The Music That Made Miranda July

By the time she was a teenager, Miranda July knew she would not live a conventional life. Raised in Berkeley, California by parents who ran a new-agey publishing house, the 46-year-old icon of uncomfortable intimacy spent her youth following the wind of various creative whims. First came Snarla, her feminist fiction fanzine with high school best friend Johanna Fateman (later of Le Tigre), a character from which inspired July’s chosen surname. Then, in the mid-’90s, July dropped out of college, moved to Portland, and became ingrained in what was left of the riot grrrl scene. Despite not knowing how to play a single instrument, she joined a queercore group called the CeBe Barnes Band (later renamed the Need). “All I could be was a front person that was a bit more talky because I couldn’t really sing,” she recalls. “Occasionally, they’d be desperate for a bass part, and I was always totally horrified, like I could sooner fly than do that.”

Right before a West Coast tour that July had painstakingly booked, she needed to quickly leave the Need—never date your bandmate—but she was not about to let that hard work go to waste. So she phoned each venue to say that two acts would now be performing: the Need and Miranda July. If the audience was momentarily confused about the monologuing stringbean standing on-stage, July’s self-assurance convinced them that her work was something they should understand. “I was never uncertain about what I was doing up there,” she says. “I was very, very confident on-stage.”

These early spoken-word performances (and the two albums on Kill Rock Stars that followed) laid the groundwork for certain questions that July continues to ask in her work: Why does sincerity make some people uncomfortable, how do we truly live in a moment, and who gets to speak and why? “I often began in the audience so people wouldn’t know where the show was starting, and I gradually made my way to the stage,” she says. “I loved everything I could do with the audience and from the beginning tried to use the medium for everything that it could be aside from music.”

In the decades since her punk beginnings, July has brought this imaginative, collaborative spirit to all of her work, of which there is a lot. A highlight reel might include her tender breakthrough, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know; a short story collection inspired by PennySaver classified ads; crowd-sourced art projects; and a novel (roughly) about the sexual awakening of a middle-aged misfit. July’s art often centers around the innate desire for connection and the emotional roadblocks that can stand in the way, and her new movie, Kajillionaire, is no different. The film follows a family of second-rate grifters who eschew societal norms and anything resembling affection, until one of them slowly sees that the world isn’t run entirely on scams and gaslighting.


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