Thao & Mirah Hit a Chord
MIRAH YOM TOV ZEITLYN AND THAO NGUYEN. PHOTO COURTESY OF WAYNE BREMSTER
Thao Nguyen and Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn take great pride in their names. And why shouldn’t they? Sultry and sweet, Nguyen and Zeitlyn have become successful musicians, each in her own right, who make for the perfect combination of female vocals on their collaboration album, appropriately titled Thao & Mirah. Zeitlyn, with her innocent voice that hits the high notes with racy lyrics, and Nguyen, with her breathy vocals and honest lyrics, have found good friends in one another. Their individual talents have created a project where the girls were able to split the work and create music for each other. For their tour, their bands have combined as “The Most of All.” Beyoncé was, naturally, the inspiration.
The duo have used their album as an opportunity to prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse by working with Air Traffic Control, an organization that helps musicians become social activists. At every show on their tour, the girls have been asking for donations for local organizations that help to prevent these issues. With their big hearts and big ideas, Thao & Mirah have created an album full of heartfelt lyrics, awareness and three-part harmonies. We caught up with them to talk about how it all started.
ILANA KAPLAN: How did you guys meet?
MIRAH YOM TOV ZEITLYN: We were introduced by a mutual friend over email. I’ve been living in San Francisco for a few years. I guess she moved here after college. I had lived in Washington for about ten years. Then I lived in Portland. I was moving to the Bay area in November of ’09. The same month that I moved here, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs) moved here. She co-produced the album with us. All three of us have a mutual friend who’s also a music associate, her name is Lauren Roth, she works at Terrorbird, and they handle publishing or licensing for all three of us. Thao and Merrill had known each other for some years already. I didn’t know either of them personally. Lauren thought that we would all get along, and do interesting work together. She wrote an introductory email. That was basically how we met.
KAPLAN: So you weren’t friends before?
THAO NGUYEN: We became friends through music. We hadn’t met before.
KAPLAN: Thao, what about this project is different from your band, The Get Down Stay Down?
NGUYEN: I think that the idea behind it and the reason it was so enticing was that the pressure would be off. We didn’t have to carry a project alone. I don’t carry it alone when I’m with The Get Down Stay Down. There is more pressure there because it is more building blocks for your career and you. This project was just to make music with friends and not to have to worry about how popular the single would be. Who knew when the next time we’d be in the city together? There’s a lot of free-wheeling energy.
KAPLAN: How does it feel to go by your first name, like Madonna or something?
ZEITLYN: Do you know what my middle name and last name are? Do you know what Thao’s last name is? I actually really like my name. I love my name, but I don’t love constantly having to explain myself to people who think that it’s weird, even though there’s nothing weird about it. There’s nothing weird about anyone’s name. I had to call this guy the other day who was one of the first 200 people to buy our record. We agreed to our record label that we were going to make personal calls to the first 200 people. One of the calls that I made, this guy was like, “So, what’s up with your middle name?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “I don’t know. It seems like something that people would beat you up for in middle school or something.” I was like, “Oh yeah. Maybe people who don’t like Jews would beat me up because my middle name is Yom Tov.” I was like, “Who are you, dude?” Why do you think my name is so weird? What’s normal, is my question? But anyway, not to complain about the nice man who bought our record. That’s why I go by my first name. I feel like Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn is a mouthful. I’m trying to make it easier on people.
NGUYEN: I think we do it for different reasons. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to people… There’s just so many different combinations and options. Madonna did it because she’s Madonna. I just did it because there are a lot of consonants in my name.
KAPLAN: Mirah, you have the sweetest voice in the world. A lot of your songs are very sexual. Does that change on this album?
ZEITLYN: Sex is fun to sing about. It’s a fun thing to do—to work into your work. I don’t feel like I have a lot of reference to sexual innuendo on the songs on this record. I think there are some sexy sounds and feelings on the record. I remember when I first started recording and releasing music, getting a lot of feedback like, “Wow! She sounds like she’s twelve, but she’s singing about oral sex.” I was like, “What! I sound like I’m twelve?” I just write about what comes up. Sometimes you’re thinking about Palestine, and sometimes you’re thinking about sex. People have a lot going on.
KAPLAN: So was the process 50/50?
NGUYEN: Yeah, for the most part. There are different songs of ours where there’s more collaboration or less depending. There are a couple songs I wrote knowing with Mirah’s voice in mind that there were parts in these songs that I would want these beautiful three-part harmonies that she and our friends could do. So I intentionally wrote for that.
KAPLAN: What are some of the most meaningful songs on the album for you and why?
ZEITLYN: It’s a bit of a toss-up for me. There were three that came to mind. The first song I thought of was “Hallelujah.” That song felt like it came through me in a way that it had an intention of being shared. I didn’t quite know what it was about while I was writing it. The second one that came to mind was “Spaced Out Orbit,” because of the feeling behind that song. It’s based partially on my feelings and my impression of the moon bombing that happened a couple of years ago and about a really bad breakup I was going through. The title of that song is actually from a Helen Frankenthaler painting. The third song that came to me was “Likeable Man.” Thao would be a better person to explain why. I’m thankful to her that she wrote it, and I’m thankful that I get to be a part of bringing it into the world.
NGUYEN: The most meaningful is this song called “Likeable Man,” and it touches upon a subject matter that no one talks about. People should, and there are reasons they don’t. It’s important to me on a lot of levels. It actually deals with sexual abuse, but I hope I did it so it’s clear enough, yet it’s not obvious, but in the same way it’s pretty clear, I hope. I accidentally read a review the other day, which I don’t like to do because the Internet makes me very nervous. I accidentally saw a line of that song and that it was about masturbation, which is entirely incorrect. It’s people not listening to the whole song.
KAPLAN: How did you get into music?
NGUYEN: I got into music as a lonely pre-teen. I just played a lot of guitar by myself. When I was in college, I made a record. Laura Veirs, do you know that songwriter? I’m a huge fan. I wanted to open for her. I emailed her website, just a blind email. Her manager at the time responded to that email. He kept me in mind for things to open for her. He was still the head of Kill Rock Stars at that time, so he asked if I would contribute a song for a compilation. We toured with that. We worked out that he would be my manager. Then we signed to Kill Rock Stars. That’s how it happened.
ZEITLYN: I didn’t intentionally become a musician. I have a music-loving family. My dad has an incredible record collection. He’s the most committed music lover ever. I just listened to a lot of amazing music growing up. My sister and I always sang together. Music is part of my being. When I was little, I wanted to be a singer and a writer. I didn’t have an idea that music was going to be my professional career. I don’t listen to a lot of strong female vocalists. In middle school, I loved Sinead O’Connor. I loved Cyndi Lauper. I grew up listening to a lot of Motown, ’60s R&B, soul music and a lot of folk music. I had this rich musical bed that I kept building.
KAPLAN: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
NGUYEN: I would be writing fiction. I always wanted to be a writer before I was a musician. I think that my mind and body could only withstand only so much touring. It would be funny to go from one unstable occupation to a more unstable occupation. I just finished scoring this film. I would try and do that. I did this documentary called American Teacher; it’s produced by Dave Eggers and the Teachers Fellows Project.
ZEITLYN: Sometimes I joke around that if I weren’t a musician, I would be a power lifter. I don’t think people expect it from me because I’m little. I’m short in stature, but I’ve got some heft to me. I think that I would be some kind of superhero, but some kind of superhero that figures out how to fix everything because there are so many things that need fixing.
KAPLAN: Do you think there’s going to be another album after this?
ZEITLYN: People have been asking me that in interviews. Thao and I haven’t had a second to talk about it. If we didn’t have a tour tomorrow, we would continue to not see each other because we are both so busy. It’s really lovely that we’re going on tour together. Maybe we’ll be able to talk about future collaborations in the van. That will be conversation topic #1 for the long drive.
THAO AND MIRAH WILL PERFORM AT THE MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG ON JUNE 8. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE DUO, CLICK HERE.