There is a darkness to Mirel Wagner's sound so striking that it rattles you to the bone. It's no wonder, then, that her cover of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" has captivated both Hollywood and the fashion world — first appearing in the trailer of Gore Verbinski's psychological thriller A Cure for Wellness, then on the runway of Raf Simons's somber Calvin Klein debut.
For the Ethiopian-born singer-songwriter, the exposure is less about vanity as it is about validation; proof that she successfully honored an anthem that's helped shape her into the artist she is today. "I was quite nervous of that," the soft-spoken 29-year-old says of making the cover. "I really love the Ramones and especially this song, so I really wanted to make a cover that would be interesting."
Her ability to succeed was never a question for those who know her music. Following the 2012 release of her first album — which was self-titled and boasted delicate, electrifying vocals and lyrics so profound they're unsettling — Wagner was featured as an artist of the week by Vogue and named one of "eleven bands you should know" by Time. Her second record, When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, submerges listeners into an even darker world.
But if Wagner is intimate in her lyrics, she's the opposite in conversation. Intensely guarded, she's resistant to dive into the meaning of her lyrics, saying it reminds her of "telling secrets." Still, it's hard for Wagner's grasp on the impermanence of life and ubiquity of pain not to pervade — and enhance — any conversation. As we talk dream journals, monsters, and Leonard Cohen, it does just that.
Abby Haglage: You are Ethiopian but grew up in Espoo, Finland. In a lot of your songs, you evoke an image of a little girl being transported somewhere through song. Is that you — were you musical as a child?
Mirel Wagner: Yeah, I've been writing songs as long as I can remember. When I grew up, we had a piano, and I was always trying to make songs with it. I also played the violin. But I still find it difficult to talk about, the meanings of songs and history of these songs, somehow, because I never really think about them. It feels like I'm telling you some sort of secret.
AH: I can understand that — your lyrics seem very personal. I've read that when you're writing you like to be alone, and for your second album, you actually sequestered yourself in a remote cabin in Finland. Does removing yourself from society help you create?
MW: Yeah, solitude is a good thing — well, at least for me. When I write something, it needs a certain space or time to sort of concentrate. When I wrote The Cellar Children, I was at this remote place, because the studio was also at this island, so it was handy for me to be there. Whatever feels the most natural is the best thing to do.
AH: Several songs on that album reference dreams, from a wave washing over you to a woman singing you to sleep underneath an oak tree. Are dreams a big part of your creative process?
MW: I could say so. Sometimes it's quite conscious, and sometimes it's unconscious, this drawing of inspiration. I do get quite funny and fantastic dreams — which I can remember. It's a great concept in storytelling, dreams and what they can represent. The mystical parts of it are interesting.
AH: Do songs ever come to you in a dream?
MW: Well, I do keep a dream journal — or at least I try! But I'm very bad at it. So I am constantly spending the rest of the day chasing this vague feeling, which is disappearing, trying to piece it all together. Once in a while I write it down, but mostly I just sort of have misplaced my notebook and I can't find it, and I'm overconfident in my memory. But it's also fun, this idea, this feeling, when you're trying to remember a dream.
AH: Are there any dreams that really stick out?
MW: Something that I remember very vividly: when I was a child or a teenager, I had this dream where everything went black and this white text started rolling, and then I woke up — which was crazy. I couldn't really tell what the text said. I haven't written a song about it, maybe I will.
AH: That idea of everything going black seems like a big theme in your songs; you dive into the concept of death frequently. Like in the song "Joe," you say, "When they find me in the river, tell my mother I was a good boy." Have you always been gripped by the concept of death?
MW: I guess so. I've always been interested in death, which is … I don't know, kind of weird. No, I don't want to say that it's weird, but that I've always loved love stories, gory stories, and these sort of stories that deal with death and life and that stuff — and monsters inside people, and monsters in the night.
AH: Does writing about these topics ever feel suffocating, like it's pulling you further into the dark?
MW: Not when I'm songwriting. When I'm making the lyrics, I usually find it quite easy to stop thinking about it, or stop thinking about the emotional side of it. After the lyrics are done, it's easy.
AH: It's a release of sorts?
MW: Yeah, it releases you from thought. When you've written the song, then you don't have to really think about it anymore. The process for me is quite long, in the sense of the writing of the lyrics. It starts from this small idea, this emotional spark, and forms into a complete song. After I've finished the songs, it's out there.
AH: It seems like you enjoy exploring the dichotomy between outward thoughts and internal narratives as well. On "In My Father's House," you have a great line that says, "There is a terror and it hides," and on "Oak Tree," you mention hearing voices. Do you struggle with balancing perception and reality?
MW: Yeah, of course, of course. There can be a huge contrast in reality, the outside, and what's going on the inside. This contrast is something that's really interesting, especially when you're telling stories. In melody, you can have this lovely contrast of this beautiful melody that is very beautiful in first glance, that can contain this very disturbing message or lyric, and this contrast is something that can make this special impact, which is quite interesting. To me, at least.
AH: What musicians do you like listening to today?
MW: I've been really listening to Leonard Cohen. He's one of my all-time favorites. I've also been listening to Bob Dylan, who's also one of my all time favorites. Plus Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, they're also quite good at writing.
AH: You've been compared to Leonard Cohen in the past. Did he help inspire your sound?
MW: Ever since I was a teenager, I've been listening to Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. They have this feeling and these ideas that I really love. I like this idea of the power of the songs, this sort of thinking. Sometimes I do feel that when you've written a song — and when you sing a song — it's powerful. When when you sing a song to someone, it's a powerful thing.
AH: Does the realization that your songs affect other people make it feel more intimate?
MW: Yeah, that's why I said that it feels like I'm telling you secrets when I'm telling you about or analyzing my songs. It has this mythical, sort of strange aspect to it. Sometimes [when I hear a song] I feel all humbug, but sometimes you get this feeling, it sends a chill to your spine or it taps into this emotion. A lyric hits you in a way that resonates it. It's a sort of wonderful thing.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Abby Haglage is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Marie Claire, and ELLE UK.