Phumes

What's left when the show is over..


Catching up with LA's psychedelic chamber folk diva at Austin's Psychfest

Getting Psyched...

As I enter The Radio Room, the Venue that's hosting Psychfest II, Miranda Lee Richards is browsing a variety of hippie chick (hippie chic?) dresses along the wall facing 6th street. In just a few days, South By Southwest will kick off, and this area of Austin will be swimming in more musician's per square mile than perhaps any other place on earth.

Today, however, it's fairly calm, by Austin standards. The second annual Psychfest is on it's 3rd day, and the front room of The Radio Room is nearly empty. Christian Bland and the Revelators are on stage out back, and the reverb drenched guitar comes wafting in past the bar in back. "I like this one" Miranda says to one of her friends, and the dress she's nonchalantly picked out will turn out to be what she'll wear on stage in a half hour. For someone who's about to brave the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar and her harmonica amidst a sea of other bands wielding a gaggle of Rickenbachers, Vox amps and copious quantities of delays and reverb, she's remarkably unconcerned. This is clearly her home turf, musically. This previous member of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the reigning kings of the psychedelic scene, is here amongst friends. In a little bit, she'll be performing cuts off her new CD, Light of X.

I introduce myself, and she practically bubbles over. "Is this not the coolest event? This is much better than SxSW will be." She's positively thrilled to be performing amongst her peers. "There's a bunch of excellent bands here." She glances at the 50 odd pounds of camera gear I'll be lugging around Austin for the next week and says "It looks like you've got to get your stuff set up, and I need to put this thing on (the dress), so I'll see you out back in a bit". And with that she's off to get ready for her set.

A short while later, she's playing Savoring Your Smile, sans band, sans Rick Parker's astounding studio production to a very polite and attentive group of Pyschfest attendees. The crowd is unlike most I've ever encountered. Rather than jam up by the stage, they line up in neat ordered rows, with ample room between each row to allow effortless side to side crossings through the crowd. Without the band and Rick's famous processing treatments, she sounds more folksy than trippy, but quite a few in the crowd know her lineage and that serves to pass muster, and for those who don't know her, they will shortly. Between Life Boat and Olive Tree, she announces to the crowd that these songs are off Light of X, available in front, and that what they're hearing may not be doing the CD justice, so to bear that in mind. It isn't until before her next to last song Pictures of You, that she tells the crowd who she is, and THEN the lights go off in a number of people's heads. A hearty applause results. "We love you Miranda!" some girl yells out from the back of the crowd. Miranda has come home, at least to this crowd.

Afterwards, out in front of the Venue, we're chatting with the Asteroid No. 4 guitarist, Scott Vitt. "I could have used some delay" Miranda says in regards to her set. "Yeah, you can't count on the sound guys even having outboard gear, so I carry a Digitech floor box so I can process my own vocals" Scott remarks, to which Miranda replies "Yeah, either that, or a really good sound man."

Miranda and I head across the street to a neat little coffee shop and sit down to chat.

On getting political

ML: On Light of X's "That Baby" you break out your first obvious protest song.

MLR: It's a general commentary on war itself, and the philosophy behind it, and I guess that exempts it from being too critical of any one leader's policy or anything like that. It's just sort of a general commentary on how here are these children growing up and their innocence and their beauty, and how they don't even have any sense of discrimination before they're taught, and then here is this thing where they're being taught to be able to kill one another without even having any feeling of guilt most of the time, and how as humans we can even make that leap. It's a really amazing topic, psychologically, without trying to get overly dramatic about it.

ML: There's a big difference between how we view war today, as compared to how it was viewed during Vietnam.

MLR: Dealing with war is a huge impact on the psyche, and most people are trying to go about their lives, and there's this huge static to deal with, like on a really profound level. Sometimes I almost feel resentful of it. I'm just trying to feel good about what I'm trying to do here on planet earth, and yet there's all these people dying, So amidst all these things we're having to take care of, and here comes the news, and it really can ruin your day. It's not a natural phenomenon, yet it's part of how we evolved, a big part the human evolution.

Making the cut: What does and doesn't end up in the record

ML: So the track Sunday Morning didn't make it onto Light of X. I know you're a big proponent of the old school of listening to an album all the way through to get the entire experience of it. That being the case, where would you have sequenced Sunday Morning into the CD?

MLR: Hmm.... Probably about mid to 3/4 into the record. The reason it didn't make it is I'm actually a very prolific writer, and Sunday Morning was from the batch of the sort of psychedelic piano ballads from a few years back. And it was like trying to fit all this piano based material, like That Baby, Here By the Window, Mirror at the End, Hideaway..

ML: The repetitive descending run at the end of Hideaway was such a cool arrangement bit..

MLR: Right, and Hideaway was so pretty, and I didn't want to replace that one. You can only get so many tracks on a record, and there were other ones too, that didn't make it, like the song Fredonia that was just going to be an iTunes only sort of thing. There was just so much of that. I'd sit at the piano and write these beautiful weird kind of twist and turn kinds of things, like Landscape was one of those. I couldn't fit them all on one record. Sunday Morning was one of the stronger ones, and so it was like, well what do I replace it with? You put that many ballads on a record and it just sort of goes . I'd have to take off Hideaway or That Baby. I maybe could have taken off Here by the Window, but that song started getting licensed a lot, so then I couldn't take that one off. There was Mirror at the End, and that was such a beautiful organ song with the big string ending, so that one had to stay.

And then there was my label, who wanted the record to only have twelve songs.

ML: Ah, so that explains the tack on of The Oddity at the end of Last Days of Summer.

MLR: Right. I wanted to make the record as long as possible, because it's been so long since I released the last record, and I'm constantly writing new material. Who cares if the listener poops out? (Laughs). Let's just give it to them, you know? So the label was really adamant about only having twelve songs, and I love thirteen songs. That's nice and spooky.

ML: So what was with The Oddity? That's a massive departure from most of your material?

MLR: It is. Totally left field..

ML: The way I've described it is it came from so far out in left field, it was like here you were saying "here we've shown you these great string arrangements, all this killer orchestration, and just when you think you've got me figured out, here comes The Oddity"

MLR: (Laughs) Oh yeah.

Orhcestra on a budget, and arranging to play live

ML: We got a taste of the string arrangement stuff on The Herethereafter, but the work on Light of X is just amazing.

MLR: On The Herethereafter, we had David Campbell do the arrangements for a 30 piece orchestra. I sang him some of the lines, and there were a few pre-existing lines for things like the cello parts that were written out, and Patrick Warren played the rest of the Chamberlin parts, and those were lines that were sung by me as well.

On Light of X, I couldn't afford a string arranger, so I was going to have to do it myself. It took me way too long. WAYYYY too long.

ML: That's a daunting task...

MLR: Oh yeah. And it was quadrupled (i.e. overdubbed in passes), since we didn't have a 30 piece to play it, so it was totally crazy. The only reason you delegate stuff like that is it gives you such a headache trying to do things you haven't done.

ML: And all this stuff was being done at the Sandbox (Producer Rick Parker's studio), right?

MLR: Yeah. And thank God I had studio time there. I'd be there all night, going don't give up, don't give up. What do you hear in your head? The Viola is playing this part, then the Cello is going to be here, etc. It was just... (shakes head). But I didn't have a choice (budget), but I just love the beauty of the melodies that I was hearing, they just had to be there.

ML: So did you do the scoring via the piano, or the guitar?

MLR: Piano mostly, and some keyboards.

ML: On the Herethereafter, a lot of Rick's production tricks were very much in the foreground. The very trippy stuff on the guitar, and the great flange work, which is so hard, because if you don't eq it right it ruins the mix. I was sort of expecting the same kind of in your face production. And on Light of X, it's like so much more subdued. At first I was thinking "oh God, sophomore release syndrome". And then a couple minutes into Light of X, it's refined. It's a lot more subtle, you have to find it.

MLR: Yeah, it's still in there, but you have to listen loud, you HAVE to listen to Light of X loud. It's one of these records you have to turn up. There's all these little things going on, and we were really happy with how well orchestrated they are. They're tucked in there. On The Herethereafter, we threw the whole kitchen sink in there, and did a lot of editing. On Light of X we were very careful. Since it's so stripped down, each performance had to be perfectly played, because (when it's sparse) you can't hide anything. It has to be perfectly played and sung. Minimalism in the studio becomes an art in itself. Everything has to be executed exactly.

ML: There's no slop factor..

MLR: Exactly. There's no slop factor, and you have to figure out when things are coming in and out, so a lot of that same careful kind of tapestry kind of weaving still took place, but on a more minimal context.

ML: So did you do a lot of pre-production to figure out how you were going to do all that, or did it come up in the studio?

MLR: Oh yeah. And this one was different also because I'm often a solo artist, and I knew there were going to be times when I don't have the band with me, and so I couldn't do the vocal production like on The Herethereafter where there were all these things going on vocally, and I was like, I can't count on being able to do that stuff live. So it was partially thinking about what I could handle live, and this record when it's played with a full band, sounds almost like the studio version. Each part can be played by an actual member, so you can really pull it off.

ML: That's one of the inherent problems right? The studio is this really great tool, and such an artform in and of itself, and so if you overdo it there, it takes so much technology to do well live.

MLR: Right, technology, and a really good sound man. I mean a REALLY good sound man.

ML: And that's hard to come by these days..

MLR: Budget. So you have to count on the house guy.

ML: Who's often not familiar with your stuff..

MLR: Almost never.

Working out parts, and where does it all come from?

ML: So on the drive down here, I spun your whole catalog, starting back with Vagabond Angel.

MLR: Oh wow, that song's not even out. I have got to get that one out. It's great driving music too. All my music is totally meant to be heard in the car. Vagabond Angel came off one of my early demos, when I was thinking about maybe going off in a country rock direction. And then I was like, you know I'm kind into this magical sound too, so how can I marry this country rock with this beautiful, ethereal kind of orchestrated music? So I decided that that might be another thing. And so people might expect a sort of more straight up country sort of thing from me in the future, but I like the creativity of the instrumentation, so I always sort of gravitate towards this other thing a little bit. A lot of my early music was this sort of country rock / Fleetwood Mac / CSNY kind of whatever. I like the whole Everly Brothers play it on a guitar and just sing it, it's a great song kind of music. I do all of it. Hey, I'm a solo artist, I can do anything I want. (Laughs).

ML: On both albums you've used a lot of pedal steel. The stuff that Ben Peeler did was just stunning.

MLR: He's just so amazing.

ML: As is Rick's parts as well. They're not super complicated, but so well interleaved that the cumulative effect is that they're so well integrated into the song.

MLR: It's that counter melody. That's written to be in the music, it's written by him and by me. Some of those I would sing to him. He's such a phenomenal guitar player, but he's also a producer, so he's very careful about what's played, and in making sure he gets a great guitar line, but not just a great guitar line, more of another melody that makes the music come alive and gives it depth. Those parts compliment the other lead, and are treated as an arrangement, a composition rather than a solo.

ML: I saw an interview with Alison Kraus on working with Robert Plant. She would teach him his part before she'd sing her part for him. Once he had his line down, she'd sing her part. She got that technique from the Everly Brother's producer.

MLR: Oh that's amazing. Rick is such a stickler with me about the vocals. He'd have me follow the vocal harmony on the third, he has these vocal harmony tricks you do, and I'm like, what happens to just singing another melody alongside yourself. It does work a lot of times, but sometimes it comes of sort of amateur and then you go back and work through that again. Sometimes it won't, but most of the times it does, and even more strange, like on Mirror at the End, there's this alternate Cello part I always hear in my head when I play the song. It's not on the record, it just wasn't laid down. So the other day I went to play with a Cello player for a live show, and she was playing what was almost that line I hear in my head. It was so weird, and it kind of gave me chills, because that part is floating out in the sky somewhere, and we're both hearing it. Nobody played it in the studio, but here she is playing it in the live version, and it sounds so beautiful. That sort of thing is just a real mystery to me.

ML: The classic philosophical question - what's the source of this stuff?

MLR: Yeah, where is this coming from? We're actually hearing it, somewhere, it's out there, and we're just kind of pulling it down and physically playing and singing it. Somebody told me once that you're channeling it.

ML: I would agree with that.

MLR: I feel like when I write a song I listen very carefully, what should I play and sing next, I feel like I'm hearing it and it's coming in. When I play live too, I keep one little ear on what it sounds like. Mostly I think about the lyrics, and the words I'm singing, because that brings out the emotion the most, but I keep one little part of my mind on just what it sounds like, specifically just the sound of it. I feel like it's coming through exactly how it should be played and delivered. It's really interesting. It's in the moment. Maybe I'm thinking too much, that's the problem (laughs).

Lyrics and life

ML: How do you approach your lyrics? Let me put this in the context of somebody else I like a lot. Aimee Mann does a lot of these little portrait pieces, where she'll picture something subject wise and then paint it up with the lyrics.

MLR: She's such a great writer..

ML: But I've always had this sense that there's a certain distance from her subject material in the presentation of the narrative.

MLR: Like emotionally?

ML: Yeah, there's a certain emotional distance there.

MLR: Like she's observing instead of being part of the event.

ML: With your work, it seems a lot more first person. In most of the other reviews I've read on The Herethereafter there's this common thread by the people who've listened to it a lot that there's a certain maturity that comes across that's beyond your years.

MLR: Right. They just don't realize how really old I am (laughs).

ML: These are not albums for kids. You don't get the import of you lyrics unless you've lived through a bunch of life stuff.

MLR: You have to have a certain amount of experience with life to really enjoy this music.

ML: Your lyrics make it fairly evident you've had some serious life stuff, I don't have any idea what the hell it was, but it comes through.

MLR: (Cracks up). Yeah.

ML: I think that when you get music that's that real, it's a bi-product of a lack of runaway commercial success. It's harder to write "real" stuff if you're really successful.

MLR: They're too comfy. Bob Dylan touched on that. You have to have a certain amount of experience with life to be able to create the art, and he said there was a certain point where the success just got so out of hand that and he'd become so huge that he didn't even have a personal life any more, or even a private life any more, and he had these people climbing on his roof, and coming into his windows all day and night, with his wife and kids there during this. He couldn't even get in touch with who he was, or what he was even writing about. How do you even create at that point? Your life is just so full and loud, I always think if I lived in New York City, I'd just be out "blah blah blah" talking all night. I'm a good talker (laughs) and I'd just be out talking about all this stuff, (I love to talk about what I do). You know it's much harder to do it than to talk about it. So I'll just talk about it and go be social and be "blah blah blah" and not even be processing anything. Maybe my life is like too removed at times. Maybe I have too much time, because that's not even very realistic. Most people just don't have that much solitary time to ponder this. The life of an artist is solitary, like writers. They have to spend time alone to even create it in the first place, to physically put the words down.

ML: You have to have that time with yourself in order to see it clearly.

MLR: You have to be able to reflect. And process. I get plenty of that in my life. No children, and um.. yeah. (Laughs). I've always had a certain amount of emotional maturity, even as a child. I just sort of knew what was up, in certain ways, I was a little bit ahead of my time. I thought adults were a little neurotic when I was a child, and then I grew up and became one. (Laughs).

It's really weird. It's like (as a child thinking) how could you be afraid of success? That's koo koo? I remember thinking that. How could you be afraid of love, or being in a relationship? It's really weird. This is funny, then of course you grow up, pick up a few life experiences, and pick up a few fears along the way. As a child, you're mostly fearless, except for maybe a fear of the dark, but that's about it. All our fears are learned from experience.

ML: Definitely learned, and then you get to spend the rest of your life trying to get rid of them.

MLR: Untangling the synapses. (Makes a "grr" noise while making a pulling stuff apart hand gesture). It's that path that got mowed in your brain and your trying to like go, ok scratch that one, lets go on a different direction with it.

Mom, Dad, and the internet's effects on art

ML: And how have your folks been?

MLR: My mom is good, she lives in Los Angeles now. My father is great, he works in Silicon Valley. It depends on what mood I'm in when I answer this question. My dad's whole MO is he's trying to get his cartooning thing off the ground (Miranda's father was the author of The 40 Year Old Hippie comic in the 70's), while he makes money in Silcon Valley, and it's hard to do. And now that my younger half brother is all grown up so he has less financial responsibility. He even quit his job for a while to do the cartooning. I need to touch base with my dad to see how all that entrepreneurial stuff is going.

ML: When I was a kid, my mom was very behind the whole music and creative thing, and my Dad was the one sort of tapping his fingers on the table going "and this is going to help you land a job how?"

MLR: Right, the whole how are you going to make money.

ML: I'm kind of fascinated by how much different it is today, with kids in how we used to start out musically, and then with today's world of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and how kids would even get into art today.

MLR: I think the biggest distraction is the internet. I have a theory that we're going to see a decline in crafts and craftsmenship. People just don't have the time to focus on things the way they used to. You're going to see a decline in musicianship, a decline in the amounts of works of art being produced, like painting, and great books, all kinds of things like that. You're going to see a decline in it. People don't even read anymore. There's not even the audience for it, because everyone spends all their time online. They don't even have time to listen to a record any more, so it's this HUGE shift right now. Just for a while we're going to see this. Then people will come back and go "wow, listen to what people are capable of, like 100 years ago", you know? Listen to how this Jimi Hendrix used to play guitar, listen to Mozart. The Beatles were phenomenal musicians!

ML: We had that period where people would actually go over in groups to others houses and just sit and LISTEN to records. Now you're lucky if somebody plays through half the latest single on from an artist on iTunes before it gets interrupted by a text message.

MLR: I think that Light of X is kind of amazing in that it got birthed out with the kind of quality that it did. It's like one of the last hurrays to that kind of level of craftsmenship (laughs). It's like it'll be a thing of the past, trust me. Albums will be like six songs, no one has time to get through all of this shit.

ML: It's sad.

MLR: It is sad. It's going to be different.

ML: I still try to squirrel away time each week to listen to a few albums.

MLR: Come hell or high water. Thank God we still drive, and take music on a plane. Now there's this thing where you can't get your laptop going that well on an airplane, that'll all be gone. Next we'll all be WiFi'ing in air. I almost feel like I need to hire a huge team of assistants to handle all that shit. You know? Then I'll go and like take this other stuff to a higher level artistically for you all. Then you all need to get out of your house away from your computer to come see my show, and you might be impressed (laughs).

Shooting with horses

ML: What's with the horses on your cover art? I'll preface this up front. We've got six of them.

MLR: Do you? Do you have a white one?

ML: We do. Sort of a white one. A Tennesee Walker filly.

MLR: They're the most beautiful I've ever seen, the white horses. The horse is a symbol, one of beauty and grace, to me. Just the design, the way it looks, you know. The thing is just that they conjure a certain respect and impart a certain majestic feeling. I think this album has a lot of those sort of qualities to it, grace and majesty if you will. So, I thought the horse is the perfect sort of symbol for this kind of music, so the image of me with a horse sort of matched the things I was looking to achieve in the music. So I kept seeing an image of a horse, especially a white horse coming out of darkness. The whole riding in on the white horse thing. So what ended up happening is, that was the idea, so I went to go shoot with the white horse out in Joshua Tree, CA, and the horse had only been broken for like 3 months. So they assured me, ok, this thing is going to be fine. Now I don't have a lot of experience with horses as it is. And this horse was the most beautiful horse you've ever seen, because it wasn't a gray, it was this almost pure white, the kind that are just a few genes removed from the albino, where it's completely white with a little tiny pink muzzle and then ice blue eyes and a complete white tail. So this thing looks like it's right out of heaven, right? So it's all galloping through the fields, and the deserts in bloom, and it's this completely heavenly scenario. And then... I tried to ride the thing. Bareback. (Laughs). And so I got thrown off in all of like 30 seconds. So it bucked up and threw me off, and it was so funny. I was trying to do this beautiful thing, and I was like, oh, you're going to fall on your ass instead and roll in the dust. So they got another horse (the dappled grey) and he this was super well trained old horse who didn't care what you were doing, he just wanted to eat. So he's eating on the front cover. We just tried to make the best of it. It's really expensive to shoot with horses, and I probably shouldn't have tried it until I had more of a budget. I had to have a trainer, and insurance and all this bullshit, and I was like, what have I gotten myself into. I probably should have just taken a picture with me and my cat in the back yard (laughs). I can't afford this shit. Anyway, they're like, ok get on the horse and wrap it with your legs. So I like squeezed the thing, and I think it freaked out. Thank God we weren't going very fast. But we got the shoot done, and we got the cover, so it was all good. I think I'd like to shoot with a horse again, and try to get the shot I had in my mind, but we'll see.

ML: There's always photoshop.

MLR: Yeah. I'm not sure I'm done with the whole horse idea, so watch out.