Just into her tour of her new self-titled album, QRO sat down with Holly Miranda. In the conversation, the singer-songwriter discussed the tour, Holly Miranda (QRO review), writing in Joshua Tree but recording in Brooklyn, shooting a video with a circus and 104° temperature, being that awful person with a selfie stick, not to fuck with magic or the Michigan Secretary of State, and much more…
QRO: How has this tour been so far?
Holly Miranda: To be honest, tours are kind of a crapshoot, you know? How can you tell what a tour’s gonna be?
D.C. was great, Philly was… wanting for. Somebody stole [opener Ambrosia Parsley’s] entire outfit from the bus.
QRO: What is the name of the new song that you played?
HM: “All of the Way”.
QRO: Do you cover Morphine’s “Mary” live because you have a saxophone, or just so you can dance on stage?
QRO: I don’t know many artists who cover both Morphine & TLC [“Waterfalls”] in a set…
HM: Sorry… Sorry for you… [laughs]
Holly Miranda covering David Byrne’s “Glass, Concrete & Stone” at Envelope in Queens, NY on 10/14/10:
QRO: How did making Holly Miranda compared with making [prior record] The Magician’s Private Library (QRO review)?
HM: It was completely different.
QRO: How was writing in the Joshua Tree area, some place that remote?
HM: For me, it was exactly what I needed. I’d been trying to write in L.A. for six months leading up to that, and I’d never been to Joshua Tree before. And I had this dream that I just rented a house in Joshua Tree and I wrote a record, and it was really easy. And everything up until then had been really fuckin’ hard, so I woke up the next day and I rented the first house that I found. I rented it for a month. And I drove out in my Prius with all the gear I could fit in my car.
And the first night that I was there, I wrote “Desert Call”. And it kind of all came after that. It wasn’t like I had any sort of a theorem, or an idea of what I was about to do.
QRO: Do you live out in Los Angeles, or still live in New York?
HM: I don’t live anywhere. I definitely don’t live in Los Angeles…
QRO: How was it going from writing in the vast, unpopulated expanse of the Joshua Tree National Park to recording in tightly packed New York?
HM: Writing and recording are very distinctly different things. With writing, you want silence, you want space, you want expansiveness, and Joshua Tree has all of that. And when you’re recording, you want the best musicians you can find to be playing on stuff, [laughs] which is what, for me, Brooklyn has. So it wasn’t really that much of a thought process to be like, “I’m gonna be in Brooklyn…”
I lived here for thirteen years before I left to go to L.A. – for love… This is where my people are; this is where the people that I know who play the best are. So getting them to come to a little tiny, tiny studio, to play this record, was not that difficult.
QRO: When writing, do you write all the parts – I’m thinking specifically of the baritone sax…
HM: No. I have people who play with me who are incredible players, and I would never try to write their parts. I want them to do what they do, and they do it so well.
[Baritone sax player] Maria [Eisen]’s been playing with me for a long time, and I’ve always wanted to be able to take her out on tour. This is the first time I’ve been able to, and the only reason I’ve been able to, is because I made her play on every song – ‘cause I produced the record, so I made her play on every song. And so it was only right that she would have to come out and do the songs.
It was more of a selfish, ‘I want her here, and so I’m gonna make her play on everything, so she has to come on tour…’ Normally a label’s like, ‘Oh, let’s do the essentials, drums bass, guitar…’ I wanted her.
QRO: When making Holly Miranda, were you just unable to come up with a title?
HM: No. It also just felt like the first thing I’ve done that really felt like me, you know?
I’m probably terrible at naming things, but also it felt like the most authentic representation of me, of anything else.
QRO: How was making the video for “All I Want Is To Be Your Girl”? Where does one find a circus for a video like that?
HM: I wrote this treatment, and this other guy [Jason Fijal] had written another treatment, which had me and a bunch of puppets – Natural Born Killers treatment, puppets kidnapped me, I’m just a waitress at a diner… We’d gotten a lot of submissions for the video, and that was the one that was almost the best, but I had already done too many puppet things. I’ve done a lot of puppet shit. I do a lot of work with a non-for-profit, Lady Parts Justice (video), and I’d done a video for a puppet for that. Can’t be the puppet lady…
So I wrote this treatment for “All I Want Is To Be Your Girl”, with my friend Lacey Story in Detroit, who’s the professor for Women’s Studies at Oakland [University]. We’d been talking about how “All I Want Is To Be Your Girl” could mean anything in this day & age, wanting to be someone’s girl when gender is such a fluid thing. Sort of playing with idea of that, and a video I had made before this, when the song was a minute-and-a-half, of a circus-themed thing.
So I got really stoned, and I wrote a treatment for the song, which involved me riding off on a female centaur at the end. [laughs] We couldn’t afford that, and so we sent my treatment to the guy who’d written the previous thing, so he sort of reworked it to fit the treatment, and then he & I got on the phone and reworked it a little more. And it just so happened that his partner is in the circus, and all those people in the video we already her friends: the bearded woman, the sword-swallower, the juggler – everybody was already in the same circus. So the treatment I wrote he kind of adapted to fit the people that he already knew.
I scouted with them for the place that we were gonna shoot it, and then I showed up a few days before we were actually gonna shoot the video. I built all the props with them – we did everything together, and then we went out to the desert; it was all very much a family affair. And I’m really close with everybody who’s in that video.
I thought I was gonna die – I had 104° temperature the entire time we shot that whole video.
QRO: The person who’s the half-man/half-woman in the circus?
HM: That’s Ambrosia. She is the half-man/half-woman. I had to convince her to do that. She’s like, “Tiny,” – she calls me ‘Tiny’, she only refers to me ‘Tiny’ – “Tiny, I’m gonna be terrible at this.” “You’re just gonna fuckin’ show up in the desert, it’s gonna be great, don’t worry about it.”
The thing that I didn’t know is that I’m allergic to hay. So I showed up the day of the shoot, and I could not breathe, because they were shaking out bales of hay every five minutes on set, they were shaking out huge bales of hay. I was sitting there sneezing – I was blowing my nose so much that they had to keep touching up the make-up around my nose. It was horrible! [laughs] And I thought I was gonna die – I had 104° temperature the entire time we shot that whole video.
But I’m like, ‘There’s this many people here, we spent this much money, there’s no way I can bale on this – we’re just gonna do it.’ And I had 104° temperature. And I slept sixteen hours when they called the wrap on that, got on a red eye to New York, and slept for two more weeks. I got so fuckin’ sick after that video, I slept for two weeks… [laughs]
Holly Miranda’s video for “All I Want Is To Be Your Girl”:
QRO: Did you use a selfie stick for “The Only One”?
HM: I had a selfie stick with a GoPro on the end, and I walked around for a month-and-a-half, anywhere that I was touring, and I would just shoot myself. I would have one headphone in; I would just be like JFK Airport at six AM…
QRO: I would feel too self-conscious to do that…
HM: I thought that I would feel self-conscious, but I don’t know…
You think you’re doing something justified when you think that it’s art. So you give yourself a little extra padded ego.
Oh, you look like a fuckin’ asshole! Whenever you’re walking around with a selfie-stick with a GoPro on the end, you look like a fuckin’ douchebag.
One night we did a shot in Atlantic City. I was walking down the boardwalk – my manager was on tour with me, we had a decent show, we had a day off in Atlantic City, I had some lobster, I won sixty bucks, and I’m thinking, ‘Alright, I’m gonna do a shot on the boardwalk,’ ‘cause there’s enough light to do a shot at the boardwalk at night.
And she says to me, “White bitch, I will take that stick and shove it so far up your ass it will come out your mouth…”
So I’m walking down the boardwalk with my selfie stick with a GoPro on the end, singing “The Only One”, and I walk past this woman, this older, African-American woman, furiously eating fries. And I look at her, and I give this knowing [nod], ‘I’ve totally been there, totally done that, I’ve been eating fries on the boardwalk before…’
And she says to me, “White bitch, I will take that stick and shove it so far up your ass it will come out your mouth…” And I said, “Ouch?” I don’t even know what to say to this… [laughs]
The selfie stick definitely acquired a lot of animosity. People hate the selfie stick – as do I. I would never be carrying around the selfie stick, if it wasn’t for the purpose of like, ‘I feel like I’m making art…’ And that kind of drove it, just to be like an asshole, just to be like walking through Times Square, in the rain, doing a shot in a roundabout – you’re an asshole.
It was my friend Geoffray [Barbier]’s idea. He was like, ‘You have to do this!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a really great idea.’ It took a lot of my ego to be pressed down and not care about what anybody– it was a real lesson in just not giving a fuck. You can’t care about what anybody thinks if you’re walking around New York with a selfie stick. Or anywhere else – of L.A., I did it in every city. I did it in St. Louis, I did it in D.C., I did it everywhere, Ann Arbor. People hate it.
Holly Miranda’s video for “The Only One”:
QRO: Do you still have that black-and-red jacket from your promo photo?
HM: That was Diesel. Diesel loaned it.
QRO: Who is in your band?
HM: Dylan Fusillo is playing drums, Maria Eisen is playing bari sax, Sharron Sulami is playing bass, and Jeremy Wilms is playing guitar.
QRO: Do you just know them all from Brooklyn?
HM: It’s all from different walks of life. Sharron came from Tel Aviv from this tour, but I knew Sharron when she was back in Brooklyn in a band called Pink Noise, which they all started playing in the Israeli Armed Forces; they were the band in the armed forces, that’s how her band got started. It was her, two Yuvals, and an Itamar. And I met Sharron when she was playing at Zebulon, in the early 2000s, and we dated for a second – and then we didn’t… [laughs]
Maria is the most ridiculous saxophone player I ever met in my life. She’s so tasteful – there’s never a note that she plays that’s not meant to be there. Dylan was playing in Antibalas when I met him, and Jeremy too – Jeremy plays with everybody.
Timmy [Mislock], who normally plays guitar with me but was doing the Hedwig and the Angry Itch tour. He would’ve been doing this tour, but he didn’t realize Hedwig was going to end early, and he missed it by a day.
QRO: When you’re touring who does the driving?
HM: [Tour manager] Creegan. I normally drive a lot, but my license expired.
QRO: Was that by accident, or intentional?
HM: I actually went to the Secretary of State to have it renewed a couple weeks ago in Michigan, and I brought all the normal paperwork you would bring, and I got up to the thing – I was wearing a hat that said, ‘I Only Fuck With Magic’ – and when I got up to the thing, the women went, “No, you need a birth certificate with a raised seal.” And I was like, “What? I doesn’t say that anywhere on your website, or on any of this paperwork. I have everything – I have my Social Security Card, I have a passport, I have bills, I have everything.” And she’s like, “No, sorry,” and handed me a piece of paper.
And I went back to my parent’s house and looked at the paper, and it was like, ‘You need one of these things.’ She was just fucking with me…
My friend Amber Ibarreche makes these hats, where she sows into, and I think they’re so beautiful. “I Only Fuck With Magic”. I think she took one look at my hat and was like, ‘Not in Michigan…’ She made me so flustered – who has a birth certificate with a raised seal?…
QRO: You recently toured playing guitar in Karen O’s band for her tour of Crush Songs. Do you look at your touring musicians differently, now that you’ve been on the other side of things?
HM: Absolutely. That was such a challenge. I love Karen, but that was such a fuckin’ challenge. Because I was setting the tempo for every show…
It was nothing I’ve ever done before. I’ve never been people’s side-person before, so that was intense. And I don’t think that’s anything that Karen’s done before. She’s really used to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, where she can just be crazy and loud, and this was something that was very succinct, and very quite, and very intimate.
QRO: Years ago I saw you at CMJ (QRO recap), and you joked it was “CM-Hey…” That still pops into my head when I say, “CMJ”…
I saw you much more recently at this year’s SXSW (QRO recap). What do you think of ‘industry festivals’ like that or CMJ?
HM: I mean, it’s a crapshoot. It’s kind of hit-or-miss. It depends on how appreciative the people that you’re playing to are. You know what I mean? It can be great, or it can be terrible.
It’s like any show…
QRO: You’ve been making music for like seventeen years now. How have things changed?
HM: Everything’s changed. The entire industry has changed. I think when I started, you could still just be a great topline writer, you could be a songwriter…
Now I think it’s more about your haircut and your outfit, and I think there’s a lot of people who are willing to do what I do for no money, and so that has lowered the bar on what is paid to. You look at Spotify, companies like that, who will pay nothing. And the reason why that’s acceptable is because there’s so many people who are willing to do it for nothing. Look at these kids: most of them are like models, actors, trust fund kids, who will do what we’re doing for nothing, so people think that that’s better. But what you don’t realize is that you’re losing the quality of music. You’re losing the quality of songwriting.
I mean, listen to the songs that are on the radio right now. Listen to the lyrics of the songs that are on the radio right now – they’re fuckin’ horrible! And that’s because people are willing to do this for nothing. People take our jobs out from under us, because they’re willing to do it for no money.
Listen to the lyrics of the songs that are on the radio right now – they’re fuckin’ horrible! And that’s because people are willing to do this for nothing.
You have a wealth of people who are willing to do our jobs for nothing. You have a bunch of kids, who are children of rock stars, who are children of models, who are children of people who go, ‘I’m a musician now. And now I’ll do it for nothing, ‘cause I don’t need the money.’ So that lowers the bar for everybody else. So then we have to work for nothing. So then we have to do what we do for nothing, because that’s become the bar of what we do.
The idea of somebody who can write a topline – somebody like Ambrosia, who can just write a beautiful song, but just the top line, and have that be 75% of the song, is a time that is dead and over. That time of songwriting does not exist anymore. And that’s sad. That’s sad.
Because you listen to songs these days, it’s one line that’s repeated over & over & over & over, and you call that a song? And that’s not a fuckin’ song! It’s not a song.
QRO: And then there’s the remix of it…
HM: Yeah – none of that is a song…