Harmony in variety

Uncommon ground: “There was an acknowledgment from the beginning that it wouldn’t be a cohesive record, because how could it be,” says Thao Nguyen, right.

Thao and Mirah's self-titled debut has multiple personalities.

Breezy folk numbers lead into anthemic party romps; gritty blues gives way to melodic three-part harmonies; and percussive, dance-friendly beats rest comfortably alongside space-y ambient narratives. And that's just the beginning. To call the record eclectic would be a gross understatement.

Thao says the lack of cohesiveness was something the duo acknowledged, and embraced, from the start. After all, Thao and Mirah are very different songwriters, each with well-established solo careers. The former fronts Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, a pop-friendly indie-rock trio with a penchant for sunny melodies and fun-loving rhythms. The latter is best known for delicate, introspective folk songs delivered in her angelic soprano.

"There was an acknowledgment from the beginning that it wouldn't be a cohesive record in that sense, because how could it be?" Thao admits. "I think we called it from the beginning and embraced that fact, and then didn't give another thought to it.

"There are recurring elements, of course, and there are other unifying threads, but it didn't make sense to try to make it gel more in that way. It wasn't going to be possible. I think, also, we weren't interested in binding it."

Thao's take-it-as-it-comes attitude is not surprising. The project has been effortless from the start. It began last year after the pair were introduced by a mutual friend, which led to a spontaneous, one-off collaborative set at San Francisco's Noise Pop Festival. That gig led to a joint tour, where the duo performed together during an extended set that included each of their respective bands. Then, after a successful stint on the road, the pair decided to continue exploring their obvious musical chemistry in the studio.

For Thao, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, writing and recording outside the constraints of a traditional band with established roles was liberating. She says the latitude to approach the recording process from new angles was one of the major factors that drew her to the project to begin with.

"I got to really expand, try my hand at a lot of different instruments and sort of experiment," she recalls. "To have that freedom was something that I don't often work with. You know, with The Get Down Stay Down, who I love, we do have more defined roles in the band, and it was really exciting to step outside of those confines."

The spirit of experimentation manifests itself throughout the album, from banjo and horns to synth and drum machines. It's perhaps most apparent on "Squareneck," a sparse and gritty blues number with pounding beats juxtaposed by an elastic melody reminiscent of childhood nursery rhymes.

"That song was written primarily because I wanted to play slide on this squareneck guitar that I found at a shop in San Franscisco," Thao says. "It's this old guitar and it's completely busted and really warped, but it sounds … I love how it sounded, and it plays really well. I wanted a chance to showcase it on the record.

"I was finishing writing that song in the studio and we just all kind of knew that it would be a very raw, live take. There is an energy about it that lended itself to that sort of minimal production."

Percussion also played an important role in the experimental nature of the album. The pair utilized everything from kitchen accessories to children's games to create the mesmerizing beats that form the backbone of the album. Thao credits co-producer Merrill Garbus, whom she describes as a "real creative percussive mind," with nurturing that process.

"I think that we wanted to stay as far away from the traditional sounds, within reason, as we could," she explains. For "Teeth," it was Mirah and Merrill doing … I don't even know what you call those. You know, the clapping on school playgrounds with little kids. It was them doing that for over three minutes straight. And we set up a lot of assorted pots and pans and bottles, sort of junkyard kits. I think I only played a traditional kit on one song."

This weekend, Thao and Mirah will bring their eclectic mix to The Grey Eagle. Thao jokes that the all-female band and crew was formed "in honor of Beyonce."

"Beyonce is the great equalizer," she laughs. "I've never met anyone that didn't like Beyonce. I feel like she could bring us world peace."

— Dane Smith can be reached at dsmith@mountainx.com.

who: Thao & Mirah, with Bobby and Led to Sea
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, June 12 (8:30 p.m. $13/$15. Tickets available online or at Harvest Records and Static Age Records.)


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