Miwa Nishio has recently started listening to The Carpenters again, and for the first time, she knows what Karen and Richard are crooning about.
“When I was little I used to sing along but I had no idea what the words were,” she says. Nishio grew up in Kyushu, Japan. While most kids were following Japanese pop music, Nishio was singing along to her parents’ records, namely The Carpenters and The Beatles. “I was definitely one of those weirdo kids in the neighborhood,” she says over the phone from her Brooklyn, N.Y., home.
Now, Nishio (vocals, guitar) leads Miwa Gemini, a band that is tinged with Western influences — and Western in all senses of the word. On their latest album, Fantastic Lies of Grizzly Rose, there are shades of Dolly Parton country western (“Goodnight Trail”), but the music also rattles with Frenchness a la Edith Piaf and accordions (Nishio sings en francais throughout). Her voice sometimes reaches a Björk-like timbre, and the instrumentation is often reminiscent of the Dresden Dolls (“Chanson”). Then there are the bits and pieces of Italian waltzes, carousel jingles and Jewish folk songs — all while Nishio draws on her classical music education in Japan. This may sound like a messy collection of influence, but the album is vibrantly cohesive, original and playful — no doubt with the help of Rebekah Allen on trumpet, Aaron Burns on glockenspiel and accordion and Matt Brundett on drums.
Perhaps one of the reasons the album so effortlessly mixes and matches genres is because of its clear concept: Grizzly Rose. “The only way to explain it is that she was already out there looking for some sort of outlet,” Nishio explains with a laugh. Rose is, for lack of a better word, a spirit that visited Nishio while she was traveling through Pioneertown, Calif. — a former “Old West” movie-set-turned-town where westerns like The Cisco Kid were shot.
Rose appears on the album cover, her blazing red hair flapping in the wind with a guitar-rifle contraption at her feet; Miwa Gemini’s website describes Rose as a fearless, whiskey-drinking storyteller with a wandering spirit, adding that “some even suspect she’s a murderer.” Nishio concludes, “Grizzly Rose was already there, I was just lucky enough to be her medium.”
Miwa Gemini plays with Paul Quillen 8:30 pm Wednesday, July 24, at Axe & Fiddle; $5.