Mizuna: From Away From Here – The album and the interview

Today marks the release of the New York duo Mizuna’s first album, “From Away From Here”. For the occasion, I interviewed its members Geneviève Beaudoin and Mackenzie Leighton. So let’s dive deeper into this band and the making of their album.

At the beginning of December, I presented to you their first two singles, “Catie” and “Paris Girls”, and now, it is time to meet the two women behind the duo Mizuna, and to learn how they made their debut album, “From Aw ay From Here”.

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Credits: Photograph by Emily Leighton – Design by Ally Zhao

It was last September when I first saw Geneviève and Mackenzie singing their heart out, across the platform from where I was, on a sunny but awfully humid New York afternoon.

Despite the sweating and the noises from the trains passing by, I was captivated by their voices. They simply seemed to have melted together somehow.

After some time listening and staring at them, I took the stairs up and went to the opposite platform, not without some apprehension, to hear them better, and to engage in a little chat. As we chatted, I knew I wanted to learn more and share their talent. So I asked them for an interview for Kulture Fokus, and here we are.

So we met up in New York’s M’Finda Kalunga Garden, on another hot afternoon, the next day to be exact. The garden was a little crowded but ideal, except for the noise coming from the cars passing by. As we sat down and discussed I got to know a little more about how they met and came to form Mizuna and subsequently create their album “From Away From Here”.

Star-crossed Mainers

Funny enough Geneviève Beaudoin and Mackenzie Leighton, both Mainers, grew up next to each other, and had a lot in common, without never meeting. But that was until two years ago, they finally crossed path at New York University’s Gallatin School. There, they realized their uncanny stories. But more importantly they learnt they had a lot more in common, than just both being from Maine, like their education and musical upbringing.

Mackenzie grew up in a musical house with both of her sisters playing piano. Following their footsteps, she began learning that instrument at the age of four. But once a teenage girl, she realized she wanted more out of music:

But then, I just kept going, classical piano, pretty intensely. And when I was twelve or thirteen, I was doing these international festivals with people, students from the Netherlands and Bulgaria. And they were going to do piano like they were going to play at Carnegie Hall, and that’s what their professions were going to be. That was really intense and for the time being it was really great. But then I started realizing I don’t know if I am doing this for me anymore. So I stopped classical and I started doing jazz in a high school jazz band.

So she went on to extend her music credentials by learning and playing even more instruments:

“While at the same time I was playing flute in a band, playing flute in a school band. And then, I taught myself guitar. I also started singing when I was really young, and taking voice lessons in an all girls choir when I was eight or nine years old. But, …then at the end of high school and once I got here, I realized that music was such an important part of life, and playing with other people was so much fun. So then I mostly started playing guitar and singing. But I don’t know, piano is something you don’t really loose. Now I am taking a trumpet lesson.”

mizuna-1
Credits: Felix Chan

As for Geneviève, she also was brought up with music in her house, especially from her Grandmother, who is a pianist. And very much like her stooge, she started learning music at a very young age:

Well, I have been also a musical since I was three or four, piano lessons. (…) And I was really involved in musical theatre so jazz hands, and like Broadway musicals. So I was always singing and playing an instrument. I picked up guitar. And by 18 I knew that I didn’t want to be doing theatre, but I was pushing myself.”

Indee she took another path, leading her to writing music inspired by her beloved peers:

“Not pushing myself, but taking that away, taking a step back, and writing material on the guitar and listening to a lot of jazz artists, I listened to a lot of Nina Simone and Billy Holliday, but also Simon & Garfunkel, and Joan Baez, and kinda of wanting to combine the two. So I started doing a folk solo, with a jazz influence. And I studied in Amsterdam for a while at the conservatory. I was just always vocals, singing, writing, and then here I am with Mackenzie and I am, everyday, trying to become a better guitarist.

Their backgrounds are what helped their inevitable friendship and musical encounter, but also what facilitated the formation of Mizuna.

The Making of Mizuna: The Duo

Though there is a three-year difference between them, they have the same understanding of music. They approach music and songwriting with the same eye and references, even though they have their individualities. Here is what Mackenzie had to say on that matter:

“I think that our individual songwriting are pretty similar, just the subject matter, the tone, and how we write. But it is funny because you can tell the difference in lyrics, just the little quirks of what I might write versus what Genevieve might write. But I don’t know, when it comes together, it seems pretty seamless, and it feels very cohesive.”

But it goes beyond that according to Geneviève:

I would say our music is definitely like a female Simon & Garfunkel kind of folk but with a clunky guitar, and we kinda want a little crunch and a sense of play, I think it is really important. We try to break a song so it’s not just ABAB or verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, end, you know. We change time signature halfway through a song or we are singing harmonies for so long and then we are unison. (…)”

mizuna-field-recording-2
Credits: Santiago Hervella

In that same spirit, last summer, they joined forces and decided to make songs together. All they needed were their musician friends from the band Strange Loops, who are also from New York, and who they brought to Maine to help them.

And when it came to choose a name for their band, they came up with the strangest, yet well-suited name, Mizuna:

We came to that name after a fatiguing 24 hours, where I don’t think we said any real sentences to each other. We just kept saying words: picnic, stop light, ice house… Mizuna is a Japanese, spicy mustard green.”, Geneviève said.

Mackenzie added: It’s slightly less spicy than arugula!”

But as random as this name may sound, it actually has a meaning: “Mackenzie used to work on a farm that grew Mizuna and we were co-founding a group together, where we are both equal parts creators and performers, and I like the name because it’s sounds almost like an alter-ego …. And if you didn’t know it was a cabbage leaf, it could be a steak, it could a place, it could be a person, it could be a town.”, Geneviève revealed.

With a name and an album recorded, they told me how they they approached the making of this album and the music business that goes with it, but also how they created and wrote it.

From Away, From Here:  A home-made piece of music

Very early on, when they started to think about the making of their album, they knew they wanted to take part in every aspect of it, not just the music side, and learn along the way about the business and its intricacies.

But at the very beginning, they were functioning more like a workshop than a band, meeting to work on what will become an album:

I would say, when we first started coming together, it was in a workshop-like field because that’s what we knew. So I would come with you for the song or you would come with me and we would, you know… does this lyric work or how do you feel about that, well it’s uncool to add harmony here. So for this first album, which is called “From Away, From Here”, it’s a lot of us bringing in songs to each other and then doing some edits here and there with each other.”, Geneviève recalled.

In addition to that, they now live in different cities, one in New York, the other back in Maine, which is difficult as Mackenzie pointed out:

It’s hard too because we are not in the same place. We are a long distance band right now. So it’s hard to write songs together so we’ll send each other voice memos of stuff that we are writing on our own …”

Fortunately, technology and internet exist, though they have their own imperfections:

Skype rehearsals where one of us brings up a guitar and is singing a song, and then the harmony will come in through the Skype way, and let’s hope there’s no lag. Google Hangout is actually more easy; I have more faith in Google Hangout these days.”, Geneviève joked.

Even with difficulties, they managed, with the helps of their friends, to write and produce their album. And back in September, Geneviève and Mackenzie talked to me about how they wanted to release “From Away From Here”.

Geneviève highlighted the importance for them to learn and understand every aspect of the music industry, and that is why they decided to do an independent release of their album on Bandcamp:

It will be an independent release, which we are kind of interested in doing, just to learn more. It’s really important for us to understand what it takes to market our own music, to crest a performance, to book gigs. We are open to help. We would accept help. But I also think it’s good for us to know how things go – even just recording this album ourselves, we organized every step of the process. (…) I think it makes it more authentic.

It is also a way to show their commitment to their craft:

“There are so many musicians now who are just putting out their stuff wherever, on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Bedroom records. Which is great because people are just doing it and they are not waiting for someone else to come in and produce their stuff. So I think that shows a lot of motivation.”, said Mackenzie.

But what is behind “From Away From Here”?

Upon hearing the title of the album for the first time, I was left quite puzzled by its meaning. So I asked them, and here is what Geneviève had to say about this enigmatic title:

Well, the joke in Maine goes: “Where ya from?” // “From here” or “From away.” And that can sometimes mean the difference of a town line. When we went back home to Maine to record, our time was split between three places: Stonington, Bowdoinham and Portland. So we found the jumble “From here, but also, from away” a clumsy, but true response to “where are you from?  The album plays with that feeling of distance and home, and what’s left to reckon with.

And more than a colloquial saying, “From Away From Here”, with its eleven tracks, brings the listeners along a musical travel, that stops in different places like Maine, Paris, New York and wonders in its Chinatown:

Also, the album order is constructed almost like a travel narrative. Place and dislocation are something we are very interested in. Like the wallflower eye in different location. So one of the first songs on the album is called “No deer in Chinatown”, and that one was written by Mackenzie. And you – NDLR. looking at Mackenzie – living in Chinatown, and feeling Maine, feeling growing up in the woods, growing up where there are deers and wild things (…). You are looking at two locations in one frame of mind. And then the album kinda goes to both of our experiences in France. Me being a citizen, and so coming and going, and never feeling American here, and French there. (…) I think it’s a curious eye, and just this moving eye in album.

The speaker’s voice is just changing because her location is changing, and … We end back in New York. Again with feeling a distance from our childhood in Maine, and current residence in New York. And so to feel like “I’m not from here” but… it changes. I mean where you grow up in your town, reflects so much more of your cultural character and your values that when you are transplanted into another scene, you realize you are not from here, but yet your mail says you are from here…that juxtaposition…” Geneviève said.

Mackenzie also wanted to sing her love for French culture: “And me kinda of going in and just being in awe of how sophisticated French women are, and just the whole American in Paris is such a cliché but it’s so true. It feels like you are in a dream.”

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Credits: Felix Chan

And what is striking when talking to both of these ladies is their love and respect for their craft. As we talked about them, their music and this album, they often referred to their inspirations. Their list count legends from various music backgrounds like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Joan Baez. Both though kept mentioning one in particular, especially when it comes to inspirations for this album:

Going way back to Simon & Garfunkel, they are one of my favourite duos. Sometimes I’ll just sit and listen to their music and really listen to the craft and the lyrics, and it’s so moving. And I hope that we can do that with our music. And I think that in this first album, there’s a lot of songs on there that are super personal, and that come from a very specific point …and I hope that moves people to be vulnerable too and share their experience, and not to be afraid to say what you want to say, but using music to say it.” Mackenzie said.

Geneviève also referred to current musicians that really moves both of them: “Feist, she is brilliant and always changing. We love the band Lucius. I just listened to Andy Shauf’s album which is called “Party”. He is a multi-instrumentalist, and he is just killing it …that he could hear all these different parts and bring them together. I see Margaret Glaspy who has also just delivered and amazing album, that was so raw, and just pulled back. It’s very simplistic and beautiful. (…) Hideous Coyote, they are an example of a band that defies genre and we don’t sound like them, but I admire their ability to defy genre in a very honest and visceral way.”

But as inspired and humbled as they are by their peers, they didn’t stick to only one genre in “From Away From Here”. Mackenzie talked about their vital need to explore and try different music genres:

I also think because we have a wide interest in genre that through that we don’t’ want to be stuck in that box of “that’s just that folk duo”, which is fine. Folk duos are nice but I think we have the ability to surprise people, and try writing stuff that’s more like bluesy, or funk, or a little edgy.

They also love the freedom acapella gives them to create, play around, and change genre whenever they feel like it:

« Well, in our repertoire, we’re kind of covering some old rockabilly and blues stuff together. Acapella kinda of allows us to change genre. We do a few songs that are acapella and that lets us cast a wider net. And I mean, with the trumpet, who knows what’s going to happen next. », Geneviève said.

So now that you know more about the duo Mizuna, I invite and encourage you to listen to their album, which, as of today, is on the independent platform Bandcamp, where you can purchase it for a small contribution of $8.

You can also find them on Spotify and Itunes. Don’t forget to like and share Mizuna’s “From Away From Here” and most importantly don’t forget to let them know your thoughts on Bandcamp, their Facebook page, Youtube Channel and Instagram profile.

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