"I have this game that I play," Mirah says as we walk through her Northeast Portland neighborhood. "It's called 'Hello.'"
I watch her play it with a passerby. "Hi there," she says cheerfully, and the man fumbles back a pleasantry. "I like to see what people do," she tells me once he's out of earshot. "Because sometimes people don't even look at me! And I'm not a scary or intimidating person, so that couldn't be the reason, but...."
Mirah is definitely not intimidating; she's actually the complete opposite, but listening to her austere, intelligent music might give you the idea that she's got bigger things on her mind than making casual conversation with strangers. In some ways, though, that kind of reaching out is what she is most interested in.
Her latest is called (a)spera, and it's the first album that she's recorded in Portland, her home of six years. It's a wonderfully moving album, with varied arrangements that aren't sparse, but deliberate—not a single note is missing, and none of the ones used are wasted, beginning with the baroque, acerbic "Generosity," and moving on to the echoing gong and unsettled current of "The World Is Falling." The gently plucked kora (an African harp) of "Shells" is soothing and otherworldly, while the chugging guitar and booming drums of "The Forest" feels primeval, and "The River" is a hypnotic, gorgeous blend of guitars, synth hums, and dark brass. While no song resembles another, it's all held together by Mirah's powerfully girlish voice, raising the heavy material to what becomes a welcoming, almost effervescent greeting.
"Every song seems to call for very different treatment, and that's why they all end up sounding so different," she says. "It's really based on each song. I don't have a routine. I often need to hear something before I can think it, and I also work very collaboratively with people. It's trial and error."
Back at her home, she runs into the other room and brings back a book. "Have you ever heard of this?" she asks. It's Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan, a book about the twin Voyager spacecrafts that were launched in 1977 and are still floating deeper into space. Each of the probes contains a golden phonograph record that includes pictures and sounds from Earth, including greetings in dozens of different languages and a broad cross-section of different types of music made by humans, from Bach concertos to Blind Willie Johnson blues to Indonesian gamelan. It's mankind's proverbial message in a bottle, sent into outer space with the unlikely but optimistic hope that aliens might discover it. "I just love this idea," Mirah says.
She hints that (a)spera might be her own murmur of Earth, an idea that's carried out on the album's Barbarella-influenced cover art, right down to the "space undies!" as she calls them. While Mirah's not envisioning some alien race discovering her music in a million years, she's chosen an apt metaphor for communication on a more direct level. For every word or idea that people share, for every emotion that we direct at one another, there is a measureless void of black space and the chilling possibility that our transmission might not be received. But Mirah knows the importance of sending out the messages and maintaining faith that they'll be heard—a cosmic game of "Hello" played with the universe.