SHIRA Talks Mental Illness, Gender, And Silence: Video Premiere And Interview

by Gwen Berumen

Almost two years ago, I sat down with SHIRA — a poet, visual artist, and musician — hoping to introduce her work to BUST’s audience during my time as an intern for the magazine. After listening to her 2013 EP Shouts and Sparks, I was deeply moved in a way that I was not familiar with. Sometimes, I forget the power and truth in women’s voices; SHIRA’s music reminded me that those stories must be listened to. Because of this, I wanted to pick her brain, to perhaps ground my interpretation of her artistry, and then to listen to her beyond my interpretation.

A couple of months ago, we had a conversation that spread across state lines, but felt more intimate than our first encounter on a bench in Brooklyn. SHIRA has since started working on a new album, Subtle Creature, that is due out on August 16. This album will show a different side of SHIRA than Shouts and Sparks, a move that she describes as “electronic, but bends towards rock,” ultimately, as a result of “missing the guitar as a friend.”

Her dedication to her craft is audibly noted, her excitement for her collaborations — from Shannon Funchess from Light Asylum to Jamila Woods to Joseph, SHIRA’s “obsessed” with the “wonderful, powerful frequency” that they have created. These are people who have “had their thumb on the pulse of why we make music,” she tells me from her Brooklyn kitchen.

But, beyond the power that is brewed with what SHIRA calls an “intoxicating and expressive” experience — both in its inauguration and in its playback — is the personally political, personally powerful narrative of “Tip Toe.” This acoustic piece, a BUST exclusive, is a reinterpretation of the previous version of the song, which appears on Subtle Creature. “Song writing has a weird flow,” she tells me. “You must listen to who is taking you hostage in order to survive.” This acoustic version is introspective, rather than “confrontational” as the original version of the piece grew into being.

Writing this song was a gendered process; SHIRA describes, in thinking about the ways in which we process our gender, there is a variant of gendered responses in how she tackles the writing process and how we might process music. This was interesting to me when thinking about SHIRA’s sound. Her blend of genre, her acoustic re-interpretation is a literal sound palette. She tells me that “silence functions differently” based on the body that manufactures that silence, almost proposing a “dictated identity.” To SHIRA, “Tip-Toe” serves not only to conceptualize the personal as a political project, but also to tear into gendered experiences around mental illness and stigma. SHIRA shines a light on the gendered process of silence, and its manifestation in this artistic process.

SHIRA’s ultimate goal in reinterpreting “Tip Toe” was to question how “symphonic sounds” could translate into an acoustic experience. Her acoustic cover opens a new window into the soul of the music that was not there before. While both pieces are working to center mental illness in a way that has not been done before, this “Tip Toe” forces you to listen in a very intimate way. Through this, SHIRA asks: how are narratives constructing how we read silence, how we read gender, and how we read illness? SHIRA’s work in “Tip Toe” works to break silences, to re-interpret, to empower.

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Your music has always felt very political to me. Last time we talked, you mentioned that you were constantly thinking about what gives you power, and alternatively, what takes it away. Can you reflect on this now? Has this source changed throughout the last couple of years?

During this time, power for me derived from community. From therapy, writing groups, my sweetheart, friends. I feel most moved when I see community in action; and that was also existing in my own opening up where I would see my struggles, to see where there is togetherness within me. I am a part of something; the highs and lows are part of this. You feel permission to speak out when others are already doing so, and it becomes a constant, you form a legacy of speaking. And we must continue this legacy. I have this manuscript of poems, Odes to Lithium, where I write about the complexity of my relationship with medication, as something that saves me yet troubles me. It debunks myths about medication but also explores all the ways to love lithium, the complexities of having this lover.

“Tip Toe” really makes me think about generational trauma…

In this song, I am reflecting on my grandmother, a 1950s housewife, an artist, & a sufferer of undiagnosed bipolar disorder in an intensely stigmatized time. Silence contributes to the stigma of mental illness. Her story would not have been what it was without silence and shame. But we have to ask: Who is this silence serving?

I think about her and my grandfather, and I just wish that there would have been more room. That’s what I like about song-making — it is very different — it is its own delicious endeavor. This was a braiding of a personal narrative for me. It is personally political. And this focus on mental illness needs to be threaded with society’s expectations of gender, race, etc. There are restrictions because of this, this thought of finiteness around identity. To smash this by being and doing, in “Tip Toe,” has a yummy impact that is just as important as the content.

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Recently, I have begun to think about the spontaneous bursts of inspiration that come of out places that I didn’t know would hold something for me. For example, I’m super into Hamilton and standup comedy right now. Both of these things are informing a lot of the ways that I am maneuvering through life; how I am thinking about stuff. Is there something like this in your life? Something unexpected that has ended up inspiring you?

I love that! Okay — so for me, there are two things. First, The Walking Dead. I am notoriously known for being a wuss about anything gory. Yet, there is this narrative of survival in the zombie narrative; it makes me think about the moment, about how who we think we are is always in flux.

There’s also a writing residency I was recently awarded at Vermont Studio Center for visual artists. One day while I was waiting for a train, I found myself looking at a tile in the subway station. There are these quiet privacies; things that cannot be commodified, sold: something that is only yours in that moment. It’s almost radical in a time where everything is commodified; that there is something that exists in a pure, timeless way. It’s a re-authenticating process for me, for my art.

Follow Shira on Soundcloud here.

Gwen Berumen is former BUST intern and is currently in limbo. You can find her on Twitter @gwehdolyn and listen to her on the podcast she co-hosts, Sad Girls Club

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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