Almost exactly two years ago, Anna Mieke Bishop was playing support to Icelandic cellist Gyða Valtýsdóttir on an early spring night in Dublin’s Unitarian Church. Valtýsdóttir’s trio that evening took an ambitious and beautifully skewed tour through 2 millenia of classical music.
And it said something that Anna Mieke and her band – including jazz drummer Matthew Jacobson and Ye Vagabonds’ Brían Mac Gloinn – felt perfectly in place, playing softly but commanding the attention of a packed and hushed crowd.
That same quiet self assurance was evident on her debut album ‘Idle Mind’, which premiered in the same space just two months later. Its songs had the same sonic buoyancy of that first gig, with Anna Mieke’s voice and subtly inventive guitar playing sitting lightly in unostentatious arrangements of bouzouki, piano and drums.
But the confidence of the album’s stylistic vision was unmistakable, and it sounded very much like the work of an artist who’d found her voice and would patiently wait for the world to catch up with what she had to say. Two years later, it feels like that may be about to happen.
When we speak on a cold, dark evening at the lowpoint of January, we get the big “lockdown” topic out of the conversation very quickly. It’s evident not only that Anna Mieke has been unfazed by the events of the last year, but that she’s even made the enforced isolation work to her advantage.
She started 2020 with an Arts Council residency in Cill Rialaig in Kerry, and was about to go on tour in the UK when the pandemic hit. Self deprecatingly, she talks of “playing a few gigs and then going back into hibernation”, but doesn’t mention that those gigs included a set at Other Voices.
She’s as softly spoken in person as in performance, but the trajectory of her year describes a path traced by intelligence and determination, and it’s clear that the hiatus has been a productive one for her.
“I was feeling myself withering, needing time off. But the ideas I came up with in Kerry gave me nuggets for the rest of the year. I won’t meet the band until later in the year, but I’ve been recording demos, and it’s been cool to realise that I have more ideas than I thought I would have.”
“I was stuck in Phibsborough over the summer, and I walked the canal there so many times. But in October I managed to get away to do a residency in Kilruddery House. After that I found a magical cottage in Wicklow, in the hills at the foot of Djouce. I always felt creative during the year, but initially not for music – I was more interested in growing things, and did a course in ecology – but close to the end of last year I felt the urge to work on new music.”
"Although I’d love to play shows, the priority is new music.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of new stuff, and discovering artists I hadn’t heard of before, including a lot of instrumental music – saxophone in particular. And lots of ambient stuff. I’d love to do a completely instrumental album one day!”
When asked about her listening choices, she namechecks Wiseblood, Aldous Harding, self-described sleep-rock singer Gia Margaret, Ethiopian horn player Getachew Mekurya and post-rock droners Caroline – and mentions that she’s also been revisiting Joni Mitchell. The mention of Mitchell is an interesting one, inviting comparison with another ostensibly softly-sung songwriter with adventurous musical tastes and an artistic vision far broader than most around her.
“I was reading an interview she gave to the Guardian recently, where she was asked if she’d read loads, because she must have gotten her ideas from somewhere else. And she said that she didn’t read at all – she just did her own thing, which is kind of inspiring.”
For Anna Mieke, just doing her own thing has meant a shrewdly professional use of residencies and bursaries to make creative space for herself and allow her to pursue collaborations that extend far beyond folk.
That early performance in the Unitarian church had her tunes echo through the same space as excerpts from Messiaen’s Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps and George Crumb’s Black Angels quartet. Her video for Creatures featured dance artist Marion Cronin. And in the summer of 2020 she performed with contemporary classical group Crash Ensemble, in an arrangement of Warped Window – one of standout tracks from ‘Idle Mind’ – made by composer Linda Buckley.
The Crash Ensemble connection is unsurprising given that Anna Mieke is now managed by Islander Music, whose principals Jon and Marjie also work with that group and lead the New Music Dublin festival. “I’ve known them for years. Jon manages Ye Vagabonds, so it felt like an ‘aha’ moment when we started working together. Some of my most mind-blowing gigs have been that kind of experimental music. And I miss gigs so much! Word on the street in terms of booking is that it’ll be the last quarter of this year before that’s possible, and Islander have been sussing out booking agents. But although I’d love to play shows, the priority is new music.”
"Having a lot more time to think has sent me into a nostalgic mood. I keep returning in my mind to my grandparents’ house, where I spent a lot of time."
Given the stylistic coherence of ‘Idle Mind’, it’s surprising that she now describes it as “like many first albums – it doesn’t really hang together. The next one is going to be different in how I’m approaching it, and I’d like to do it much faster. Energy becomes stagnant when you spend too long on things, and some of the songs dwindle. It’ll be different acoustically as well. I haven’t touched the bouzouki in a while, and I bought a synth – a Roland JP-08. I’ve been playing with that, imagining it flooding into the things I’m working on, which are more about improvisation and repetition.”
Although she’s still working on songs, she can already paint a clear picture of the aural landscape her next album will inhabit: “Saxophone, flute, synth. As I’m working on ideas, I keep hearing sounds like an old, out of tune piano, or a church organ. I’ll start with the noodle of an idea, and I’m often saying ‘I don’t’ know what I want’ – but I do know what I don’t like. Having a lot more time to think has sent me into a nostalgic mood. I keep returning in my mind to my grandparents’ house, where I spent a lot of time. And I feel I’m changing a little, learning to be a little more personal in my lyrics.”
Despite her modesty, that clarity of vision is starting to attract wider notice. Last year, Warped Window featured on the soundtrack to ‘Normal People’, connecting her with a much more far-flung audience than she’s had a chance to play to directly.
“Spotifyland is mad. I’ve been added to loads of playlists, and I get emails from people all the time asking me how I did it. And I was asked about the chords of the song so much that I had to make a video about them! But I don’t really know how it came about – I just got an email about it out of the blue from the music supervisor. I hadn’t heard of ‘Normal People’ and I had no idea how popular it was.”
From that description, her inclusion on the soundtrack seems like a fluke – until she recalls that “it might have been because of another song of mine that I gave for a short film, and [composer] Stephen Rennicks heard it from there.” There’s no element of chance in great talent, and Anna Mieke’s strengths over the last 2 years – her generosity in collaboration and her fidelity to her vision – are exactly the things that put her music out in the world for Rennicks to discover.
They’re also the things that now have listeners from Texas to Turkey leaving her comments on YouTube. And if her music has reached so far in a year when none of us have been able to move, 2021 it promises to be an exciting year for Anna Mieke when the world finally catches up with where she’s going.