Holly Miranda is a Michigan-born, New York-based singer-songwriter whose music is atmospheric, opaque, and dreamy, sound swirling around her slurring, sultry voice. Miranda moved to New York when she was 17, and shortly thereafter started playing in the Jealous Girlfriends, a shape-shifting rockband she'd front over five years and two albums. In 2008, Miranda started working with Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio. Their collaboration turned into her debut solo LP, 2010's The Magician's Private Library.
Interview: 9 February 2010
You just got back from touring Europe; was it your first trip?
“No, I'd been a couple of times. I first went to Russia when I was 14, on a mission trip, taking medical supplies to areas of Belarus effected by Chernobyl. It was something through the church my family used to go to. They announced it, and said you had to raise $4000 or $5000 in donations, and I really wanted to do it. So I started writing letters to various family members and friends, doing various odd jobs, having fundraisers. And I raised the money. I went with people from the church, not my family.”
Were you making music when you were 14?
“Yeah, from pretty early on I knew that I wanted to do music with my life. I’ve been playing piano for 20 years, now, and I’ve been playing guitar since I was 14. That’s when I started writing my first songs, and since then it’s all I wanted to do, and all I could see myself doing.”
So you felt an immediate connection to songwriting?
“Yeah! I grew up in this very sheltered environment, and I had this real consuming desire to express these things that I felt but that I couldn’t articulate. It was through songs I was able to get that out.”
What kind of ‘sheltered environment’?
“I grew up in a very religious family, and there were a lot of things I wasn’t allowed to watch on TV, certain cartoons were considered demonic in their influence, and there was not a lot of secular music in the house outside of old Motown records. A lot of things that normal kids were doing I wasn’t.”
How much, if any, did that shape who you are as human-being?
“I think it did. Being in church that much instilled a lot of things in me. I’m really grateful for the way that I was raised in many ways. Not hearing that much music, when I did discover secular music —like the first time I heard The Cure or Nine Inch Nails, these typical CDs my sister was hiding next to her bed— it made it a sacred and personal thing to me. It was my own little secret. That’s still how I feel about it.”
Do you feel that about your own music, that it’s a secret you’re harboring?
“It is really sacred and personal to me. For a long time, my writing was getting more and more personal, and I felt really self-conscious about bringing that on stage. But, the more I did it, the more reactions I would get from people who felt that sense of shared intimacy, who were really touched by it, and I realised that a lot of these private feelings I was worried about sharing were, in fact, just really universal. I feel like that’s how we evolve as humans: we share our stories.”
What are you sharing with the world on The Magician’s Private Library?
“I think it’s an encouraging or hopeful record. A lot of times when I’m writing songs, I’m writing them to myself, trying to help me get through something, or work something out, understand something. Hopefully that sense is something I can share with people. A lot of these songs are about dreams, and the contrast between dreaming and reality; exploring the divide between the two, and becoming aware that living in dreams can be dangerous, and that the present moment is all we have. That’s definitely where I was at making this record. It feel like such personal material to be writing about, but these are obviously really universal ideas.”
What did you and Dave [Sitek] talk about doing with the album, sound-wise?
“We didn’t really have a lot of preconceived notions about how we wanted it to sound. I came in with a bunch of demos before the demos, and my style of recording is that I don’t really know what I’m doing; I have a lot of weird noisemakers, I pretend that I can play trumpet when I’m alone, and I try to create these strange little worlds filled with sound. That idea leant itself to the broader canvas of this album, and so wanted to create this really full-sounding album with lots of strange sounds, tiny details, and proper horns and strings.”
How did it feel being let loose in the Sitek laboratory?
“He has so many instruments it’s crazy. We played as much of the record as we could with just the two of us. I played all the piano and the organ and the guitar on the record, but there were certain things we couldn’t do on our own: the live drums, the saxophones and clarinets, the strings. When we started bringing in other musicians, that’s when it started to take on more of a shape. Which was a very dreamy, ambient, chiaroscuro feeling.”
So, what does the title The Magician’s Private Library mean to you? Why that string of words together?
“It’s actually something that an uncle of mine once said. I played Dark Side of the Moon to him because he’d never heard it before, and when I asked if he liked it he said it sounded ‘like the magician’s private library’. That was just a really beautiful image in my head: again, this secret place, this place that you can escape to. I held onto that title for about four years, just keeping it as my little secret. When we finished this record, I knew that it was the perfect title. I’ve always felt like Dave was a wizard, anyway, with the way that he conjures sound. I actually feel like, sometimes, this private library is the place I go to make music; this special space I can go in to be alone, to be in tune with my ideas.”
Is it a difficult space to reach?
“Yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s hard when you’re on the road, and you’re always surrounded by people. And even living in New York, living in an apartment building, sometimes you’re aware that you can be heard through the walls, or out in the hall. That makes it really hard for me to just let go, to really sing from my heart in an unreserved, open fashion. I have to really find time to be by myself, and to get into the right headspace to create.”