With her sophomore release Anna Mieke finds the sweet spot where nature meets humanness.
“This album was written by a bear!” was unfortunately one of the rejected headlines that Anna Mieke and I discussed over the course of a chilly Autumnal evening. Luckily for those with a fear of bears, they do not feature on her newest release as a collaborator. Wrapped in a snuggly jumper in her Roundwood home, we touched on her adventurous childhood, her interest in bass instruments and how she connected more closely with her sophomore album Theatre.
With four siblings in the house, Mieke’s childhood home was filled with music. “We had a piano in the hall which was always open. It was a very easily accessible instrument and we were always encouraged to play with instruments that were out and readily available.” Starting with the piano before moving onto the guitar and on a more classical front the cello, vocals were worked on in a Von Trapp family tradition. “We were really cheesy together and harmonised. I learned harmonies quite young because all of us singing together I had to fit somewhere,” she recalls.
However, it was New Zealand that became the playground for Anna Mieke’s imagination and curiosity to go wild. “We were getting to climb glaciers and we skied on this volcano that was erupting at the time. There were plumes of ash coming off it and we did have to get off it in the end!” Being surrounded by Maori culture meant that she learnt traditional songs at school and “being in a very different culture at that age is mind blowing.”
Living on the edge as a five-year-old included mimicking jungle birds, she tells me. “One of my proudest moments was when we were hiking through New Zealand through the jungle, I was whistling pretending to be this jungle bird. My dad stopped and said, ‘do you hear that? What’s that bird?’ Everyone stopped to listen and it was just me whistling!”
Returning home from the unique lands of Australasia, Anna Mieke continued to lean more into music. Teaching herself guitar through YouTube added another instrument to her cohort and with the influence of her father, she also took-up learning the cello. “It was quite an impactful feeling to be embracing this instrument. I think it was the depth and the bassiness I was really attracted to and also the loudness of it. I guess I was quite shy as a child, sometimes I still think I am a little bit. Also being a girl and being me, being loud was a scary thing. It felt really good and quite liberating so I stuck with the cello with that teacher for a number of years.”
Experimentation with Hex, a group of women musicians, as well as studying a music masters in Cork further developed Anna Mieke’s artistry. Bringing her cello along, her confidence with it grew during that fruitful period. “I came across loads of musicians. We would meet and have long jams of weird whale music. With Cork, you start a band and the next week you’re playing a gig. It felt really great.”
Theatre, which follows Anna Mieke’s critically acclaimed 2020 debut Idle Mind, is weaved together with intricate guitar melodies and Mieke’s soothing vocals. Her music falls under the folk umbrella but goes much deeper than a restrictive genre description. “For me what I found interesting was the median point between natural surroundings and where I have spent and where I spend a lot of my life; where nature meets humanness.”
Connecting with the landscape around her is incredibly important to Mieke’s music. Participating in residencies across different countries, she has experienced mostly colder climates to bring the warmth back in. “My residencies have been in cold places which makes total sense because the album feels very warm and tropical to me. I think it’s me trying to call forth some heat.”
Seraphim, a track both angelic in name and sound, was written during one of these cooler stints abroad in Finland. “It feels like the mother to the other ones, the wise sage. I was given this huge barn to write in. One whole wall of the barn was glass, looking out into this great ancient forest that this residency was protecting. There was a swing in the barn and I could sit on it and swing.”
She continues, “I would go off walking in the forest and I was warned that there are bears in the forest. I didn’t actually come across a bear but I was pretty nervous about coming across one. To frighten one away, people would have worn bracelets with bells around their ankles and they would dance away. I just had a metal water bottle so I would go in being like *hits pen off glass to a little rhythm*. There were times where I was singing or making rhythms whilst working through the forest. That was inspiring, being under threat of bear death.”
The unique tone of this Epiphone adds a glow to the record and Mieke’s skill with her instrument is undeniable. “Harking back to the cello, I’m very drawn to deep resonant sounds. I play this stunning guitar. It’s a guitar from 1936, it’s an old Epiphone. It’s just so inspiring to play. Very heavy so it wrecks my back.” However, combining her vocals with complex instrumentation didn’t come easy for the musician though: “Uniting some of those guitar parts with my voice was such a challenge but really enjoyable. I really value heady analytical work as well, the very practical side. I had written a guitar part and I was trying to figure out a vocal line or rhythm to go with it. It was one of my favourite parts. It’s so satisfying when it does work, that’s what keeps me at it.”
Poetry plays a big part in filling the creative well. Mannequin is inspired by a Jane Kenyon poem and reading plays a large part in crafting lyrics: “I find it so amazing to be given other images to think about. I would often read poetry and write responses to it. I do a lot of journaling and stream of consciousness writing. You need to fill your head with words and vocabulary and imagery in order to output something. I have spent a lot of the past few years discovering a lot of poetry. I subscribe to a lot of poetry magazines and every day I would be reading a lot. Daisy Lafarge is a young writer and poet and I’ve really connected to her writing because she would combine ecological and microbiological themes but in a really brilliant and humorous way.”
Connecting more to this album came down to having the support of others, she reveals. “For [Idle Mind], I cobbled together a few musicians. This time round, it was a core group of Matthew Jacobson, Ryan Hargadon and myself and we recorded live. The responsibility is shared so if something is terrible. I can blame it on Matthew and Ryan. If something is brilliant, I say I did it,” she jokes. It’s safe to say that Matthew and Ryan will be escaping any trouble with Mieke’s newest album and that a lot of praise will be coming her way.
Words: Sophia McDonald
Photo: Celina Martins
Theatre is out on Friday November 18, via Nettwerk. Anna-Mieke will play Dublin’s Whelan’s on November 25, presented by Foggy Notions. Tickets priced €18.50.