Mirah Interview

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Sara Marcus, the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, sat down with K’s own beloved Mirah on February 23rd in Brooklyn, NY.  They discussed Mirah’s experiences as a young, eager artist in Olympia, the adventurous activism of her youth, and the cultivation of a sound and identity uniquely her own.

Mirah: I feel extremely fortunate about certain things in my life: I had a really supportive and loving family, I had opportunities to adventure and experience the world in some pretty unique ways even when I was still a kid.  I traveled before going to college—I didn’t go straight to college, and I was only 17 when I moved to Olympia. So I moved away from my family, which had all these strong matriarchs as well as my music-loving and completely supportive dad, but I happened to move to  Olympia, where the scene was dominated by women, was super feminist and really supportive.  It was feminist and supportive and female dominated, and at the same time not made up of just women.  There were men involved with the scene and involved with making music and putting the music out.  And so in a lot of ways I feel sometimes like one of the privileges I have held—that I hold—is that I didn’t ever have to deal with living in an oppressive, sexist community, either within my own family or at 17 moving away to go to college.

I remember a high school friend visiting me in Olympia during my second year and I was introducing everyone and bringing her around and she stayed over at my house. After she had been visiting me for a couple of days I remember her asking me something like, “Where are the men?”  And I said, “I don’t know, I guess there aren’t that many around.”  I hadn’t even noticed!  Of course I wouldn’t notice.  This is the same friend who … I must’ve told you this story before, right?  When I was in high school I saw this band at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, two African-American women whose band name was just their last names- Cassleberry-Duprée.   I thought they were great, and when a couple of months later I read they were coming to play in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania museum, and I was like, “Hope! Liz! Let’s go to this concert, I saw them at the Folk Festival and they’re really great!”  I think we were, maybe 16 already, maybe we were still 15.  We were young, but we must’ve gotten there somehow, so maybe Hope already had her license.  So we go to this concert and there we were, in this huge beautiful auditorium,  surrounded by people, and after the show Hope and Liz were like, “There were NO MEN there… And I think the whole audience was lesbians!”  And I was like “Oh! I didn’t even notice…”  I didn’t notice!  I didn’t notice that there were no men there and that it was all lesbians.  We still all crack up about that story!

Sara: And at that point, you’re thinking about your own identity miles away?
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M: Well, now when I look back at something like that, I might guess that I didn’t notice because I didn’t set myself very much apart from that community.  I didn’t notice that the audience was almost exclusively female and queer.  I did notice that we were in the minority of white people there.  And I noticed that I felt comfortable and not out of place.  I think that illustrates something about both the folly and wisdom of youth, the way that you know yourself on an intrinsic level better than anyone else ever will, but can seem spaced out and like you’re not “getting it,” whatever “it” is.  I think it’s funny to remember that story and then compare it to how I felt when I was 18 and felt too shy and dorky to go into the Bikini Kill show backstage at the Capitol Theater in Olympia.  I was with a friend and we peeked in but then decided we didn’t want to go.  I looked in there at all the cool (and white!) riot grrrls and felt out of place, not cool enough.   But now here I am years later seeing all kinds of connections between myself and the reasons why I began making music, which include aspects of both of these stories.  In spite of my perception of myself at the time of not being cool enough for riot grrrl, I owe a lot to that movement for paving certain roads, just as riot grrrl owes a lot to several generations-worth of revolutionary women, feminists, out-lesbians, activists and artists.
But actually, I wanted to say this other thing about the influence of Olympia, which was that I—there was a very special thing that was happening Olympia—which was that there were a lot of women my age, you know, Evergreen people or—it wasn’t just Olympia, it was throughout the northwest, but I was living in Olympia so that was where I saw it—there was really strong community, and this is the community that grew into riot grrrl, A lot of people who were sort of like “Fuck it! I’m gonna make my own music!” became riot grrrl.  And there were a lot of other people who were there when that was fermenting who didn’t necessarily join the club.  I was one of those people. I didn’t feel cool enough.  I didn’t look quite like a riot grrrl.  I’m not really that good at looking like whatever the club dictates—I’ve never been really good at that.  But just the fact that that was happening in my environment was extremely influential and inspiring and really, I think it helped me to overcome some of my own tendencies towards perfectionism and also a tendency—like a lot of people have—towards falling prey to my own self-judgments and self-doubts.  The whole riot grrrl movement is like, “You know what?  Fuck them, and fuck what they think. We’re gonna do this thing.”  There are parts of that that I can get into, but I have a different way of expressing myself, different energy and different language.  I’m very me–very idiosyncratic–about everything I do and its okay that my ways are just too weird or grumpy and not general enough to be the basis for a whole cultural movement.  I’ve learned a lot and have benefited from the riot grrrl movement and I think we’re all on the same path ultimately, and we’re all getting to where we’re going.
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Mirah went on to discuss her childhood, atypical and nomadic as it was.  From a very young age she was traveling, and representing the ideas that she found personally powerful and compelling.
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M: When I was in elementary school—this is the ’80s, right, so in 1984 I was in 4th grade, and there was a lot of talk about the nuclear arms race, the nuclear apocalypse.  It was really scary stuff and I didn’t quite understand it.  I knew there was this thing called the Cold War, and I knew there were these things called nuclear weapons that could destroy the entire planet and I didn’t trust that that wouldn’t happen for really, really insignificant reasons.  My little girl brain was like, “Why are we mad at each other?  I don’t get it.”  So starting in 4th grade I had this awareness of the world as a big and complicated and kind of scary place with a lot of unknowns.  When I was in 6th grade—the summer after 6th grade I went to my family reunion and I talked to my cousin Crystal and she told me, “I’m doing this really amazing thing I think you should know about it, it’s called The Great Peace March for  Global Nuclear Disarmament, and we’re walking across the country and trying to end the nuclear arms race”.  My cousin was 10 at the time.  Her mom,  my Aunt Susan, had been an activist for decades, she’d been involved with organizing the Mother’s Day actions at the Nevada test sight and with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  My cousin decided that she was just going to do this thing even though her mom and dad couldn’t go. They found a  temporary guardian for her and there she went, walking across the country for five months.
After she’d be doing it for a couple months she came back to the family reunion and talked to me about it and I was like, “I totally want to do that. Find me a guardian!” And so my parents signed me over to a woman (who they’d never met!) named Sarah Broadwell—she was a friend of Crystal’s guardian, Bianca. I guess I was a pretty independent kid.  Crystal too. Sometimes I meet 10 and 12 year old kids now and I can’t imagine them being able to just go out into the world in the ways that Crystal and I did.  Sometimes I wonder if our parents were out of their minds for letting us do what we did when we were so young, but I’m glad they did.  I think it shaped both of us in really positive ways.  We were capable and safe, we were socially engaged and totally empowered by the experience and by the independence and responsibility for ourselves which we were entrusted with.    And so, at 12 I took six weeks off 7th grade—it was the fall of my 7th grade year—and I went on this peace march.  My parents dropped me off in Harrisburg and we marched across Pennsylvania, to New York City and all the way DC.  It was a really incredible experience; I could probably talk for hours about it.  It was important for me because of what it represented–it was one of my first experiences with political activism, and the whole model was about the importance of grass-roots communication and how small steps and small actions can make a huge impact.
S: Would you hold events in the cities, and stop in the cities and have like town hall meetings?
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M: There were all sorts of things.  There were musical performances, there were talks that were given and community meetings where people could come and find out what was going on. Marchers would go to schools and churches and synagogues.  And the reason why those peace walks happened—and a lot of them happened in the ‘80s—and the reason they happened the way they did is because it’s a radical political action to just go somewhere and sit down to dinner with someone who may or may not share the same political or social views with you and have a conversation.  Some people would want to join because they saw the march as an embodiment of a conviction that they already held, and some hadn’t thought much about it before and they’d be curious to talk it out.  Just having conversations with people can be a totally radical act, and a very effective and gratifying way to create change. An internet petition is all well and good, but this was hundreds of people walking across the country and staying in a different town every night and essentially sitting down to dinner with people from the town every night.
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There was thing called Marcher in the Home where people in the town who were interested would come to our tent city and say, “I’ve got space for three!” and three marchers would go to their house.  Sometimes I wish that, as a child, I kept track of every single place that I’d slept in my life, like every single bed in every state, every country. I’d love to see that list and I think it would be enormous.  But anyway, the Great Peace March. It was a nine month event, LA to DC, in 1986.  And—I’m so long-winded, holy crap!  I did some other peace marches too.  There was a Life magazine photographer named Jeff Share, and he was assigned to do a photo essay about three different marchers who were going to be on the Soviet walk, which I did the summer after 7th grade, which was in Russia, from (then) Leningrad to Moscow.  And so my entire 7th grade class had to sign a release form—
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S: Your whole class went on the march?
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M: No.
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S: Oh, they were going to follow you.
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M: Jeff was super sweet and he took some amazing photos; I still have a whole stack of the prints. He was going to follow me, this native American guy named Robert Mirabel, and Franklin Folsom–I think was his name–who was a septuagenarian Iowan.  Maybe there was a fourth person, I can’t remember.  We were the three marchers that Life magazine chose to have the photographer follow, so he visited each of the subjects before the march.  He followed me around at middle school with his fancy Life Magazine camera.  I think I took it more in stride then than I take photo shoots now.
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S: And so that meant photo releases from all of your classmates.
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M: Right, and so starting in 7th grade I was very out as someone who was very different from most of the people around me.
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