Inside The Intimate World of Tirzah and Mica Levi's Experimental R&B

Clare Shilland
Tirzah

Tirzah's full-length debut Devotion is out Aug. 10

At age 10, Tirzah Mastin -- who records and performs under her first name -- learned to play the harp. And though she rarely touches the instrument today, she still makes music because of it.

Growing up in Essex, Tirzah, now 31, attended The Purcell School for Young Musicians in England. It’s there she met Mica Levi, then a fellow student and now the singer-songwriter-composer (known as Micachu) behind the music in movies like Jackie and Under the Skin. The two quickly bonded over their skill and early interest in music, and since, their partnership has evolved from teenage camaraderie to long-term collaborators. To date, they’ve released two experimental R&B infused EPs together, under Tirzah’s name -- 2013’s I’m Not Dancing and 2014’s No Romance. Now, on Aug. 10, they’ll release their first-ever full-length album, Devotion.

“It was an exciting challenge, to put an album together,” says Tirzah. In the five years since her first release, she says her and Levi’s process has stayed the same in that they’re friends first, co-creators second. “The way that Micah and I wrote was very much in addition to a social thing,” she says of their early years, “and it still is that [today].”

And though the way in which they work hasn’t changed, their sound largely has. When Tirzah started out on harp, she was primarily playing classical music, but that never reflected what she was consuming. She says she never actively listened to the genre, and instead gravitated towards soul and R&B music. Her mom would often play such CDs in the car rides to and from Purcell.

That fusion is best heard on single “Gladly,” a moody and sultry track that offered a first-taste of the album. And while the songwriting for Devotion spanned two years, this song was finished early on. “It was always one that we felt we could stand by,” Tirzah says. The thought process was simple: “It was like, ‘Yeah we’ll put that one first, it’s done,’” she recalls.

Such a laid-back, no-pressure mentality makes Tirzah who she is, and largely informs both this album and her big-picture career as an artist. She’s frank about the fact that she has no career ambitions in music -- she works a full-time job as a print designer in the fashion industry, but is currently on the final month of maternity leave after having a baby girl, Jocelyn, with her partner Giles King Kwakeulati Ashong (more commonly known as mellow electronic artist Kwake Bass).

Having recently signed with Domino, Tirzah says her new label home “was always happy to let us get on as we were doing. If anything, we were like, ‘Give us a deadline!' [Otherwise], we’d just go on and on and on. We could do this for years.”

In the studio, Tirzah paints a picture of feeling entirely comfortable -- “You’re just in your own little world,” she says. But even then she still has shy moments; if she ever begins mumbling, Levi will make her stand up or try shouting lyrics. Tirzah says, “It’s really nice to have someone bug you and get you out of your shell. [Without] the family and friends around me, [the album] wouldn't be finished or existing."

When it comes to performing live, though, Tirzah only has herself to turn to. “It’s a real funny one for me, the live thing,” she says, explaining how her shows have never been rehearsed and are far more improvisational. “Each stage is different, each audience is different, you feel differently each night you perform -- there’s quite a lot of chemicals. It will forever be a work in progress.”

As is every aspect of Tirzah’s life, by her own design. She says while her daughter will likely have musical ambitions, she’s quick to add, “But also, she doesn’t have to. Do what you want” -- a motto she lives by. As her maternity leave is coming to an end, she plans to do just that. She may go back to work, or not, and says as a new mom everything is up in the air. “I’m just counting my blessings as they are and seeing where it all goes. No pressure on anything,” she says. “I don’t think I can do it anyway else.”