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On a First-Name Basis With Thao & Mirah

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Mercy Southam

    I caught up with the San Francisco duo Thao & Mirah the night before their June 21 Casbah show with Bobbi and Led to Sea.

    We walked around Little Italy discussing the project.

    "It's almost a miracle that this project was able to happen between myself, Thao and Merril [of tUnE-YaRdS, who co-produced the record], because our schedules are nuts," Mirah said. "It took us three months of trying to find a time when we were both in San Francisco to have dinner and to meet each other."

    Thao Nguyen is best known as the frontwoman for the Get Down Stay Down. Mirah, whose full name is Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, is an acclaimed Bay area solo artist. The two came together for a one-off performance at Noise Pop 2010, fulfilling a dream of their mutual friend Lauren Ross at Terrorbird Media, who had the impressive forethought to combine the force of the duo with Merril Garbus of tUnE-YaRdS so they could work on a record that Ross envisioned as a response to Monsters of Folk.

    Rather than a supergroup, the pair see it as “friends getting together to make a pressure-free record” Thao said. With only a month to record, Mirah said she felt the pressure in other ways, joking, “It's interesting to me that you say 'pressure-free'; I've never written and recorded an album that fast in my life!” For her part, Thao said she found finds familiarity in the rush.

    "That's the only way it's ever been -- you know, I had a month to tour it and to write it, 10 days in the studio," Thao said. "I think it's pretty bad for my blood pressure!”

    The result was an ambitious effort to thread folk and pop with Mirah’s breathy falsetto and Thao’s throaty twang, all to a rhythmic pulse of clicks and hand claps, guitar plucks and slides. Mirah’s versatile vocals shifts from sultry jazz groove to sweetened harmonies with Thao’s milky tone, who at one point conversationally -- and deliberately -- teases, “Put your hand, down your pants.”
    In anticipation of making the record, the two made personal calls to the first 200 people who purchased the record. It proved to be an entertaining experiment.
    “Everyone was super sweet," Thao said. "There's only so much you can say to a stranger, so it's pretty much, 'Thank you so much ... uhh, OK,' and maybe squeeze out a joke. It was nice when they were excited."
    Mirah’s experience was a little different.
    “I had a couple of awkward ones," she said. "I had one girl who was the kind of excited like when you're watching The Price is Right and the person wins and they're freaking out. A couple people were very suspicious of who I was, and they were kind of yelling at me, and then they figured it out, and they were very embarrassed. It was funny."
    Before the record was even made, the women knew they wanted to get involved with the organization Air Traffic Control (ATC), which teams artists up with social causes. After attending several ATC retreats, they decided this tour would serve to help shed light on domestic violence.
    “They're an amazing resource for that, so we decided that the tour and the release would support causes within domestic violence, and childhood sexual abuse, and part of that is every city that we go to,"  Thao said.
    Mirah explains the added value: “It's an opportunity to bring issues to the table -- OK, here we're playing a rock show, but every time we talk about what we're doing and why we're doing it, and even just to bring that into the room, I think is really important for people, and I've gotten a lot of feedback from audience members, and they're really grateful that there's a reason why we're all there.”

    There is something impossibly cool about the two of them; as they took the stage on Tuesday night, Thao shouted from behind a mess of black bangs, stomping in cowboy boots, while Mirah, in patterned tights, strummed on a guitar and tip-toed to the mike. They ended the night with a rousing performance with the help of their band, and, of course, some participatory audience hand claps.

    Nada Alic runs the San Diego-based music blog Friends With Both Arms and works in artist relations for the nonprofit organization Invisible Children. Follow her updates on Twitter or contact her directly.