Mirah: Character Building

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Low rents and a throbbing independent music scene aren’t the only things that make Olympia, Wash., an easy place to fall into a comfortable rut. With all the hipster needs confined to a five-block downtown radius, it can be a haven for big fish who prefer a small pond. Of course, for singer/songwriter Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, being a big, comfortable fish in Olympia was more than enough reason to head for the other side of the country.

“You know how matter never disappears from the universe, it just changes form and pops up somehow, somewhere else?” she says of her recent move to Philadelphia. “I wanted to reprove that to myself. I wanted to find myself equally everywhere.”

You also get the sense a bucolic town like Olympia simply isn’t large enough to contain a flamboyant character like Mirah. From the cover of her 2000 debut, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This (for which she donned an aviator hat and goggles), to her role as a genderless freak in The Transfused rock opera, Mirah has made it clear she possesses a Lon Chaney-sized closet of personas. On her recent sophomore record, Advisory Committee (K), she samples them all in her honeyed voice, spinning from dizzy little girl to epic poet to fierce goddess.

Far from being traditional singer/songwriter fare, Advisory Committee employs lush, Phil Spector-esque walls of sound (courtesy of producer Phil Elvrum, the main man behind the Microphones) to expand Mirah’s love of characterization and storytelling. Each song is a miniature epic—complete with protagonist and definitive sonic backdrop—involving Mirah as both a songwriter and a character. “I wasn’t trying to deflect the spotlight (from myself),” she explains. “I was just trying to nestle the rawness amongst complimentary scenery.”

The characters are playful and all-encompassing. On “Cold Cold Water,” Mirah is a widow in mourning, staring out to sea and wailing over moaning strings and a barrage of military drums. “Light The Match” sets her amid the piercing violins and jerky rhythms of traditional Jewish music. (“I do have a secret dream of learning Yiddish and singing in a klezmer band,” she admits.) On “Body Below,” she’s a gentle lover, cooing softly into the ear of her four-track in the wee morning hours. It’s almost as if Mirah is a child play-acting, and we are her captive audience.

It’s just as easy to fall prey to the overblown fantasy found on the cover of the Cold Cold Water EP, a companion to Advisory Committee. In a cartoon drawing, she’s a bandit astride a horse. And, with revolver in hand, she seems poised and ready to gallop into the distance. “In a way, [the cover] is quite out-of-character for me—so flamboyant and explicit and full of reference,” she notes. “But it’s great to do out-of-character things.”

Mirah recognizes the obvious irony of calling something “out of character” for herself. Even she seems aware that it’s difficult to classify exactly who she is. A playful tone creeps into her voice as she concludes: “At heart, I’m really just a total flamer cowboy/construction worker/biker, singing about cruising while dancing around in really tight pants.”

—Tizzy Asher