Music Premiere: Chava Mirel Takes on Alice in Chains on her New Album

by Jacob Uitti

Seattle-based songwriter, Chava Mirel, composes cocoons that transform both performer and listener. Her latest album, the full-length Into The Light, is a deeply personal offering. It delves into self-doubt, gnarled ideas of love and how to transform oneself through difficulties both mental and physical. The Emerald is excited to debut the lead single from the album, a cover of the iconic grunge song, “Would?” by Alice In Chains.

The Emerald asked Mirel about the new song, the new record, her work in the Jewish faith and her favorite musical moment ever.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Jacob Uitti: Why did you want to cover Alice In Chains’ iconic song, “Would?”?

Chava Mirel: This album was a unique project for me because I chose all the songs with the intention of telling a story about my own life while I was actively processing it. At the time, I was in a dark place of confusion and felt compelled to sing about it as part of my healing.

I already had most of the songs selected when I read a post from my friend Evan Flory-Barnes extolling the virtues of the song, “Would?” It was always my favorite Alice In Chains song and a huge influence on me during an impressionable time in my youth. At the moment of this recording it completely resonated with my anguish. Although it was a departure from the format of jazz standards that I used for the rest of the album, thematically it was the perfect climax to the arc of the story I was telling.

My collaborator Eric Verlinde, also a South Seattle musician, was also excited by the addition of “Would?” to the album and worked with me and our engineer Floyd Reitsma to create a track that stands out from the rest of the album in its production style. Eric and I both grew up in the Northwest and were already playing jazz by the time this song came out and both of us were independently musically impacted by the sounds of the grunge era that surrounded us.

JU: How did you approach singing the legendary vocals?

CM: As a reflection of the complete dis-integration of the self that this song represents to me — reinforced by the fact that the verse is sung by Jerry Cantrell and the chorus by Layne Staley — I tried to depict varied perspectives of turmoil and despair in the vocal interpretation. The verse nods to the dark, iconic harmonies on the original and the chorus has more of a soulful and vulnerable sound. Over the beautiful piano solo I sang two wild improvised vocal tracks that swirl around each other and culminate in a primordial scream. Then in the outro (the part of the song that exploded my brain back in 1992), we break into a gospel section and I get to wail over Eric’s and my background choir vocals. The track ends with a reference to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which Eric quotes four times throughout the album.

JU: As an artist, you also work to bring teachings of the Jewish faith to audiences. What inspires these efforts?

CM: I’m inspired first and foremost by my desire to connect with and offer a sense of belonging to other people through music. I’m also inspired by my own personal quest for connectedness and well-being.

As a Jewish music composer, my goal is to find aspects of Jewish teachings that have transformative value and then write music that helps people connect with and live by them. Although Judaism teaches many different values (some of them diametrically opposed to each other), I choose to focus on values with universal resonance like gratitude, interconnectedness, mindfulness (acceptance of what is) and self-compassion.

Whether in my Jewish or secular work, I’m interested in using music to shift the world toward equity, empathy and mutual accountability. I’m lucky to have a platform from which to spread a message and I’m aware that it’s a big responsibility.

JU: Tell me about the production of your new album: what was your top intention when putting it together?

CM: I spent years struggling with this internal conflict that I tried to process through music, between the expectations of our dualistic capitalist society and my authentic truth. As a natural people pleaser, I was easily swayed by external pressures. So there was a constant disconnect of trying to fulfill cultural expectations until the self-betrayal got almost lethal. The act of finally pulling myself out of the cycle and reconnecting with my values strengthened and renewed my sense of inner purpose. This album tells that story, with “Would?” portraying the soul-crushing torture of self-betrayal.

Specifically, I was dealing with what I learned since I was a child about what it is to be a womxn in this world. Limiting messages were embedded in my psyche so strongly that it sometimes felt like elevating beyond them was my entire life’s mission, both personally and artistically. I’ve been writing songs about rewiring my brain from these toxic thought patterns since I released my first album, “Journey,” in 2004, and have songs about these same internal conflicts in my 2015 release, “Make the Two Sides Meet.”

So much of the destructive and limiting messages came to me through songs — “romantic” fantasy set to music. The narratives are very seductive but unfortunately can be hierarchical, gender-binary, rape-culture-promoting, and otherwise unsafe. In my life it manifested as a misperception that I had less worth as a musician and needed men to endorse or validate my work, and in a disempowering relationship with my own sexuality. The fact that the messages were conveyed with such powerful soundtracks made them particularly potent for me and is the reason I felt the need to use music to counteract them.

One of the most important dynamics in the making of this album was the collaboration with my colleagues Eric Verlinde (piano) and Thomas Marriott (trumpet and flugelhorn). Their support and embracing of the concept was crucial to my ability to be vulnerable enough to record these songs. The instrumentation was extremely exposed, completely improvised, and required full wholehearted buy in. I’m so grateful to have these wholesome collaborators and allies on the album with me. My intention in putting this album together was for my own transformation and healing, and to inspire transformation and healing in others.

JU: What do you hope audiences learn from the record?

CM: I hope audiences learn what I learned making this album: pain can be a powerful transformative force; accountability creates connection; take responsibility for your own needs and invite others to do the same; do what you can to support and heal your inner child; we already have everything we need inside of ourselves.

JU: What is your biggest goal, your wildest dream, for 2019?

CM: In 2019 I plan to release a second full-length album, deepen my understanding of my own truth, take a few family vacations — and help bring about a new era of expanded consciousness in humanity.

JU: Do you have a favorite memory in your life associated with music?

CM: One of my favorite musical memories happens regularly — playing gigs with my 6-year-old son on drums. We play a lot of assisted living and nursing home gigs, which is also how I got my start as a young performer growing up in Seattle in the ’70s and ’80s. We love playing for those sweet audiences — they really appreciate the music, they know all the lyrics and they never look at their phones during the performance. I’ve been playing at the Kline Galland Home in Seward Park for 42 years, since I was one year old. It’s such a thrill to pass that tradition and experience on to my own child.

Mirel performs at North City Bistro May 15 at 7 p.m. Thomas Marriott, Eric Verlinde, Dean Schmidt, and Brad Boal; and at Egan’s May 18 at 9 p.m. with Eric Verlinde, Dean Schmidt, and Jeff Busch.

Love the Emerald? Be a Rainmaker! Rainmakers are recurring donors that ensure our quality South Seattle coverage. Follow this link to be part of the Rainmaker family.