Mia Rocha writes music for herself. Releasing songs under the moniker Mia Joy, the Chicago-based artist is the daughter of a poet and a musician, and since a young age, she was encouraged by her father to channel her feelings into music as a way of understanding them. Taking the advice, she wrote her debut ethereal dream-pop album Spirit Tamer over the course of several emotionally tumultuous years. It captures Rocha’s inner loneliness, cultivates healing, and creates a safe space where she can work through her darkest moments.
“The beginning of writing this album was an incredibly low, dark period and it was also a period where things were just pouring out of me,” she said in a recent episode of Jessica Risker’s Music Therapy Instagram series. She had been recovering from a breakup and decided to turn Mia Joy into a solo project, a departure from her 2017 EP Gemini Moon, which she wrote as a collaboration with her band. Looking inward, she found sitting with these complicated growing pains made the music flow out of her. “Sometimes I can just write a song in an hour, and that was my experience with this album because I was just feeling things so strongly,” she added. “It was definitely a way of coping.”
Rocha is a self-proclaimed private person, and the ambient-leaning Spirit Tamer is her way of coaxing us into her secret universe—one filled with biting humor, unwelcome changes and long-awaited healing. It opens with a fully instrumental title track in which Rocha’s melotic wails float above reverberating chords, fluctuating from low hums to piercing lamentations. It’s as if she captured all of her emotions in a sealed jar and released them at once, briefly embracing the disorienting noise before it eventually dissipates. The ambient soundscape’s flurry of melodies is a gentle palate-cleanser for what’s to come on Spirit Tamer. It’s inviting yet haunting, and softly beckons the turmoil and healing that will unravel throughout her album.
Rocha carefully crafted each song in the comfortable privacy of her bedroom. Epitomizing her hyper-personal songwriting, “Heaven Forbid” is driven forward by urgent, watery guitar chords while Rocha herself is stagnant and reluctant to accept the progression. “Time moves past me without my consent,” she lilts in the track’s opening line, recognizing that her brain is resisting the change in her personal life. In the chorus, she repeats the simple mantra, “Don’t let me forget / Heaven forbid.” It acknowledges that change can be petrifying, but it’s important to hold onto the formative lessons that come with it.
While “Heaven Forbid” recognizes Rocha’s resistance to change, “HaHa” is an ode to finding inherent strength in humor. The song is inflected with a certain weightlessness, marked by the breeziness of the instrumentals. She sings of once again resisting change before realizing it’s futile. Everything around her is constantly in motion; even her cells are replacing themselves in her sleep. But instead of being crippled by this fact, Rocha is able to see the ironic humor in her defiance. No longer at a standstill, Rocha can move forward with a smile on her face. “Turns out the joke is on me,” she concludes.
Along with showing her self-effacing humor, much of Spirit Tamer contrasts airy synths with solemn lyrics. This tension plays out in her single “Freak,” which cites the title of Korn’s 1998 track “Freak On A Leash.” Rocha may reference the band’s gritty music, but her actual song is anything but. Unlike Korn’s music, Rocha’s “Freak” is tender and vulnerable, evoking the euphoria of being set free of a toxic, stunting relationship. “Once off the leash, the pain that was holding onto you, you can finally find your own way,” she noted about the song’s meaning. “I wanted to end it with a sense of reclaiming identity and independence and breaking free from the symbolic leash.”
A similar bittersweetness is heard on her album closer, a cover of Arthur Russell’s “Our Last Night Together.” Rocha’s version softens the edges of Russell’s original track, trading in unsettling strings for soothing piano keys. The cover brings her Spirit Tamer journey full circle, opening with the cathartic moans of her title track and closing on a more hopeful message. The song implies Rocha has moved past the negative feelings that plagued her at the beginning of her songwriting process. It acknowledges that the pain of depression and emotional turmoil will inevitably return, but she’s now well-equipped to take her future in stride.
After three years of writing, recording, and experimenting as a solo artist, Rocha has translated complicated emotions into 12 dreamy tracks. Spirit Tamer lights a candle to mourn the past while also offering a roadmap forward. The album gives insight into her internal journey and allows listeners to confront their own struggles through sparse lyricism and evocative production. It’s Rocha’s lesson on learning to trust yourself, accepting nerve-wracking changes, and healing through the simple act of letting go.
Carolyn Droke is a Chicago-based music and pop culture writer. You can find her on Twitter @qweencarolean but she’s probably at the local gig.