Interview and Photographs of Mira Billotte by Angie Gray.
Having heard about some sporadic performances of the Brooklyn band in the Los Angeles area, I was eager to learn what this most mysterious of musical outfits was up to. The delightful singer, pianist and major creative force behind White Magic, Mira Billotte, talks to us.
Are you visiting the West Coast or do you live here now?
I moved to L.A. about two years ago, after living in Brooklyn for seven years. I always felt a connection with California. I like the nature, the ocean, and the progressive attitude in general. I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve met here.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a bunch of songs. There’s some old ones that I’d like to record in a studio but I have a lot more that I’ve just been recording solo at my house playing the different instruments. White Magic has always had a rotating cast of different musicians/friends who play on some tours and not others. We did have one main guitar player Doug Shaw, but he stayed in New York so that’s been the main transition. Hopefully, we’ll get him back to record the album. I’m also planning a European tour. I haven’t been there in awhile, and I’d like to release an EP or a single before that which might be a European limited edition.
Your first band Quix*o*tic you played drums and your sister Christina played guitar. Do you come from a musical family?
My parents are more visual artists. My father worked with Rauschenberg and Rosenquist. So, although we didn’t have formal musical training we were encouraged to create. My sister Christina was in the band Slant 6 and I was in an all girl punk band called Blue Ryder—and we didn’t know how to play. We always had a piano at our house but I played bass and was inspired by the whole riot grrl movement. Then we were in Quix*o*tic together. It was more of an art punk or as people call it “post punk band.” My sister wrote lyrics, played guitar and sang and I played drums and sang. Later, we switched instruments and I started writing. We were naturally influenced by the D.C. scene with bands like Fugazi but we were more melodic than what was going on around us at the time.
In music today, it’s not strange to see an amalgam of music from different time periods. Is there a specific time period in musical history you feel influenced by?
Since I’ve been playing solo, I’ve definitely been influenced by droning, ancient and tribal sounding music. I’ve been using a hand drum and doing these tranced out, chanting type of songs.
What type? Eastern, Indian?
Sufi music, traditional Ethiopian, and also Ethiopian from the 1960s. I’m very influenced by that time period. Ethiopic series have influenced me a lot because I also play piano, and a lot of their scales interest me more than Western scales.
I just do it by ear. Im not classically trained. I just go by whether it feels good to me.
Do you generally listen to music/musicians whose style you would describe as being similar to yours?
Not necessarily. It’s more about the spirit behind the music. I’m definitely attracted to more original and honest songs. There is a lot of glossy music out there where it seems the musicians had a very particular plan and everything was worked out ahead of time. I like music that is more quirky, that really shows the personality of the person writing it.
Cool. Do you find inspiration for writing flows easier when you play drums or what?
Rhythm is very important to me. Even when I play the piano my style is very percussive. So, I do connect strongly with rhythm, and once I have the rhythm down it is easier to write a vocal melody over that. Sometimes that’s all I need.
You once said, “A lot of my songs are inspired by spiritual longing.”
I wonder what interview that was! (laughs) Yeah, there is a certain sense of trying to connect with the universal power. A lot of times in day-to-day life we feel disconnected from it. I think everything we do in a way is our trying to get back to that natural source, to reconnect to it so that we can let ourselves be a channel for its force.
You did a haunting version of “As I Went Out One Morning” for the soundtrack of the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. How did that come about?
Lee Ranaldo was one of the producers of the film’s soundtrack and asked me to do it, I agreed and he recorded it. We’ve known each other for a long time because I toured with Sonic Youth back when I was in Quix*o*tic and then also again when I was in White Magic. They are all really awesome people!
Did you ever work with a label that tried to tell you what to do creatively?
No, I never experienced that. Drag City, the label I’m on is very open to what I do and they’ve never tried to tell me what I should do. I’m very particular about what my music sounds like but I’m also open to suggestions from creative people. I do know what I want though and I can’t change that.
I’ve also started a new label called The Mysteries. I have already released a 7” EP with a new song “White Widow” on one side and a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” on the other.
Are all of the songs on your records like short stories that connect with each other or are they usually unrelated?
Funny that you ask me that. In the past I used to feel that each song was its own story, its own universe, and it didn’t matter what order they were in for the records. But I have recently been moving towards the idea that I would like for each song to relate to the next one forming one big story or theme.
I’ve started mixing in more multimedia art with my performances as well. For instance, I project abstract things that I have filmed and edited onto a translucent cloth and leave space between the cloth and wall so that it holds the projection but it also carries through to the wall, creating a three dimensional type of sculpture, a sacred space that you can penetrate.
I did some performances in NYC and Baltimore, working with my friend Mecca. She choreographs dance and I perform the music and bring the visuals. The first time Mecca and I collaborated was for the screening of a friend Jodi Wille documentary, “The Source Family” where we improvised a dance/music performance.
I don’t know if it is a trend but I do see more and more musicians collaborating in each others projects.
It’s always been happening, but L.A. is a fertile place for collaboration—at least that is my impression. In NYC people have their one thing that they’re kind of stuck with, and they work really hard on that particular thing, which means they haven’t much free time to collaborate on other projects. It’s kinda the nature of NYC and the nature of L.A. that in NYC you have to work really hard and struggle. L.A. is more chill.
What are you reading right now?
The way of Tarot by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Really? The director?
Yes, he’s been an avid student and advocate of the Marseilles deck for years and gives a pretty inspired explanation of the symbols. The main difference in this deck is the colors: Every color has a symbolic meaning and the way it is placed is meaningful as well.
The title Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (Drag City) for your last album . . .
“The Rose Gives the Bees Honey” after an engraving by Johann Thedore deBry (d. 1598). The Rose is the symbol of the universe, the honey is knowledge. It’s like I was saying before about tapping into the universal source, the connection with nature, with all.