Miwa Gemini @ Hotel Cafe, 4/13/08

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Miwa Gemini at the Hotel Cafe | Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist

When the opportunity to check out New York-based singer-songwriter Miwa Gemini live at the Hotel Cafe came up recently I jumped at the chance based on one line in the PR materials: "Think Nina Simone meets Sparklehorse meets Cat Power, and you're getting close." Intrigued, I showed up Sunday evening to the Hotel Cafe, nabbed a seat in the room's soothing darkness, and was utterly blown away.

Hailing originally from Japan, Gemini came to the US first as a high school senior via a study abroad program that took her to Columbus, Ohio. Craving the excitement of New York, Gemini moved eastward after high school, and studied graphic design at NYU then embarked on a career in photography. Music has always been a part of her life, and she soon began to write and record (Flagpole.com).

Gemini's stop at the Hotel Cafe was part of a tour in support of her current release, This Is How I Found You, which came out in March following an earlier Canadian release. Her sound is hard to pinpoint; her influences are clearly in the American songwriting traditions of folk, blues, country, and rockabilly, which oddly enough seems to put her in the catch-all contemporary category of "indie."





Miwa Gemini: "Pieces"

Gemini took the stage with just her guitar, playing a short set of songs from her current album and one brilliant cover that was unplanned. The overall tone of her music is moody and steeped in the conventions and lore of storytelling or a particular musical genre, for example, she explained that her song "Traveling Man" was written in the style of the great women of country, such as Dolly Parton, who all had mournful songs about men who went a-wandering.



Miwa Gemini: "Traveling Man"

What was particularly enchanting about this performance, though, was that once the song came to its end (the fed-up woman leaves her no-good-cheatin' man) Gemini addressed the fact that she'd felt at a certain point that the song could go in another direction, and that the story could take on another dimension.

MiwaGeminiHotelCafeSm.jpg"Would you like to hear it?" she offered, and we eagerly accepted it. She took up the song with another verse, this time having the troubled couple reconcile and travel forever together; by giving us--and herself--the option to make a choice for ourselves she took not only her song but her storytelling to another level, a feat that is best accomplished live.

What Gemini's album does not reveal that a live performance opens the door for is the immense power of her vocals. She transitions effortlessly between moments of soft spoken musing to a powerful belt reminiscent of the great Broadway showtune bellowers. This was best illustrated when she opted to play a cover of Johnny Cash's iconic "Ring of Fire" (citing having heard some Cash on the sound system just before she went onstage as her reason for having Cash on her mind).

However, instead of the bouncier cowboy rhythm of the original she slowed it down and gave it a resonant dirge-like quality that lent itself remarkably well to the despairing theme of the song. The verses were narrated in a gentle hush, then the pain of the descent into love's fiery hell was translated with enormous force, with the scant trace of her Japanese accent infiltrating her pronunciation adding one more layer of vulnerability to the already heartbreaking melody.

miwagemini.jpgDespite the overall moodiness of her music, there is much about Gemini that is whimsical and lighthearted, from the way she assigns people in her life humorous monikers in song ("Charlie Chaplin Broke My Heart" is about a love affair gone awry with a mischievous fellow) to the way she explains how she got her "stage" name. It all began when the domain name "miwa.com" wasn't free, and so she added her starsign and registered miwagemini.com, which encouraged people to think "Gemini" was her last name. She tried going as "miwagemini" but when iTunes added her music, they split it first and last, and the deal was done. On her MySpace blog she concludes: "in the end it’s kind of like my cat - i didn’t pick him, he picked me. i didn’t pick my name, my name picked me."

Bits of the magical and mythical seep into her songs; there are bewitching moons and heartsick wishes at every turn. At times her delivery--a powerful pixie-like punctuation--is reminiscent of Bjork, and despite the often sad subject matter, inspires a giggly feeling. Gemini is, in short, enchanting. Sadly for Angelenos, she is headed back to her New York home now, but hopefully will be out this way again soon. In the meantime, carve out a little hollow of time and space for yourself and draw her album, This Is How I Found You in. And I'll see you at her next LA show.

Photos by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist