Take one listen to chamber-folk singer-songwriter Miranda Lee Richards’s wistful, winsome fourth solo album, Existential Beast, and some of her influences are evident: classic English folk troubadours like Nike Drake, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and protest singer Shirley Collins; cosmic psych collective the Brian Jonestown Massacre, with whom Richards has performed off and on since the late ‘90s; Buffalo Springfield and other ‘60s California country-rockers; and dreamy alterna-poppers Mazzy Star.
One connection a casual listener probably wouldn’t make is… Metallica. But as Richards visits Yahoo Music to perform three stunning acoustic Existential Beast tracks, she revealed how a few chance encounters with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett in the early ‘90s set her on her unlikely artistic path.
“When I was a teenager in San Francisco, I loved music; I went to a lot of shows,” Richards explains. “And a friend of mine was dating Kirk Hammett — so the age gap there was lessened by the fact that she was older than I was, and then he was older than her. But anyways, I was teenager going to Metallica shows, and they brought me to see Mazzy Star, and we had backstage passes… I’ve always been able to sing and I love writing, but right then and there I thought, ‘I want to do this. Can I do that? If [Mazzy Star frontwoman Hope Sandoval] can do that, can I maybe do that?’ So Kirk taught me how to play some songs on guitar; ‘Fade Into You’ is a good one to start with. And then I began writing songs, shortly thereafter.”
Of course, Richards’s career took a decidedly different turn from Hammett’s — “He made it seem really glamorous to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band. For him it was! I don’t think most bands have that kind of success,” she chuckles — and the two are no longer in touch. But surely Hammett would be impressed by Richards’s rich body of work since she launched her solo career with her first solo album, The Herethereafter, in 2001 via Virgin Records. She has since gone on to enjoy music placements in various films and TV shows, airplay on KCRW and the BBC, rave reviews in Mojo and Uncut, and collaborations and tours with the Dandy Warhols, Tricky, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Nikka Costa, Suzanne Vega, Tift Merritt, Grant Lee Philips, Turin Brakes, Juliana Hatfield, Albert Hammond Jr., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Beachwood Sparks, Tim Burgess of the Charlatans U.K., Neil Halstead, and many others.
Existential Beast, out on the British independent label Invisible Hands Music June 16, is an especially ambitious effort, and Richards reveals the inspiration behind its (somewhat heavy-metal-sounding) title. “It’s a mashup of terms. There’s the existential crisis or existential angst, but basically as human beings we’re all existential beasts,” she muses. “We’re still overcoming those animal urges and those lower frequencies, if you will, if you want to think of it as a spectrum of evolution. And I think all of those animal instincts and behaviors have been revealed and are being revealed in our world. And everyone’s at a different place with it all. So yeah, we’re all the ‘existential beast’… Why are we here and what are we doing and what is our role in all of this? And do we have a responsibility to the world, do we not? Is it just a responsibility to be a good person and that’s enough?”
Richards says the album is definitely “politically driven,” although many of its tracks were composed before the 2016 presidential election. “So it’s not purely focused on specifics, politically, but it’s more speaking of the issues of our time,” she explains. “There’s been lots of things on the table for a very long time, so I just felt like now was the time.” Nothing is off the table — “environmental issues, health care, civil rights, feminist issues, global economics, and big pharma takeover” were among the topics on Richards’s mind during the album’s writing process — and first song sets the tone for Existential Beast straight away.
“The opening track, ‘Ashes and Seeds,’ is very much about ‘How much do I get involved?’ You know, I think a lot of us are asking that question,” Richards says. “We came out of an era of complacency, I think, and we got a wakeup call… So ‘Ashes and Seeds’ is an ode to ‘What’s my role in this whole big picture here?’”
While the album obviously has its heavy moments, ultimately Existential Beast is a timeless, beautiful, and uplifting album, brimming with hope. “Sometimes we feel maybe even helpless in the face of big corporations and money, that’s sort of the root of a lot of these evils, but then you realize that a lot of people are good people,” Richards tells Yahoo Music. “So we just have to have faith in our people that if we stand together, that ultimately government will eventually, hopefully represent the people as it has not really been for a very long time.”
Check out Richards’s full interview and three lovely unplugged numbers from Existential Beast here.