How do you usually write the lyrics of your songs?
Mia: Usually, I write lyrics and music in my head then go try to figure out how to play the song on an instrument. Words start compiling and I just let them come. I always start at the first verse, and at the end of that, the chorus reveals what the song is really about. Sometimes editing is hardly needed. Other times I start with the simplest idea for example, I want to feel like you do when mom baked cookies on a cold rainy day – and you walk through the door all wet… That idea somehow turned into “Drop your worries, like a coat on my floor – It’s okay if my room gets messy today”. Once I knew that was the first line of the song, the rest of it poured out and ended up being the “Mia and Jonah” song called “Wait”.
Jonah: I usually go through a process of fishing sounds out of the ether and just writing down what I hear. Often the lyrics will sound like the phrases I’m writing down and it can be a process of deciphering nonsense phrases into connecting words. Within that process, I will look for a story or a core idea. Once the core of the song is set, then I make sure all of the lyrics support the core idea. The words and metaphors have to point toward and reflect upon that one main theme.
In your opinion, what is the most important thing in songwriting?
Mia: Alone time without interruption has been key for me. A song can show up anytime and making space for my mind to follow the thread of inspiration takes a bit of focus. If that focus gets interrupted I have a tough time finding that exact same space again. Songs are there – already written from the first moment when the idea and lyrics start to flow. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” If I have to lift my focus from the work, the more abstract “angel in the marble” often disappears and I can’t find it anymore when I try to return to it.
Jonah: As far as what is important to the work itself, I feel like there are different types of songs that work differently on people’s brains. In general, a song should make you feel something on an emotional level and surprise you at some point. There has to be some element of discovery for the listener, something unpredictable. Also, the form of the song has to support the content. So, the world of that particular song has to be well-defined.
Are you ever scared of revealing aspects of your personal life/experience to strangers through your music?
Mia: Yeah, of course. To me the most beautiful poetry is written from an honest place. Maybe even a naked place, diving deep to find your own truth and expressing it. Occasionally I’ll even nick a song from a set list just because I don’t feel like revealing that part of myself in the moment. At the same time, magic happens when you connect to people by sharing yourself – you find out you are not alone. Others share your feelings or have had similar life experiences and the words you wrote are not only your words… they’re part of the human experience and we are not as different as we seem.
Jonah: Sure, to some extent. I definitely edit myself more so now then when I was younger. I find myself wanting to make conscious choices about what I want to share. Usually, I try to find a way to share something personal, but not in explicit terms. In other words, the central emotion and idea is strong enough to communicate, but the through-line is abstract enough to not know exactly what is meant. I want people to be able to interpret a song for themselves – within their own story. So, it has to be somewhat open and abstract.
What is the best lyric that you ever wrote (the most meaningful for you)?
Mia: Right now what comes to mind is a lyric from one of the very first songs I wrote called “Smile”. The song starts “I’m just sitting here with this guitar in my hand – wondering when this ocean will ever carry me to land…”and continues to express this lost and overwhelming feeling. The chorus however does not offer an solution to the problem – just a expression of love contained in the simple response, “Maybe I can make you smile”.
Jonah: It is hard to say, but I find meaning in the last verse of Rooms. “Offer me religion if it talks of a soul, and how a miracle will take you to a window in the wall, and a window in the star.” I like how it expands on the idea of the window opening up to a spiritual thruway by any means, any ‘religion’.
What inspired “Daybreak,” part of your latest album ‘Spin as One’?
Jonah: I wrote “Daybreak” when Mia was pregnant with our daughter Rose. We could feel our whole life changing at that point, and it was a joyous moment. We just felt really blessed to be having a family, and it was as if there was a new chapter unfolding in our journey together. It was also us just settling in to the experience, finding a new place to live, and imagining a bright future.
Jonah: “Nightingale” was created 20 years ago in the summer of 1998. It was then part of a musical I had written, and was doing with a theater company in the New York Fringe Festival called ‘The Golden Ass’. (It is an adaptation of Apuleius’s ancient novel – Mia and I did it as a project in 2011, without the song “Nightingale”). Combining with dance in that show, it was a way to tell the ‘Cupid and Psyche’ story – essentially the overcoming of obstacles to the sacred marriage between Cupid and Psyche. The obstacles to come by way of jealous siblings, gods, and their own issues with trust. But ultimately, they make it happen and love finds a way. The song puts the story in the vehicle of a bird who is trying to make it over the mountains to salvation. The bird gets knocked down by the elements, and then heals itself to try again.
Do you remember the day you wrote “Sugarbones”?
Jonah: I wrote Sugarbones with Scotty Passaglia when Mia went out of town. She was staying with her family in Oregon for a bunch of weeks while we were living in the van in LA. For a bit of time, it felt like we were a long-distance relationship, and Sugarbones is about all of that. Holding on to images and fragments and just missing someone. I had come up with the chords in the van and I remember writing the lyrics with Scotty at his apartment in Venice, CA. Initially, Scotty and I sang the song as a duo in a lower key. Mia and I raised up up a whole-step for her to sing the lead part.
What was the best moment of your career? And the most difficult one?
Mia: When Jonah and I decided we wanted a child, I thought to myself, we’ve had a great run with music let’s settle down and have a family. For the next five years I had hardly any desire to get back into music. I felt fulfilled – not to mention busy, being a full-time mom. Then, Jonah and our great friend Scotty Passaglia wrote the song “Our Old Farm”. The first time I heard it I cried. I felt like the “old farm” they refer to in the song was the music Jonah and I played together for such a long time and was “waiting for us still”, as the song goes.
At the same time, I had come so far from identifying myself as a performer/singer. I really didn’t know if I could ever be that again. Each year of distancing myself from what I had once been passionate about and becoming more and more practical and afraid of risks – not to mention older. It was my daughter’s turn to dream, I told myself, and my job to support that.
I believe when I finally made a decision to play with Jonah again as “Mia and Jonah” it may have been both the best and most difficult – if not the scariest, moment of my career. The best because I am so happy to be performing again. Jonah and I are more connected than we’ve ever been before. Every time I play, I feel stronger, healthier, happier. The most difficult because it took a leap of faith to pry myself out of my comfort zone. It doesn’t sound so hard, but man, being comfortable is so… comfortable. Recognizing that life could get even better if I took myself out of that place did not happen without a struggle. And in the end I know that my daughter will only benefit from seeing me taking risks and daring to do something that I love.
What are your plans for the rest of 2018/2019?
Mia: We just released our album “Spin as One” on September 21st. Currently we are planning on doing some West Coast touring to support it. This upcoming Summer we have plans to do a tour on the East Coast and Canada.
To conclude the interview a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes to your mind:
- Define in one word your album “Spin as One”: Mia: Healing / Jonah: Fundamental.
- The best show you ever played: Mia: Yesterday / Jonah: Yesterday we did a really good one at a private party.
- The one thing that you must have in your backstage: Jonah: 9 volt batteries and a few macadamia nuts.
- The soundtrack of your childhood: Mia: The Little Mermaid / Jonah: Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen.
- Your favorite song lyrically speaking, but not written by you: Mia: “May This Be Love” – Jimi Hendrix / Jonah: “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind” – Bob Dylan.
- Last question is “unusual”, we want to know your best relationship advice: Mia: Take risks together. Laugh a lot. / Jonah: Talk about it all. Breathe in the moments. Yeah, laughing is always good!