Tracing a somewhat unconventional route to music, through physiology and pharmacology, Anna Mieke is most comfortable on the level ground of a trad session – that is when she isn’t swapping folk songs with locals in Eastern Europe.
“I think if people aim to succeed in the music ‘Industry’, the word ‘Industry’ kind of means progression and modernity”
Anna Mieke isn’t really thinking about it and that’s just fine. The Wicklow-born folk singer has done plenty in her time; studied pharmacology, exchanged songs with locals as she hitchhiked through Eastern Europe and learned the Haka in a New Zealand primary school. Sitting down for an interview though, that’s a new one for Ms. Mieke. Where many might be furtively ill at ease when faced with a nosy stranger brandishing a recording device, Mieke exudes a calmly contented demeanour. She methodically pours cups of tea and mentally chews each query before usually landing on a response that roughly approximates this piece’s opening, “…I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Deliberate dissection of her own songwriting influences and impulses has no part in The Mieke Method and that is no bad thing. Mieke’s work is art born of intuition, resistant to over-analysis. From “a sixteen year old in way too much eyeliner, trying to learn Rihanna songs” to a regular at Trad sessions who boasts a masters degree in Ethnomusicology; Mieke doesn’t draw any hard lines when it comes to her influences or the extent to which different experiences have coloured her process; these songs are her songs, and that’s really all there is to say about them.
“I didn’t study music or anything”, Mieke explains, “I started playing piano first. I was eight and I remember hearing my dad’s ringtone and thinking it was really cool. I think it was Bach? I really loved the song anyway and kept just holding the phone up to my ear and playing it over and over again. So, my dad called up a local piano teacher, played the ringtone down the phone and said ‘Hi, can you teach my daughter to play this?’ That was the beginning. I was never taught how to read sheet music or anything, it was all by ear.” Mieke was spared the all too common trope of the overbearing, creativity-smothering early piano teacher. In fact, her reality couldn’t have been farther removed. “It was actually a really nice introduction to music. My piano teacher’s house – at least in my eyes at that age – felt like it was in the middle of a jungle. She lived up in the hills above our town and her garden was full of exotic plants, it felt magical! Before piano, I guess I’d been singing since I was very small. I have four siblings and we would have sung together. I remember we had a record player when I was young and my parents would play the soundtrack to The Jungle Book and all the kids would march around the kitchen singing along to The Elephant Song.”
With her days in the elephant chorus in her rearview and having discovered the pleasure of playing, Mieke started to explore further avenues of musical expression. “I remember when I was 16 I saw some girl playing covers on YouTube – YouTube was amazing for inspiration at that age. I decided that I want to be like her and that I should probably play guitar. I sat and played the same two chords for weeks and weeks. Then, I discovered the cello. My dad is a doctor and he had a patient who was a cello teacher. I got sent off to this woman quite begrudgingly but as soon as I started playing cello – from the moment I could feel the sound vibrating against your chest – I knew how amazing an instrument it was. Thinking back on it, I’m quite impressed that I stuck at it. It helped that my teacher loaned me her incredibly valuable cello. That was an amazing place to start because no matter what you do, it’s going to sound incredible!”
Performance is one thing, but songwriting is something else entirely. Mieke’s decision to start working on her own songs came about in a characteristically impulsive style. “So, it wasn’t until I was 23 that I actually started writing and singing.” Anna seems shocked to vocalise this fact as she immediately adds “Woah, that’s weird to say!” before she continues; “Basically, I studied physiology and pharmacology and that was what I was going to do. But, after finishing, I was like ‘Feck it, labs are really sterile environments, I want to get away.’ I went to live in Granada for a year. When I was there, I found myself surrounded by all sorts of music. I think I remember one day deciding, ‘Right, I’m going to return to Ireland and focus on music.’ It wasn’t until I got back from Granada that I actually sat down and wrote my first song. There just came a point where I knew that is what I wanted to do so I got on it and started writing songs. It was quite a clear decision but purely based on a gut feeling. I think I’ve done that in the past with other things. There is quite a clear moment when I decide ‘This is what I want to do’ and then I just do it and it works out… usually.”
Anna’s decision to throw herself full bore into music didn’t stop at her songwriting. Soon after this, Mieke began her studies in ethnomusicology and added another instrument to her growing quiver – the bouzouki. “A friend played the Irish bouzouki and that was the first time I’d seen it. Then, I started playing with my current boyfriend (Brían from Ye Vagabonds) and he is bouzouki mad – it’s his main instrument. He has a Greek bouzouki that a friend of ours cycled back from Greece with to exchange for a concertina or something. So, I started noodling around on it and thought ‘Gosh, this sounds nice.’” I wonder if she is ever struck by some other musicians’ reticence to embrace instruments outside of the Rock standards; guitar, bass, drums etc. “I don’t know. People can have an obsession with modern and new and progression and instruments like the bouzouki are so linked to folk. I think if people aim to succeed in the music ‘Industry’, the word ‘Industry’ kind of means progression and modernity. For me, I just liked the sound. Maybe not wanting to go fully electric played a part too and that comes from my experience singing in sessions.”
Despite not being steeped in traditional music as a child, Mieke has since developed an avowed passion for trad sessions – regularly joining the motley crew that populates Stonybatter’s Walsh’s each Sunday night. “Sessions are such a community experience that isn’t present on a stage,” explains Mieke. “I think that’s what draws people to them. It’s a lot more participatory, you – as somebody in a pub – are very much a part of it, whereas stages have this ability to separate you from the audience. That’s why I can have trouble performing on certain stages because it feels almost hierarchical. I’m really drawn to sessions in the pubs for that reason. It’s not just the music, it’s the bits between, there’s a spontaneity and fluidity to sessions which contributes to the experience.
Mieke would be the first to admit that throwing herself into the session scene had a huge effect on her sound, but the last number of years have also seen her draw influence from further afield. “The summer after I finished my masters, I traveled from Hungary through Romania and Bulgaria with some friends, just hitching and making our way anyway we could. The three of us were singers, so we set out to listen to local folk songs and learn them as we go. We each learned how to say ‘We are folk singers, do you have any songs? We’ll sing you one of ours in exchange’ in Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian”. The trip saw Mieke exposed to an enviable array of traditional Eastern European songs and left her all too eager to learn more, “I’m hoping to go back next year to do a course in singing” she effuses, “What really struck me, especially in Hungary, is that the female singers have these incredibly strong voices that cut through a room. It’s an amazing style of singing, so powerful and with these stunning harmonies. I’m really into obscure harmonies, I need to get more of that in my music.” As ever, Anna isn’t too concerned with dissecting her work for indicators of these influences, “When I’m there learning these different approaches, I’m really in the moment and not really thinking about applying them to my own music. I’m sure I am, subconsciously, but I’m not making an active note that my next song is going to have this or that little ornamentation in it. But I’m sure, just by learning that style, it’s going to have an influence on my own songwriting.
After I lived in Granada for a year – where I would have heard a lot of flamenco music – I recognise tiny ornamentations in my own writing that are influenced by that. I’ve also done a few Sean Nós classes and I try and bring that ornamentation into my work. A few summers ago, I cycled to Inishbofin, camped on the island and did a week of Sean Nós lessons. I kept it up during my masters and did a weekly lesson. It’s an amazing technique that it takes people years to learn but I’ve picked up a few bits.
“I have no doubt that there are so many things that inspired my music that I have no idea about. The music I would have listened to when I was young is probably in there too. My year of trying to learn Rihanna songs when I was 16 probably influenced me as well. I’m sure people are quite careful about what they say their influences are or what inspired them but I’m not really like that. We have no control over what influences us, I think. We can put ourselves in different situations – like me going to Bulgaria – but you can never know what will stick. Even having studied science! I think I approach lots of things in life in a scientific way. Which is a weird thought, that my lectures in physiology have influenced by songwriting”.
I can’t help but point out that, as a being who seems to run on pure intuition, the scientific influence might be scant, eliciting a laugh from Mieke herself – “Ha! I guess that’s what annoyed me about science. Sometimes you just want to leave things as they are…”
Anna Mieke plays Nollaig na nBan at the Lilliput Press (in aid of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre) on Sunday, January 6 and supports Eleanor McEvoy in the Pepper Canister Church on Saturday, January 26 as part of Trad Fest
Words: Danny Wilson