Mimi Gilbert lived in Wellington for two years and got by busking. And was amazed at the kindness and generosity of Kiwis who often would just offer her the keys of their houses so Mimi could go chill, shower or stay. Society often seems stifling and constraining to young minds on the move, defying conformity to define self, but in this context Mimi found society to be vast, open and rich (in spirit and experience), more like a mansion than a shack.
I wasn’t in that Wellington mansion when Mimi was playing for tips, or at least not where she was. I came across her via a Nashville blog I subscribe to and posted a couple of songs before my good friend Kerryn Fields urged me to look further. Mimi has just released her debut album Grew Inside the Water which is hugely impressive and that brings me to chat with her last week in Melbourne, where she now resides. Only to discover that she not only knows Kerryn but also Holly Arrowsmith and they all played a gig together in Melbourne, I’m assuming just last year.
Tell us about you:
Mimi Gilbert grew up in a little town called Ojai in Ventura County just north of Los Angeles. Ojai is pronounced O -hi, and uncannily, I grew up not far from a small coal mining town called Ohai, the place of stone, in the deep south of New Zealand. We talk about that later. But Mimi’s family travelled a lot and her mother had been in theatre so there was a music and travel thing going on and a church thing also which made her believe she couldn’t sing because it had to be four octaves. But one day she saw a busker and realised firstly that folk singing was different from gospel or prayer, and secondly the anonymous space of the street performer was a place she could hide and express herself through her songs. And that has led her to ten years in Australia and New Zealand, most of which has been performing anonymously in full public view. Childhood fears masked if not banished. Mimi in our backyard yet Nashville finds her!
Grew Inside The Water has a lot of melancholia coming through the lyrics and the melodies and I ask whether it has been a cathartic moment to get all this off her chest. I also make specific reference to the mother/child relationship implied in both the title track as well as “Taught To Build Walls”. For example, does “Grew Inside The Water” reflect the experience of an unborn child asking questions of its mother, who has given her no choice? My interpretation?
Mimi considers herself a very private person who expresses herself in code through her songs. So all interpretations are open and none will be verified. Which is the privilege of the anonymous street performer to perform and our privilege to interpret. And in my case, even though Mimi will not be drawn, I know I am right because that is my right. The joy of creation and the trail of flotsam and jetsam of the mind which it leaves in its wake. The power of the song.
But she does reveal that the songs on the record have come from some pain in the past, and getting these songs off her chest makes way for greater contentment to come through. You might call that cathartic, but I also reflect on the parallels with another American transplant who brings great joy to the soul through her music, that being Reb Fountain, who has just released a blockbuster of a record, but whose prior release also came from a perspective of pain, and in many ways Grew Inside the Water reminds me of Reb’s earlier release. Which lead me confidently to predict even better things to come from Mimi Gilbert.
Tell us about how the record was made, and with whom.
Simple question, but captivating answer as the long journey of building songs on the road, picking up backing musicians along the way, such that one is now in New Zealand and another in South Carolina becomes longer through want of money. And so more time on the road, and at home on the family “farm” on top of the flat barn roof, doing fundraisers the old fashioned way, and being offered studio time by Lauren Sexton, and it makes you realise the effort that goes in every time an artist produces their first album. There’s a book or a documentary in every one, because it ain’t easy. So, the only response is effort and heart and soul. And that’s why the album is so good.
From the opening track, which is a courageously dark and sombre introduction to “Coffs Harbour” we are captivated by the shimmering beauty of Mimi’s voice which brings Natalie Merchant to mind as well Nadia Reid and Courtney Marie Andrews. Looking at the sea. “Grew Inside the Water” brings the tempo up and also the intrigue, as the unborn child is not abandoned as it grows inside the water without asking for much more than the scream of childbirth and the meeting with her mother. Or something completely different, like the choice not made. Also true.
“Society’s a Mansion” is a busking anthem which we’ve touched upon, the constraint free anonymity of the street performer and the freedom to meet. “Losing Your Mind” has more depth in the backing which could be 10,000 Maniacs. ‘Statistically Speaking” has her touching on her church choir roots while still obscure, because that’s how her mind works.
We pass through a “Dark Storm” darkly, because all she needs is right here after all, and while you might be mightily impressed so far, the last four tracks take us into a higher plane.
“Taught To Build Walls” is a beautiful song about not understanding why she has been cut out of (whoever’s) life but it might have been a period of estrangement from her mother. Or someone else. Or something else. Which is a wind blowing us to Ireland and Sinead O’Connor, as she finds life in the wind and it’s ethereal and evokes both wind and flight and birdsong and perhaps also Mary Black because its “Ireland Song”.
And is there just a touch of release and optimism in “Dancing in the Sun” and “When You Rise” because we want it to be?
Mimi Gilbert grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty and The Eagles before discovering the folk/rock/jazz of the Joni Mitchell 70s and then writing songs which reflect the complexity of her perspective and the challenge to express from a position of privacy which is less strange than normal and thank goodness that expression found voice in the anonymity of street performance and brought her here and there and back and her music grew inside the water and we can all share.
And share you must.
Grew Inside The Water is available on all platforms and look out for a tour and welcome back to New Zealand soon.