The first time I heard Mira Billotte’s music was at a White Magic show in New York City. For a while, the group were regulars on the city’s music scene. Their 2006 album Dat Rosa Mel Apibus captures the blend of styles that made the band’s music so powerful and so difficult to pigeonhole. There are aspects of traditional music in here; there are Billotte’s haunted vocals, and a penchant for mystical imagery. Billotte’s musical background is varied indeed–prior to White Magic, she played in Quix*o*tic with her sister Christina (perhaps best-known for time in the band Slant 6.).
White Magic has been quiet for a while. The last time I saw Billotte play music was as part of the ensemble accompanying Jem Cohen’s film We Have An Anchor, where she was joined by members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion, as well as Dirty Three drummer Jim White, an occasional White Magic contributor, and Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto, who like Billotte and Cohen has longstanding ties to the Washington, DC punk scene.
2015 brought with it a revitalized White Magic, with the release of the EP I’m Hiding My Nightingale. It’s a quietly mesmerizing work that serves as a welcome reminder of Billotte’s penchant for compelling, surreal melodies and unconventional arrangements. I spoke with Billotte last summer to learn more about the new EP, her musical history, and more.
When did you first end up out in California?
It’s been about three and a half years now, yeah, and I was just ready for a change, different environment. I always loved California, kind of always envisioned myself here, I don’t know why. I’m from Maryland, like Washington, D.C. But yeah, it’s a beautiful state, and LA, I know a lot of musical people out here.
It does sort of seem like that more and more people I know are making their way from New York to Los Angeles as the years go by.
Yeah, it’s probably the same for me, lot of people go back and forth. I hear about a lot of people moving, I guess it’s just a a different lifestyle, it’s the same urban city but it’s a different kind of lifestyle than New York. (laughter)
I was just talking New York versus LA public transportation, or just transportation the other day with a friend.
Yeah, mm, that’s a big minus about LA, just all the traffic and the highways and stuff. But then you have New York which is easy, but I remember nightmares of riding the New York subway in mid-summer in one hundred ten degree-weather.
I was very happy to sort of see the news of the new EP. The last full-length came out in, what, 2006?
The album, yeah, I think 2006. Then we did an EP with them after that, and, yeah, it’s just been like kind of one-off singles and limited edition stuff.
Was there any specific impetus for this record to come out right now?
The EP, and then I saw that there’s going to be a full length later in the year…
Well, yeah, there’s definitely recordings happening, but I’m not sure about a release, when that would be, you know, ready. But yeah, I have a lot of material and have just been recording. I’ve been recording with a drummer in Copenhagen, actually. It’s kind of a new thing, but yeah, I found this drummer there that’s really good, and we’ve been doing some recording. The EP is exciting because, yeah, I haven’t put something out in a while.
Are you working with any of the same musicians that you were working with in the past?
No, on this EP, not really. It’s actually mostly just me on this EP, but there is the drummer on one of the songs, from Copenhagen, his name’s Rune. I’m not really playing with anyone from before. It’s always a changing cast of musicians that are friends of mine. Doug Shaw was the main guitarist before, and it’s possible that we’ll do similar stuff together.
How did you and the drummer you’re working with initially meet? Was it when you were touring over there?
I was over there last summer, right around this time I played the Distortion Festival in Copenhagen, and my friend who runs a label called Escho, he’s the guy who first put out that band Iceage.
I know a few people over there, and he’s been an old friend, and he introduced me to the drummer ’cause he plays with them, and we did like a couple days in the studio and it just really gelled, and he’s cool, cause he comes from like kind of a jazz background, free jazz, but he can kind of play anything. I like that experimental jazz background.
I feel like the music you make is incredibly hard to pin down, which is one of the things I really like about it.
Yeah, it’s true, when I try to describe it, it like always comes up sounding weird. If I try to say, Oh, it’s folk, or experimental, like, you know, things people’ve said about it before, but it never seemed totally right (laughter).
When I’ve read a little bit about your history before White Magic, would I be incorrect in saying that you sort of have roots in the DC area punk and post-punk world?
Oh yeah, for sure.
How did you get from that world to kind of making more folk-influenced music that’s also experimental and doesn’t really fit into any category?
Well, I think it grew out of that growing up in that scene, actually. I mean, that was very counter-cultural, what was happening in DC in the ’90s and the early 80s and all that, as far as the punk scene [was concerned]. I feel really fortunate that I was brought into it by my older sister, who was in Quix*ot*ic, so I was exposed at a young age to all this punk music, which was, it was basically experimental music, and the way, the people I was exposed to were kind of the innovators of that scene. You know, Fugazi, and Rites of Spring, and all those punk bands or whatever you would call them. It was just music for me, I was telling somebody recently. But, yeah, they were political and experimental, it was like very counter-cultural, so it was like that was inspiring as an artist, to be exposed to that kind of freedom within a scene.
It was also very DIY, so anyone could do it, you know, it encouraged me. Just pick up an instrument and start doing it, you know. So that sort of attitude is what led me to rebel further against that kind of structure, a punk aesthetic, or a punk structure. I felt like I was innovating those boundaries and becoming more arty or experimental, and in my opinion, punk music could also be considered anything that’s rebellious or is against the status quo. If a folk song is revolutionary, it has that quality that punk music also has, you know, rebellion. So for me it’s not the type of music, but the attitude behind it. That spirit of what punk was is still behind my music even though it’s not punk at all, so…
I remember noticing that there were a fair amount of people with roots in the DC punk scene involved with Jem Cohen’s We Have An Anchor.
It was really amazing, the experience. We just did it again in London and Paris, we played the Barbican in London, which was in April (according to The Barbican’s website it was actually March 31st, 11.50 -ed.), and that, it’s just been, working with them is just a really great experience, they’re cool people as well as being interesting musicians.
How did all of that initially come about?
They actually started doing it before I entered in, and it was like all instrumental stuff. You know, what mainly all of those musicians do, especially Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But, I’ve known Jem Cohen for a long time; I actually acted in one of his films. Which is the only acting I’ve ever done, and that was a really cool experience, in a film called Chain. But yeah, I’ve known Jem for a long time through the DC scene. Actually I was introduced to him through Ian MacKaye, so I’ve known him a long time and we’d done stuff together. I don’t really know how exactly it came about. Also, Guy Picciotto has been a friend for a long time of me and my sister, and produced some of the Quix*ot*ic records and was really encouraging part of my musical life. He actually chose the song that I sing for the opening of We Have An Anchor.
Did that change any of your approach to performing?
Performing with them, yeah, it totally did. It’s just a new experience, combining a film and combining it with those particular musicians. That particular way of working on music is a different way that I’m used to, it’s interesting. It’s an enjoyable experience when everyone is a professional and aesthetically, you know, everyone’s on par with each other.
Were the songs for the new EP recorded in a relatively short period of time? You’d mentioned that you played most of the instruments on those songs.
Well, a lot of it is just stripped down. The first song on the EP, I’m Hiding My Nightingale, is just voice and guitar, and that’s the one Ariel Pink is playing guitar on. Then there’s vocal and piano, and then there’s another song where I play a hand-drum, and there’s drums and there’s kind of like a sampled loop along with the vocals, but it’s all pretty stripped down stuff as far as layers and instrumentation.
Was the looping something you’d wanted to incorporate into your music for a while?
It’s definitely something I’m interested in. That was interesting because the song kind of grew out of the loop that was a very lo-fi DD6, which samples for only a few seconds at a time, but you can layer it over itself like many times. I did that and just like came up with this thing that the song is formed out of. It’s a strange loop. (laughter) It’s something I’m definitely into exploring. I have a sampler and have played around with it a few times. It’s another dimension that I could get into.
Do you tend to focus more on the gear side of things a lot?
I mean, no, I’m not like a gear-type person, but I mean I do know the sound that I like when I hear it. And so I use delay on my vocals, and I have an Echoplex, an analog tape delay. That’s from the ’70s, and it has a really warm sound. They have imitations that are digital, but it never compares, it’s just particular, and even to the other analog tape delays, the Echoplex particularly has a really nice sound. So I use that. I like vintage analog stuff, but I’m not a real gear-person, at all.
Do you generally write more on guitar, or more on piano?
It goes through phases, definitely more on piano than guitar, but actually recently it’s been more like drum and vocal. Writing from a rhythm or a melody with a rhythm.
Was there a point where you thought, Hey. What if I just did this?
Kind of. It was sort of a moment where I thought, I want to be able to make music without a lot of stuff involved. Just be totally stripped down, and still create a full sounding song. I don’t know, just being able to be like a troubadour or something, wander the land (laughter), playing music without needing all these things, like electricity.
That idea of like stripping it all down is also in reaction to a lot of what music is today, or recently. Lots and lots of players, and electronics, and all kinds of effects. So it was also sort of a response to that like, Wouldn’t it be interesting to just take everything away and strip it down, see if I can do it.
I’m kind of curious–when you were based in New York sort of in the mid-aughts, I got this sense of White Magic as part of a particular scene in New York. I mean, do you feel that you’re part of a sort of comparable, or scene in LA now? Or is it very much more that you’re doing your own thing, outside of any of that?
It’s interesting because, in New York I didn’t really feel… I mean, I definitely was a part of a scene, but l don’t know about musically. Those are different things, there’s the community that you’re friends with, and then there’s the other musicians, and there’s the community that you actually interact with and play music with, and then there’s also what the press will say about something. They categorize it in a certain way, you know.
So: The Golden Apples of the Sun, we were on that [compilation], so a lot of times we were lumped in with a lot of those musicians and stuff. I knew them, but it wasn’t like a scene, or anything that was around that compilation. So, you know, you can see how I never felt like the idea of these cohesive scenes, it’s all just like people hanging out and doing different things. I felt more like… a community with people that weren’t actually making music that sounded anything like mine, you know? In New York. Sometimes, there was something about it that I related to, but not just like it sounded like White Magic, or anything. So yeah, I would say that it’s sort of like that here too, it’s like a lot of people doing different things, but I don’t really feel like musically I can say, Oh, I fit in to the scene. But as far as community, there’s definitely a scene of musicians. Yeah, it’s great (laughter).
Where did the title of the new EP come from?
“I’m Hiding My Nightingale” is the title of the song, the first song on the EP, and it’s a cover song and it’s written by Can. Before they were called CAN they were called Inner Space. And they had this woman singing on two songs, and this beautiful song, I forget which one of the guys wrote, but it’s amazing, lyrics and everything. So, I did a cover of that.
You talked a little bit about sort of your song-writing evolving and working with vocals and rhythms. In the time since like the last full-length came out, how would you say that your song-writing has changed?
It’s mainly just the way that I’ve changed, because I’m not totally technical when it comes to writing music. I’m not trying different techniques or anything, or have a certain system, it’s kind of just like expressing something, as close as possible to the original inspiration. It’s basically more like personal change. I don’t know just where…where the inspirations come from, but the technique is sort of the same.
I write by [the] initial expression that comes out; trying to capture the first impression. Song-writing for me is sort of like improvising, then capturing that improvisation and turning it into a song. Kind of what I do in some of the songs can be very just like, Oh, that song is exactly what just came out at the moment, or, you know, it’s some other, it’s a little bit more…worked on, you know, but it’s mostly trying to get back to that sort of initial inspiration.
Is there generally a set length between sort of the initial time a song is written and when it feels done to you?
It can be a long time. I mean, I don’t really even feel like the songs are ever done. I can have a song around for a long time without changes, and when I play live shows it’ll morph from the beginning. It’s just always changing.
When you listen to music in your daily life, what do you generally seek out? Anything in particular?
I think I look for music that’s very honest, like an honest expression of that person, and also something that’s inspiring on a like more exalted level, also like spiritual music, or someone that’s very inspired or passionate. That’s what inspires me, that’s what I also try to achieve is just like that. Exalted inspiration. People who are really expressing something truly, as opposed to an affected kind of music or something that’s way intellectually worked out, something more expressive.
You’ve done some covers of traditional music. Is that something you find yourself still wanting to go back to, or have you kind of done all that you wanted to do in that area?
I definitely would like to do more in that area. Just because some of those traditional songs are really beautiful and also historically interesting, how they developed and more. I think that a big part of the attraction of folk music is how historically it developed and passed down and through different cultures as well; how one song can be passed down through different cultures and change lyrically but still retain something of the original and how that just sort of human story, this oral history, is really fascinating and beautiful. Yeah, and also the stripped-downness of some of those traditional songs, like Appalachian folk songs where it’s just someone singing without any instrumentation. Another thing that I do in my live show, is play a capella songs and that’s definitely something I would do more of.
What are some of the ways that you go about finding new music, or finding music you haven’t heard yet?
That’s funny, ’cause I really need to get new music. I’m sort of tired of my tunes that I have. But I don’t know, usually through friends, recommendations from friends or, mix CDs, mix tapes, that kinda thing. Or online stuff. Yeah, I don’t know, like the need to get more music, and record stores, there are a lot of record stores that have opened up in LA recently. So mainly hearing from other people and stuff, and being exposed to new stuff that way.