Mira Martin-Gray Sharpens the Edges of Domesticity

I don’t know what I love most about Mira Martin-Gray’s new album, Hen’s Teeth, but her strange, beguiling aural landscape keeps me coming back. Small encounters and intimate moments become engrossing domestic sound worlds, places we want to sit and bask in the absurdity of being there. There is elegiac whimsy and serrated horror, quiet reflection and intermittent ecstasy. Hen’s Teeth is all over the sonic map; structures disintegrate into amorphous ephemera, but Martin-Gray and her fantastic collaborators find surprising threads and silver linings tying these lovely oddities in knots.

Hen’s Teeth is out now on Rat Drifting and available HERE. Mira Martin-Gray can be found via her website HERE.

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I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

Well, my parents aren’t musicians, but they are both devoted music fans. My mum used to work in record stores, she’s a big new waver. And they had a huge LP collection that was sadly lost in a fire. But there was always music in the house, CDs and tapes. I have a strong early memory of hearing The Cranberries Zombie and loving the sound of the vocals, Dolores O’Riordan’s trademark voice crack. Other memories: The buzzing of cicadas looms large. My fisher-price glockenspiel and toy drum and big bird record player.

Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?

Pretty much. I also thought about becoming a teacher, a typical precocious kid. But as soon as I started taking drum lessons at 9 or 10, the hammer had fallen.

At what point did you start playing and creating your own works? Was there a particular spark that pushed you to start?

I think when you learn to play the drums, maybe more than with other instruments, improvisation is part of the process. You’ll learn a beat or fill but be encouraged to make it your own. You’re able to “just play” from an earlier point in your experience as a musician compared to pitched instruments. Like, you can sit in with your dad’s friend’s bar band. So I do wonder if starting with the drums had an impact on my creativity, rather than being forced to sit at a piano and learn scales – though I kinda wish I had. I would always come up with little songs and sing to myself as a kid as well. Once I started playing the guitar, that naturally led to more explicit songwriting. Also, being a kid who was always on the computer, using software like fruity loops to make music once that option became available, that was a big deal. Before that, we only had Windows sound recorder, which was limited to 60 seconds. But you could add echo and change the speed, so it was still a lot of fun to toy with.

One of the things mentioned about Hen’s Teeth is this exploration of the “dichotomies of ‘songs’ and ‘sounds.’” As an idea, I am quite drawn to this. I would love to know more about your approach to this and how each one informs the other for you. 

Someone said that my new record has two of their favorite things, pretty chords and squelches. I thought that summed it up really nicely! I guess it’s like representation vs. abstraction. On one level, I think abstract sounds can do a great job of representing feelings, but it’s really up to the listener to interpret. Even great big dichotomies like joy and sorrow could be mistaken for one another. I can’t really tell you what’s on my mind using a purely squelch-based musical language. It’s a different level of communication than a song with words, melody, form. You can be explicit with a song. But to feel satisfied in my musical life, I need both.

And to build on that, how did making Hen’s Teeth change your thinking or approach to creating sound and writing songs? Is it even a different thing for you?

Well, I wanted to integrate my varied musical interests, which felt separate from one another. Songwriting off in this corner, collaborative free improv here, experimental solo work there, electronic dance music over to this side. Even though I do a bunch of different things, I felt a bit boxed in. I wanted to open the boxes and jumble them together, instead of having one foot in self-reflection and one foot immersed in community, to mix a metaphor. Or I guess the feet could be in the boxes? My intention was to make it all make sense together. I even thought about tacking on an all-out noise section at the end of a particularly tender love ballad, but I wanted to keep the length under control. They are different things, but also, in the grand scheme of things, everything starts to blend together when you zoom out.

There’s also mention of your open, text-based scores. Can you tell me a bit more about them and how you developed or came to this approach? 

A lot of my collaborator’s contributions were recorded remotely, whereas the music that we make together is typically done in the moment, in the room, ad hoc. Having these non-notated scores is a great way to get people on the same page while maintaining the spark in this scenario. But even apart from the practical aspect of using this kind of composition to structure improvisation, I like the idea of having a textual component of an instrumental piece. I love the mix of poetics and instructions that you find in the text scores of Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono, and La Monte Young.

What were some of the challenges you had to overcome and deal with while making Hen’s Teeth?

Well, speaking of scores, I kind of had to relearn traditional notation because some of the tunes are basically jazz ballads with specific chord structures, etc., and I haven’t really been reading music since high school. That was a fun challenge to be able to communicate my specific musical ideas in that way to my friends, who are such pros.

A less fun challenge: I have a chronic illness, and one of the outcomes of that is a strong susceptibility to repetitive strain injuries, like tendinitis, tennis elbow, etc. I get pain and weakness in my hands and arms, not to mention just general chronic pain. I’ve sworn off playing the guitar multiple times in my life. Truly it’s a medieval torture device. I turned to making experimental music in the first place as a way of dealing with that, to make music in an accessible way given my disability. In 2012 I was working in a restaurant, and my body basically fell apart. I quit guitar and made weird midi versions of the music I had been working on, then a long organ drone thing. But I have to keep coming back to the guitar; the fretboard is permanently imprinted behind my eyes. So dealing with a bad bout of RSI while making the record, trying to recover from that, doing physio was a major challenge. It’s an ongoing challenge, really. Even using the computer, using phones can be problematic. Like I’m writing a lot of this interview with text to speech.

By the way, is there a particular story behind the name?

It’s from an idiom, as scarce as hen’s teeth – that is, exceedingly rare. I just thought it was such an evocative phrase, and there’s a sort of queer implication in the image. It’s also inspired by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould who has a collection of essays called Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.

Collaboration is a central facet of the record, too. How important is collaboration to your creative practice, and how does working with all these great musicians help push you?

Being a part of the local improvised music scene here in Toronto has been a really important part of my life over the past several years. My natural impulse as someone who plays a few instruments and sings and knows how to do the tech stuff is to do everything myself. And I did play a lot of it, mixed it, etc., etc. But improv is like immersion therapy for control freaks. Being with other musicians in the moment and having a musical conversation is a really special feeling. People say being in a band is like being in a relationship. With this music scene, it’s like a giant polycule, everyone playing with everyone else in a beautiful exchange of talent and friendship. Making this album during the pandemic when gigs and gatherings were often curtailed, I wanted to recapture the community spirit that has lifted me up so much.

What surprised you about creating this record?

How bloody long it took. Forever jealous of folks who can go into the studio for a weekend and walk away with a killer album. 

To wrap up, what are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

Reedy honks. The faux birdsong of squirrels. The thwock my partner can make that sounds like a bottle opening. The little mouth sounds that you have to cut out of close mic’d recordings. Major 7ths.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.