Two to Tango: Mirah and Sammus

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Mirah, Sammus
Mirah | photo by Shervin Lainez | courtesy of the artist // Sammus | photo by Zooloo Brown | courtesy of the artist

Brooklyn-based (but Philadelphia born) Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn would seem radically different from the Ithaca-raised, Philadelphia-based SAMMUS (Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) at first, with one playing askew folk pop and the other hip hop. Yet, both women keep their musical and melodic processes raw, and both lyricist/vocalist/rappers are emotive, clever and cutting in a fashion that you may not recognize until after the song or the set is over. The subtle glories of Mirah and SAMMUS sneak up you – as you shall find when the make a tour stop at Johnny Brenda’s tonight.

This interview was conducted late this week, via email, and sadly SAMMUS fell off the email chain, but I think the essence of the “tango” is still shared between these two women.

The Key: What do you two know of each other or the other’s work and how long have you known that?

Mirah: I played at Ladyfest Binghamton last April and Sammus was on the bill. I had heard of her from my bandmate Maia who had played shows with her before. Maia told me I was going to love Sammus, but didn’t tell me much else about what to expect. I was floored by Sammus’ performance at that show and was an instant fan, of her music and of her as an ass-kickingly beautiful and smart human. Maia and I listened to all of Sammus’ recordings during the rest of the drives on that tour. I think the words that kept going through my head as I was watching that performance was “will you be in charge, can you be the president, the world needs to hear this and feel this.”

SAMMUS: I first heard about Mirah on an email thread between members of the booking committee for the (INCREDIBLE) DIY arts organization Ithaca Underground, who were suggesting artists to book in 2017. I had already moved from Ithaca to Philadelphia by the time she ended up performing there, but everybody on the thread spoke so glowingly about her work that I decided to dig in. As I listened to her work and read up on her I was a little ashamed that I hadn’t listened to her stuff sooner — she’s been such a force for some time.

The Key: Have you – in your current or any respective previous band / acts past – crossed paths with each other, and what was the interaction like? Mean? Loving? Volatile? Drunken and weird?

Mirah: We only met that one time and it was full of love and respect. I felt immediately kindred with Enongo and her bandmates.

SAMMUS: I first saw Mirah perform live at Binghamton’s Ladyfest earlier this year and that was a really special experience. Her set was very moving, and after the show ended we basically showered each other with praise. It was really beautiful just getting to heap on love and have love heaped on me by a great musician and a very kind soul.

The Key: You newest songs or musical moments on each of your most recent projects: how do you feel that they are radically different than the stuff we might usually know you from/previous recordings? And if they are different, why is it so – why the big change?

Mirah: Most of the big changes in my life lately are personal. I’m seven months pregnant and my dad just died. My music and recordings have remained both consistent and unexpected from the very beginning, at least in my own opinion. I am a songwriter and a recording artist. There is play in both of those endeavors. I never know exactly how a song or recording is going to turn out at the start, I just have to follow it. It’s a sort of animal process. Natural.

SAMMUS: My latest work is actually a guest verse on a track called “Cash Out” by the anti-pop princess Noga Erez. She is a brilliant producer and songwriter so it was an absolute dream getting to come up with a verse for this track — I think it’s way different than my other stuff in terms of my demeanor and tone throughout. Most of my earlier music is probably characterized by my audible urgency but in this track I rapped in a way that made me sound cool as a cucumber. I mostly rapped that way because I had a sore throat after touring the whole month, but I really like how it sounds and I think I want to carry that tone into my next work.

The Key: Look at you respective new works. What song came first in the process of writing and recording – the one that would come to eventually define it overall tone or push it in one direction? And how and why did that happen?

Mirah: I wrote a lot of the songs for Understanding while on residency at The Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin headlands north of San Francisco. So it’s hard to say which song came first, I’d literally have to look back over my demos for which one came first that month I was there. The main thing about my experience of making this new record was that I wanted to get away from intentionally “writing a record.” I wanted to just write and experiment and not feel like I had to be aiming towards a specific number of songs, or length of record, or tone or anything. I just wanted to be free in my mind and see what was there. All the songs were written with that feeling, and the demos were recorded with the same. I ended up using the demos as the basic tracks on that album after all, rather than starting completely over when I did decide to “make a record.” I chose that with an intention to preserve that original freedom.

SAMMUS: I think the song that came to define my latest full-length album, Pieces in Space, is a track called “Qualified.” It’s a song that engages with the major issues that surround my other songs — fear of vulnerability as well as anxiety about my relationships and my career. I think it worked out that way because “Qualified” is one the last songs I wrote for the project, so by that time I had really established my voice. I made it the last song on the project because in a way it neatly summarizes who I am, what drives me, and what keeps me up at night.

The Key: What is the one new moment or lyric or thought you had within your newest music that just made you go “wow…I’m good.” And why do you think that?

Mirah: That is a hard question to answer, because that thought is hard to come by, I think, for most people. But the last song on the record, “Energy,” was written in one fell swoop one day while I was sitting in my living room with my guitar. I think I wrote it in five minutes. It’s not a complicated guitar part or anything, but the words are my main focus with any song and those ones came out in a rush, with emotion. I recorded it right away as a phone memo, a few minutes after jotting it down after it all came into my head, and that is the recording that is on the record. It is intimate and imperfect, and also totally perfect in so many ways. I wanted to share that specific moment with people, having just been spoken through by those words and the feelings they made me feel. I feel honored that I could be a sort of channel for it, and that makes me think “wow, I am grateful”

SAMMUS: Truth be told, any lyric from my last two projects is gold…lol (but not really). I am a brilliant ass lyricist, if I say so myself. But if I had to choose, I would say that when I perform my second verse on “Weirdo,” I get lost in the rhyme scheme and often have to turn the production down because I want everybody to hear just how good I am with my words. That second verse manages to weave in rhymes about freedom fighter Steve Biko and Deep Throat with lyrics about the vulture-like relationship that non-black people have with black (particularly queer) vernacular among other things. It’s just really masterful and good. Even typing up this answer I’m shaking my head thinking about how good it is.

The Key: Do you dig touring? Honestly. Does the road get harder or easier, especially considering that for the most part, this is the principle manner in which you earn money?

Mirah: Love it. And there are a million things every day on tour that make me wish it was a little easier, or the sound system had been a little better, or that I could get a lot more sleep, or that I’d gotten paid more. But I love becoming a little community with my bandmates and crew and I love playing music and at the heart of it, that’s what tour is really about.

SAMMUS: I love touring for two weeks at a time. I think only once have I pushed it to week three and that’s when I started to reconsider whether I should use my degrees for something else. But if I have a good two-week run, that’s the absolute best. Tour has gotten a bit easier for me because I’m starting to be a big enough deal that people actually come to my shows (lol), which means I can perform in more legit places where I know I’ll be paid well at the end of the night, and there’s a green room where I can hide/get ready, a clean bathroom, that kind of stuff. All I really want on tour is a clean bathroom, a place to hide, some wifi, a decent PA, and a clean place to go to sleep when it’s all done. If I have those things and people come to the show AND buy merch — well there’s nothing like it.

The Key: Is there any cool merch that either of you has that you specifically designed for these most recent gigs? And if so, who designed them?

Mirah: Once, 15 or so years ago my friend Khaela (Maricich, of The Blow) helped me design a float art pen with the design from my Cold Cold Water 7” inside of it. That was pretty amazing. If any of you out there has one of those, it is a definite collectors item! I didn’t make too many of them. For this tour I decided to make baby onesies in addition to regular adult t-shirts. Lots of folks who have been listening to my music for years have kids now, and now I’m going to have one, so it seemed appropriate.

The Key: Without sounding too pre-planned will the two of you chat before this show? Is there a plan of attack going into this showcase?

Mirah: Of course we will chat, And I think I would call it more a plan of attention and intention. The only thing I feel like attacking these days is 45 and his supposed team’s policies, choices and horrible demeanors.

The Key: How long have you been in the business of music and how do you think that time into the biz/art form has effected what you do, musically and lyrically considering your newest project and this tour…I mean, does it wear on you? Do you even think it so different from when you started?

Mirah: I’ve been doing this for about 20 years and YES it is completely different from when I started. When I put out my first record, social media did not exist. As in, it was pre-MySpace. CD’s existed, but music in easily sharable on-line digital form did not exist. File-sharing did not exist. What existed and what I was a part of was a pretty straightforward and awesome social machine which was just people loving music, telling their friends about it, buying music, making awesome posters and putting them up around town and coming to shows. What wears on me is the misguided over-emphasis on social media as being “the only way to communicate.” Half the time, show promoters don’t even make posters anymore. This drives me crazy! Musically and lyrically however, I’m just doing the same thing as I’ve always done. I have yet to make a business card but when I do it will say: Quality songs — written, recorded, performed. I swear, some things never get old.

The Key: How do you see your audience as part of the live and/or recorded process? Is there a distinct level of interactivity between you and they, or is there a deep, but passive listenership?

Mirah: The audience is the biggest part of the live show. I play in relatively small spaces so my level of interactivity is high. If there isn’t enough focus in the room, it affects my performance and my feeling about the show. I like communing with people, and sharing what I have to share to receptive humans. And as a credit to my fans, new and old, I would describe their listenership as not at all passive but active, and very deep.

The Key: What will you do as soon as your set is done?

Mirah: Hug and thank my band. And with my current 7 month pregnant body, go the bathroom to pee.

Mirah and Sammus play Johnny Brenda’s tonight; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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