One late spring day during my sophomore year of college, four or five months after my grandma passed away from a not-so-lengthy bout with lung cancer, I walked out of the English building and onto the quad. At the base of the concrete stairs, I saw a pile of pink dogwood blossoms shed by the nearby trees intermixed with a plentiful smattering of cigarette butts. I had been living in a hyperaware state for quite some time by then, but the juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful, sitting there on the ground, stunned me.
That image stuck with me for over eight years, and I’d always wondered how I’d make sense of it, what I’d do with that piercing visual.
Only a few months ago, I was at a friend’s house for dinner, and she had Pandora radio playing out of her computer speakers while she cooked. I was in the middle of chitchatting in the kitchen when a song made me rudely, inexplicably pause in the middle of conversation. It was “Smile” by Mia and Jonah, a song I’d never heard by a duo of which I’d never heard. Like the music nerd I am, I asked my friend for a piece of paper and pen so I could quickly get down all the pertinent information.
Soon after that night, I had both albums by Mia and Jonah, the original Shine I that features that first introduction, “Smile,” and the 2008 release, Rooms for Adelaide. Both are superb executions of modern folk music, melodies alternating between Mia’s soulful rasp and Jonah’s grounded voice with airy guitar and welcome harmonica cameos.
At first I had a difficult time qualifying how I felt about this music; my mind kept roaming to my memory’s tucked-away image of the petals and the cigarette butts, particularly when listening to Rooms. However, the words that I needed to connect this idea to these sounds escaped me.
I had fledgling, solely visceral notions about the difference in tone of the two albums, but Mia explained to me: “Rooms and Shine I are so different from each other to us. They are like chapters of our lives. Shine I has this innocent, playful quality to it. Jonah and I just met. We were so deep in love. Feeling that new magic that happens when we see that we can put seeds into the ground and grow a rose. Rooms has the mark of seasons, stormy weather, and struggle of keeping those roses alive all over it. Believing that a dead flower will come to life again in the spring.”
The duo went on to elucidate that the album’s title girl, Adelaide, “is a character that has suffered huge, hard knocks. Still there is hope in the hand of a loved one, beauty in the sad struggle, and a fire that refuses to quit burning despite the rain.” For me, the beauty in the sad struggle symbolically sat at the base of those concrete steps eight years ago, rosy and black, waiting to be understood.
These insights into the music helped me make an important connection: the dichotomies inherent in life are the essence of what it’s all about. They aren’t ugly or beautiful; they are both simultaneously. In “Dance,” the two encourage listeners to dance despite the creeping cold. In “3 Stories High,” they remind of “angels cloaked in disguises.” And in “Smile,” they advise “to live your life and stop trying so hard to understand it.” Through their music, Mia and Jonah dissect the nature of existing and honor life, especially its tumultuous weather and confusing times.
I hope I can always do the same.
They said it:
“I am touched by media that taps into a vibration that is beyond thought and/or conceptual belief. At best, a song will present itself without too much thought, so my job is to be present enough to let it happen.” (Jonah)