How to Measure the Distance Between Lovers by Mija
Recommended if you like Alice Glass, Elohim, Kučka
Favorite Tracks: 2, 6, 3
In a 2017 interview with Noisey, Mija said that when she settled into DJing – on Skrillex’s request at the age of 18 – she had some trouble finding a sound. She’d put out high-energy dance tracks suitable for the Bonnaroo stage where the two DJs played back-to-back sets three years ago but wasn’t in the same space anymore: “I realized you can be the dopest producer technically, but if the songs don’t give you emotion, it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t good at writing big banger tracks because that wasn’t in my heart.” In a way, this may mirror Skrillex’s own progression. He rose to fame atop a wave of bone-rattling bass drops in 2010, but through Jack Ü and Justin Bieber his image and output shifted until he was practically a new artist. He’s been an artist in slow but constant metamorphosis, and Mija seems to be following a similar (if accelerated) trajectory: “The music coming out of me now isn’t even dance music. I’m using my own vocals for the first time, taking piano lessons, and playing more. It’s not entirely DJ-able. It’s just who I am.” Which begs the question: if Mija’s tracks aren’t dance music, then what are they?
How to Measure the Distance Between Lovers, her latest EP, makes answering that difficult. The seven tracks here are more suited for headphones than subwoofers, with a connective tissue that’s textural rather than physical, but they rarely ignore the turntables. It points towards the sensibilities of a wide-listening DJ, straddling the lines between hushed electropop, dance-floor fillers, and orchestral exploration, finding downtempo emotional and sonic timbres in every corner. Drums clank around, synths and strings alternate between comfortable washes and chirps, and Mija’s voice floats through the haze she constructs, ping-ponging between notes as it gets chopped and processed. These ideas may gesture towards something other than dance music, but it’s not not dance music, either.
The opener, “Notice Me,” may be the release’s most dramatic exploration of style and mood. It realizes its title slowly, starting with just an off-key piano, 8-bit keyboard, and the hum of strings; Mija’s vocals are both lovestruck and dejected, sighing lines like “I want you so badly in this weather / If only we could be together.” But then, suddenly, the track is everywhere all at once: heralded by a sitar solo, a mass of synthesizers barrels into the mix and momentarily threatens to stop the song dead in its tracks. The keyboard pulses from earlier return, and the strings turn to a flurry of notes before the track fizzles out, piano and keyboard bringing the number full circle. This could be a relatively-new DJ finding a sound or it could be one confidently bridging gaps and collapsing styles; the line between the two is fuzzy at best.
But if the remaining six tracks are anything to go by, Distance fits more comfortably into the latter category. Barring the occasional barrage of synthesizers à la “Notice Me,” much of the release is coolly restrained, its aesthetic foundation offering a comfortable continuity. The woozy textures used on the opener reappear on every track, her voice is chopped up and distorted on nearly as many, and the lyrics all tap into the well of rejection and slowly-distancing love. The result is an EP that lets Mija dip her toes into a variety of moods while keeping an overarching feeling, changing her hues while sticking to the same base. “5AM in Paris” is the clubbiest track here, with “here we go again” turned into a forlorn mantra as it’s sliced and dashed atop a set of insistent-yet-understated drums, bells, and wobbling keyboards; it sounds like its name, suited for both the dance floor and the drive home. It sits comfortably next to “Bad For U,” a cavern of drums and vocals populated with drifting-by spaceships. That these tracks, looking down such different sonic avenues, can go back-to-back serves as a testament to Mija’s aesthetic control.
Distance isn’t all about restraint, though. “Speak to Me” sets Mija’s vocals in front of an unending chamber orchestra, booming drums, and sitar, but its attempts at grandeur fall flat; the scale robs her of the emotional strength her calmer tracks grasp so firmly. Her lyrics, normally sidestepping cliché through nounless specificity, are inelegant and unappealingly self-conscious – “Speak to me in philosophies / Then drown my heart in poetry / Choke my heart until I scream, do any fucking thing to me / To make me feel something.” It’s especially strange when put up next to “Falling apART (again),” which manages a similarly large-scale feel via serrated synthesizers and vocal processing that ebbs in intensity in accordance with Mija’s lyrics. Its size is achieved organically, the piledriving chorus earned rather than forced.
The most exciting thing about Mija is also the scariest – nobody, including her, seems to know what she’ll do next. On Distance, she tries out a wide range of styles and unites most of it under an umbrella of downcast and exploratory electronic music, creating a thematic statement-of-intent and a collection showcasing her range. It shows an artist who could make overly theatric pomp for nobody in particular, another who could make middle-of-the-road indie pop, and a third who could nurture a career in left-field electronic music that gleefully steps over genre lines and into something new. After Distance, big-tent deep house, and her wide-ranging DJ mixes, the question that comes to mind isn’t about genre at all; it’s nothing to do with how “dance” her music is. Instead, it’s both simpler and more expansive: where next?