Holly Miranda Talks Early-’00s Williamsburg and Leaving New York

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Photo courtesy of Holly Miranda.

Holly Miranda doesn’t really live anywhere right now, but the singer/songwriter spent more than a decade calling Brooklyn—mostly Williamsburg—her home. She cut her teeth here in the early 2000s, when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio were in their early days. Miranda has been entwined with those now-legendary acts—TVOTR’s Dave Sitek is a longtime collaborator who produced her 2010 solo LP The Magician’s Private Library, and last year she played guitar for Karen O on her Crush Songs tour—but she’s mostly known for her former band The Jealous Girlfriends and her lush, soulful work as a solo artist.

Now, the studio where Sitek recorded Fever to Tell is a J. Crew, and the bar Zebulon, then a vital hub for the neighborhood’s music community, has relocated to Los Angeles. Miranda traded Brooklyn for L.A., too, a few years ago, burnt out and disillusioned with the music industry. While out west, she decamped to Joshua Tree to write her recently released self-titled album, which she then recorded back in Williamsburg. Holly Miranda is less dreamy and more playful than its predecessor, with equal parts sultry slow burners (“The Only One,” “Desert Call”) and unabashed pop hits (“All I Want is to Be Your Girl,” “Whatever You Want”).

Before her headlining show at Northside Festival, Miranda spoke to us by phone about recording her new album during Superstorm Sandy, the Brooklyn acts she thinks you should hear, and why she might move back to her hometown of Detroit.

You grew up in the Detroit area. Have you been back there recently?

Yeah, I was just there [earlier this month]. I go back all the time. My mom has been sick for a while so I go pretty much every chance I get. I just started looking at places in Detroit—I think I’m gonna get a spot back there.

You’re looking to move there?

I don’t really live anywhere right now. For the last year I’ve just sort of been traveling and I’m there so much that it just makes sense. There’s lot of really cool shit happening in the city and it’s really cheap. Any time you’re paying rent on tour it just seems so ridiculous, but [in Detroit] it’s pretty manageable.

What are you most excited about there?

I was just living in L.A. the last four years, up until last summer, and I think the major difference [in Detroit] is that people are just making things to make them. There’s not some huge angle of, “Oh, I want my pilot to picked up” or “I need a record deal.” Because everyone’s not freaking out about rent all the time, there’s really incredible art and music that’s just being made to exist rather than for glory or fame. It reminds me of when I moved to Brooklyn in ’99—the music scene, before Williamsburg was what it is now, just kind of that sort of gritty, very real creative vibe. There’s a lot of agricultural stuff going on, a lot of planting flowers in abandoned houses.

What made you want to move to Brooklyn at that time?

I think I always felt like a weirdo in Michigan, or at least in the suburban bubble I grew up in. And then when I came to New York, I came to visit my sister when I was 15 and I played an open mic night at the Sidewalk Cafe, and they offered me a gig but I’d only written the two songs that I’d played that night. It was my first time being surrounded by the anti-folk scene—a bunch of weirdos—and I felt at home. So the next summer I packed up two suitcases and told my parents I was going to visit my sister but just never came back. I eventually wound up in Brooklyn in ’99. It was really exciting, everything that was going on: It was the beginning of TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs and CocoRosie and Interpol. All of that music was just starting to happen, and I felt charged in a way I haven’t really experienced in a while.

Why did you leave Brooklyn for L.A.?

Um, it was partly love [laughs], and also I lived here for like 13 years. I think I always imagined that I’d move around to different places, but when you get somewhere and start making great friends, when you’re working on a career, it seems daunting to up and leave. I just needed to experience living somewhere else. And now I really don’t know where to live.

When you were living in Brooklyn, what was the music scene like? Who are some of the people who influenced your experience here?

I met with a friend at the studio Headgear—which is now a J. Crew—and sitting in the lobby I met the owner, Alex Lipsen, and we started talking, [which turned into forming the Jealous Girlfriends]. Headgear is the studio where Dave Sitek recorded the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs record and the first TV on the Radio album; I also met him in the lobby there and he produced my solo album [The Magician’s Private Library] after that. And he came and he opened his studio Stay Gold in the same building, and then down the hallway I had a production room—I would squat there if I was in between places. And then a block away from there was Zebulon, which was where I cut my teeth. They would just give me nights to book whoever I wanted and I would try all these different incarnations of a solo band, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with that. It was the place where we all went to watch TV on the Radio on Letterman for the first time. It was very much a neighborhood community, people supporting each other. It all happened very organically.

When you do come back to New York, where are the places you absolutely have to go to or food you have to eat?

There’s this restaurant in Chinatown called Eastwood. My friend Sivan [Harlap] opened it; she used to be the drummer in Demander. She’s Israeli and her husband is Scottish, so it’s kind of a fusion of those two. It’s really good. She invented this [take on] the Scotch egg—a hardboiled with falafel on it. So I always go there. It’s kind of a secret gem, so you can go at what would normally be a really crowded brunch time on the weekend and there’s not that many people. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this! They don’t have a liquor license but they make Bloody Marys with rice wine—it’s really good.

You wrote this new record in Joshua Tree and then recorded it in Brooklyn—why did you decide to come back here to record it?

I just didn’t really know a lot of people in L.A. and I knew that I wanted to produce it, so coming back and just working with [Florent Barbier], an engineer who I already knew a little bit and trusted [made sense]. Actually I was only supposed to record a couple of songs with him and then we hit it off so well that I ended up staying and doing the whole rest of the record. It was in Williamsburg—he has a home studio and we did the whole thing in a little room on Grand and Havemeyer. And then Hurricane Sandy happened in the middle of recording—that’s how long ago I did this—and so that ended up being a whole other thing. I started a charity called Renegade Sandy Relief. It started as food/can drive [at] The Drink in Williamsburg. We posted on social media and the entire bar was filled with all kinds of donations—assembly lines, sorting batteries, making sandwiches. We loaded everything up—my friend’s grandma used to live in these buildings in Coney Island that were on their own energy grid, so we went straight there with 30 people and seven cars. I think I siphoned gas out of someone’s car. That happened in the middle of making this record.

Did it impact what you found yourself writing about?

I mean at that point I was recording it—I’d already written most everything on it—but it definitely made it kind of crazy. I was missing sessions because I was out in Coney Island, and also when the G train was down I ended up sleeping on [Barbier’s] couch for a week because I couldn’t get back and forth to the studio. It was kind of manic, but that’s life I guess.

You recorded this new album via a PledgeMusic campaign; did you consider self-releasing it before signing with Dangerbird Records?

I didn’t completely understand Pledge when I started that—actually, it was my old manager [who did it]. I was trying to quit music altogether; I had writer’s block for a while and I was like “maybe I’m just done.” I just had a not-so-great experience with my last record and felt pretty disillusioned by the whole industry. I’ve been doing this for 17 years now so I was just sort of over it and that was his way to try to get me committed to something, to start this pledge. But I didn’t quite understand—I think you probably shouldn’t start the Pledge until you actually have the record written, maybe, because now people have been waiting like four years [for it]. But yeah, I thought about self-releasing it, it just kind of worked out with Dangerbird. I was touring with Karen O playing guitar for her solo [project] and we played in L.A. and Peter [Walker], the owner of Dangerbird, happened to be there. He asked the sound person about me, she gave me his information and I carried it around in my wallet, and one day I just emailed him and sent him the record. It was pretty easy; it doesn’t really happen like that.

You said you weren’t totally happy with how your last release went. What did you do to make sure this wouldn’t be the same experience?

I think I’m just working with people who genuinely like me and what I’m doing. They get it. This is my fourth record deal and I’d never really had a positive experience until now, and they’ve been absolutely amazing. Jenni [Sperandeo], the president of Dangerbird, she’s also from Detroit, my manager is also from Detroit, and I feel like there’s just a little [more] hustle with people from Detroit. They’ve just been killing it. That’s the difference, having a team of people who are actually predominantly women, who all talk to each other and listen to each other, and everyone’s on the same page. It’s been such a remarkably different, positive experience. I’m pretty happy with everything.

You played guitar for Karen O on her Crush Songs tour. What do you get out of being sort of behind-the-scenes for someone else?

I’d never done that before. I actually had a residency planned and I was like, “Dude, I can’t.” It was a last-minute thing, she called me and was like, “Ya gotta do this,” and I tried to not and she was not letting me not do it [laughs] so I had to learn 17 songs in five days and then show up to rehearsal here with [Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist] Nick Zinner sitting in front of me, critiquing my guitar playing—no big deal. It was really good, though. I’ve said for a long time that I just want to be someone’s backup singer, and it’s really difficult. It’s really a lot harder to just chime in here and there. You’re not singing the whole song, [but you need] to be in key, to play guitar exactly like someone else hears it in their head. What I wanted was for her to feel completely supported; she could do whatever she wanted. Because I think coming from it as a person who’s normally in front, you don’t want to be thinking about, “Oh, that person’s out of tune.” You want to be free and in the moment, to improvise yourself, knowing that everyone else is holding everything down. I got a whole new appreciation for people who play with me.

A few months ago it was announced that you were part of Scarlett Johansson’s new project the Singles. Can you tell me about that and what your role is in the group?

Well, we can’t call it the Singles because we got hit with cease-and-desist order the day after we put out the first single. We’re actually in the process of trying to rename it—right now we can be The Band Formerly Known As The Singles [laughs]. I guess I’m technically the bass player, even though I don’t really play bass too much. We recorded four or five songs. It was a little while ago that we did that; we did it at Dave Sitek’s place in L.A. I was coming off of that time after the last record, when I wasn’t having fun anymore, but Scarlett called and was like, “Do you want to be in an all-girl pop group? You’re the bass player.” And it sounded like fun, so I said yes and it was a total blast. We all sort of lived in this house for a week and recorded all this stuff. I’m not sure entirely what’s gonna happen with it. Julia Haltigan and Kendra Morris are in the band [along with Este Haim]—everyone’s a solo artist in their own right and obviously Scarlett is kinda busy, so yeah, it’ll happen when it’s meant to happen. But I’m happy that that first single came out. It was a fun project.

Which Brooklyn/New York artists are you particularly excited about right now?

Last [week] I went and saw Domino Kirke play at Baby’s All Right, which was really incredible, really beautiful. On before her was Eliot [Krimsky] from Glass Ghost; they’re a great band. And Bunny Michael, her music is pretty incredible.

Holly Miranda headlines at Knitting Factory during Northside Festival on June 13.

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