The Secret Garden


Down in Alphabet City, I’m waiting for White Magic to appear. Voted Best New Band in these pages in 2004 (and making critics’ lists elsewhere) based on one EP, the then trio promptly disappeared. Standing near one of the neighborhood’s innumerable parks, looking for what’s since become a duo (singer-pianist Mira Billotte and guitarist Sleepy Douglas Shaw), I stare at a nearby “relaxation garden,” smiling at the dangling papier-mâché butterflies and stuffed songbirds, before I suddenly realize that even the blooms are silken, the fronds plastic. I’m mortified to discover that nothing here is real.

It’s then that I see Mira across the street, bundled in a coat and rotating in her gold slippers as she searches for me. Shuffling behind is Doug, soft-eyed and with a peculiar gait in his red patent-leather shoes. When we meet, they’re thrilled to discover that another nature spot, the 9th Street Community Garden, is open for once: “It’s always closed,” Mira complains. Cloistered amid real pines, firs, clumps of vine, and even collard plants, we discuss White Magic’s long-awaited debut album, Dat Rosa Mel Apibus, and magic aside, their disappearing act.

Mira first appeared drumming behind her sister Christina in the grave-digging (and well-dug) Washington, D.C., trio Quix*O*Tic. As that band dissolved, Mira moved to New York, deciding to turn a clutch of piano lines she had been fiddling with into something more. “I never had any piano lessons—it comes from a strange perspective, not really knowing what I’m doing,” she says. “But whenever I got a chance to play piano, I’d have these little songs. And I finally had this revelation that I could do something with these, and I wrote vocal lines to them.”

She recruited drummer Miggy Littleton and guitarist Andy Macleod, and the trio began to entrance a growing and devout audience. In 2004, the Through the Sun Door EP came out: Mira sang of the apocalypse and “becoming familiar with an illusion” in addition to tackling Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring,” her voice equally masculine and fragile, devastated yet indestructible as that of the High Priestess of Soul. Soon after followed a dense and disquieting trio of improvised songs (for a Tylenol ad campaign magazine insert, no less) that howled like winter winds. It’s a funny memory now. “You’re gonna put this in magazines?” Mira recalls thinking. “Then here you go, something ‘a little hard’ to consume.” There were shows with Sonic Youth, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and the Fiery Furnaces, plus a gallery performance inside a giant metal sculpture that resonated with the band’s every move.

And then? Poof! White Magic were gone.

“It just wasn’t working exactly the way I wanted,” Mira explains. “The sound, the direction I wanted to move in was stifled in that way, so I wanted to expand. I wanted to change instrumentation and the growth of the music. I wanted to try playing with varied groups of people.” Recording sessions with Joe Blaney (who engineered the Clash’s Combat Rock) ground to a halt. “It’s like the stars didn’t line up for it,” laments Miggy, who soon quit the band and is now back drumming with Blood on the Wall. “We weren’t able to get on the same page.”

Creatively shuttered, Mira went on a European tour with Joanna Newsom, bringing Doug with her. Uncertain what they would conjure, they went out in front of a packed audience at All Tomorrow’s Parties and winged it. “We tried out this African song and found a beer bottle tuned to a G and worked that out live,” Doug recounts, a hint of his British accent still evident. “It was inspiring—a strange place to get to know each other musically.” Mira takes such spontaneous metamorphoses in stride: “I feel like that’s happened to me through my musical life, evolving and changing onstage in front of people.”

Though reassured by the results, it still took the retooled White Magic two years to emerge with an album. Broke, they returned to Blaney’s studio on the tails of booked sessions, convening at odd hours to work with a clutch of local players, like the Dirty Three’s Jim White and Gang Gang Dance’s Tim DeWit. “I really think of her as a sister,” Tim says of the recording experience. “But Mira exists in the weirdest fucking space, energy-wise. It’s not slow, and it’s not fast, but it’s the most amazing place. When I sync up with it, it’s a great experience.”

Such a disjointed feeling permeates Dat Rosa Mel Apibus, as if time is in flux. Opener “The Light” is a dervish of disembodied mewls, yips, and moans, Mira’s voice indeterminate, slowly coalescing into words and then back to abstract sound. “She has one of the most unique musical approaches,” Miggy enthuses, still a fan. “Her voice is another instrument.” That baritone drawl evokes Simone and Chan Marshall as well as Nico and folksinger Karen Dalton, whose “Katie Cruel” is covered here. Funny how all these women came to New York from elsewhere to loose these earthy voices, well-deep and mysterious, on record, tapping into a reservoir that rings far beyond their respective eras.

Throughout the album, Billotte’s piano is deliberate and steadfast, surrounded by destabilizing swarms of sitars, bells, and drones. The pliancy and playfulness of the original trio is replaced now by a more tranced-out experience, like on the foreboding “All the World Wept,” which envisions the end times, but preserves within the desolation the smallest of sparks: “All of the worst things could creep into your heart/That’s when these words will keep the torch burning.” On the plaintive “What I See,” these words reassure, like something out of a lost chapter of the New Testament: “He that believes me won’t be lost.” At once, Dat Rosa is bleak and hopeful. As Mira sings “a song of sorrow” on “Song of Solomon,” the music bounces like Trinidadian calypso, Jamaican reggae, and African highlife all at once, while Doug’s guitar line chimes, ebullient and ascendant; it not merely suggests hope but embodies it.

As the garden closes for the day, we spot a single rose as we make our way out; its crimson bloom tops a thorny stalk, towering well above everything else. There’s a rose on Dat Rosa‘s cover as well, along with inside art alluding to alchemical texts and kabbalistic diagrams along with Ouroboros, the serpent eating its tail, denoting the struggle of life. “The album’s translation is ‘The rose gives honey to the bees,’ ” Mira explains. “To me, the rose is life, the path of life and consciousness, the Creator, and the bees are us. The honey is what we’re looking for, our fulfillment, finding our truth and peace.”

“It speaks of the struggle of life and events leading to the sweet center,” Douglas adds, noting that the album “was a struggle in every sense of the word.”

“It’s a constant struggle,” Mira agrees. “And yet, it’s hard to imagine our world ever existing without that struggle.”