Singer-songwriter Miranda Lee Richards has packed a hell of a lot into her career so far. The San Francisco native modeled in Paris, Kirk Hammett of Metallica gave her guitar lessons, and she was briefly a member of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Her 2001 debut solo album, The Herethereafter, was released by Virgin Records, and her fourth full-length, Existential Beast, dropped last year through Invisible Hands Music. She performs at Zebulon this week, a show billed as “an evening of post-feminist, experimental/folk/pop,” so we chatted about what we can expect, and more…
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you start singing, writing and playing? And when did you realize it was probably going to be your career?
MIRANDA LEE RICHARDS: I have always loved singing and have a deep emotional response to music. I sang in choir in grade school, and when I was in high school, I bought my first nylon string guitar at a garage sale. I learned a few chords, and not long after, I bought my first steel string guitar and harmonica at a local music shop. The owner asked me what key the song was in, and that led me to learn which chords I could play in every key. At that point, a whole world opened up and I began to write songs. The only reason I ever thought it would be a career possibility was because I saw other bands and singers who were doing so. Sadly, I think it’s a lot harder for young musicians these days to imagine making a living from music.
Who were your early influences?
Mazzy Star, The Cocteau Twins, World Party, Bob Dylan, The Beatles.
When did you move to L.A. from San Francisco, and why?
When rents started to rise in San Francisco during the dot-com revolution, people were moving out of the city, and the music scene was simultaneously shrinking. Because I had grown up in San Francisco, I thought it was time to venture forth and try my hand at a music career in the big metropolis of Los Angeles. There also had been a cool music scene in the ’80s in L.A. called the Paisley Underground that was influenced by a lot of the same ’60s California psychedelic bands I loved (Beach Boys, Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas). It was long gone by the time I had arrived but was a catalyst for me nonetheless.
What are the main differences in the music scenes, as you see them?
Many of the bands in San Francisco were there then and now because they were actually trying to escape the music industry and do something more experimental and noncommercial. Los Angeles, by comparison, has a lot more music business opportunities in place and a lot bigger scene in general and attracts musicians wanting to work in the industry: You used to be able to earn a living through film and TV licensing, paid session work and, if you were so lucky, other traditional avenues of getting a record deal, radio play and touring. However, Los Angeles has also always had a very underground music scene and still does (even more so since the demise of the industry) — to the point where some incredibly talented musicians, songwriters and producers have gone unnoticed.
How did joining The Brian Jonestown Massacre happen?
While still in San Francisco, I made a demo tape at a friend’s studio, and the-then manager of The BJM (also a friend) passed it along to the singer, Anton Newcombe, who waved me down on Haight Street one day and introduced himself, saying he would like me to “come sing on some stuff sometime.” So I went to band rehearsal, where he ended up firing the guitar player, but recording was still a go and I sang on some of their early recordings in San Francisco — one session was at the infamous Studio D in Sausalito. Once the band moved down to Los Angeles, we reconvened and we did more live shows and recordings together. However, I was never officially a full-time member and I never went on tour with the band.
What do you think of Dig!?
Dig! is an important snapshot of an era before the digital age of music and a peek into the rivalry between indie and major-label bands of that time. It depicts the quandary bands faced of being either commercial or cool, a reality fraught with tough artistic choices and compromises. lt is also an entertaining tale that captures some genuinely provocative, talented and charismatic personalities and the making of their amazing records.
But even though it is a documentary film, it is the perspective of filmmaker Ondi Timoner, who came on the scene during the Los Angeles chapter, which had already seen some profound changes in the dynamic of both groups. The early Dandy Warhols were a great live band and cool and indie in their own right, but Courtney Taylor was egomaniacal enough to outwardly worship The BJM, while Anton was egomaniacal enough to never admit that he respected The Dandy Warhols' music. Since the admiration wasn’t mutual or reciprocal on film, it made The BJM look superior in that sense.
But really, the Dandys were incredible in their own right and ended up being signed by Capitol Records (which, despite what anyone says, was an initially enviable position). Dig! really shows the Dandys struggling with that relationship in the face of being accused of selling out and then being undermined and reprimanded artistically by their label. The BJM didn’t have that same pressure and were able to maintain a lot more rebel force and “indie cool.” I don’t think Anton ever would have wanted to or could have played the major-label game.
How did the deal with Virgin come about?
I made some demos when I first moved to Los Angeles while I was playing open mics and opening slots as a solo acoustic performer. My first L.A. demo tape of original songs and co-writes was passed along to Tony Berg, A&R at Virgin Records, and he signed me to the label. It was quite miraculous, actually, as nothing in my career has ever been as easy since! Unlike the Dandys, I was very green and had not developed in my live show, but just like them, I felt like I had to make tough choices and lost some of my artistic autonomy. I wouldn’t change a thing, however, as I learned a valuable lesson in always following my instincts in regards to my music, and to do the work to display that vision so it is not up for discussion. The experience really solidified my surprising conviction in my own sound — I was like, “Oh, I guess I have to listen to myself for real now.”
What has been your fave collaboration and why?
I would say one of my favorite collaborative recordings was done as a duet with Joel Gion on his solo album song, “Change My Mind,” from his Apple Bonkers record. Another great collaboration was with my friend Joe Woolley from The Lords of Thyme in the U.K. We co-wrote “Autumn Sun” on my latest record, Existential Beast, and I think that one has a beautiful folk sensibility that is timeless.
How do you think your sound has evolved?
I am more open to co-writing actually, as I tend to get stuck in my comfort zones on guitar and piano and need to venture out here and there. With my own ideas, I write around melody first now, instead of putting a melody to a chord progression. It’s a whole other way of approaching songwriting that focuses on a free-standing, hummable tune first and foremost. I dream songs and melodies a lot also and have an easier time recording them with the advent of the iPhone Voice Memo app. You used to have to wait to get home or get up out of bed in the middle of the night and sing the idea into a tape recorder — I can just imagine all the great melodies that have been lost in the history of music!
Have you been pleased with the response to Existential Beast?
I have been very pleased, and it is a wonderful honor and fulfillment in knowing that even one person was touched by one of my songs. But that said, I would still love to be able to to reach a wider audience in order to make more money from touring. But I am open to whatever the universe wants from me at this point!
What can we expect from this L.A. set?
This show will be a special full band lineup with myself on electric guitar, Joel Martin on pedal steel, Justin Smith on drums, Jeff Gross on bass, Jason Soda on lead guitar, Samantha Smith on backing vocals, Jon Neimann on Mellotron keyboards and Amy Raasch on flute. It will be a very close rendition of the orchestrated arrangements and recorded material. We are also playing a couple new songs, and two songs from two previous albums, Echoes of the Dreamtime and Light of X. The night is built around my friend and performance artist Amy Raasch’s Girls Get Cold record release party — I will also be singing in her set. The incredible Corrina Repp is also supporting the bill.
What's next, after this gig?
I am finishing writing for my next two solo albums; one an Americana record, and the other a traditional folk album, so hopefully I’ll finish out 2018 with at least two more records in the queue. I have also finished a record with my band Black Fawn that I’d like to debut in 2019 if time permits!
Miranda Lee Richards plays with Amy Raasch and Corrina Repp at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, at Zebulon.