Musician and former model Miranda Lee Richards has been a staple in California music culture since she was a teen, first as a member of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and then as a solo artist, memorably appearing in the cult-classic BJM documentary Dig! and maintaining a relevant music career for more than 20 years. She returns next month with her fourth full-length studio album, Existential Beast, an ethereal record that nevertheless serves a sociopolitical purpose, as she explores the polarizing consequences of the last presidential election and its effect on culture.
Ahead of her album release show at the Bootleg Theater on Wednesday, May 31, I spoke with Richards about her take on Trump supporters, her experiences working with BJM leader Anton Newcombe, and what's happening to the world around us.
Let’s jump in by unpacking the title of your record, Existential Beast.
It’s a mashup of terms incorporating [our current] existential crisis, with the beast being a symbol of our lower animal instincts. Right now in the current political climate, it seems like the state of our world is reflecting all of this kind of leftover animal energy, and I also feel like there’s a merging of consciousness with that right now — some people are coming from one place and others are coming from another. I’m just observing it because I don’t want to judge that some people are in a different place than others. It seems like there are people in different schools, or grades, if you will. Some people are in high school and some are in kindergarten.
Maybe it's a clash of traditionalism, where “Make America Great Again” can nod to the desire to revert back to colonialism (which has never quite gone away), and another school of people who are kind of consciously open, in regards to the rise of polyamory, queer acceptance and people being more adamant about recognizing their own unique spiritual perspectives.
I feel that way in certain terms. I could be wrong on this, but it seems like there are two main, polarized categories of people. I notice people who are open-minded and tolerant, and then there are other groups of people who can [only] see their own perspectives, and each type of person can ironically be on either side of the political spectrum. There are people in both camps who embody radical views. What I’ve noticed [is that] it’s really time to find solutions without judging either group harshly. That’s what I think [the album] is looking at.
I think it also comes down to education and experience, because as you travel and meet different kinds of people, your perspective shifts. I feel like there are groups of people whose views are very closed.
So now that we have a general understanding of what Existential Beast is exploring as a concept, let’s talk about the songs of the album. How did you express yourself lyrically in your songs?
Some songs have a political theme or message and other songs have a spiritual theme, where the personal existential crisis comes into play. Other songs refer to society at large, and what’s going on in our world. I wrote “Ashes and Seeds” pre-election. I just kept asking myself, “How involved do I get here? What is my role? Am I meant to serve politically and should I put [my thoughts] into my music?” I wanted to comment on the issues, just to connect with someone who feels that same way, and maybe that’s enough.
I feel like there’s plenty of amazing pop and dance songs in the world. I felt like, if I could, I wanted to talk about other things that matter in my music. That’s the overlying goal of this record.
On a personal level, what brought you to this point and which “camp” do you see yourself in?
Well, I am liberal-minded, but I am also open-minded. I am also very compassionate, and that’s because of what I’ve experienced in my life. When I talk to a person with another viewpoint, my first reaction is to think, “Why does this person feel this way and where are they coming from?” I don’t really get angry. I oftentimes have felt enlightened about where people are coming from and why; sometimes it’s because they’re missing certain pieces of information, other times they have all the information they need and they still voted for Donald Trump. [laughs] But I don’t like being preachy, so I want to frame [the songs] where I wasn’t being judgmental or polarizing. I don’t want to alienate people. We all have hearts. [Everyone wants] the best for themselves. Some people take it a step further and want the best for themselves and other people. If we can see that deep down, people’s intentions are pure.
Now when you’re dealing with racism and people who are just outright mean, how do you deal with that? Because that’s not coming from the “greater good” perspective and that brings power struggles.
Not only do we get into power struggles, but we get into murder and violence. So that becomes polarizing when you have white America saying they want the best for themselves, because that opens the door for hatred and abuse toward people of color and immigrants.
Right. Some people are saying, “I voted for Donald Trump because I just wanted my job back.” I don’t think people voted for Donald Trump because they wanted a racist, bigoted president.
The question is: If you voted for Donald Trump, are you a racist, sexist materialist, or were [the voters] just not even going there in their minds? That’s what I’m trying to explore.
I think he was voted in because he’s sexist. I think a lot of women (and people in general) voted for him because he seems to be in control and has a sort of prowess and sexual power, and I think that’s gross.
It is gross. I never personally used my sexual power as a woman. I really stay away from that. I honor my sexual power as love for another human being. I see my women friends play around with it, and that’s another thing [our culture] plays with, sexuality, and that’s where our animal urges come into play again. It really bothers me. It really does.
Even in your teenage years, appearing in the documentary Dig!, you were very beautiful and seemed to have a very protective, personal shell around you, and seemed very calm in what appeared to be chaos going on around you. Tell me about that.
You have to understand, I was primed to be able to handle those kinds of situations because I was raised in San Francisco in the '70s by a single mom, who was an artist and was involved in the punk-rock scene and [a] filmmaker. The underground scene was highly sexualized then, so women were taking their own power and objectifying men. She taught me to always focus on my talent, ability and education. She never chose the path of marrying a rich man to make it in the world.
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And I saw a lot of things. I took public transportation from the age of 10 and 11 years old. I wasn’t sheltered. So The Brian Jonestown Massacre was just an extension of the San Francisco music scene, which I was always a part of. Those guys were characters and I respect Anton, he is a very interesting person. He could also be a tyrant, and it became this cultlike [environment]. He was wading that territory of Charlie Manson and Jonestown — but I knew it. I had background. The girls who really fell into it were the girls who were coming from Minneapolis. I didn’t lose my ground, because I knew what was going on. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, but I still respected Anton, and I loved the aesthetic. I loved shoegaze. It was that simple.
If you could give some advice to women coming up as artists, what wisdom can you impart as an a major and independent artist who’s been making music for so many years?
I’m independent now [on an indie label, Invisible Hands Music, in the U.K.] and being so is very entrepreneurial. I would say to young women ... educate yourself. I find that one of the biggest dangers is not learning from the past to learn where we’re going. Each generation shouldn’t have to relearn things all the time. Respect and honor your elders.
Miranda Lee Richards performs at the Bootleg on Wednesday, May 31. Existential Beast is out June 16. More info at mirandaleerichards.com.
[Correction: The final quote in this article has been updated to reflect the fact that, while Richards is an independent artist, she releases her music in the U.K. through a record label, Invisible Hands Music.]