Spirit Tamer represents a sea change from the 2017 Mia Joy EP Gemini Moon. “I’m projecting the truest form of myself.” Credit: Ash Dye for Chicago Reader

As a teenager in Oak Park, Mia Joy Rocha visited the library to learn about music. “I didn’t have the Internet growing up, so I had to go to the library all the time to rent CDs to rip,” she says. Throughout the mid-2000s, Rocha would check out 20 CDs at a time, immersing herself in genres that had emerged long before she was born—Krautrock via Neu!, for example, and ambient in the works of Brian Eno. She studied Björk looking for ways to help her own voice reach the same transcendent extremes.

“Once I discovered Cocteau Twins, it was over,” Rocha says. Elizabeth Fraser’s liquid, unearthly voice struck her square in the heart. “I was like, ‘This feels like home. This feels like me.’ I didn’t know what the name of that genre was, I didn’t know what she was doing, but everything clicked. I knew that that was something that was going to be important to me forever.”

Rocha, 30, has since absorbed the dream-pop mystique of her favorite teenage discovery into her own music. In 2012 she started tinkering with songs in her bedroom, and in 2016 she put together a five-piece band to perform and record under the name Mia Joy. Rocha’s early material is airy and ethereal, with barely any structure, but once she had a group, they helped adapt what she wrote to a more conventional rock setting. Mia Joy’s debut, the November 2017 EP Gemini Moon, contains moments of serene enchantment in its exquisitely textured vocal performances, but the overall feel is garage-inflected psychedelic rock.

Since then Rocha has only released eight more songs, all of them solo, largely because she’s been trying to figure out how to bring the sound in her head into the real world—she wasn’t sure how to do it, except that it probably wouldn’t involve a conventional rock setting. But after the breakup of a relationship, the dissolution of her band, and roughly three years of writing, recording, and finessing new material, Rocha has emerged with her first full-length album, Spirit Tamer, which does what she’d wanted to all along—its soothing, atmospheric songs explore the spaces between indie pop and ambient soundscapes.

Powerhouse Brooklyn indie label Fire Talk announced in January that it had signed Rocha, making her the fifth Chicago act on its present roster (alongside Fran, Deeper, Dehd, and Accessory, a solo project of Dehd guitarist Jason Balla). The label has been on a terrific run lately, thanks in part to Chicago bands—Deeper’s Auto-Pain and Dehd’s Flower of Devotion were among 2020’s most celebrated indie-rock records.

Spirit Tamer comes out next Friday, and I could tell it would extend Fire Talk’s hot streak as soon as the first single, “Haha,” came out in January. Rocha’s vocals coast atop a watery synth and light, trembling guitars, radiating an inviting warmth. The song occupies a liminal space between sharpness and airiness, and the ambiguity Rocha brings to its mood—simultaneously sorrowful and romantic—increases its allure. I certainly fell for its gossamer grace, and I’ve been just as charmed by the rest of the LP.

“I think I’m projecting the truest form of myself,” Rocha says. “Even though these songs are three years old, and I think I sound even a little bit more out-there and ambient now, it’s nice to be heard in a more accurate lens.”

Rocha credits her love of music to her family—at least as far back as her paternal grandmother from Mexico, who died when she was little. “I was told that she used to sing with bands in bars, and she used to win contests around Monterrey—that she was very glamorous and loved to put on a show,” Rocha says. “Most of my memories of her are Selena based. She loved Selena, and she loved to hear me sing. I was singing Spanish—I didn’t know what I was singing.”

Her grandmother’s love of music touched everyone in the family in different ways. “The joke is that she was a beautiful singer, and it skipped a generation, ’cause my dad is not. But it went to me,” Rocha says. Her father is a veteran guitarist on the city’s blues open-mike circuit—she says he was still gigging around town when the pandemic struck. Her older brother is a metalhead who introduced her to electronic music and alt-rock when she was a kid.

Rocha sang in the Chicago Children’s Choir for around three years, starting in fourth grade, but that was the extent of her formal training. When it came to learning how to write and record, she was largely on her own. In summer 2011, her brother gave her a simple digital audio workstation for her PC, and she began playing around with sound effects and rudimentary recording techniques. “I was obsessed with Deerhunter at the time—I just loved how wet, reverby, super delayed, and spacey [their sound was]. I loved his play with words and composition,” Rocha says. “I was experimenting with formats like that, that weren’t necessarily traditional songs that had choruses and verses and bridges.”

The earliest songs on Rocha’s Soundcloud were posted eight years ago. Acoustic guitar shudders loudly through “L*U*C*I*D” and whispers with reverb on “Soliloquy.” On both songs, Rocha’s gentle vocals blend into the gauzy textures while providing an anchoring human presence. On some later demos, she started layering her voice with itself. “I wanted to combine my devotional choral background with my more avant-garde ambient contemporary taste,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to track multiple harmonies. I still kind of work that way, where I start with vocals and play around that.”

  • “Soliloquy” is one of the earliest Mia Joy songs available online.

Rocha never attempted to study music, other than her time in the choir. For a brief time, she wanted to pursue music criticism, and about a decade ago she launched a blog to publish her album reviews (she declines to share its name). Her formal arts education consists largely of an associate’s degree in fine arts—specifically in ceramics—that she earned from Harold Washington College in 2017.

“I thought I wanted to be a painter, I thought I wanted to be a music critic, but it turns out I’m pretty good at ceramics,” Rocha says. “I love art—I think I need to be creating something or else I’ll go crazy. I kind of wanted to keep music as a passion and not something I was graded on.”

In 2014, Rocha moved into a Bridgeport coach house with five other people. The basement was occupied by Michael Mac, an audio engineer who played guitar in wild indie-pop group Oshwa. He and Rocha became friends, and he ended up lending his talents to the production of Gemini Moon and Spirit Tamer.

Mac had taken up recording out of necessity—his bands wanted to document their music, and nobody else involved had the will to learn (or the money to hire a professional). By the time he met Rocha, he was dedicated to it. “The only thing I wanted to do was just make records,” Mac says. “So over the course of a year and a half, I just built up a decent-enough gear collection to where I would justifiably be able to record bands and have it not sound terrible.”

In 2015, Mac moved his operation into a former paint warehouse in the neighborhood, christening the new studio Pallet Sound. He’s since used it to record several beloved local indie acts, including singer-songwriter Tasha, ambitious pop oddballs the Curls, and of course Rocha. Though Mac had begun working with her when he lived in his home studio at the coach house, their collaboration on Spirit Tamer wouldn’t begin till a few years later.

“I would write things at home—create my own beats with my own drum machines, or make my own loops with my own effects, and then I would bounce it to Michael,” Rocha says. “The goal was always to try to keep it as much the same as possible, with the same kind of energy, but just with the better equipment he had.”

Mac and Rocha bonded over music—both what they were making and what they were listening to—in order to jump-start their friendship. “I definitely got to know her taste super well from living together,” Mac says. “Which I think was really valuable in making Mia’s record.”

  • Gemini Moon came out in 2017.

Rocha enlisted her old roommate to record Gemini Moon, and when the time came for her to begin working on Spirit Tamer, she reached out to him again. “I’m such a private person,” Rocha says. “This record would not be possible if I hadn’t had such a close relationship with someone that I could work with so intimately, side-by-side, with every single texture and every single decision, and feel vulnerable to try things out in new ways.”

Rocha originally wanted to make Spirit Tamer an EP, but its length grew as she went. “This took about two years to record, partially because I worked two jobs and could barely afford to record it,” she says. “But Michael is such a gracious, close friend. He was showing me equity and grace, and going at my pace for what I could afford and what I could do. It got done because he wanted it to be out in the world, because he believed in the project.”

While Rocha wrapped up Spirit Tamer last year, she frequently sought advice from her roommate at the time, Greg Obis, who’d cofounded Born Yesterday Records, leads the postpunk band Stuck, and works as an engineer at Chicago Mastering Service. Obis and Rocha had moved in together in 2019—according to Obis, both of them were looking for a quiet living arrangement. “During quarantine, I think we really connected,” he says. “Last spring was so weird. The quarantine was straining a lot of relationships, but I felt like it made us closer—I think we’re similarly very emotional and sensitive people, and so I think that caused us to come together a little bit more.”

“I would always go to him for industry questions, or I’d vent to him about industry stuff,” Rocha says. “He’s a good soundboard and just the kindest dude.”

“We did talk a lot of music-business stuff—like, trying to get my perspective on things from a record-label standpoint,” Obis says. “And with regards to shopping [the album] around, and touching base about Fire Talk when that started to come together.”

Because <i>Spirit Tamer</i> took so long to finish, Mia Joy Rocha is already writing music that extends its evolution of her aesthetic. “I think I sound even a little bit more out-there and ambient now,” she says.
Because Spirit Tamer took so long to finish, Mia Joy Rocha is already writing music that extends its evolution of her aesthetic. “I think I sound even a little bit more out-there and ambient now,” she says.Credit: Ash Dye for Chicago Reader

On January 9, 2019, Mia Joy opened a sold-out Deeper show at Sleeping Village, sharing the bill with the Hecks and Divino Niño. Deeper had assembled the night’s lineup, and bassist Drew McBride says the whole band were fans of Gemini Moon. Before that night, though, he’d never seen Rocha perform. “It was really beautiful and dreamy—it had really great space for the vocals to shine through,” he says. “People were constantly filling into the room, and her voice is very soft in the mix—I remember wishing people would quiet down a little more.”

Everyone in Deeper was impressed, and they shared their feelings with Fire Talk Records founder Trevor Peterson. “We’re always talking to Trevor about music that’s happening here,” McBride says. “It’s a pretty fluid relationship, talking to him about all sorts of bands that are coming up.”

Peterson lives in Brooklyn, but he grew up in Iowa and has a soft spot for the midwest. He launched Fire Talk in 2009, when he lived in Denver and played in a psych band called Woodsman. “Chicago would always be the spot where we would have the best show,” Peterson says. “I always felt the most connected to the music there. We would play at Ball Hall and DIY spots like that ten years ago, and would always have the best time.”

Through Ball Hall, Peterson met Drew Gibson, whose experimental band Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk would release a few albums and an EP on Fire Talk beginning in 2010. Gibson introduced Peterson to prolific indie musician Jason Balla, who would eventually join the label’s roster with his old two-piece Earring. Balla in turn turned Peterson on to Deeper.

“What has always struck me about Chicago musicians—and the reason why I’ve signed so many through recommendations from other bands—is that it seems like there’s a certain level of support in Chicago that doesn’t exist in most scenes and cities throughout the United States,” Peterson says. “If you really take a look, Chicago bands champion each other in a way that I think is unique to that community. That is probably the biggest thing that’s rubbed off on me.”

Rocha is the first Fire Talk signee from Chicago that neither Peterson nor his label partner, Ruby Hoffman, has seen perform live. Rocha sent Fire Talk an early version of Spirit Tamer just before the pandemic, and they corresponded briefly at the time. In July 2020, once Fire Talk had rebuilt its COVID-wrecked release schedule, Peterson reconnected with Rocha to talk about joining the roster. “What was really appealing about Mia is she made this very ethereal, beautiful record,” Peterson says. “Both Ruby and I love ambient music, and it toed that line, but we also are into psych music and folk music. The elements that Mia brings into her work embody all of those territories, and it sounds fresh.”

Rocha’s music feels very private, even though it’s been unambiguously public at least since the first Mia Joy shows in 2016. It still summons the sense of nourishing solitude that she learned to evoke while recording in her bedroom almost a decade ago. And for the past few years, she’s had the opportunity to share her perspective with young aspiring musicians.

In 2018, Mac’s friend Vivian McConnell (aka V.V. Lightbody) encouraged Rocha to join Intonation Music’s youth program as an instructor. “Personally and musically, she’s just such a gentle and sweet soul,” McConnell says. “The love pouring out of that human is so big and real. The first time I met her, I felt like she just has this really special energy.”

  • “Haha” is the lead single from Spirit Tamer.

Intonation teachers work in pairs, and in summer 2018, Rocha became McConnell’s partner for the season’s programming. Rocha continues to work for Intonation, though of course the nature of its classes has changed due to COVID. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be paid doing anything else.”

“The kids just flocked to her and loved her,” McConnell says. “She was really fun. We had a lot of laughs, and she was a wonderful co-teacher.” McConnell says Rocha’s gentle presence disarmed the students and helped focus their attention, and she could be a source of comfort for anyone having a bad day.

Her music can do something similar. In the month or so I’ve been listening to Spirit Tamer, I’ve found myself returning to it to help me center myself or find a little solace during a stressful week. As it turns out, this is almost exactly how Rocha describes the effect she hopes her songs will have on people.

“Your favorite records are a piece of you—like a piece of home that you go to during a hard time, and it’s always there, and you always feel comforted in the same ways, and with time it builds new memories,” she says. “I would be so honored—so privileged—if anyone felt that way about my music.”  v