Nina Miranda and Dennis Wheatley come together as Shrift
BY JOHN C. TRIPP
Shrift are not just a group but a state of mind, where time melts and the subconscious is free to associate words and music. In recording their debut CD, the group’s two members, singer/songwriter Nina Miranda and multi-texturalist/producer Dennis Wheatley, let ideas float in on their own, allowing chance and improvisation shape their sound. The resulting recording, Lost in a Moment is a delicate, soothing and higly atmospheric blend of electronic, acoustic sounds that sooth the soul. The mood is dreamy and soft, almost mystical at times, but with a worldly and modern edge.
In forming Shrift Miranda and Wheatley brought successful and somewhat divergent musical backgrounds to the table. Miranda is vocalist for Smoke City, a British group which was one of the first to blend bossa nova, trip hop, jazz, reggae and funk. Additionally, Miranda has lent her unique voice and words to projects Bebel Gilberto, Nitin Sawhney, Arkestra One, Jah Wobble and Da Lata. Her singing style was formed by a variety of influences such as the childhood she spent between homes in Britain and Brazil. She is equally comfortable singing in English, Portuguese or French, and she shifts between those languages several times during the course of Lost in a Moment.
Wheatley is best known for his work with Atlas, a British electro band with a history of taking existing elements (Brazilian singers, string quartets, Randy Newman’s “Baltimore”) and whipping them up into delectably, danceably new ethno-electro mixtures. Miranda was familiar with his work, finding it cinematic and otherworldly, and not long after meeting the two were building songs together in a series of London recording spaces none of them conventional. Some tracks were recorded in a room overlooking the Thames river, some in a flat located directly over the Farringdon tube station, and some in Wheatley’s home studio. All of these environments affected the sound of Shrift s music and visuals, which played a large role in shaping Lost in a Moment .
Mundovibes spoke separately with Nina Miranda and Dennis Wheatley from London to get their take on being Shrift.
DENNIS WHEATLEY INTERVIEW
Mundovibes: It’s interesting how you and Nina have come up with a sound that is unlike either of you are associated with.
Dennis Wheatley: I think the thing that Nina and I have in common is we try to create another place, in a way. There’s times when you have that experience where you are somewhere else, and they’re usually in between places, funny enough. This is one thing we kept coming back to. It’s like that feeling you get when you get on a plane and you’re on a trans-atlantic trip or something. You just leave things behind you’re transformed from just being on the ground suddenly you’re above your life. I just love that feeling when you’re detached from it, your life abstracts into this state of mind where it’s just a lovely place to think and be. And the title track Lost in a Moment was kind of about that I suppose. At some point your lose touch with where you are and you could be anywhere.
MV: Right. Well that seems to be the case with Lost in a Moment . The vocals are very moody, I suppose, part of the atmosphere.
D: Yes, definitely. Nina is really amazingly unprecious about her voice, it’s just about capturing a feeling that you might have that day. She’s very open to the moment, so you never know what you’ll get. A lot of it was improvised.
MV: And a lot of the recording was done in various locations?
D: It wasn’t a conscious thing, more because of moving around a little bit with the studio. None of it was really recorded in what you’d recognize as a studio, it was kind of just in rooms that we had. Usually places that I was living, actually. For example, I had a studio space on the River Thames. It was amazing really that we had this you could literally feed the ducks out the window, this in the center of London. And it was really cheap amongst everything so expensive. So, it was a parallel life there as well. The first few recordings were done there. We literally used to open the windowso the sound of the river would come into the recording. We didn’t really have a sound proof studio to do it. And the next place we were in was a friend’s house, he lived above a railway station. The room literally did shake with the train like the line Nina sings in ‘Lost in a Moment’. And then I moved to another place which is kind of where we finished the record and actually built a studio room within a big space that I was living in.
MV: It’s interesting because there is a cohesiveness to it, even with various locations.
D: Well, I’m glad you say that because it was done over a period of time. At one point we kind of worried that maybe these things don’t all belong together. It’s funny, a lot of it has to do with sequencing as well. When we made the selection of songs it was amazing that they would come together just by putting them in a certain order.
MV: You had a few tracks that you produced a few years ago. I was just curious if at that point you ever saw it becoming a full-length project and what the challenge of that was.
D: We did one song called ‘Airlock’. I was still with Atlas and Nina and I had a mutual friend. So, we just got together and suddenly we just found ourselves working really quickly on about two or three things and felt ‘hold on this is something different really, we need to find a way to make time for this.’ At the time Nina was quite busy with Smoke City as well and they were finishing an album. So, it took a little while but we just carried on when we could and gained momentum quite quickly. We both saw it as important and it seemed obvious early on that it could be interesting and experimental. We were doing things we hadn’t been able to do with other projects. We were like ‘we don’t know what it is, but we interested in knowing what it might be’.
MV: That’s the whole inspiration of creating, you don’t know where it will take you.
D: Yes, it’s like we wanted to get lost really, we wanted to get creatively lost somewhere and surprise outselves and be open to whatever. I found it really pushed me away from a comfortable place.
MV: And in terms of how you created each song, would it be you laying down some atmosphere first?
D: Yes, pretty much. It would be having basic progressions of quite simple ideas, in essence a mood of some sort and that’s when Nina just sang and we’d work on that and it would just develop. And then there’d be ones like ‘Yes I Love You’ where Nina just sung a melody to me and that developed into this mini-epic. So, there are quite a few different ways I suppose but mainly the first way.
MV: It’s probably very tempting to lay a lot of things in there or fill in the gaps, but you really kept it with plenty of space.
D: Well, I’m glad you think that because I thought it was still to over-stuffed with stuff. I mean, there’s a hell of a lot of stuff on the screen. There might be 150 tracks on the screen for some of them, but I really wanted to calm it down and tried to be relaxed about over-filling it.
MV: My observation is that it’s very acoustic and atmospheric. How did you combine the electronic with the acoustic?
D: It’s kind of a challenge really. Almost every time it was the case of the acoustic going into the song after. Even if we pared it right back to what was played in acousticly there was always something there initially. I guess the voice is the really obvious one where a lot of it is treated like an instrument as well. But some of the other sounds like the violins and the string sections, it’s hard sometimes to hear if they’re acoustic or if they’re electric or sampled. But generally they’re people who have played and then I’ve processed them. We worked with some really nice people on this like this really lovely Polish guy, Piotr Jordan, who played violins.
The other thing, like with the artwork, is letting things happen organically from what’s around you rather than trying too hard. And making something out of whatever you’ve got. I’ve never thought of that before but necessity being the mother of invention and all that I think I think it’s something to do with that really. A lot of the objects on the artwork are all just things we were kind of playing with in the studio that we brought together. We just scanned a lot of things. We were always bringing things for each other, visually. Like the lion on the cover, we see of him as like the guide through this sort of weird world. It’s quite heroic how he’s on Mt. Fuji, which was just one of Nina’s t-shirts.
MV: I like it when graphics are done this way, letting randomness play a role.
D: Yeah, it’s nice. I mean, you think of reasons why afterwards but it wasn’t very self-conscious at all, which is actually what we were trying to do with the music.
NINA MIRANDA INTERVIEW
MV: I wouldn’t call the Shrift recording Brazian-influenced but your work with Smoke City was very influenced by it.
NM: Yeah, I think the music was more influenced by Brazilian music. Dennis, before I met him, really didn’t know anything about Brazilian music but I would show him things I liked and then he got quite interested. And he realized, of course he’d heard some of it and liked it. It was quite interesting for me to work him. With Smoke City and Chris and Mark we very much had a similar record collection, although it was eclectic it was much more similar. Dennis had stuff I woud never listen to and some of it I was like ‘I don’t like it’. But then it meant that I had a very different kind of canvas to sing on, which was nice for me.
MV: And that was very appealing to you then?
NM: Definitely, because it brings out other parts and you’re going on a different adventure, a different journey, kind of unpredictable. Perhaps on a different side of my character.
MV: Right. How would you define Shrift?
NM: I’d say it was about taking away some of the harshness of life and just being a kind of soothing friend. The music is contemplative, very thoughtful. It’s kind of like musical poetry and very cinematic with a lot of space. And what I like about it’s very open, so you don’t have to worry about verses and choruses.
MV: Your voice works so well in that context.
NM: I think so. I’ve never been one for discipline. If something felt like it was a task or homework it was a real turn-off. And with this I could basically go where my imagination took me. And Dennis is very open about that.
MV: How did you develop your vocal style?
NM: I always liked playing around at home, singing to my mom and sister, just being really stupid. Or when I got drunk I really liked being loud and silly. But I was too shy to really take it further and I didn’t think it was practical or anything. But I had an audition with one band, they were really kind of funky and loud and I got too shy and my voice just turned into a mouses voice. So, it didn’t go very well. And then I met a guy who friends said ‘oh, he’s into Brazilian music, that’s what you’re into’. And that went really well and that was a project called Sweat Mouse. We actually put a couple of 12-inches out, that was like trip-hop in 1991. So, I sang in Portuguese then and they really liked that, and that was pefect because I didn’t have to be self-conscious about the lyrics. And I could sing in the Bossa-Nova way, which is very quiet and mellow. So, that’s how I realized I could do it, it was just natural. I’m still not very good at singing loudly, I feel like I’m shouting.
MV: I guess the bossa nova influence would be the quietness.
NM: Yeah, and the slight melancholyness, kind of that longing kind of searching thing.
MV: I know that you recorded in several locations, how important is travel and where you are?
NM: The last location we recorded in was Hackney and towards the end I was pregnant and that was kind of horrible because Hackney is quite rough. I used to get really paranoid that somebody was going to stab my tummy. It sounds a bit over the top, but there’s pockets of London, just like any big city where you have people that should be in institutions but because they can’t afford it they just leave them outside walking around. So you get these crazy people coming up to you. So, I’d be going there and to get to Hackney you have to get a bus, the tube and a train. So, that felt like this huge journey. But just having the backing tracks we were working on just made it all alright. I’d be listening to them and if I didn’t have experience that there’d be nothing to sing about. If it was all pleasant and easy and calm I wouldn’t need to make the musical antidote to my experience getting there. Then we had another studio where we met, which I think really helped me want to work with Dennis as well because it was right by the river and it had great pictures up on the wall and all of the photos were really beautiful and interesting. For me, the visual reference really helps when I’m singing.
MV: Would you consider this to be therapeutic music?
NM: Very. I listened to it before you called just to remind myself of where I was when I wrote it. And, now I’m back in winter, you know how in winter every one becomes quite hermit like, especialy in England. And you come to think ‘is this it?’ and you can start to think this is it, this is what life is like and you’ve just got to keep remembering that it changes. And in spring it’s mad how everyone calls, it’s just something in the air. All kinds of people will call you and turn up and they’ll have this spring in their step and life is so fertile again. So, there are little bits like that put in the songs.
MV: How did you come up with the titles and the lyrics?
NM: ‘Lost in a Moment’ came with (singing) ‘dodaladoom, dadladoom’. I just recorded the first thing that came to my head, which is that. I had this melody, as you heard and the next time I came was in another studio again which was above a train track. And then I just kind of looked out and imagined scenes going on in different houses and different places. And I just kind of made it up as I went along really. And then every now and again I’d wake up and say ‘the room shakes with the train because the train made the room shake’. And the other half, which became ‘Lost in Portuguese’, I actually went into Portuguese, it was this ridiculously long take. And we said, ‘OK, we’ll chop this into two songs’ and have the English one and the second one was about the idea of a brother looking for his brother and then he realizes that his brother is actually himself.
MV: I love hearing children’s voices like those on ‘Lost in a Moment’. How did that come about?
NM: What’s funny about those voices is that they’re really quite manic. How that works for me is how you can really go off in a dream and be in the busiest place. In fact, that was a really manic swimming pool with all the kids jumping around.
MV: So, how are you going to present this to the U.S.? Do you have any remixes now?
NM: Well, there’s a Da Lata remix of ‘As Far as I Can See’, Dennis has done another remix and he goes to this club where everyone will take their CD-Rs and stuff that they’re working on at home and they get to see straight away how the public reacts. And a lot of the public will be other people of the scene making music. And so, one of these nights he had a lot of people coming up and saying ‘oh, great track’. So, through that he’s got more people doing remixes. And Six Degrees records is very much a co-operative thing and they’re not into the big bucks being spent on remixes but it’s quite nice because then the people that really want to do it become involved.
MV: Well, it’s really a beautiful recording and it flows perfectly.
NM: We worked on it bit by bit but that was the whole thing, we wanted it to be a satisfying listen that you can put on and it not jarr you too much. I always worry if I sing on a whole album if it’s just my voice the whole time won’t it get boring so I was really happy that there’s nice intros and outros of just music and lots of space.
-Interview conducted by J.C. Tripp, January 2006.
Six Degrees Records