Every once in a while an artist who is totally unique yet immediately relatable and instantly engaging comes along and wins you over; the sort of artist whose soothing, seductive sound, with soulful melodies & heartfelt harmonizing, creeps up on you and pulls you in from the first few bars. Bay Area one-woman band Mira Cook is this kind of artist. Tonight she shares a bill with Michael Hurley and Sean Smith at The Verde Club in San Francisco.
Mira Cook's lo-fi yet lush sound, while completely original and unique, will remind you of a myriad of other artists you might have heard before, from Meredith Monk to Liz Phair to the U.S. Girls to Laurie Anderson to DJ Radar. Radar the DJ? Yes, her similarity to the Arizona turntablist is based on her performance style of utilizing live loops to build upon her sound, the difference being that while Radar uses records as his sound source, Mira Cook uses her own voice.
A classically trained ballet dancer with a respected career in dance, the Texas born, San Francisco based vocalist/multi-instrumentalist is also classically trained in piano and comes to the music she makes from a refreshingly different place than your typical "alternative" artist. I have seen Cook perform live twice recently and each time was completely blown away, first by the harmonic sound she creates with her voice -- pitch-perfectly layered to sound like a group of female vocalists heavenly harmonizing that at times conjures up the Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss & Emmylou Harris' collaboration on the O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou soundtrack -- and also by the fact that she does it all solo and live without missing a beat. Amazing!
To hear Cook's music, check out the samples on her MySpace, where she has songs "Glass of Water" and "The Return Of Simple," or track down her only release to date, a limited edition, self-titled 12 song cassette. Yesterday evening I caught up with Cook, who had been on KUSF earlier in the day, to ask about her music, dance, instrumentation, her membership with Conspiracy of Venus (the female offshoot of Conspiracy of Beards, SF's all male Leonard Cohen choir-- they only sing acapella arrangements of Leonard Cohen songs), and tonight's show at the Verde Club.
Amoeblog: Can you talk a bit about your dance career and how it led to, or interrelates with, your music?
Mira Cook: I have trained in classical ballet since I was 4 and I danced with ballet companies for about 6 years. Now I do contemporary dance proffesionally. I have listened to live classical piano as accompaniment to ballet classes for many, many, many years now. I think I have a very classical sensibility and good general knowledge of popular classical tunes and harmonies. When you are learning a ballet, you often have to count out the score, or at least know the musical cues by heart. I definately am used to responding to what I hear immediately. The mentality of a dancer is to do things without question, intuitively and quickly. I think I work this way with music as well.
Amoeblog: You are also a member of Conspiracy of Venus. For those who don't know, can you explain a bit about this unique all-woman group, what you perform, where you have performed, and how to find out more about the collective?
Mira Cook: Conspiracy of Venus is a San Francisco community women's choir. Initiated as a branch of Conspiracy of Beards, Conspiracy of Venus sings songs by Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and others. We practice two to three hours per week and play shows at many rock venues around San Francisco. Some venues we have played [include]: The Independent, Slim's, The Makeout Room, The Rickshaw Stop, and we have an upcoming show at The Palace of Fine Arts. We are definately starting to play bigger and better venues. This group is a lot of fun. I think the arrangements are very challenging and interesting and the members are there because they choose to dedicate their time, love and energy. In general, the ladies have less vocal training, but more personality and enthusiasm than a typical choir. Check us out online.
Amoeblog: Are there any other groups you are affiliated with?
Mira Cook: Other than solo work and Conspiracy Of Venus, I have been experimenting with a friend who does samples, electronic beats and some horns and other instruments; we will see what happens.
Amoeblog: Exactly what instrumentation do you use when you peform solo?
Mira Cook: So far: organ, dulcimer, kalimba, autoharp, drum machine, and sometimes wooden flutes. I play all these not super well, but for my purposes that is not too important. I hope to pick up more instuments in the future. Depends what is at the garage sales.
Amoeblog: For someone who has never seen/heard you perform live, can you describe the process?
Mira Cook: I use a loop station and start off by singing a short line. The loop station then plays that back at me. I harmonize over that short line over and over and over, and sing lyrics over that.
Amoeblog: When you perform do you loop every vocal part live or are some of them ever pre-recorded?
Mira Cook: I do not use prerecorded material. My music is very streamlined and simple. It would feel like cheating to me if I had recordings for shows. I want to keep busy on the stage for myself and the audience.
Amoeblog: Do you attribute the sound you create to any main musical influences?
Mira Cook: No, I am not so influenced by any one artist that I try to emulate a certain style. I have been around a lot of classical music from doing ballet, like I said. I have heard a ton of Indian chanting in my life. My parents are very involved in meditation and Eastern religion. I think hearing that from a young age, [it] has definately seeped in. Also, I am from Texas and I've heard a lot of folk, blues, bluegrass etc. There is an underlying attitude that everyone can do music. That is true.
Amoeblog: How different is the recorded/studio setting for you versus your live performance(s)?
Mira Cook: So far I only have home recordings that I make alone. They are pretty similar to what I sound like live. Some songs are recorded in real time. On other songs I make 4 parts come in simultaneously, which I can't do live. I have tried to stay away from creating music I can't play solo live. This is really limiting sometimes.
Amoeblog: What are some of the main advantages and/or disadvantages of being a one-person band?
Mira Cook: I have a super compact act-- I can play a show tomorrow, no problem. I feel connected to the songs I sing 100%. On the other hand, I am always relying on others to borrow equipment or roadie me around with my organ.
Amoeblog: Did being a one-woman musical act always seem like the way to go for you, or did you ever consider working with other artists?
Mira Cook: I am not at all opposed to working with other artists. I am starting to do that. I never was in a high school band and I feel kind of out of the loop about how that works. I don't have band knowledge and I started off with a solo mentality, so it works for me. I would like to work with other people in the future. Two minds are better than one, but takes more time and energy to coordinate them.
Amoeblog: I know you have a cassette out, but what/when will your next release be?
Mira Cook: I am coordinating a record release on Digitalis. Not sure when. Hopefully this summer or fall.
Amoeblog: Can you tell me a bit about the two artists (Michael Hurley and Sean Smith) who are also on the bill tonight and what to expect overall at tonight's show?
Mira Cook: Sean Smith is a very talented guitar player who does a lot of finger picking and creates beautiful melodies. Michael Hurley is a legenday folk/blues song writer who has been cranking out albums for the last 45 years. His first album is on Folkways from 1965. I am very lucky to be playing with these two. Very excited here.
-----------------------Mira Cook, Micheal Hurley, Sean Smith at the The Verde Club, 2424 Mariposa Street • San Francisco, CA 94110. 8PM show. Tix: $10.