December/January 2023

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Miriam Clancy: Pensive In Pennsylvania

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Miriam Clancy: Pensive In Pennsylvania

Singer-songwriter Miriam Clancy is no stranger to experimentation and innovation. Her album career has seen her diversely backed by acoustic guitar, by a rock band, and by synths and drum machines. These influences coalesce like never before in ‘Black Heart’, her most confident and fully realised album yet. Taking centre stage is Clancy’s dynamic and expressive voice, and her deep-reaching, poetically crafted lyrics. Nur Lajunen-Tal caught up with her via Zoom.

Currently residing in Pennsylvania, Miriam Clancy grew up in Foxton, before moving to Levin as a teenager to study music.

“It wasn’t until I dropped out of high school that I went to Levin and joined this course, cause I knew I wasn’t going to stay around. I’d had all these ideas, and I’d been seeing myself singing ever since I was tiny, I knew that this was gonna be my life. I just didn’t know how to do it, and so the moment I heard that there was a music course going on in Levin I was like, ‘Right, let me out of here, I’m going!’ It was just ambition, ambition, ambition…”

Studying at the We Came To Play music access course in Levin, Clancy says she learnt how to read music and write music and lead a band, while also doing grades on piano.

“I spent a couple of years there and just kind of worked my way up, then started doing session work in Wellington.”

Her music career began with performing covers – but then something happened which caused her to reconsider her musical direction.

“I got sent overseas to do a job singing, and it kind of just spiralled from there… I moved to Malaysia for a year. Coming back to NZ, I was a bit deflated. I had some kind of horrible thing happen over there. I was attacked and I didn’t realise that I just needed time to heal. So I was like, ‘What am I gonna do? Where am I gonna sing? I guess I’m just gonna start singing in small cafes, write my own stuff.’

“It took a long time to empty myself out of those songs that I had been singing for such a long time,” she says. “It took me a while to hear what I wanted to sing. Just to totally lose it all and start again, and try to figure out what it was I liked. It’s weird. It’s like you’ve kind of been brainwashed, you know? I’d been really taught what was good music, and I was like, ‘Actually, I don’t really like that, that sucks!’ It was a great unlearning process.”

Persistence in songwriting eventually spawned her first two, predominantly acoustic guitar-driven albums, ‘Lucky One’ in 2006 and 2009’s ‘Magnetic’ (2009). Her third album, 2019’s ‘Astronomy’, followed a move to the US and was a drastic change in direction.

“Especially in the early days, I wasn’t sure of myself, I didn’t know what I wanted. And by the time ‘Astronomy’ came around it was quite electronic. That was a backlash. I was like, ‘I’m done with the acoustic guitar, I’m done with all you arseholes telling me what to do.’ It was reactionary, and I’m definitely glad that I stretched myself in that fashion, because I can do that, and I do have that side of me.”

This discussion brings up the prevalent but not often talked about expectation for females to make folk or acoustic guitar-driven music – an expectation that definitely impacted Clancy.

“I felt like that’s what was wanted from me, and at that time I decided to burn my guitar almost (not really, cause it was expensive!). There were a lot of acoustic guitar girls around, and it was a battle. And I was like, ‘I’m out. I’m done! I’m gonna go get a drum machine and just be really annoying!’

“They do expect us to be just off quietly in the corner being all feminine and Joni Mitchell-like, and I adore her, but I’m not Joni Mitchell. I’d rather search out who I am, rather than being put in a box. It’s important to keep moving if you’re not happy where you are.”

‘Black Heart’ sees Clancy embracing aspects of her musical past, but future-focused. Clancy says the recording process was a whole different experience for her.

“Having come out of ‘Astronomy’, where I basically just wanted to be alone, like, ‘I just wanna fire everyone and have robots for a band’, this is me coming back to life, and trusting people again. I was supposed to do this album over in the UK. It was quite a big deal, quite an exciting whole situation, and then the pandemic hit and so I’m like, ‘Oh shit, what am I gonna do?'”

The solution was to do it closer to home, and take advantage of some new friends who were top-level musicians.

“The thing with me hopping between genres and not being able to be pinned down has actually worked in my favour, I think, a lot. Now I’ve doubled back to my first album and picked up some things that I left behind. I picked up my acoustic guitar again and I wrote on my acoustic guitar. I resumed my love for Elliott Smith, and just was not afraid in the writing stage to be uncool – and just kind of leaned into it.

“Just leaned into the sadness that I was apologising for as well. The writing, I just followed my gut instinct, and I think this stuff is a little bit stronger. It resonates a lot more. It’s more of a rock band situation with acoustic guitar, and I’m playing a lot of piano on it as well. So yeah, it’s just a real basic band album.”

Clancy co-produced the album with Jeremy McDonald who she describes as phenomenal.

“He was running a studio, and it just happened so easily. We worked together so well because he’s just quiet and would never pressure me. He wanted to work quickly, which worked well with me. So by the time we got in the studio with the drummer and the guitarist to do the main lot of the tracking, it was just so organic and natural.

“I was surprised how easy it was. I’d kind of been labouring over all my other ones, and this one was just right. And that alone for me was really a breath of fresh air, and like ‘Oh, thank God! It can get better, I can not be overthinking stuff.’ Because when you just relax and are not feeling threatened or intimidated, things are actually quite good. You get better work. I was really happy with how everything panned out. The guys were just lovely, and I had JP [Winger], my husband, there. It was such a good scene.”

The first taste of the album came in October 2022 with Kamikaze Angels, a high-energy, infectious slice of ’90s-inspired rock. Hair flicks abound in the music video which features Clancy playing her electric guitar in various outdoor locations, most notably a skate park.

“If you do get too isolated, you’re left with your own thoughts in your own mind, and often that can lead you to a dark place,” says Clancy to explain what the song is about.

Head Like A Hole, followed in November, the lyrics discussing the internet with a slightly satirical tone.

“It’s such a hard thing, just being so connected. You know, the FOMO feeling with being online, and I know that having CPTSD I get triggered here and there. People get triggered anyway, no matter what. They might be neurotypical, but they can still get triggered. Getting unfriended by somebody can hurt you so much, and that can reach you at any point. Or if somebody sends you a shit text. It can get you anywhere… So we’ve got these tiny little bombs in our pockets. It’s such a great thing, but it’s hell as well. So it’s like trying to find the fine line of not letting it take over us, but still using it in all its glory.”

The emotive, keyboard-driven Roelof is about an uncle who committed suicide.

“His wife, who was my dad’s sister, she was an air hostess on the flight that crashed into Erebus, and he couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t handle the grief. So five months later after the crash, he killed himself. I went and tried to learn about him, cause nobody really talked about him in the family, so I went hunting, and I was sad with what I found out about him. It was avoidable, it didn’t have to happen.

“They just didn’t support him. Air New Zealand shut him out, and he needed more help in his grief crisis, and he didn’t get it. He was left to his own devices and he took his own life. This is kind of just a song for him, and trying to connect with my family and trying to connect with my family and find out what motivated him, and who I am. So yeah, that’s Roelof. It’s a real bummer.”

“This album is a bit of a disclosure album for me,” Clancy concedes. “I have CPTSD as a result of my childhood, and this is the first time I’m talking about it in my press. Velveteen is specifically to do with that and where it came from. I’m kind of leaning into that now… definitely staring down the barrel of my trauma, and just defying that it’s gonna take me down.”

Clancy has a passion for performing and does so regularly.

“I’ve been doing these really long sets just to try and run these new songs for the album, and I realise just how fun it is wheeling through other songs and then pulling all this stuff from my old albums. It’s been great. I do love to perform…

“I come at singing I guess like you would a method actor. You’ve really gotta feel it. I need to feel it, or else I’m not gonna be able to convince myself, and if I can’t convince myself, I can’t convince you. I’m really going hard into the words and what I’m singing.

“I like squeezing out a note. I like going, ‘Am I comfortable? No.’ I’m gonna lean into that note even harder, just to see what the body can do.. with me getting a bit more comfortable and feeling a bit more confident, hopefully, that’s just the beginning of that stage. I’m so 100% sure that I sing a lot better in a live situation than I do in the studio, which kind of sucks.”