When she talks about her music, Mira Billotte, singer, pianist, and primary songwriter for White Magic, uses words like "invoke," "intuit," "spiritual," and "different dimensions."
The album art for White Magic's 2006 debut full-length, Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (translation: "The Rose Gives the Bees Honey"), is a collection of kabbalistic diagrams, numerological sequences, and other esoterica; the insert to this year's Dark Stars EP unfolds into a mandala of sacred geometry. And then there's the band's name, and the band's music—weird, piano-driven trance-folk displaced from time and locale. Clearly, something metaphysical is at work with White Magic.
"There are definitely different dimensions to this reality and there are ways of reaching those dimensions through music," Billotte says. She's on the phone in her Brooklyn apartment, the day after she participated in a concert organized by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo to celebrate the release of I'm Not There, the surrealist Dylan biopic for which she contributed a version of "As I Went Out One Morning." Brooklyn, she says, with its endless spectrum of cultures and colors and reggaeton blasting from car windows, is inspiring, but in an inverse way: The sound of White Magic—eerie, stark, measured—is Billotte's effort to imagine an entirely new environment.
"An urban setting for the music is a little at odds," she says. "These songs fit well in a natural setting, and that's what a lot of them are about—landscapes and natural scenes. When I'm writing or playing I fall into a different world, my own world. The trance aspect of the music helps me get into that environment and invoke this whole other world."
There's a tradition of trance music—qawwali, raga, didgeridoo, techno—that spans ages and continents; White Magic sound nothing like that. Take "Poor Harold," a highlight from Dark Stars. It builds from a simple piano refrain that's repeated over and over, faster and faster, accented by Billotte's main foil Doug Shaw on brushed, counterbeaten drums. "Poor Harold works all night/works in the graveyard right next to my school/Digging graves, digging graves," Billotte sings, and disembodied voices float in the background as dublike, wordless apparitions. It accelerates into a cyclic peak, then the song returns to its original piano refrain. Its simplicity is its magnetism, its repetition its drama. And that voice...
Billotte's baroque yowl is a graceful, hypnotic instrument in its own right, the only extravagant element of White Magic. Her high-register delivery is ethereal but gutsy, floating through the rest of the music like a tethered balloon lifting her songs from the firmament. It's a haunting vocal technique, totally unique, another means of carrying the music into Billotte's imagined worlds. "Certain notes invoke a higher place and I instinctually follow those notes," she says. "I feel like voice is the purest instrument—it's straight from your mouth, it's straight from your emotions, and in my music it's coming from my unconscious, my inner world. I don't know how to explain it, but I follow that and it takes me to these places."
When the band first appeared with 2004's Through the Sun Door EP, they were umbrellaed with the freak-folk scene gaining notoriety at the time: Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart from the West Coast, Animal Collective and Gang Gang Dance on the East; White Magic sound nothing like that, either. The band are friends with their East Coast brethren (GGD's drummer Tim DeWitt has toured and played with them in the past) and, like them, hew closer to bang-a-can freak than harp-stroking folk. But really, it's an entirely different sound. "You can't just be retro," Billotte says. "The spirit of '60s music is very apparent in the music I do, but it goes way beyond that. What I hope to achieve is music that spans through the ages, music that sounds like you don't know what time it's from but doesn't sound like anything from the past."
White Magic's chamber-band format sets them apart from other freakish/folkish music of the moment, too. There are no orchestras or glockenspiels or woodwind sections, just Billotte on piano and Shaw on drums or guitar, with a bassist included on some tunes. Even when adorned by extra instruments—the occasional sitar or cello—arrangements are skeletal. If there's another world wrought by White Magic, it's solitary and distant, only barely discernable beyond the veil of reality.
"I try to express what can't be expressed in any other way, what can't be talked about or even written about," Billotte says. "I think that's what music can be."