Mia Joy is the moniker of Chicago-based singer-songwriter Mia Rocha, who was raised in a creative household and started singing and making music from a young age. Following a series of releases that include her 2017 EP Gemini Moon, her debut album, Spirit Tamer, released last week via Fire Talk, is a spell-binding, intimate collection of tracks that were recorded over the course of several years and delve into themes of heartbreak, depression, and identity. Working with her friend and collaborator Michael Mac at Pallet Sound Studios, Rocha channels her musical curiosity and natural introversion to create a world that is both intensely private and ethereal, fluctuating between ambient-leaning, meditative soundscapes reminiscent of Grouper and Gia Margaret and a more direct indie rock sound. She finds strength in quiet vulnerability as much as playful self-awareness: ‘Freak’ references the title of Korn’s ‘Freak On A Leash’, but the song itself reflects an attempt to break free from a toxic relationship; on ‘Haha’, she sings, “I tried to keep my body in one piece/ My skin, its sheds in my sleep/ Turns out the joke is on me.” In evoking the things that permeate our mind when we’re not fully in control, Spirit Tamer sometimes resembles a dream state, but Rocha strikes a delicate balance – lulling you into a strange sense of comfort and then prodding you awake, as if with a soft light.
We caught up with Mia Joy for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her artistic journey, her upbringing, Spirit Tamer, and more.
I read that writing was your first love before music. What was your relationship with writing at an early age?
I think singing was always my first love. I’ve been singing since I could talk. But I think when I started gaining my identity around middle school, I had a teacher that was very nurturing and supportive and told me I was a good writer and pushed me to keep writing. I got really into Emily Dickinson, because she was very emo and reclusive and like, kind of ambiguous. I really related to her as a middle school student and I liked that she didn’t always rhyme. So I just wrote a lot of poetry from middle school to high school, and I did a lot of creative writing classes in high school and college. And going back to that teacher, there was this mythology unit that we were learning and I really liked all the symbolism and the stories and I think that was also what started my interest in astrology. But I think that was the nucleus of what inspired me to write poetry and write stories.
Were there other writers besides Emily Dickinson that you identified with?
I feel like she was really the main person that I identified with, but there’s obviously other poets and writers that influenced me. I really liked Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz because they’re extremely romantic, and really – I don’t know another word to say that, just kind of melancholy and there’s a lot of yearning. [laughs] I think that also spoke to me as a young sad recluse. And yeah, it was just another way of connecting to my culture. I still read those poetry books to this day.
You also grew up with musician and poet parents. How do you look back on your upbringing?
I realize that it’s not the most traditional way to be raised. I’m really grateful that my parents are artistically inclined. My mom, when she was young, she published a bunch of poems, but she is now in the education system. And she also paints – she’s a very talented painter. My father is a musician to this day, and I just talked to him yesterday and we were talking about my guitar and like, ways to fix the neck, and he’s been playing music for over 50 years. He’s the reason I got my first guitar and he taught me very basic chords and then I just ran with it. I think he has always been proud of me because it’s a piece of him in me, and his mother was a singer, and it feels like this really sacred lineage that’s been passed down to generations, this passion that we all have. But yeah, the home – there was always music playing, he had band practice in the basement, there’s studios in the basement. He would always, like, make me sing with him on his lap. It was just – I realize now that that’s not everybody’s experience, and I’m really grateful that it’s mine.
Do you mind sharing some more memories that have stuck with you from that time?
This is a story my dad loves to tell. My dad used to play guitar on a beautiful sunny day on our steps in the neighborhood, and people would walk past us – you know, people with their strollers and there are just kids running around – and I would come outside, and then the neighbours would start chatting with my dad like, “Oh, that sounds really pretty,” and then my dad would be like, “And she can sing!” And then he would like, make me sing in front of strangers, and he said that I used to just belt like a Selena song and perform. And then I got a little bit older and a little bit more self-conscious, and I was like, “You can’t just tell me to perform at the drop of a hat.” [laughs] And then he got mad at me because he was like, “You used to love to sing, you used to just do it on the drop of a whim.” And then I just got really insecure and I was like, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore.” [laughs]
That’s really funny, and I think most people can relate to that kind of experience in some way. I’m wondering, when you started to develop that creative side, how much of that journey happened separately from your family as you became more self-conscious.
I think that manifested in my writing in middle school. I think I shrunk myself and I got very insecure and quiet and I stopped singing, which was devastating to my parents because I was always singing as a child. So I put all of that creative energy into writing, and I didn’t know that that was actually a huge component to what I needed to have later in life to be a songwriter. But it wasn’t until about halfway in high school that I started – well, actually, I was in the Chicago children’s choir in middle school, which is a pretty prestigious choir and you have to dress up very formally and you go on tour and you sing through all these cathedrals and temples and it was a lot of discipline. I learned so much; I learned how to read music and sing in different languages, and it taught me that music has a lot of work ethic. It definitely taught me my love of harmonies, which is such a big part of myself now. And there’s something really magical about singing with like 30 other people. Everybody’s singing their own part that you’ve worked so hard to master, and then when you’re in this beautiful cathedral, everything glows and it’s such a rewarding feeling.
Does performing now give you a similar feeling?
I wish, actually. [laughs] No, I kind of hate performing, but I think when I’m performing with my band or with multiple people, there’s this like calming wave over me, I think that goes back to choir. It’s just ironic that my musical project is about me and I’m the focal point, and that’s just something I need to work on, like, my nerves. But yeah, I want to get to a place where I feel as serene and confident as I was as a quiet kid.
Yeah, as you said, I think as we grow up we become more self-conscious and maybe that’s a part of it as well. We talked about writing and singing, but what were your first attempts at actually making music like?
So, I also have a brother who’s a musician, and he gave me this very cheap DAW. I had a very shitty computer at the time, I was about 18 or 19. And I just was fooling around, I had spent my money on some musical equipment and just locked myself in my room for like, all of that summer and all of that winter, because I had nothing better to do, really. I think I’m naturally reclusive and private, and it was a good way of kind of coping with things I was feeling and thinking. I was already just playing guitar and covering songs that I liked, but I knew that there was like a plethora of stuff inside that needed to come out. I just needed the physical tools to make them. And I’m still like that to this day; if I get new gear or something, I will lock myself in my room, just having fun exploring, and that’s kind of the way that I write music. It’s very freeform and unplanned.
Do you remember what you were drawn to writing about at the time?
At first, I was just inspired by some of the music I was listening to at the time, and I was just fooling around with tones and textures. I had no idea what words to put to this, I didn’t have a vision. I was more focused on getting used to composing the musical parts first. But then I realized that I had notebooks and notebooks of poetry from my youth. So, if you stalk my SoundCloud and you scroll all the way to the bottom, some of those first songs from like eight or nine years ago are me really roughly writing some musical arrangements and then applying old poems to them because I didn’t know what to write about.
You mentioned Selena before, but I’m curious how you got into the more shoegazy influences of your sound.
I didn’t have the internet growing up, or it was very spotty, which was hard as a millennial, so I had to go to my local library and I would rent a huge stack of DVDs and movies to burn on my computer. Because I was bored, and also, I knew that I liked certain bands and I wanted to expand my knowledge of things. I think Deerhunter was a huge influence for me, especially the first few Deerhunter albums are very avant-garde and wild and droney and [Bradford Cox]’s voice is like stretched out, which I found really alluring and cool. That was definitely the building blocks of how I was attempting approaching writing songs in a very kind of loose structured way. And then obviously My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive and Beach House were really big at the time, and [Victoria Legrand]’s voice is very inspirational to me.
Do you feel that you were discovering all these bands on your own? Because you said you weren’t really connected to the internet, which for a lot of people is an important social environment for music discovery.
I love that question. It was a bit of both, actually, because sometimes I was able to catch the internet in my house, and I had this music blog on Tumblr. I’ve always been, for lack of a better word, a music nerd, and I wanted to be a music encyclopedia and know as much as possible. And I would review albums on Tumblr and I would make friends and I kind of built a little community on there. And some of my Tumblr friends were like, “You should record your own stuff, because I know that you’re making stuff at home.” And they kind of pushed me to make my own SoundCloud, which is really sweet. But because I felt that the Internet was scarce, I was compensating with going to the library, and my friends with the internet were like, “How do you do that? I don’t even listen to that much music and I have the internet.” And I was just like, “I don’t know.” It was a fun challenge in a way, and I’m kind of grateful for it, because I really had to work for the knowledge that I had. I don’t have a degree in music, I didn’t study making music or composing music, so my education was really just going hard at the library and on the internet and just really studying the people that weren’t inspirational to me.
You made a reference to astrology earlier, and I was wondering if you could talk about the role spirituality plays in your music.
Going back to my middle school teacher that really influenced my writing and encouraged me to write, I think he was teaching a mythology course and I kind of ran with that. My mom is pretty religious, pretty Christian, and was like, not okay with the astrology part, so I had to hide how much I loved it and I would buy astrology books and hide them in my room. And it was another thing that I was just studying, I just loved the symbolism and the story backgrounds and it definitely influenced me as a person, but it also gave me some catalysts to write when I was looking for inspiration. After studying it for so long, it’s kind of hard not to involve it because it’s something I think about a lot.
In what way?
For me, it’s an ideology. It’s not something that I’m devout in, but it’s a tool that I use to understand the world and the people around me. What’s really important to me is connecting with folks in a way that feels authentic and not shallow. I really want to understand people for who they are and what they bring to the table. And I think what’s ironic to me is that like, my friends kind of made fun of me for liking this kind of esoteric, obscure, weird thing that a 13-year-old got really into and then all of a sudden it got really trendy about five or six years ago. But it’s also been around forever, and I think it’s really a beautiful way to understand each other.
Obviously, the album title relates to this as well, Spirit Tamer. I read that’s also from a poem you wrote, which you’ve said represents a kind of protection from outside forces. What are those forces?
Yeah, I think that quote is kind of ambiguous, so I’ll break it down. Spirit Tamer, to me, means me being in control and the master of my own healing, my own recovery, and collecting all of my moves and all of my experiences. I’m someone who lives with depression, and I kind of know and can feel episodes coming in and out. And so, music is really a coping mechanism in ways that I am trying to harness the ebbs and flows of how I’m feeling and how I’m living. I wanted it to be a symbol of self-autonomy and strength.
The album also kind of moves between more straightforward pop moments and more ambient, less structured compositions – is that intended as a reflection of those ebbs and flows?
So, because the album took so long to come together over a course of two or three years, I think there’s so many gaps of time that I was writing this and recording it and being influenced by different things. But also, I want it to be clear and I want to commit myself to not being pigeonholed to one sound or one genre, because it’s just not going to happen – I’m just way too curious to do so much more stuff. And I think the pretentious 14-year-old music nerd in me kind of flinches at the word “pop”, because I’m not well versed – I don’t listen to pop, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect and admire it. I think I just wanted to set up the stage for people to know that I’m gonna take many routes and paths when it comes to my sound palette and writing songs.
‘See Us’ is a moment that stands out to me, partly because there’s a kind of optimism to it and the promise of a better future. And the line “I can see us making a name for ourselves” made me wonder what that phrase means for you, or what it meant for you when you were writing it, especially when it comes to making art.
‘See Us’ is really the only happy love song I’ve ever written. I had just gone on a vacation with my partner at the time, and I was filled with optimism and seeing the world and feeling like I was like building a future with someone. And that person was also an artist, and it was kind of just like a love note that like, “You and I are going to get it out there and we are going to achieve our dreams.” I really wanted to write a love song that didn’t feel traditionally possessive like, “I love you, you love me,” but more like, “Life is really beautiful with you and our dreams are really possible.”
I assume that’s what making a name for yourself means in that context, like making art that is meaningful.
I think I want to dispel the idea that making a name for yourself means success or status; that’s not how I intended that to come out. I think now, almost two years later, it does take on a different meaning, especially in COVID. I think it’s more of a love note to my friends and my community and people I want to see well, and that the world feels very grim and very scary at times – most times – and it’s nice to have your loved ones or your friends’ voice in your ear saying, “I know that you can make it happen for you and that it’s possible.”
Even though that’s maybe the only optimistic moment on the record, I still think there’s that sense of romanticism and yearning that you talked about in relation to your influences, which especially comes through on the final song. Why did you choose to end the album with a cover of Arthur Russell’s ‘Last Night Together’?
He – oh my god. So, during 2018 specifically, I was very heartbroken. And I’d say Russell really shaped my brain. He, like… Yeah, he changed my life. I think I love him so much because he has so much range, and when I heard his music for the first time, it was as if I’d always known. It felt very familiar, like I’d always known it, but it was also extremely invigorating and exciting, especially his avant-garde, cello, kind of synth-y dance music is beautiful and I definitely want to go in that direction as well. And his heartbreaking country folk ballads, which I feel are like subdivisions that live inside of me. Everybody in my life knows how much I stan him and how much I love him. [laughs]
I had experienced a moment in my life of saying goodbye to a person, and also just holding a lot of love and a lot of nostalgia. It’s just a bittersweet moment. And there was a really beautiful grand piano at the studio, and I was like, “Hey, look, I learned how to play this,” and it just was so haunting and beautiful that I wanted to add it to the record because I felt the message fit in there very well. It was kind of a spontaneous thing, and the version that you’re hearing on the album, we only tracked it like twice, so it was very live and very vulnerable, and I didn’t want to do it again, because I really liked the energy of that take.
Now that the album is out, what are some things that are inspiring you or that you’d like to explore more in the future?
I’m definitely moving out of the direction of making guitar-centric music and leaning more towards making more electronic ambient music. I think some of the interludes on the album are prefacing what’s to come for me. I’m really into house music and ambient music and global music, so I’m really curious to see what I’m going to be up to next year.
I think I’m still coming into my own with the new attention of the record, and it’s something that I’ve been dreaming about my entire life and it’s finally here, so it feels really surreal to soak in. But I also feel very grounded in my roots, as, you know, the shy choir kid, and I’m still locked away in my room, I’m still on the internet scoping for new music to be inspired by. And I’m just really grateful that people take the time to listen to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Mia Joy’s Spirit Tamer is out now via Fire Talk.