Thursday, October 10, 2013
Contrapposto on The Wicked Good Music Hour
Saturday, October 5th will go down in the annals of The Wicked Good Music Hour history as the first time an electronic act appeared on the show. I’d heard a bit of buzz about a Portland duo who called themselves Contrapposto, and my curiosity was piqued when I saw the video for their song “Cousinfriend,” which featured people (agreeable friends) in indigenous face paint on an alpaca farm (The Roaring Lion Farm in Rumford). Part music, part performance art, I knew immediately I had to book them for my first hosting gig on The Wicked Good Music Hour. Happily, they agreed! Their live appearance was only mildly hampered by an equipment compatibility issue, but with the engineering of Wicked Good’s host, Matt Murphy, Jake and a quick call to WERU’s Joel Mann, we had a successful show. It seems listeners liked what they were hearing because WERU received a few calls about Contrapposto.
It is not a surprise that two very creative people, Mirabai Iwanko, a graduate of Maine College of Art and a printmaker, and Jacob (Jake) Pitcher, a photographer, would name their collaborative efforts after a term used in visual art. “Contrapposto” means “counterpose” in Italian and is used to describe the way in which a person shifts their weight to one leg when standing. For instance, imagine a mother with a child on her hip. Mirabai describes how human forms in sculpture became dynamic and expressed emotion and psychological disposition where historically, prior to the ancient Greeks, sculpture appeared unnatural and stiff. “It’s such a simple thing to notice the way someone is standing, but it means so much,” said Mirabai. Mirabai and Jake have themselves tossed out the conventional to create something decidedly their own. Describing their style as "zoomorphic-electro," Mirabai said that they came to that description because “for me, in songwriting, a lot of the time I’m comparing animal attributes to humans, and that’s kind of how I describe life and behavior.”
Speaking of the Greeks, the mythological Fates may have been at work in bringing Mirabai and Jake together. They were both working at Bayside Bowl as cooks and as they cooked, they would listen to music to pass the time, which got them talking about music. Mirabai told Jake that she sang and wrote lyrics. Jake was already writing music and working with synthesizers, so they started collaborating. Mirabai said, “From the moment we got together, we knew we wanted to keep playing together.” In person, their chemistry is apparent. In another twist of fate, Mirabai’s parents and Jake’s father all happen to practice Siddha yoga, a spiritual path guided by meditation, which was a surprise because neither had ever met anyone else their own age with that kind of background and upbringing.
Mirabia is a sprite of a girl with a unique voice and an artist’s way of looking at the world. Her vocal style is reminiscent of Bjork, not so much in the tonal qualities of her voice but the quirky, avant garde fashion in which she delivers the lyrics. Mirabia has never had vocal lessons. She does, however, have a serious music pedigree being that her uncles were members of the late 80’s-early 90’s Boston based post-punk band, Human Sexual Response. Mirabai said her uncles have been beyond supportive of Contrapposto. In an odd “six degrees of separation” coincidence, some of my besties (“Hi,” Wentworth sisters!) were babysat by her uncles many years ago, and they remain friends.
Mirabia draws inspiration from every day things, turning musings about ordinary experiences into metaphors for life. Themes about animals and nature play a big role in her lyrics. For instance, the duo’s newest song “Quills” is about a camping trip Mirabia and Jake took, where there were an abundance of porcupines, doing what porcupines do, and a quill that lodged in Jake’s foot when he was trying to get close enough to take a picture. Mirabai describes the song as a metaphor for trying to get close to someone you love. Another song, “Ostrich Eyes,” was inspired by the death of Mirabai’s goldfish. It’s a made up story about an ostrich that pokes fun at the way, when you’re a kid, you lose a pet and get a new one, and problem solved! You’re not sad anymore. Jake proclaims this to be his favorite song. “It’s amazing! It sounds like an Arthurian legend.” “Rope Grown” is about Mirabia working at a fish market for three summers and picking lobster meat. She became so fast at it that the repetition of it developed into a mantra in her head, “knuckle, claw, tail,” which is what she’s singing on the track. The Siddha Yoga that Mirabai and Jake learned growing up, which involves the use of music and mantras in meditation, is another stylistic influence.
Jake has an ironic sense of humor and is masterful at creating complex sounds with electronic instrumentation. (He was amused when I inarticulately described them as “electronic people,” which I think would be a great song title, no?) Jake said that the music he produces sounds complex, but it’s really not. “It’s simple. It’s repetition. It’s multiple layers, and I think you hear or can experience the same profound repetitive effect from music like the mantras we listened to growing up. Consciously or unconsciously, a lot of the songs are based upon these really sort of ancient root structures for music and religious hymns. “Cousinfriends” exemplifies that because it’s two chords and a sampled guitar riff. It’s very, very simple. She’s singing about her cousins. There’s no great mystery. You write about what you know.” Their creative process is improvisational. “We throw stuff at the wall and whatever sticks, sticks,” he said. Or Mirabai will come to him with a funny sound she has in mind, then she’ll write the lyrics, and Jake will write the music or tie a piece of music he already has created to her efforts.
One of the experiential components of Contrapposto is that they employ costumes and artful stage make up in their performances. Their intent is to create a theatrical production that is different each time. They describe being given giant rams’ heads by their friend who owns the African Museum of Tribal Art in Portland and employing them in their costuming. Jake said that they had fun reinventing their (the rams’ heads’) purpose in the world, joking that he used one to create a Contrapposto shrine and gave it food, incense and orange soda, but it was rained on. I half believed him!
Judging from their performance on the Wicked Good Music Hour, it’s hard to believe that Jake and Mirabai have only been working together as Contrapposto for about a year. Mirabai said that they have been lucky to have played quite a few venues in Portland, but they’re ready to branch out. Contrapposto opened for Human Sexual Response’s reunion show in Boston last November, which they agree was “amazing and terrifying.” Over 2000 people attended, and it was only Contrapposto’s 4th show. Mirabia created elaborate costumes for the show, and they had a lot of fun with the experience. It was also the first time Mirabai had a chance to see her uncles perform live. A performance at the Planetarium is planned for mid-January. They’re both excited about that show because they will be able to project imagery onto the ceiling, though they haven’t decided yet what the imagery will be. The curious should plan to check out the show and see for themselves! Contrapposto has a 3 song EP out, and they’re in the process of finishing enough songs to put together an album. They have 8 songs in their line up now. Mirabai said that since the EP came out, their style has changed, and they want to keep their music “fresh.” Their goal is to finish the album and go on tour. I, for one, will be rooting for their success!
To learn more about Contrapposto, visit their website and Facebook pages.