Mimi Cross

Everything Has Changed For Me

It seems that as Mimi Cross enters a new phase in her life, she has found new sources of inspiration. The birth of her son Charles has caused Cross to delve into a new style, while still experimenting with those from which she has drawn in the past, such as electronic music.

Though she finds less time to create while she embarks on this life-altering journey; Cross still maintains her desire to turn intense emotions into powerful compositions. So, hopefully her fans will be treated to her textural blends of simultaneously avant-garde, pop-melodic songs. Those awaiting a raw, intimate live performance from Cross might expect to hear some fresh offerings from the New Jersey-based singer/songwriter soon. Though she clearly has a new audience member dominating her life, during this recent interview it was apparent that a trip to the studio is lurking in her future.

So, what have you been up to since we last spoke? What are some of the musical projects you have been working on?

Mimi Cross: I'm not sure when we last spoke, Josh, but there have been some big changes in my life. Three years ago, I had my son Charles and he is the center of my world right now. Everything has changed for me.

I still sing every day, but the songs are different: Dan Zanes, Uncle Rock, Medeski, Martin & Wood - my son is currently obsessed with their alt-children's record, "Let's Go Everywhere," on Little Monster Records - are just some of the artists whose songs I've been singing lately. And, surprise, I've been writing a lot of children's stories. It's like my muse got hijacked! I stopped writing my songs and started writing stories for my son. I've written dozens since he was born.

I still get song ideas, but in the last few years I've written only a few new songs. It's really hard to find time to do everything I want to do, but I have a lot of song ideas that I know I will follow up on and finish, eventually. Plus, I have a lot of songs that I wrote before Charles was born that I'd really like to record.

Are there any new styles of music that have found a way into yours?

I love so many different styles of music, but I would have to say that lyrics, not music, are usually my main focus. I studied classical music, as well as jazz, so I like to think the seeds of those styles are in my songs. Although I can't say those are new.

I really liked the drum and bass stuff that lasted for a split second. When, the late '90s? But is that 10 years ago already? Prodigy, et cetera. I don't think any of it literally made it's way into my stuff except, maybe, in the way I might choose to sing a song in a certain moment. Or, maybe in the way I used a drum loop or two - Sneaker Pimps, Massive Attack.

I love electronic music. I like some of the industrial stuff that influenced Trent Reznor and I used to listen to a lot of Depeche Mode and early New Order. Electronic music can be so beautiful and not as afraid to experiment and use sounds in a way that allows them to be as important as the lyrics. I appreciate music that isn't afraid to experiment and use all kinds of sounds; but, I also love scat, pretty much the opposite. Raw vocal ideas that aren't planned out can't get more human that that; improvisation. That's what I do when I write now that I think about it.

I mean, Rickie Lee Jones meets Radiohead would be great. Who is that? PJ Harvey? I like really atmospheric music, like Euro loungy kinds of things. I love some of the yoga trance dance chanting stuff that's out there. I practice yoga and am about to start teaching again. I was introduced to yoga at age 12 and I lived at the Kripalu Yoga Center up in the Berkshires for a month while I became a certified yoga instructor in 2001. The experience was life changing, and I began teaching a lot of classes at that time. You can learn more about Kripalu yoga at www.kriplau.org.

Anyway, some of the music that I use in my classes and hear in other yoga classes is very special to me. It combines so many different elements, [such as]: world beat, cool drum grooves, and a lot of times really beautiful ethereal vocals. Mysterious and atmospheric, relaxing and spiritual.

I think I'd love to make a CD of songs like that. But, then again, I love Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, really great song writers; and I love the smallness of song form. It's doable for me. I also love jangly pop music like old Smithereens and Toad the Wet Sprocket and Connells, as well as awesome vocalists like Jeff Buckley and Kate Bush, and I'm a big fan of artists who work with simple but effective production ideas like Pete Yorn and Elliott Smith.

There is so much out there that I love, I can't list it all. I do have a note on my Facebook page of the 20 albums that stopped me in my tracks during my life. If you're interested you can go to http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mimi-Cross/34639322594.

I couldn't possibly get all of these styles into my music. But, somehow, all of the music I love and the art I see, the movies I watch; it informs my imagination and so perhaps something of it slips into my songs. [It's] not easy to get different stylistic elements into my songs when it's just me and my guitar. I'd like to get a new band together. What happens between me and other musicians always creates something new. Anyone? Call me. The thing is everyone is so busy. Life is rich.

What methods do you have for providing texture to your music? Do you like to experiment with different compositional approaches before your final song is complete?

Well, like I said, it's just me and my guitar and I'm lucky if I have time for that right now. When I have more time I love to work with Digital Performer and create drum loops and harmonies. But a lot of those ideas are just sort of dreamy; they never see the light of day. They are just for me to get inside the song. Lately, it seems that I only have time to throw ideas down in Garageband, to be finished at some future date.

Again, not much time to experiment. I absolutely love going into the studio with other musicians and people who have great production ideas. I feel like I have a lot of ideas myself. I hear a lot of things in my head, but can't articulate all the things I hear. So, I love the process of recording. When the song is open to other artists and they contribute their ideas - it's like ah! That makes the song lift, or that adds the mystery that I was wanting; that I couldn't quite express. The vibe... or that is just sexy. Like Kevin Salem's guitar on my song "1st Kiss" from my last CD, "I Slept". It's just gorgeous. It's amazing how another musician's ideas can make the song. Kevin has great production ideas, I would love to work with him again.

The studio is always surprising. And even if I have ideas when I go in, I almost always let them go because I hear something better from someone else. I'm looking for ideas that are really cool, really beautiful, ideas that serve the song. I think it's very important to be open to other people's musical ideas, production ideas. It's a brainstorm, critical thinking. I may have come up with half a dozen harmony ideas working on my computer, or I may have come up with a bridge while writing with my guitar - but someone else is going to hear something completely different, and that objective opinion is so very valuable. The first ideas can be the best. Or, sometimes, it's the 20th idea that is the one that gets used in the final mix.

Are your songs normally written on an acoustic guitar? If so, how do they evolve from that point?

I usually get an idea that begins with words. Something I hear or read just catches in my head. It inspires me and creates an idea or makes me think of more words. Then I take those words over to the guitar. Other times, I just sit with my guitar and start to play, to put chords together. As I begin to choose the chords and create a chord progression, I naturally start hearing a melody. Then I start to kind of ask the song what it's about, I ask questions and I listen for answers. I start to hear sort of rhythmic phrases. Words start to attach themselves to the phrases. Sometimes the words are ones that I've been kind of carrying around in my head or my notebook. Words that are waiting for the rest of the song to show up.

Do your songs generally provide a variation of dynamics? Do you have specific way of adding dynamics to your music or do those mostly come from the moment?

Usually, I think that dynamics just come naturally by serving the song. The song will make it obvious to you how it should be sung. It's clear: the mood of the song is dictated by the chords and melody. They will create a sort of room that your voice walks into. Fueled by the emotions created by the chords and melody, the voice will know what to do. The lyrics matter too, of course. I usually feel right away how the words should be sung.

Sometimes, the vocal dynamics are fun to play with. You might not want to make the obvious choice. Like when Trent Reznor is whispering something and it's really angry, or Pete Yorn is singing with restraint about a relationship that is intense and emotional. That can be more effective than the loud dynamics that someone might expect from anger. Really, you have to give the listener credit for being intelligent. I like to juxtapose different things. Like with "Damage Control" from "I Slept". It's got a really poppy, dreamy kind of sound; I think, with a jangly guitar that sounds kind of sweet. The fact that it's about a dissolving relationship; well, that just makes it more interesting somehow. Think about Bruce Springsteen singing "State Trooper" on Nebraska. Something dangerous just below the surface. That guitar; so quiet. So much held back, so much story in that soft vocal that isn't being told but implied. Then something comes breaking through. I love that.

What inspires you to write? How do you take that inspiration and turn it into a song?

Inspiration is all over the place for me. Really, it comes from everywhere and everyone. Music and movies are a huge inspiration. The news is, of course, story after story. I don't watch, but I listen to NPR. I've heard that when listening one is able to discern the truth, more so than when watching.

So, you can retell a story or create a story, or exaggerate a story, or create a compilation of stories and people and events. The choices are endless. Or you can just lie. I like to use true feelings and then make up the story. It's sort of like acting I guess. Method acting. You use your own personal feelings, from an experience that you had; perhaps similar to the story or not. Then, when you sing the song and especially while you are writing the song, you draw on those feelings and let them help you tell the story. Whether writing the song or performing the song, that technique works really well for me. It's natural. Pretending. We've all done it. We all do it. The only drawback is that people often think the song is true, or a real experience I've been through and then they feel for me. Especially, if they're friends. I don't want anyone to really think about me. I want them to think about the song. I've always wanted that. I'm the messenger, that's all. It's like: here you go, delivery, listen and relate, feel. Let this song speak to you. Maybe speak for you.

And that is what I want to do, share an experience with the audience. The ephemeral thing that a song is or does in that moment. I don't want to share my particular experience. But, of course, often it is my experience that the song is based on, although, like I said, inspiration is everywhere. Titles of magazine articles or books can be just fantastic. Bam! One line. You read it, it hits you, and you know it's part of a chorus or the start of a verse. Then, there are certain concepts that have really poetic descriptions. My song "Golden Hour," which I'd really love to record soon, was inspired by an article in The New Yorker about a soldier wounded in the Iraq war. The golden hour is a term in emergency medicine. The golden hour is the first sixty minutes after the occurrence of multi-system trauma and it is widely believed that the victim's chances of survival are greatest if they receive definitive care in the operating room within the first hour after a severe injury of this kind. Something so intense and brutal as that definition, coupled with the beautiful image that the two words 'golden hour' evoke for me; long afternoon shadows, yearning and glowing light. I write from places like that.

[ Website: www.mimicross.com ]

Josh Davidson

Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.