At the start of the fourth week of social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic, I relistened to the recording for one of my favorite concerts of all time, the album release show for Holly Miranda’s The Magician’s Private Library at the Bowery Ballroom in May 2010. The show was heavy on my mind in the wake of the 10th anniversary show being canceled due to all social gatherings in New York City getting banned on account of the ongoing outbreak. But I also returned to this recording of this particular album for the sake of solace, seeking comfort in an earth-shattering set that accompanied another moment of major transition in my life.
It was May 2010 and I was two years into my relationship with my first girlfriend, who was also my first sexual partner. After many long and uncomfortable conversations, my girlfriend had begrudgingly agreed to open the relationship up, so that I could (in her eyes) get my desire for sexual freedom out of my system—and realign myself in a relationship grounded in codependency. Released in February 2010, The Magician’s Private Library was the album with which I began to imagine a more emotionally—and, many years later, sexually—capacious life, one in which romance was only one realm for connecting intimately with others. “Why you, why you let it all/ Be like some prison in your mind/ It doesn’t need to be/ It doesn’t need to be,” Miranda sings over guitars, synths, and drums on “Waves,” a song that on the surface feels like a love song but reverberates with the call for expanding our ideas of meaningful connection. This is the beautiful tension of The Magician’s Private Library: it’s an album about love in many formations interlaced with metaphors of nature (“Forest Green, Oh Forest Green”) and political puns (“No One Just Is”). On this album, romantic love is only one starting point, cresting out into a display of the power of collective love that Miranda will enact on stage in concert.
And so in this first month of my (theoretical) newfound freedom, I drove home to New York City to see two of my favorite artists, Holly Miranda and Land of Talk, play for the second time that week. The show could not have been more perfectly timed. Listening to it again now, I am drawn to the emotional high that Miranda hits midway through the set, when she moves from “Joints” to a chill-inducing cover of Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” to “Slow Burn Treason,” her duet with Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. As I watch this clip ten years after the performance, I spot my head of long hair in front of Miranda’s keyboard, bopping up and down with the bassline. “Slow Burn Treason” is one of my favorite songs by Miranda, let alone one of my favorite songs from the 2010s. The song encapsulates what, to me, makes Miranda such a powerful artist and performer: her emotional intensity coupled with a penchant for narrative songwriting; her falsetto-wielding voice thrown with or against her guitar (or keyboard—or piano) chops bolstered by drums, bass, and even more guitar; her writing for a universal “you” while dropping in lyrical moments for we queer women (“All you need is her eyes on you/ All you need is one hand deep inside”). Every time that I listen to and/or watch this version of the song, hearing Miranda sing “Who’s going to fee-eel you?” before she and Malone move to the song’s outro always rattles me to my core. Listening to this song in the time of COVID-19, I’m thinking about how we’re all so in need of (more) touch than we’ve ever been before, more aware of the many sources of intimacy that sustain us in a system of capitalism that wants us to work until the point of exhaustion—and to be “productive” in our free time to the point of burning out. Miranda’s music offers us a world grounded in love and touch, of not just ourselves and sexual and/or romantic partners but of entire communities. Throughout the night, she will put this on display as she calls up more and more of her friends to the stage, singing in unison about how much stronger we are when we have an entire web of people on which to lean.
On the night of the day that I listen to the set for The Magician’s Private Library show for the first time in years, I do my weekly phone call with my best friend from college. 12 years into this tradition at this point, we’re well-suited to stay in touch during the indefinite stay at home mandates that the coronavirus has brought about. Having at last made the move to Brooklyn last year after toying with the possibility for some time, my best friend reflects on having moved to the place where so many people long to move—only to now be caught in the epicenter of the pandemic within the U.S. On my end, I muse aloud about how this was the school year when I said I would stop going home as often (so that I could be more present in New Orleans, which is increasingly becoming the home that I go back to)—only to find that I now don’t know when I’ll next be able to return to Brooklyn, the home of my heart. I don’t have a lot of close friends left in NYC but the ones I do I deeply care about, their being a mixture of people from every point in my life: friends from childhood, high school, college, and grad school (at NYU); queer community from from when I lived in Brooklyn in my mid-20s, and pockets of people met in the atemporal spaces that are academic conferences. It terrifies me to think that the New York City that is defined by change might not be able to escape this latest crisis unscathed, that its boroughs will change beyond any possible recognition of what any of us once remembered it being. I picture the busy intersection outside the Bowery Ballroom, imagining it devoid of people. In 2005, I went to my first concert at Bowery Ballroom, taking the PATH in from Jersey City to see Tegan & Sara on their So Jealous tour on a school night during my senior year in high school. It was the first time that I ever admitted to myself that I found women attractive, the first moment that queerness even seemed like a remote possibility for me. What if I could never return to this space?
Redirecting my anxiety, I push myself towards other memories of NYC.
I first discovered Holly Miranda’s music accidentally. It was December 2006 and I was at Rainer Maria’s “last” show at North Six (now Music Hall of Williamsburg) in the then not-yet-rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Fresh off of flying to Portland for my favorite band Sleater-Kinney’s “last” show that August, I had been persuaded by two Brooklyn friends I had made along the way to have another last show experience with them at N6. And besides, Rainer Maria had been an important band to me since high school, when the friend who first introduced me to Sleater-Kinney slipped me a burned CD copy of Long Knives Drawn, an album that would become very personally important to me as our friend group unraveled, alongside a copy of S-K’s All Hands on the Bad One. But although I went to the show for Rainer Maria, it was The Jealous Girlfriends, the band Miranda was in at the time, that resonated with me the most after the show had finished. Something about the band—and especially Miranda’s presence—called to me that night. I was 19 and had just told a handful of my closest friends that I was queer. A few days later, I would kiss a girl for the first time, coming back with a spectacular story about getting on a plane to Wisconsin to drop by the show of someone I had met at the S-K shows over the summer and then going back to her Green Bay apartment with her afterward. And I had a feeling that Miranda and I might have more than a few shared identities. So that show—and more specifically that Jealous Girlfriends set—would become my sendoff into a world of queerness that I was about to throw myself into without abandon, a world around which I had been hovering nearer and nearer since high school. More than that, Miranda’s music would become the soundtrack for my beginning to grow into my young adulthood, one grounded in not only queerness and feminism but also the desires for intimacy, vulnerability, and community.
The next time that I would see The Jealous Girlfriends play would be at Maxwell’s in Hoboken in June 2007. Since high school, I had loved going to shows at Maxwell’s, since it was easy to interact with bands there at the merch tables that they set up at the back of the room. After the main act finished their set, I saw that Miranda was working the merch table. Summoning up my courage (as I wasn’t nearly as extroverted then as I am now), I walked back to the merch table and introduced myself to her. Holly was incredibly friendly and kind, asking me many questions about myself and reciprocating the openness with me. We chatted for a bit about New York City and the music we were currently listening to before she interjected, “I’m doing a solo show at this French café place Zebulon in Brooklyn on June 25th. You should come.” And I immediately said that I would be there, excited to return to Williamsburg for the first time since the Rainer Maria show the previous winter. When I went home and did my research, I learned that Zebulon was a 21+ club. Remembering that I would only be turning 20 on the 23rd, I was initially crestfallen that I might not be able to get to this show. I resolved that I would find a way to go, urged on by a deep feeling that I knew that there would be something waiting for me there for which I had (unsuccessfully) been looking for in Philly. So I called the café the week before and asked the owner if there was any way I could still go to the show. “Of course you can come to the show,” he replied reassuringly. “Just don’t order anything from the bar.”
So on the Monday night following my 20th birthday, I got in my car and drove through a tunnel and across a bridge to get to Zebulon. From the moment I walked inside, I felt at home in a way that I had yet to feel anywhere in Philly. The space was cozy, containing about 15 small circular cafe tables all lit by candles. To the right of the entrance was a beautiful wooden bar. At the back, meanwhile, stood a small stage with ZEBULON written out over it in white letters, with a projector screen hanging underneath. After catching my breath, I went to the bar and ordered a bowl of olives. As it got closer to the time of Holly’s set, I crept closer and closer to the stage, passing the likes of Scott Matthew (a Brooklyn-based songwriter), Kyp Malone (of TVOTR), and Mike Fadem (the drummer from The Jealous Girlfriends) circulating around the space. When Holly took the stage, she played stripped down versions of a lot of what would ultimately end up on The Magician’s Private Library. [Hearing these songs first at Zebulon would later make the album feel a bit overproduced to me, which was ironic given my budding penchant for synthpop—and the smooth and sleek production that often accompanies it.] And this music touched something different—and deeper—than that from The Jealous Girlfriends had. In that moment, I felt like I was part of a secret that only this small sliver of Brooklyn currently knew about. After the set finished, I went to use the bathroom before the drive back to Jersey City, passing by two women passionately making out outside the door. As I pushed open the door to the bathroom stall, I laughed at how I had at last found my oasis from what felt like a stifling gay/lesbian scene at Penn. At Zebulon, I felt that I could exist in queerness while also extending out from it towards intimacies beyond that of sex and sexual desire. Instead, queerness could be about shared community, politics, and music.
I would go back to see Holly play at Zebulon another handful of times between 2007 and 2012, driving up from Philly whenever she did a show there on the weekend or when I was on break. For her show at Zebulon in November 2007, I took a dear friend who was quickly becoming one of my favorite people in my life after we had gone on a Craigslist date in 2007 and decided to become friends instead. It was the first time that I would share Holly’s music with someone and was glad that it would be this friend, who had been such a big part of my first queer summer in NYC (or anywhere at all). After my friend and I grabbed a table, I went to go say hi to Holly at the bar. When she asked how I was doing, I responded, “Eh, I’m having a lot of girl drama.” Although hardly knowing Holly at all, it felt safe to say this—and we proceeded to have a good laugh about the topic. I soon rejoined my dear friend and we chatted away until the start of Holly’s set, when her voice ripped through the room and brought every last conversation to absolute silence. [Such is the effect of experiencing her live. You really do feel as if there is nowhere else in the world besides right there in that moment.] The last time that I saw Holly play at Zebulon was in September 2012, the only time that I would see Holly play while living in Brooklyn from 2011-2014. This time, I brought a friend from the women/trans/femme cycling group I was in in Brooklyn. We rocked out in the front of the room as I awkwardly tried to avoid someone I had met while dating my first girlfriend and then actively pursued after the breakup. At this point, Holly was starting to test out songs for the next record, including “Pelican Rapids,” which she would always introduce as, “This song is about how we should all have the right to marry whoever the fuck we want to marry.” On election night in 2012, I’d fall asleep early with my girlfriend at the time in my Brooklyn apartment, sure that Obama would win—and cautiously hopeful that he wouldn’t throw queer people under the bus again during his second term. Neither of us wanted to get married—but we did want equal rights.
At that point in time, somehow that seemed like the biggest thing that we really had to worry about.
I wouldn’t see Holly do a set again for three years, when she passed through Austin as part of the tour for her second album, Holly Miranda. After seeing her play every few months while I lived in Philly and then Brooklyn, the gap felt strange. How would I connect to her music in 2015 in Texas? At this point, I had been living in the South for over a year—and had been watching my ideas of intimacy and sex and connectivity and vulnerability change rapidly as I openly myself up to the experiences of doing graduate school—and living life—in a vastly new geographic location. 2,000 miles away from home, I at last felt like I could begin growing into a version of myself that I had been afraid to move towards when I had lived in the North, when everything I had grown up with (upper middle class privilege, hetero- and homonormativity, the tired belief that blood is thicker than water) so near to the point that it felt like it was suffocating me. But it turned out that I would soon recognize how much Holly’s music had helped to create that space of exploration for me. So on a hot summer day near the end of July, I got on my bicycle and rode down to End of an Ear, my favorite record store in the city, to see and hear Holly do a live set there. Playing songs from the new record, I took note of how her new songs seemed to reach for something deep inside of herself, back to a core that had perhaps been previously overpowered by the sleek XL Recordings sound. When I went to say hi to Holly afterward, I said something to this effect. After exchanging a big hug, she interjected, “You should come to the show at the Cactus Club later.” And I did just that, listening to her music from the space of my new intellectual/emotional home of UT.
At that point in time, none of us wanted to see the 2016 election that was coming, although we could feel the rising tension of the current moment. The previous month, the Supreme Court had at last declared that gay people had the right to marry. Despite my own hesitance about marriage as an institution, I went out to Cheer Up Charlie’s, the queer bar that we all frequented, with my queer friend group that night, running into both into the friend I would later follow to New Orleans and the person I was seeing at the time. But, at the same time, the murders of black people by the police were still raging on, with my best friend from Austin/New Orleans and I having marched to the Texas State Capitol earlier that July to protest the arrest of Sandra Bland that had provoked her suicide (as it was ruled). The summer of 2015 would be a turning point for America, the combination of Obama’s presidency and the increasing rights for both gay people and immigrants bringing the vicious racism and general hatred that has always defined the country up to the surface. The events from the summer would be fuel for Trump’s fire, a reality that we would not take seriously until we were crying in one another’s arms (or sitting in silence) at a grad student departmental election party the following year. As I had watched the 2008 election results come in with my friends from the Queer Student Alliance executive board in college in Philly, I don’t think that any of us, in our idealism, could have even imagined this possiblility a mere eight years into the future. But, I had forgotten our reading of Foucault’s “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” from our Intro to Queer Studies class the fall before, warning us vehemently against the belief that history ever moves in a purely linear fashion. In 2015, history was preparing to give us that reminder.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, music began to feel more important than ever to me, with seemingly every artist I listened to attempting to make a political statement through their music. At the same time, it felt important to stay connected—or get reconnected—with the music that moved me. The last time that I went home (for more than 24 hours) last August, I came the closest to seeing Holly play again that I had in many years as she was touring following the release of her third album, Mutual Horse. But then her show at City Winery got cancelled last minute—and I resolved to keep an eye out for future shows in the hopes that I could make one soon. After deciding that there was no way that I could swing the 10th anniversary show for The Magician’s Private Library (due to my work schedule) this April, I saw that Holly would be playing Menorca in May when I was due to be in Barcelona on a Europe trip I had been waiting many years to make—all of which ultimately got wiped out due to COVID-19. In the meantime, she, Chris Maxwell, and Ambrosia Parsley have started doing a weekly Sunday show from upstate New York called Live From The Goathouse, using the concert to raise money for a different charity from the Hudson River Valley each week. It has been comforting to turn on this show every Sunday afternoon, to hear the familiar voice of a musician whose music has been a huge part of the past 14 years of my life coupled with the newer (to me) voices of Parsley and Maxwell, together doing a mix of covers and original songs. This moment of quarantine and crisis is such a mixture of old and new, a combination of reaching down into our deepest senses of self and connection alongside a new present that seems to change every day, let alone every hour. Holly Miranda is one of a half dozen artists (that also includes Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Land of Talk, Austra, and FKA twigs) that has pushed me both deeper within myself and simultaneously beyond myself, that has helped me reckon with how complex we all are as people. And I am, more than ever, so grateful for her music in this time of crisis.