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.