Holly Miranda was sixteen when she picked herself up and moved from Michigan to New York City.
“I was so young that I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I didn’t know what to be afraid of. I’d lived such a sheltered life that I didn’t know what I was throwing myself into.”
The move was sparked by a visit to her sister when she played the “Anti-Hoot” open mic at Sidewalk Cafe — a tradition known for hosting acts like Beck, Regina Spektor and the Moldy Peaches before their respective rises to fame — and she’d been offered a gig after her performance.
“I didn’t live here and I’d only written two songs,” she says. But the opportunity was a catalyst for the teen, whose upbringing in a strict religious household had given her something substantive to leave behind, too. Summers spent following televangelists and school years spent sitting in the hallway while teachers taught evolution made Miranda feel like an outsider at public school, and things weren’t exactly better at home.
“I told my parents I didn’t believe in their God, that I was gay,” says Miranda. “I had to run as soon as I could. I don’t think I knew any better; If I had waited a few years, I may have not had the gall to do what I did.”
Miranda went on to release her Kanye-approved debut The Magician’s Secret Library in 2010 and, this year, her self-titled sophomore effort, which addresses that feeling of otherness in a way that encourages self-acceptance. Take “Pelican Rapids,” a song on Holly Miranda that was written and worked into set lists while she toured behind her debut: “There’s nothing wrong with the way you feel… There’s a way that it will never be/And where you are/And what you do/Is never enough reason to be sorry.”
She writes as many songs for blaring on speakers (see: “All I Want Is To Be Your Girl”) as she does for hiding away, and while she’s spent stints working with bands like the Jealous Girlfriends, Miranda has regarded music as a solitary activity as long as she’s been listening, let alone writing.
“I wasn’t really allowed to listen to secular music, so when I did start discovering it, I had to sort of hide it,” she says. “My sister had this box of music that only I knew about in her room, and I would go in there. It made the whole experience really private and precious for me, which is still how I approach my songwriting.”
Strains of that need for solitude are obvious in the backstory on this year’s full-length, released five years after her debut and written primarily over a month in Joshua Tree, California. She’d hit wall and was having trouble writing. When a dream about holing up in Joshua Tree for a writing session gave her the itch to leave her home in Los Angeles, she woke up and put down a month’s rent on the first place she could find.
“I thought maybe I was done making music. I didn’t know — I’d never experienced writers’ block,” she says. “I wrote ‘Desert Call’ the first night that I was out there, and basically my dream came to fruition. I didn’t see people, really, for the first couple of weeks.”
Miranda had every intention of recording the full record while she was in the desert, but mechanical issues brought the recording process back to Brooklyn. For all the sanctity that being alone infused into Holly Miranda, the album also bears her first co-write: “The Only One” features JImmy Harry in the credits, a guy whose work has populated albums from Kylie Minogue to Pink to Prides. Letting in a co-writer was a conscious move for Miranda, a means of challenging herself rather than looking for help.
“To me, that was a really scary idea: to just show up, meet a stranger and write a song,” she says. “But I did it.”
Since then, she says she’s been “throwing herself” into co-writes, finding a new challenge in the vulnerability of crafting a song with someone unfamiliar. Stylistically she’s always jumped between different sounds, so she says opening herself up to the experience is the primary difference between co-writes and songs she pens alone. Chasing that vulnerability isn’t something she plans on ending, either — and her work can only get better for it.
“I always want to do scary,” she says. “I feel like you should always run towards the roar.”
Holly Miranda plays the Bowery Ballroom December 18. For ticket information, click here.