After growing up in a small town in Ontario, Canada and immersing herself in the Toronto music scene – which led to an appearance in the Weeknd’s 2012 video for ‘The Zone’ – Elissa Mielke moved to Los Angeles in 2019 to focus on her own musical journey. Though she previously worked as a fashion model, music has always been Mielke’s first love; she started performing at a young age and would record herself singing in the forest on a tape recorder. She came close to signing a record deal several times, including with a major label who sought to mold her into a kind of pop star she had no interest in becoming; those simply weren’t the sounds she naturally gravitated to. To say that her aptly titled new EP Finally has been a long time coming would be an understatement – one could have easily said the same about the self-titled project she released under the moniker Mieke six years ago.
Featuring just four out of the many songs Mielke has written during the past few years, Finally finds the singer-songwriter recalibrating her approach and reconnecting with what drew her to making music in the first place. The production here is incredibly sparse – Mielke’s piano or guitar are often the only accompaniment to her astounding voice, which fills out the spaces of these songs with emotion that can hardly be contained. She’s spoken of songwriting as a way of having dialogues with fear, and the power of these songs – from the warm, sacred intimacy of ‘Kind of Thing’ to the devastating beauty of ‘Trying’ and the gauzy, hopeful ‘Palace’ – lies in her ability to turn these internal battles into a universal plea for acceptance.
We caught up with Elissa Mielke for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her songwriting journey, the making of her new EP, and more.
There’s a line on ‘Kind of Thing’ about “trying to figure out the meaning of it all” when you were fifteen. What was that time in your life like for you?
The beginning of the song – where it’s like, “Hear you, calling, far off in the distance,” and then “crash and all the drunk people cheering” – when I was a teenager, I grew up in the country and we were in the forest and there was a really small town racetrack, and it was the only thing you could hear because there was like 20 acres of forest around the house. A lot of kids from high school would go there and get drunk and smoke weed in the bleachers. The city now is developed and has breweries and trendy coffee shops and stuff, but the city nearby at that time didn’t really have many places to go. So that racetrack was nearby and I could hear it from my window, and I think in reflecting on it, to me it represented… I had a really beautiful childhood and I loved growing up in the country, but also because we didn’t really listen to popular music – you know, my parents didn’t really listen to Bob Dylan or anything that other people’s parents were listening to, mostly classical music and hymns – I heard that and when I think about it now, it kind of represents the separateness I felt as a teenager. I was always trying to figure out why I didn’t feel like I fit, and I think at church I felt like I was trying to make sure I didn’t somehow lose acceptance or love. And then at school it was the same thing where people were talking about music and TV shows, and I didn’t have a TV and we didn’t watch movies. And then people would be like, “We’re all going to the racetrack,” and like, you know, I had never had a beer. [laughs]
I think that messy thing of being a teenager and belonging – I’m reading a lot about belonging right now, and I think especially this year has brought up this sense of exile. And it’s sad that so many people are feeling it at the same time, but if anything this last year for me exacerbated how important it is for us to feel like we belong somewhere. I think as a teenager I felt often very isolated, and the beginning of that song is sort of like a visual memory for me: lying in my bed with the window open, hearing the cars, and just feeling like every kid does or even adults do when you’re having a FOMO moment of like, “Everyone is there, everyone knows what they’re doing, everyone is cool and feels cool and they fit in.” And you know, I just had Bible study and I’m in my bed and can’t go to the racetracks. [laughs]
I also think it’s maybe part of being an artist and a creative person. I mean, with music, I always feel like I belong in a song, or when I’m making music with other people. That’s just been a thing that feels like it’s mine. And in some moments where I feel off or vulnerable or there’s something my subconscious is trying to sort out and it can’t, then I go to a studio or I go to a little piano room and I just play. That’s how the song ‘Trying’ came up – I was feeling all these old feelings and like I didn’t fit, and then the song appears and it’s like, “Oh, I’ve been way too hard on myself, and there’s people who are being way too hard on me that I need to address.” So I think songwriting has become like a passage for that.
How did your interest in music and songwriting develop?
When I was four or five, I started classical piano lessons. And I think I liked it, but I mostly liked when there was a moment in a classical piece that felt really beautiful or emotive. Like, if there was one song where there’s a moment where everything’s Andante and slow and beautiful, I would just play that part over and over again. And that’s kind of how I ended up writing songs, is I would get in trouble with my teacher because I was meant to be practicing the song and doing it like it said, and instead I would just pick the most beautiful parts and play them over and over and sing little things that matched my feelings. And then I took a lot of classical voice lessons, and I studied with an opera teacher.
It wasn’t socially acceptable, necessarily, to make my own songs, like that wasn’t the thing that certain people in my church community were comfortable with. And so, classical music had these big beautiful indulgent moments, and it was kind of music that I had access to. My dad sings songs – he plays guitar and sings and he lived in Mexico for a long time, so he really played a lot of mariachi music at home and a lot of Spanish music and Mexican music, and that also has a lot of harmonic elements and a lot of like big emotional swells. So, a lot of my love for songwriting grew out of that, and then I also grew up in a church where there were a lot of choirs and I sang in a lot of choirs. I sang in a choir that performed with an opera, so that was really powerful, singing with other people and learning about harmony. I still really play a lot with choral elements and I love arranging harmonies.
I also studied journalism in Toronto, and I think I partly studied that because it meant that I could live in Toronto, which was the closest city. I played shows when I was 14 or 15 – I had like two fake managers, and one was named Ingrid and the other one was named Cassia. Because I realized I wouldn’t be able to book shows – you know, I’d call and they’d be able to tell it was a 15-year-old and they wouldn’t book anything. But I quickly learned that if someone else is booking something for you, they’ve already assumed that you’re worth investing in. So, I booked some festivals and some shows for myself as a fake manager, and I got a residency that way at this Hookah bar in a strip mall and kind of just started exploring and making connections with the music scene that way. I played in a punk band for a year and we toured in Canada and played some festivals – I played mostly synths and made noises.
So you started performing songs at that age, and that was when you were still writing songs in secret or in private?
Because my family’s very involved in a church, I started writing some music to sing there too, but often there when I sang it was too emotional and evocative, like, not straight, and so that didn’t necessarily go over super well. I mean, my dad would drive me to the Hookah Bar and sit there and listen to me play my songs, which I really appreciate. So yeah, when I was about that age I started playing shows, and just gaining confidence slowly, realizing that what I did was a thing. I was just writing songs in my apartment and I had this little tape recorder and I’d sing into it in the forest and have these tapes, but I didn’t – until a friend of mine at high school burned me a CD of like, Joni Mitchell and Heart and Janis Joplin, and he was like, “You’re a songwriter, check out these people, these women do the same thing.” And I had never met a woman who is a songwriter – I didn’t know any songwriters or musicians who did it as their job as adults. I wouldn’t dare to dream that I could do it as an adult, but somewhere in my heart I knew I wanted to do that, always.
How did punk come into your life?
I think I’ve felt some anger about being a kid who had, like, a lot of ideas and questions that were very accepted at home, but sometimes in other communities I was part of, I was too loud or asked too many questions or was too expressive, had too many feelings. So, I went to a few punk shows when I was a teenager, and there was something about – I’m a real people pleaser and I have a lot of love for people when I meet them – but anger, and being able to express anger or express frustration, wasn’t something I was able to do. I don’t know a lot about punk music, but whenever I went to one of those shows, it was really welcoming, and it seemed like all these people who were in touch with the things that were hurting them, and they were able to express them by screaming or thrashing around things.
I just played in a few bands, and the one that I toured with a bit I was playing piano at a show and they wanted some more melodic elements to their band, like New Order, Joy Division, so they just contacted me. I didn’t really listen to a lot of popular music fully until I was an adult, so we would be in band practice and they’d be throwing out references and I’d just write them down in my book and be like, “Totally, we can have a sample like that.” And I had no idea what any of them were. But I moved to Tokyo after university, and when I was in Tokyo, I went to a few punk shows, and there were a lot of synth shops and stuff like that. So that was really fun because I learned how to program synths – I had a little microKORG and a few synths and I would sit on the roof of my apartment in Japan and just learn about programming, and started listening to Joy Division and learning about Ian Curtis and how all his idiosyncrasies contributed to his performances.
How did you settle on this kind of stripped-back, simple presentation for this EP?
A lot of the writers I love, like Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bill Withers – if you put someone in front of an instrument and they just sing their song, you can really hear the song. And I think if you’re not yet married to a style of production, sometimes just having the instrument and the vocals lets you really be in the song. And because the words also matter to me and the vocal matters to me, there’s something about just letting it be that’s like meeting someone and not wearing any makeup, where they can actually see your face. And then you can put on makeup later and it’s fun, you know. So production-wise, I look forward to putting on some glittery eyeshadow or whatever, but this was sort of me being like, “I’m going to meet the music world with no makeup on so they can see what we’re starting with.”
It’s interesting, especially in that context, that the EP is called Finally. What was the reason for that?
Because I entered the music industry from a standpoint of feeling like other people had authority – especially if you’re a young woman in the music industry, and you meet someone who has like won Grammys or had platinum whatevers, there’s this sense that if they tell you something, it should be true. I’d play a show when I was 15 with my fake ID in the city, and these men would come up, sometimes from a label or sometimes a manager, and they’d have a lot of opinions. They were all thinking about how to make money off of whatever little thing they saw. And I think I kind of felt like maybe I needed one of those people to allow me to do music. I had a lot of curving roads and a lot of almosts – I think it’s very normal as an artist, you’re kind of trying things and opportunities open up. And then there were a lot of also just sketchy people that I met in the music industry, where they were offering a big opportunity, but it was also… It wasn’t connected to who I am as an artist, or it was with somebody who really just wanted to sleep with me. It’s different navigating that as a grown woman, but if you’re 17 or 18 – I’m just glad it didn’t destroy my love for writing, and that there was always this instinct where I was like, “It doesn’t make sense to like, drown this in synths, or for me to write this song with this 48-year-old man named Kevin even though he has Billboard hits, because none of this feels true.”
It’s taken me a long time to trust myself. I made an album that I got a bunch of investors for, and… It’s a long story, but I ended up – I barely had the stems for it, so that taught me how to produce and I started learning Logic and realizing that I could put my songs together myself, or I could ask other people to play on them. Or, with the distribution model we have today, I could go and put out a song if I wanted to. I would love to have a team, but I didn’t need anyone. And ironically that’s when I met an amazing team, this year, when I started finally just being like, “I have all these songs, let’s just put them out! Why am I waiting for all these random people to tell me they’re good enough?”
So I think it’s Finally in that way where I don’t really feel afraid of things I used to feel afraid of. And because it’s been a long journey – I had this card I found, it has like my MySpace on it for my music, and I remember being like 16 and getting it at the print shop and going to radio stations, just being like, “I know that I want to share my songs, I don’t know. I’m just trying.” So I think finally I have a sense of things I want to write, and also just the person I am.
How do you feel now that the EP has been released?
Whenever you put out music or something into the world, it feels like standing naked in the middle of a field. [laughs] You’re really seen, and you’ve shared something very vulnerable. To me it feels really important to protect the healthy creative part, because releasing music in this time means that you need to do a lot of self-promotion, and so I end up being on social media or on the internet a lot, and that can be very distracting from the actual thing, which is the music. Because you’re talking about the songs and making visuals for the songs and thinking about how they might represent you. So honestly, I feel like as soon as something comes out, I just want to run and hide. And it’s so nice to have put it out, and to have released it, but I’m really trying to not focus as much on the reaction and more so on the things I want to say next and share next.
But that being said, anytime people respond to it, it’s so moving. I think as a person who had this imposter syndrome thing about not fitting into culture or not understanding culture but so deeply wanting to be a part of the music world in some way, it feels so meaningful anytime anybody’s interested in it or sharing it or talking about it. It really challenges that imposter syndrome.
Is there anything in particular you would like to explore more of in the future?
I think I’ll just have to see. I was reading my book this morning, and there’s this word in Zen Buddhism, Shoshin – I wrote it on my hand – and it means like a beginner’s mind, or having an openness, and the idea of going through life like that. And I would hope that even when I’m 70 and hopefully have released many records, that I would still be approaching any part of life or creativity with this openness to learning something new or to seeing what arrives. So sometimes now when I’m writing it feels right to write on a synth, or it feels right to sing really quiet or really loud. And so I think that’s how I would approach whatever thing comes next. I’m trying to release any pressure or expectation and just to enjoy that. It’s such a privilege and gift to be able to like focus on making art, but I also think it can be so easy to get in your head and for things to feel so heavy and so serious, and now having a team for my music, to focus on outcomes. And it’s just so freeing to pause and just be like, “Whoa, what a cool thing that this thing I loved doing as a kid I still get to keep doing, and I’m still gonna fight to keep doing, always, and hopefully with that sort of lightness and openness.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Elissa Mielke’s Finally EP is out now via Slashie/Mom + Pop.