Thursday, August 25, 2011

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Folk-pop musician Michael Mirlas aims for balance


Michael Mirlas is drawn to contradictions.

Optimistic melancholy. Ambitious modesty. Independent popularity.

The Portland-based musician has completed his first full-length recording, Soul Riot, which combines elements of folk and pop music. It’s this unique blend of oppositional forces that sets the 37-year-old apart from the rest.

“I wanted to make the album about joy,” he says. “My last album was moody and gut-wrenched. I thought that it was time to live.”

Mirlas admits that he learned a lot about himself during the recording process for Soul Riot. After writing the songs, he says he now views the world through “very authentic rose-colored glasses…to be happy amidst real-life things.”

Mirlas (rhymes with “peerless”) has always taken a nontraditional approach to life. He was born in Ukraine back when it was a Soviet republic. When he was 5, his family immigrated to New York City, where his father made a living as a musician in Russian nightclubs.

“I spent my entire childhood falling asleep at 4 o’clock in the morning at my father’s nightclubs listening to Russian music,” he says, “so music was always a huge part of my life.”

Mirlas says his experience as an immigrant has affected both his politics and his art.

“I consider myself a socialist,” he explains. “I’m drawn to the nuances of the regular person; that’s what I find interesting. To me, part of being an immigrant is writing about people trying to reach their full potential.”

Mirlas is also gay, having come out at the age of 19. He says that his sexual orientation informs many of his lyrics.

“One of the first songs I ever wrote is called ‘The Love Religion,’” he recalls. “The chorus is ‘Come inside my mouth, see inside my eyes, enter the love religion.’ The song isn’t really about sex; the song is about ‘Give me all of you, and see all of me.’”

Mirlas earned a bachelor’s degree in poetry from Baruch College and a master’s degree in philosophy from Brooklyn College. It wasn’t until he met a friend in a musical theater workshop class that he decided to take a beginning guitar class at the age of 22 and try his hand at songwriting.

“I remember her telling me, ‘This is your first real song.’ I called it ‘Dagaz,’ which means ‘breakthrough,’” he says. “It was a real transition in my life of coming into my own passion.”

Mirlas went on to record several collections of demos: Audio Memoirs, Intimate Revolt and First the Garden, Then the Rose. He also performed at legendary New York clubs like The Bitter End and CBGB and toured in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Provincetown, Mass.

“Live performance brings up all of my vulnerabilities,” he says. “The goal is to connect with people and make music for people that I love.”

After moving to Portland in 2008, he got his first big break when his song “Puppy Dog Eyes,” featuring Decemberists bassist Jesse Emerson, appeared in the 2010 film BearCity. The video for “Puppy Dog Eyes” was featured on the DVD release for BearCity, and Mirlas attended five gay film festivals to help promote the song.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” he says. “I wrote that song after a relationship had ended. The song was about emotional bondage—that it’s not what it seems like.”

Mirlas says Soul Riot was inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (“I wanted to make a meaningful pop record”), and his favorite musicians include PJ Harvey, Bj√∂rk and Tom Waits. But his top influences are a pair of women who are rarely mentioned in the same breath.

“To me, Madonna and Ani DiFranco describe the two things in me, which is the folky, completely independent, I-do-not-want-to-work-with-anybody-business-minded mentality and the I-really-want-my-music-to-be-heard mentality,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t love money, but I would never compromise my work for it.”

The songs on Soul Riot—written with collaborator Sam Densmore, who produced the record—find hope even amid sadness. The closing track of the album is titled “Happiness Loves Company.”

Mirlas is already working on his next album, Disarmed, which he describes as “lean and mean danceable folk” music. He looks forward to taking Soul Riot on the road, with a theatrical twist.

“I like to bring the visual element to the material,” he says. “I think that’s the place where my musical-theater background creeps in.”

In the end, Mirlas says he enjoys using the power of music to reflect on the world around him. Songwriting gives him the opportunity to continue—both literally and figuratively—beating to his own drum.

“I’m a folk writer, and I write what I experience or what I need to work through within myself,” he says. “I’m interested in alternative cultures. I always wanted for us to feel like we can see ourselves in art, because that’s what further our understanding about ourselves. It’s makes us feel like we’re not alone. It gives us value.”

For more information about Michael Mirlas, click here.