with my laptop, where I could barely see my computer screen. For some reason in that environment, I could hear exactly how the song should go, which lines should go where. I had the rhyming motif going of “given,” “happen,” “ruined,” “children,” etc., and I was able to fill in the blanks with the wisdom and observation that I personally extrapolated from the film. Without giving too much away, I thought it was interesting that the resolution was that there was no resolution. Once the crimes stopped, life returned to normal and perfected itself over time. Goodness prevails when we let it, and human beings are essentially good, or at least we have to have faith they are. That time in history is particularly dark and disconnected, but out of it birthed the 60’s post war joy and newfound spirituality and connectedness (also explored in the song and on the record as a whole). The theme is mirrored in what we are going through now with terrorism as a global culture, so there you have it. I more eloquently and poetically described the story in the song I hope!
Izzy: Also, are there any other Haneke works that you’d especially recommend? I dig his work, but other than Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Cache, I haven’t seen any of his other stuff.
Miranda: To be perfectly honest, I haven’t seen any of his other films! Hello, Netflix and iTunes… I just set up the newest version of Apple TV with good speakers, so I’m looking forward to catching up on movies.
Izzy: Sticking with that theme, do you have any other especially significant non-musical influences? I feel like they are often far more interesting than a musician’s musical influences.
Miranda: Hmmm… life in general, ha-ha? Poetry is another big one — I’ll run through the “poetry section” of my bookshelf sometimes, or visit a good used bookstore. But mostly, life experiences and the chatter in my head could provide enough fodder and great lyric lines for a career hopefully! I’ve gotten much better about capturing it all — I used to have lyric books all over the place, and then I graduated to Moleskins, then to binder paper in three ring binders. And now I use the Notes feature and recording device on my iPhone… Thank God for my iPhone!
Izzy: Finally, in addition to your new album, what are you most excited about in 2016? What are you currently hoping and planning?
Miranda: Well, without giving too much away, I have an LP from a side project called Black Fawn that I am looking forward to releasing in 2016, as well as the sequel to Echoes of the Dreamtime (if there’s time). I have some other side projects and writing projects I’m working on as well, and I also have some non-musical inventions and business ideas, too. I just need to find the time for it all!