Black Magic

March 22, 2006


Due to a printing error that we are really, deeply not psyched about, half of the very last sentence of our "Artists At Work" feature on Mira Billotte of White Magic is missing from the current issue of the magazine ("Becoming Familiar With An Illusion" FADER #37). Seeing as how the ragamazine is on your local newsstand now, there's not much we can do about it except send our sincerest apologies to Mira and her partner in White Magic, Doug Shaw, and give you the full, un-fuct-with version right here on the webternets. If you can't tell from the story, we are BEYOND psyched to hear the new White Magic record when it's wrapped - Through The Sun Door defined our 2004 and hasn't quit since. Read about all of it after the jump.

Becoming Familiar With Illusions

Possessed? Otherworldly? Magical? Or is Mira Billotte simply a quietly ferocious New York musician?

By Will Welch

On a dark Sunday evening this past winter, the bitterly cold wind was barreling off the Brooklyn side of New York’s East River and tunneling between the buildings that line Greenpoint Avenue, and it felt like the cold was battering us rather than chilling us. Mira Billotte had just gotten off a bus from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and, finding the appointed donut shop closed, the two of us were on our way to a nearby bar instead. At some point along the way, I looked over and the wind had whipped up a big tear in her eye. It ran down her cheek. She blotted the tear off with a wool jacket sleeve, her hand invisible inside the cuff. Neither of us complained about the cold, and we walked slowly towards the bar, taking our time, ignoring the wind and slowly, too, finding conversation as we went.

For almost two years, Billotte had been a mysterious and intriguing figure. At first, her band played a show here, a show there—her name Mira Billotte and the band name White Magic were just generally in the air. Then, in May of 2004, White Magic released an EP called Through The Sun Door that didn’t so much demand attention as ensnare it whenever and wherever any given listener happened upon it. I first caught it in the office, then a bar, then a record store—it was just kind of on. In every single case the song was “One-note”, the first on the EP, a piano-based song in 6/8 time which gives it an undeniable natural swing, the notes from the piano rollicking around like a lopsided bowling ball in the hold of a steadily-swaying wooden ship: ONE two three Four five six ONE two three Four five six…. After the piano figure repeats the drums come in, adding a little more heft to the swing, and a sort of feedback tone from a guitar enters and fades, adding tension, until, out of nowhere, beginning in media res on the fourth beat out of six, Billotte’s voice: …we can, We Can, WE CAN, we-EEEE can DAAA-a-ance….

The song quickly became a marker, a signifier, a cultural moment of sorts. Things that had been happening in Brooklyn and Manhattan for I don’t know how long were suddenly popping up on the radar: shows, records, compilations, specific musicians’ names. People at shows didn’t wear the downtown rock standby clothes that had been more or less constant for what—30, 40 years? Instead there were ponchos, silk screened T-shirts, Clarks that weren’t Wallabees, funny winter hats, lots and lots of beards, printed dresses. What that one song had to do with all of the music and conversations that were emerging I had no idea, but then again that’s exactly why it seemed like such a clear signifier—whatever was happening, it had the potential to sound like that.

But some two years later, at the bar on Greenpoint Ave, when Billotte says, “Good, it was a moment for me too,” she must mean something else entirely. Billotte grew up in Maryland among the suburbs of DC, the younger sister of Christina Billotte, who was the frontwoman in a trio on Dischord Records called Slant 6. Christina made a name for herself playing music, and Mira studied at the Marlyand Institute Of Art. Then, in 1997, Christina started a band called Quix*o*tic in which Mira played drums, and eventually Mick Barr from Orthrelm joined the sisters on bass. They were well-received, touring with Sonic Youth, Papa M and Will Oldham; they released a couple of records, including an LP called Mortal Mirror on Kill Rock Stars. Not long thereafter, however, Quix*o*tic broke up.

Soon, Mira Billotte began to consider a move to New York, where there was something of a musical scene that she was aware of. She knew fellow DC-native Tim DeWitt, who was in Gang Gang Dance and worked with Cass McCombs. Andy Macleod was a close friend from art school. Plus, Billotte was familiar with New York from playing shows, and felt like she’d be close to her home and family back in the mid-Atlantic. “I moved to New York to play music,” Billotte says in her monotonously handsome speaking voice. “After Quix*o*tic stopped playing, a lot of people were like, ‘When are you gonna have a solo record or a solo show?’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh well I really wanna just write music and have another band.’ In Quix*o*tic I played drums, but I started to come to the front and write songs and that became what I was interested in—singing and writing songs.”

It’s clear that Billotte was expecting her move to be a change that inspired her, exposed her to new situations and people and might sort of hit the reset button. Instead, the move put her musical career in fast-forward. “It was interesting because I didn’t really think about everything happening,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna move here and start playing shows right away and put out this record.’ I was just like, ‘I want to write and have a new experience.’ I didn’t expect it to happen quite as fast as it did.”

The song “One-note”, then, was a moment for Billotte not because it crystallized anything about a scene, but because it was a milestone she almost didn’t ask for, or at least hadn’t planned. She had moved to New York and connected with Macleod, who then became the White Magic guitarist. They played with Dewitt although he was too busy to be a member of White Magic. Then she met a drummer named Miggy Littleton from a band called Blood On The Wall—he sold records out of his BK apartment and Billotte and others would hang out there and listen to music. He soon joined the band. Dan Koretzky from Chicago-based record label Drag City was a fan of Quix*o*tic, heard about White Magic and wanted to release a record. Macleod was a friend of a producer named Joe Blaney, who engineered the Clash’s Combat Rock and albums for Keith Richards and Joey Ramone. Blaney recorded six White Magic songs, mostly live, trying to capture the band’s sound as it was. Drag City released it. It all happened fast.

Then things slowed significantly. Other than three experimental tracks on a Tylenol promo CD included in the pages of The FADER and Tokion magazines, White Magic hasn’t released any more music. Beginning in the spring of last year, Billotte appeared for shows very occasionally, accompanied by guitarist “Sleepy” Doug Shaw, but without Macleod and Littleton. There was nothing to suggest that the band was recording again in any incarnation—and nothing to ensure that it still existed outside of Billotte and/or whatever she might decide to do next. The other bands that had emerged around the time of “One-note” were publically developing, while White Magic seemed frozen in time. Yet, as frustrating as that was, the six tracks from the EP never thinned out.

Through The Sun Door occupies a kind of spare space that is the exclusive domain of its basic piano/guitar/drums lineup. The six songs exist in six
distinct styles, and Billotte’s songwriting points in thousands of potential directions, but even as the styles change, the band’s sound palette remains strictly, wonderfully limited—a rollicking wooden ship that carries a very sturdy anchor.

There’s also the one-two tandem of Billotte’s voice and songwriting, ie the voice and the way she uses it—the character of it, the words she sings with it, the enigmatic choices she makes for it, or perhaps that it makes for her. “I feel like when I write it’s a different state I’m trying to conjure,” she says. “I try to put myself in a state other than regular reality and I go where that takes me.” Everything about Billotte’s music suggests that she’s able to access a part of herself that’s outside of even her own everyday experience, and listening to her mercurial songs tempts images like sea, space, spirit-worlds and nether-dimensions (the band is, after all, called White Magic). Yet somehow, all of those places seem familiar, as if they exist in us too and we secretly know them well. Sun Door was the source of a miniature
cultural moment because it was relevant to the experience of those who lived with it, not merely an opportunity for a particularly engaging escapism. “We can dance,” Billotte sings on the refrain of “One-note”, and then she sings, “And we fell down.” Perhaps the moods and experiences she conjures aren’t so exotic after all; perhaps there’s white magic not elsewhere but here in our mundane comings and goings, our days and nights, our dancing and falling down. Which is to say that, in some ways, it’s not really magic at all.

In the time since Drag City released Through The Sun Door, Billotte and Shaw, her boyfriend and now only permanent partner in White Magic, have been living in Bed-Stuy, where she writes on a digital piano and sometimes records demos to a four track. It’s clear that Billotte and Shaw listen to a wide variety of music, and if White Magic was once defined by the infinite possibilities of Billotte’s songwriting combined with the natural limitations of its instrumentation, in its new incarnation it is defined by an expanse of sounds so wide that it almost matches the diverse potential of the compositions. At a rare show late last year, Shaw played a set of gong-like Chinese cymbals, and Billotte talks of getting turned on to a range of music over the years—Ethiopian music via the immigrant community in DC; Folkways compilations while in Quix*o*tic; the Americana collection at a public library in Maryland. “I’m just generally interested in folk music,” she says. “Indigenous music from other countries. Instead of being focused on your little scene and your little time in New York City, it’s like, ‘What does the world play?’”

Not surprisingly, those interests seem to have something to do with why Billotte dissolved her three-piece band, and everything to do with the new recordings she and Shaw have been working on with a rotating cast of contributors, all of them entering Joe Blaney’s Manhattan studio sporadically, in the down time between the producer’s other commitments. “It’s basically material up until this point that I haven’t recorded,” Billotte says. “The vision I’m going for is a record that has more depth, more instrumentation, more layers. We’re taking old songs and adding new things to them. Hopefully it’s sort of a continuation of the EP but more expansive—I think it’s almost sounding more orchestral. Moving away from a three-piece rock thing, and moving towards violin and interesting ethnic instruments.”
As her vision for the new White Magic record indicates, Billotte seems to have the restless sense that she’s never pushing her musical potential far enough. With Blaney’s guidance, she and Shaw have reached out to sounds and instruments that are ultimately well beyond their expertise—even beyond their basic musical vocabulary—yet she still wants to take it further. “Maybe I should get voice training,” she says, but it seems unlikely to happen—she seems more inclined to throwing herself headlong into her projects, relying on talent, instinct and creativity to carry her forward. It is a fastidiously indie approach.

Because it’s a work in progress—and especially because the most recent vocal takes are mere place holders—Billotte has decided not to play me any of the long-awaited full-length-to-be. Although Blaney says that there will be straightforward trio pieces between Billotte, Shaw and DeWitt, Billotte herself constantly emphasizes that the album is denser, more layered, “trancier.” Yet she also happens to mention that there will be some stripped-bare moments on the record, and immediately a song from Through The Sun Door comes to mind. If “One-note” and its distinct piano stride is the EP’s attention-grabbing announcement of itself, then its centerpiece is a song called “Keeping The Wolves From The Door”, which leaves Billotte alone with her voice and guitar. The guitar part is simple, but Billotte’s vocal is full of stretches and catchy hitch-ups through her range, as she creates a paranoid and threatening mood but offsets it with notes of optimism and even triumph. The lyrics are full of contradictions—hoping in the face of hopelessness, experiencing “lapses of joy”, “becoming familiar with an illusion”—but what she captures in the song by stacking up those contradictions against the acoustic backdrop is exactly the thing she doesn’t have a name for: Something is abiding/ Something believes unceasing/ In keeping the wolves from the door. In the face of hopelessness, hope—absurdly and impossibly—holds on because of, well, something. But the only thing there is Billotte herself.

Posted: March 22, 2006
Black Magic