As soon as Miwi La Lupa’s melodies hit ears, listeners succumb to the indie-folk dynamo. Seduced by his poignant lyrics, the roar of bar chatter fell silent during a recent Slowdown performance. There he stood: tall, brilliant, and gently strumming his guitar.
Miwi is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Buffalo, New York, now living in Omaha, by way of New York City.
His songs are powerful, weighty, and, quite frankly, heartbreaking at times. If music is essential for nourishing the soul, Miwi’s cup runneth over. His voice is simple and clear with a raw intimacy that pulls influence from traditional and contemporary folk music, classic country, and indie rock.
Annie Dilocker, a fellow musician and friend, who walked into the bar halfway through Miwi’s first song, recalls the scene: “The whole room was so quiet; listening to him.” After the second song, Miwi broke the silence with a joke: “You guys could all talk a little…You can make it all feel like a real bar’s bar.”
That odd humor and sensibility, well, that’s Miwi, Dilocker says.
He has a witty way with words, yet, when asked about his lyrics, Miwi has kept the meanings of many of his songs a mystery.
Lyrically he kind of writes for everyone, says Billy Jackson, his longtime friend and manager. “He’s not just writing a story about himself. For the most part, he’s taking a small bit of what he’s experienced and weaves a thread between him and everyone else.”
Miwi is an enigma—fascinating, complex, and full of subtleties that make you want to learn about him.
Who is this Miwi La Lupa?
The man who accompanied Conor Oberst as the indie darling performed two songs from his solo album Ruminations on Jimmy Kimmel Live two years ago. The man who blends the quirkiness of folk with the rhythms of soul and blues and a lil’ bit of country to create incredible sounds. The man who seeks depth of relationships in his albums Beginner’s Guide, Ended Up Making Love, and New Way Home.
Miwi developed an affinity for music at an early age. His mother, “a Motown girl,” filled her home with sweet melodies, while Kenny G’s Christmas records were the soundtrack to the holidays. “We were always singing along to stuff on the radio at the time,” he says. “Yeah, Mom was a Motown girl so we listened to black radio in Buffalo. Those ’60s and ’70s classics and whatever was on [the radio] in the ’80s. Obviously, your Michael Jacksons and your Janet Jacksons.”
School music lessons and his older brother had a profound and lasting impact on Miwi as well. “My brother started taking drum lessons and, being his younger brother, I wanted to be just like him.”
When Miwi was old enough for lessons he picked up drums before switching to saxophone. “I was 6 or 7 years old; I don’t exactly remember why [I changed instruments],” Miwi says. “I had a lisp and remembered it felt good to say saxophone with a lisp.”
Nowadays, Miwi teaches guitar, piano, and trombone at the Papillion House of Music. In a recent conversation with his mother, he expressed his concern for his students: “Some of these kids, they don’t practice.”
Mom, he recalls, was like: “Yeah, you didn’t practice either. You would always forget your saxophone.”
“She would always be chasing after the bus because I forgot my saxophone,” he says with a laugh.
“And, I’d just lie about how many minutes I’d practice each day. Until one day I had this teacher who said this other kid was better than me at saxophone, and that’s when I started practicing.”
In middle school, Miwi began playing low-brass instruments, mostly trombone. He later transitioned into high school band and jazz band, where he quickly made friends and started a band of his own. The summer before Miwi left for Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, to study trombone, he took his personal band to Wales for a tour.
“Which is kind of crazy to think about…with no internet,” he says. “We were like 17, traveling internationally by ourselves. We were kind of trying to be a 50-year-old-man lounge singer at a hotel bar. It just seems insane to me now.”
That cover band later became known as Thought, which was Miwi’s main writing project for roughly 15 years.
“He’s really serious about music. He’s been that way his whole life. I remember him telling me how he would be up all night playing with local musicians in Buffalo and would come home super late,” Dilocker says. “He wrote about not wanting to wake up his mother in one of his songs, ‘Buffalo Folks.’”
The lyrics go: I crept in through the back door as the birds began to sing / Tried not to wake my mama but she hears everything / She asked me how the job went as she lit a waking smoke / I said the job was good the band played on I made a buck and I’m slightly buzzed / And this is what I’m made of I’m a Buffalo Folk.
Thought bandmates later moved to Brooklyn where Miwi worked as a freelance musician and an original member of New York bands Red Baraat and Knights on Earth. After grinding in the city for 10 years, Miwi met an Omaha musician—Oberst—who shared the same musical values and offered guidance.
“Through some musical friends I met Conor at our favorite bar,” he explains. “We became friends…and I eventually started playing music with him and started going on tours.”
In 2014, Miwi released his debut album New Way Home on Team Love Records with the help of Monica Jane Frisell. “That was a real rough and rumble making of a record in a small room with a small microphone, but they pieced it together,” Jackson says. Miwi’s second album, Ended Up Making Love, was released in 2016 on Team Love Records and was recorded at ARC Studios in Omaha with Oberst and Mike Mogis as producers.
“‘Giant Sleeping’ was a great song on that album,” Jackson exclaims. And then there’s “I Yield,” of which he says, “If you don’t feel something when you listen to that song, you are a dead person walking.”
Though Miwi had only been to Omaha to visit on tour and record a handful of times, he took a leap of faith and moved to Nebraska to pursue his music career. “There was this living opportunity that came up,” he says. “Conor basically recruited me to come and live in Omaha. I thought, for what I want to do, this is becoming more and more difficult to do in big cities—making music, making records, and touring. That’s a whole process in New York. After I thought about that, it was a pretty easy decision.”
He remembers driving across the George Washington Bridge and never looking back. Within five months, he was on a plane to the U.K. to tour and relieved that he had the flexibility to go. When he returned, he had a job at his friend’s bar waiting for him.
With a willingness to play different venues in new places, Miwi admits he has performed “from the [Madison Square] Garden to the [Sydney] Opera House to O’Leaver’s…I’ve slept on floors and suites and all within a couple months of each other.”
In Omaha, he stays busy making music and recording. He released his third album, Beginner’s Guide, in 2016 on his new label Tigershrimp Records (just half a year after the debut of Ended Up Making Love).
He plays 10 instruments well. He’s an engineer, producer, singer, and lyricist. He’s a utility instrumentalist of sorts for Mogis. “He’ll just call me up into the studio for singing backup vocals…or playing bass guitar or trombone for whatever he’s working on,” Miwi says.
“He has such a great ear,” Dilocker says. “What I find interesting working with him is that he has all these side melodies that pop up in his head. He comes up with some creative sounds…atmospheric sounds with bass versus your typical rhythmic bass lines.”
Miwi and Dilocker are currently finishing a record for their band, Dirt House, a collective that also features violinist Amy Carey and drummer Roger L. Lewis. Miwi also curates the open mic nights at Pageturners in Midtown. “He likes to make sure new voices are being heard and various types of artists are being represented,” Dilocker says.
During his downtime at home, he and his roommates listen to vinyl and “do a lot of hanging out by the fireplace listening to records and chit-chatting through the night.”
The house record library has about 2,000 albums.
“Which is neat because a lot of music I haven’t heard before, which gets me in trouble…The cool thing about these fireside hangs is that we often listen to these records over and over,” Miwi says. “When it’s done, we just flip over the record and hear it again.”
Among the belongings Miwi brought with him when he moved to Omaha from Brooklyn was a copy of Them Old Country Songs, a 1972 classic collection that included the likes of Skeeter Davis, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton.
“I didn’t grow up in a rock ’n’ roll environment,” he says. “I brought the country records…or at least wanting to listen to country records in the house, which is why we started Delores Diaz and the Standby Club.”
The country cover band consists of Miwi and Corina Figueroa, Conor Oberst, Roger L. Lewis, Mike Mogis, Phil Schaffart, Matt Maginn, Dan McCarthy, Jim Schroeder, and Ben Brodin. The band may be just for fun, but they take their music seriously.
Speaking of getting serious, Miwi performed a handful of new songs at Slowdown in March from a self-produced project that he’s working on and hopes to release in the fall. Back to his lyrics, “I often think of letting people down. I wish I was more…science fiction,” he jokes. “You know that breakup record I made, it’s all science fiction.”
Postscript: Miwi La Lupa has a lot of musical projects. In Omaha, the Miwi La Lupa band has consisted of various local musicians, including John Evans, Jacob Cubby Phillips, Annie Dilocker, Luke Polipnick, Max Stehr, Jon Ochsner, and Tyler Chickinelli.
Visit miwilalupa.com for more information.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. This online version corrects an error in the print edition. Miwi La Lupa has performed at the Sydney Opera House, not the Metropolitan Opera House.