San Francisco’s Lan Miao (pronounced lawn meow) is a singer/songwriter who has just released The Keep, an EP that was twenty years in the making.
Miao was born in Lansing, Michigan, and in fact was named after Lansing. At age seven she began learning Western classical music and theory. Growing up in Taiwan, she listened to Mandarin pop and eventually began writing her own songs. Back to the States in the ’90s, Miao discovered alternative rock radio, and was filled with “new ideas of music and lyrical expressions.” But for various reasons she wasn’t able to devote herself fully to music until 2019.
This EP collects songs Miao wrote throughout her late teens and early 20’s. Miao states that these songs “explore my relationship with each of my parents: unspoken yearnings, sadness and anger at their fallout, fear of disloyalty and abandonment. At first, I wasn’t sure about releasing these songs. In the end, I thought the songs serve as a good documentation of where I started on my songwriting journey, and, more importantly, that these are stories that could possibly help someone else through a similar predicament, the way listening to bands and artists like Nine Inch Nails and Tori Amos has brought me solace through the years.” It’s interesting that Miao mentions Tori Amos as an influence, because I was noting echoes of Kate Bush, who is a very similar artist, and I’ve followed them both.
During two years of quarantine, Miao recorded these songs in makeshift bedroom studios on Logic Pro in Berkeley and Campbell, California, acting as her own producer for the first time. Mastering was by Scott Hull at Masterdisk in Los Angeles.
With the opening “Favorite Things” you know immediately this is going to be a quite different album than you’re used to hearing. Her sound is intimate and confessional, which makes me want to approach her music with care and respect. Miao explains: “Originally, it was going to be Western orchestral strings only. Then one night as I listened back, I kept hearing the erhu (a Chinese two-string violin). It sounds like crying to me, which is what the climax of the song conveys for me.” If what I’m hearing is the erhu, it certainly does sound like crying or quiet wailing! Besides those elements, I’m also hearing a very muted piano, which plays chord progressions that slowly arc downward. Miao’s singing voice is quiet and closeup, and recall both Tori Amos and Kate Bush, as noted. This track is over six minutes long, and Miao creates drama and tension by building her elements carefully, allowing plenty of space and air.
“Prayer” is built on a simple, repeating piano pattern in the bass notes, along with an equally simple, insistent drum beat. Miao notes that “My mom had turned to religion for comfort and would often leave me alone by myself at night. I was so hurt by it. The chord just repeats in C minor, barely peaking at F, G. I didn’t understand this until just a few years ago that the chord ‘progression’ really ultimately reflected an emotional numbness.” Though the track has a fairly basic riff, it builds in power bit by bit, and is a perfect backdrop for Miao’s heartfelt vocals. “So you pray to the god above / Try to replace the human love / You knelt down for so long you shut me out / And still things are falling apart.” It’s an emotionally stark track that’s not easy to listen to, despite its opaque beauty.
“This Old Man” musically feels similar to the previous track, though at a faster, almost rock tempo. Miao says this is a variation of the children’s song: “I heard Tori Amos cover it and wanted to do something with it too. I wrote it after a night of binge drinking in college. This song came together really quickly in the studio because I always knew it had an attitude! I especially love the guitars roaming in the background - reminds me of PJ Harvey too.” Miao is certainly right about the attitude, and the feral, feedbacking guitars certainly add of layer of weight and menace to the music, along with a more confident and aggressive lead vocal by Miao. A shorter but excellent track.
“Rainbow” went through many versions but ultimately came together with a more traditional song structure. Miao says her husband singled this out as “the one song that most represented me as an artist and me as a daughter. I knew in that moment I wanted to treat it with some warm synths.” Like some of the other songs, Miao creates a descending piano riff and builds from there, with her vocals and drums becoming bigger and more assertive as the song moves forward.
The penultimate track “Pale Mother” is actually the last track Miao recorded for the project. “The piano and vocal were recorded in the same take, making it the closest to a live performance. You can hear the noise of the keyboard but the emotions were perfectly captured (so) I decided to use the takes anyway.” In an album filled with intimate moments, this is a song that’s almost physically painful to contemplate, but lovely to hear. “I was crying over you / Crying over my loss of you / I was crying, crying for you / How did I end up losing you?”
“The Keep” is the closing track and the only one to replace piano with organ, which feels somewhat fitting. Miao fills out the track by overdubbing the organ parts in different octaves. It’s an eerie, almost vibrating sound that perfectly captures the stark quality of the lyrical story. “He gave me my life before I was born / Gave me a plan, gave me my future / Then he gave me this knife, showed me how to hurt.” Miao says this song “still brings me a lot of comfort. I listen to it and feel redeemed and safe. It’s the perfect closer.”
Not for the casual listener, this is music created from a deep and vulnerable place in the artist and deserves care and consideration, but is ultimately rewarding for effort.
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