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Courtesy of Thao and Mirah
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No one knew what to expect from the collaboration between Thao Nguyen, the marble-mouthed singer fronting Thao with The Get Down Stay Down, and folk-songstress Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn. Add Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yaRds as co-producer, and you know you’ll get something indefinably brilliant. Their debut self-titled album, book ended by the catchy, percussive “Eleven” and the driving “Squareneck” is just that. The collaboration offers up several brilliant songs and is definitely more than the sum of its parts, which is saying a lot.
In advance of their upcoming show at Off Broadway on June 15, I sat down with Mirah to talk about her collaboration with Nguyen and Garbus, the social justice aspect of their tour, and their plans to play on top of the Arch.
St. Louis Magazine: How did this collaboration come about?
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn: The initial introduction through our friend Lauren [Ross of Terrorbird Media] was an e-mail that was written to the three of us [Thao, Mirah and Merrill Garbus]. I moved to the Bay Area the same month that Merrill moved to the Bay Area. Lauren knew all three of us. Thao and Merrill already knew each other, and had done some work together and so Lauren’s initial proposal was, “Hey, now that the three of you guys are going to be in the same city and I love what all three of you do so much, I would love to hear what would happen if you collaborated.” So, it was basically a set up. It was an internet dating service. [Laughs.]
SLM: You guys are doing something special this tour. Money from the tickets is going towards non-profit programs?
MZ: We’re working with an organization called ATC which stands for Air-Traffic Control. They help musicians incorporate social justice platforms into their touring and communication with their fans. They helped research which organizations would be our chosen organization[s]. There’s a whole bunch of domestic violence shelters that work to end child sexual abuse that are local or national and so they just helped us to find and communicate with each one and helped us set up the ticket surcharge and facilitate our activism. And that’s very important to both Thao and I. Really what art is, is about giving and sharing yourself.
SLM: Why domestic abuse and child sexual abuse? Is that your pet project?
MZ: I care about a lot of things in my life. [But] we have to pick one so… Thao and I are both women, we have an all-female band and crew, and we both have experiences and some background with those issues and so it made sense to have that be our focus.
SLM: What was the hardest part of the collaboration?
MZ: Just figuring out our schedules because the three of us are so insanely busy.
SLM: Do you read the reviews of your album?
MZ: I have read some. It’s actually not, it’s kind of–not boring, but I just have a lot of things to do, and so sometimes it feels like not a good way to spend my time and energy. [Laughs.] But yeah, I’ve read a few. I’ve actually been very pleased. I feel like the response has been good.
SLM: In some of them, they called you and Thao opposites. Thao is the boisterous rock and roller and you’re the more introspective folk singer. Is that true?
MZ: I’m just as introspective as boisterous and Thao is just as boisterous as she is introspective. I feel like people utilize sound bites of descriptions of people [because they] think that it helps them to understand who those people are and what they’re listening to or just to get their job done but no one can be summed up in just a few words.
SLM: Do you guys want to do a second collaboration?
MZ: Well, right now we’re pretty focused on getting this one off the ground. [But] if our schedules line up again I have no doubts that we will be working together. There’s nothing particularly in the works right now, but it’s certainly been successful on so many levels that it would be a shame to let another opportunity go by.
SLM: What was the best part about the collaboration?
MZ: Being in the studio together. I feel like we facilitated each other’s experience really well. We’re good support for each other and that’s pretty special when you have a connection like [what] was shared between Thao, and Merrill and I. There was something really magical about being in the studio for this album.
SLM:Are you planning anything special for St. Louis?
MZ: We’re going to serenade everyone from the top of the Arch. That’s the plan. We’ve got to figure out a couple of logistics, but I think it’s going to work out.