Francesca Mirai and Ghostly Hounds: tales of pain, love, wanderlust, and witchcraft
Francesca Mirai is not your garden variety punk, and may not be any kind of punk at all—though you wouldn’t know it, judging by appearances. Tattooed, pale and pierced, with an image that suggests goth or industrial subcultures as much as hardcore, Mirai sings (surprise!) folk songs in a classical, quasi-operatic manner, self-accompanying with banjo, sometimes backed with trumpets, strings, or other instruments, especially when with the band Ghostly Hounds. Mirai—whose pronouns are they/them/their—makes music that is ethereal and haunting, with songs that take in folk traditions and draw on folk instruments, like singing saws; but which are mostly originals.
So there are a few complexities there, but only if you think about it: their music is actually quite easy to listen to, and their arrival on the Vancouver music scene a welcome addition.
Without knowing much about Mirai—I caught a solo set at the Heatley they played with Jeff Andrew, and chatted with them in the pit at the recent L7 gig – it’s easy to tell that there’s something unusual in their practice. Mirai caught up with the Straight from the back of a camper van in Calgary, en route to a gig, to answer some of the more obvious questions raised by their live set, and by Ghostly Hounds’ CD, Creature.
GS: So I've seen you do a solo set (and do duets with Jeff Andrew), but I haven't seen Ghostly Hounds. Is the presence of Suzanne the main difference, or are there others?
FM: Currently, the presence of Suzanne Stirling (trumpet and mandolin) is the main difference between a “Francesca Mirai” performance vs. a “Ghostly Hounds” performance. However, Ghostly Hounds was a quartet up until our move across the country last summer. The other members are Matthew Dorfman on double bass and Vimul Him on cello and saw. We were picking up other bassists for tours up until very recently when I acquired a kick drum to fill out our sound more as a duo.
You have an amazing singing voice. How did you develop it?
Thank you! According to my mom, I’ve been singing since I’ve been speaking - possibly before. I’ve always been very loud, but I took two years of vocal training as a young teenager to develop my range and technique. I studied classical singing at that time, primarily Italian art songs, as well as some jazz. At the same time I was screamin’ along in a punk band with my high-school buddies, much to the dismay of my vocal coach. I stopped singing for a few years due to the anxiety I developed from competitions and, likely, the awkwardness of being a teenager, but then got back to singing as part of my act as a burlesque performer in Ottawa 2008-2012.
Where did you get the idea of combining your style of singing with banjo? It is kind of an unexpected and inspired pairing. How long have you been playing the banjo? Were there any "gateway instruments"...? What kind of banjo is it?
Like I said, I’ve always been a singer, but I haven’t always been an instrumentalist. I had a band that I sang with in Ottawa, but in 2012 I moved to Victoria where I knew no one and decided that I would learn to play the guitar and be “musically self-sufficient”. I played the guitar for almost a year and was pretty mediocre and not fully inspired. A good friend in Victoria who is an amazing singer-songwriter-banjoist, Fraea the Banshee, leant me a beautiful old four-string and a chord chart in 2014 and I never looked back. As soon as I picked up the banjo, the songs just started pouring out of me. The banjo that I play is an Alabama.
Before I moved to Montreal, I was there visiting with my friend Vimul Him, who was the first person I ever wrote songs with before I decided to learn to play an instrument. He had bought this Alabama banjo years prior and not played it much and he decided to gift it to me. Vimul is one of the Montreal-based members of Ghostly Hounds; he plays cello and saw. I was pretty down-and-out at this time in my life, so these two pals played a pretty huge role in getting me going with the banjo. I definitely would not have had the means to buy one.
I have a really hard time imagining you getting your start in a punk band. Did you ever identify as a punk...? Were there punk bands you liked or who had a big impact on you? (I'm particularly curious if you have any stories about the Rebel Spell, because of Jeff's connection with them).
I was super into punk as a teenager (like I mentioned earlier, my first band was a punk band when I was 14), and also very heavily influenced by 80s Goth rock. I was pretty obsessed with bands from the riot grrrl movement like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney. I also listened to a lot of Crass, Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, the Cure, AFI… I was a bit of a punk but also very much a romantic, drawn to the darker and more dramatic themes and I think that comes through in the music I play today.
I don’t have any connection to the Rebel Spell, and wasn’t really on the West Coast when they were around. I only met Jeff about a year and a half ago when Seamus [McThirteen, of NotYerBuddy] billed us together (along with Vulture Shock and the Bastards and the Buzzards) on my first solo tour of the West coast in March 2018. We’ve since run into each other at festivals and seem to run in the same social and musical circles since I’ve moved to the West coast. I hosted a house concert for him on Pender in the winter, and he organized the show at the Heatley in return. It was really fun to play on a couple of his songs, and to have him join me on a few of mine too.
I thought it was interesting at the Heatley that you talked about not liking murder ballads much, before covering that Gillian Welch song.
Could you talk about that? Any feelings about Nick Cave's album, Murder Ballads? (His queering "Stagger Lee" at the very least is kinda brilliant...).
Oh, murder ballads... it’s not so much that I dislike murder ballads in general. I even understand the appeal to an extent; passion and tragedy and whatnot. The thing about many murder ballads is that they nearly glorify domestic violence. There are so many songs about men killing their wives and lovers—sung by men and from the perspective of men—and I find it boring and unoriginal. Not to mention the fact that domestic and gender-based violence is a reality that many of us have experienced. If I’m hearing these songs I want to hear them from women, not men, and I want to hear them from non-binary and queer folks and people of colour. I want to hear the perspectives of the marginalized people who have to live with the reality of violent oppression in their day-to-day lives.
I honestly have never really gotten into Nick Cave, I must admit. I’ve listened to some music in the background and enjoyed his style but never felt captivated enough to really sit down with an album. So, I can’t give an opinion on that album. I’ll give it a listen, though!
How and why did you make the transition from Montreal to Vancouver (or Pender Island). I am used to people going in the other direction... how are the music scenes different? Were there any surprises—pleasant or unpleasant—in coming west?
I’m originally from Ottawa, moved to Victoria in my early twenties for two years, then to Montreal for four years and then to Pender Island this past fall. Since moving to Montreal, I’ve spent the summers touring to BC and back. So, I was already familiar with the East Coast/ West Coast vibes, though it was still a bit of a shock going from Montreal to Pender Island. I was pretty burnt out from years of touring and knew I wanted to be out of the city and away from intense winters. Montreal has an amazing, diverse, inspiring and fun music scene. I absolutely adore that city. Pender seems to have a lot of creative and musical people living there as well, for its size, but obviously it’s not comparable to Montreal. What I am loving about it is being out of the city and surrounded by nature. I’ve been forced to take a slower pace of life and be more intentional about the gigs I play. As a touring musician, Pender is much more relaxing to come home to than Montreal.
In some ways it’s been a bit of a challenge relocating across the country. Mostly because we left half our band behind and it was easy to feel like I had to start all over again when it came to building a fan-base and finding the community and networks for booking and promoting and all that stuff. But, I feel like that is all starting to come together now. Playing with our sound as a duo has been fun and inspiring and B.C. is an amazing province to tour and build connections in.
I know Jeff Andrew likes to record in spaces like tunnels and such, for the acoustics—that some of Tunnels, Treehouses and Trainsmoke was recorded in such spaces—and that's my first thought when listening to Creature. It reminds me of the sound some of Jeff's recordings. Was it recorded in a studio?
Creature was recorded in a studio. It was our first album and a huge learning experience. I’m looking forward to our next one already.
What's the song "Creature" about? Is that a singing saw I hear? Who is playing it?
Yes, that is a saw you hear, played by Vimul Him! “Creature”, the song, is very much about embracing our darkness. It’s about feeling our pain, grief and challenges and acknowledging that these things change us, but they also have the ability to connect us. There is so much shame and stigma in our society associated with these dark sides of life that often keeps us from talking about it. Death, mental illness, trauma, loss... but it’s so important to talk about it. Moreso, it’s important to feel it and accept it as a reality in your own life. We can’t have light without darkness, and ignoring it won’t change a thing.
I named the album after this song and dedicated it to my sister, Haley Daoust, because all of these songs were written in the years following her death. When the grief was fresh, the only thing I felt truly held by was my music. It gave me an outlet and a sense of purpose.
I don't know if there's a politic or an underlying theme to the album—songs like "Love Song" seem mostly personal, drawn from experience, but I don't know all the lyrics... Do you have particular themes you return to? How do you want your music to effect people?
I wouldn’t consider the album political, no. While I do believe that the personal is political, my songwriting is a deeply personal and spiritual process. In terms of themes, I first referred to my songs as “tales of pain, love, wanderlust and witchcraft” and that still feels pretty accurate. Love, Death, Magick and Mystery, I’d say.
When people listen to my music, I want them to feel seen. I want them to know they aren’t alone. I want them to feel inspired, empowered and enchanted.
Anything we should say about your upcoming Vancouver show?
The show on Sunday [July 7] is a double bill with Mary Matheson. Show time is 9 p.m., it’s $10 at the door, it’s at Café Deux Soleils.