Michael Gira - A Man

Copper Press, Issue 10 | Julianne Shepherd

he could slice razors into our skin and convince you it was an act of love

If Michael Gira sang about it, he could slice razors into our skin and convince you it was an act of love. Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash sing with an unrelenting sense of pending doom, but Gira imbues that sentiment with a resigned clarity, as if awful sorrow is beautiful merely because it exists at all. His baritone drifts heavily through the darkest parts of the human psyche. But M. Gira is a writer of love songs – he just deals in the atypical, the blackest parts of love, such as obsession, rejection, the masochism inherent in any devotion. You could say he explores the connection between love and horribleness. He says, “ I hope [the songs] portray an essential sentiment in some way – whether it be violent, mournful, lustful, tender or ecstatic. All these emotions seem to fit in a ‘love affair’ usually, at some point.”

On How I Loved You, the latest record by the Gira-fronted ensemble Angels of Light, he sings “New York Girls, scattered crimson pearls / You touch me like you do, you fall in love with fools / I saw you in the night, your silver rings they shined / The music was too loud, I kneeled and kissed the crowd.” The words he chooses to sing are lush and poetic, as if he draws inspiration from literary references. But he says, “I’m not capable of using that kind of reference system when I’m writing. These days, I just sit still and wait for words to appear in my mind. It’s a lengthy process, believe me.. I give up trying to manage the thing.”

A lengthy process for a lengthy career: Michael Gira has been involved with art and music for over twenty years. In 1982, Gira released his first recording with Swans, a band whose 15-year career is remembered most by the artistic, beautiful, and cryptic noise they produced (not to mention the commanding pairing of Gira and Jarboe). Gira disbanded Swans just after the release of their eleventh full-length album in 1997, trading in his looper for the more organic sounds of lap steel, mandolin, vibes and acoustic guitar in Angels of Light. In addition, he runs his own label, Young God Records, has released three solo albums and a collaboration with Windsor for the Derby’s Dan Matz, and wrote a collection of short stories called The Consumer. With such a long, prolific relationship with the arts, one would assume his method of creativity, or at least his intent, would be very specific. Instead, Gira re-emphasizes that his inspiration comes as it pleases. “Really, the songs write me. I’m serious here. I have no ability to control the process any more. I definitely don’t set out to ‘reach people.’ They have their own business, and I have mine – usually two wildly different agendas! I just make something happen, because if I didn’t, why then, I’d be faced with the awful prospect of looking at myself. Not that I’m a bad guy; I just like to avoid the tedium of introspection.”

Whether or not Gira’s merely being witty, it’s dumbfounded to think that a man such as he actually avoids looking inwards. While his lyrics aren’t rooted in philosophy, there is a strong depth to them, largely because he explores ideas many people are unwilling to allow into their subconscious. For instance, “Empathy, “ one of the stories in The Consumer, deals graphically with incest, finding parallels between sex and the literal consumption of the human body, all in a setting of a bloody, piss-filled apartment. And, though How I Loved You is a self-declared “album of love songs,” its themes include suicide, submission, and allegorical death; each song paints its own wistful scene. At the very least, Gira’s seeming fascination with the pathetic nature of Id is certainly not the pastime of an unintelligent man..

“Yeah,” he begins, “I would say that I’m very intelligent, but definitely not an intellectual. I have a tendency to let emotion drag me into whatever situation happens at the end, trusting my intuition. In a way, I feel like God is controlling everything, and we are/I am like microbes flowing in a stream of plasma.”

It is this resignation to the inevitable circumstances of life that permeates M. Gira’s lyrics. In Angels of Light’s “My True Body,” he sings, “I am weeping and torn, put your dirty white hands inside me / These walls they are ringing, with my tortured last screaming, now suck the fear from my belly / The red sea is raging, with my coughing and spitting, my love is bitter sulfur burning.” No matter how bloody his lyrics get, no matter how much he wails and crackles and roars in his bewitching deep voice, he still sounds like he’s accepted, and rolls with, his own particular fate. It’s possible this is an effect of the fact that, while esteemed in artistic circles, Swans never quite got the recognition as many of their peers. As with most musicians, and especially musicians doing something groundbreaking and not immediately accessible, the majority of their career was defined by an uphill struggle. But, despite the dismay and frustration that accompanies that struggle, he says, “The most important thing I’ve learned is perseverance, to ignore failure. I am proud of surviving.” Gira is similarly proud of the uncompromising nature of his work, saying, “I’ve made many mistakes, but I have always challenged my own preconceptions, and by extension, I guess, those of others (assuming they’re interested).”

A preconception one might have about Gira is that he’s a devilish man, either from his lyrical content or his music (more so with Swans than with Angels of Light or solo). However he’s not exactly reflected by his music, and the reason his message is not over-saturated with drama is because of that: Onstage, he comes across so politely he might be from a different, more genteel era. That, and he wears very nice, brown suits and hats from the 1950s. His appearance is gigantic, like he’s a wise ghost cowboy who’s seen a lot of hell but still believes in beauty.