It’s been about three years since Mira Goto packed up her car in Santa Cruz and pointed it east to Nashville. When she comes back to town to receive recognition as Musician of the Year at the NEXTies on Friday at the Rio Theatre, you can’t blame friends and family for looking for some kind of sign—new boots, bigger hair, maybe a casual “y’all” dropped in conversation—that she’s “gone Nashvegas.”
Chances are she’ll give them nothing like that. In fact, she says, the opposite is true—in Nashville, she’s couldn’t get any more Californian if she had the bear flag tattooed on her forehead.
“People in the South can hear the California when I start singing,” says Goto. “They’re always asking, ‘Are you from California?’ Though they always assume L.A.”
That might be because she has not completely left California behind just yet. Largely because her husband Anthony works in tech, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter is leading a geographically demanding double life, roughly two weeks in Nashville for every two weeks in Santa Cruz. “I spend lots of time on planes,” she says.
Goto is one of several locals being honored at the NEXTies (she shares the title of Musician of the Year with singer-songwriter Henry Chadwick). The awards event, presented by Event Santa Cruz, is celebrating its 10th year, and giving recognition in several arenas of Santa Cruz culture, from the arts to food to business to social activism.
Goto traffics in what she playfully calls “diet country.” If twangy, boot-scootin’ country could be characterized as “deep-fried,” then Goto’s sound is more lightly pan-seared. Essentially, she says, it’s a California approach to traditional country music. “Being able to bring my California accent and attitude to country music and telling stories through that voice has been a fun challenge,” she says.
Typical of her approach is “Next Life,” a plaintive piano ballad about the bad timing of true love—the narrator is grappling with finding it while already committed to someone else. In a kind of contrarian take on the true-love-always-wins trope, she instead decides to honor her commitment and turn her back on happiness: “If we’d only met before/ My heart was spoken for/ It’s not our time/ So I’ll keep you in mind/ For the next life.”
“It’s about deciding to walk away,” she says of the song. “The concept was a little bit uncomfortable, and we don’t talk about it much. But it does happen. I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people who’ve had (similar experiences). It’s still a love song, even though it’s an uncomfortable one.”
Goto—who in addition to performing at the NEXTies on Friday will also be one of the musicians performing a John Prine song at the Prine tribute at the Kuumbwa on Saturday—grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains as Mira Parfitt. She has played music since her pre-teen years. “When I was a very young kid,” she says, “I started playing violin and I was classically trained on that. As a teenager, I thought guitar was a much cooler instrument, so I switched over to guitar. And I had to learn every Taking Back Sunday song and every Dashboard Confessional song I could find.”
From there, it was a process of discovery: Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Colbie Caillat. But it might have remained a private passion if not for her sister Danielle. “I was very shy,” Goto says. “I have a terrible stage fright problem.” It was Danielle who taught her how to harmonize in old Simon and Garfunkel songs, then convinced her to perform on stage.
She’s been songwriting for just as long, and part of her mission in Nashville is to establish herself as a songwriter as much as a performer. She moved there in the summer of 2016, just a few weeks after her wedding. (Her husband Anthony is also a musician, and the two of them often perform as a duet). “I figured if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it.”
The experience of going to Nashville has connected her to a new community of musicians. “The nature of Nashville is very different from Los Angeles or New York. It’s very supportive, not as competitive. I feel like the people who I have worked with are 100 percent rooting for me to succeed, and they want to share in my success with me.”
Goto has released an album titled New Plaid Shirt under her former name, Mira Parfitt, and she’s planning to release her next recording later this year. She is currently pulling together a band for a summer tour, taking advantage of her bifurcated life between California and Nashville.
“There are always going to be better guitar players,” she says of her ambitions. “There are always going to be better singers, and better songwriters. So it’s absolutely about telling that story you need to tell, that’s unique to you, and telling it in the best way you know how.”
The 2019 NEXTies, presented by Event Santa Cruz, will be held at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 22, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $30 general/$35 VIP seating. eventsantacruz.com. Mira Goto will perform, along with Jesse Daniel, Henry Chadwick, Cement Ship, and Anthony Arya. Goto will also perform at the “Tribute to John Prine” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center. $25 general/$40 gold circle. 479-9421, snazzyproductions.com.