Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Emily Wells Talks Symphonies, Beats, & Her "Mama"

Nearly impossible to classify or define, Emily Wells is an intriguing artist, songwriter, and violinist who not just sidesteps or defies musical genres, but exists completely outside of them. Her work contains elements of folk, blues, classical, and hip-hop that culminate to form a uniquely fresh hybrid that is all her own. Emily's blend of multiple musical approaches is hard to put into words, pin down, or classify. Simply put, her discography is enigmatic and alluring while her live performances just need to be seen to be believed.

Although Emily has been making music since a very young age, it was the release of her 2008 album, The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties that attracted the praise of NPR and Spin, catapulting her work onto a national platform.

Earlier this year, Emily released her latest and perhaps best album called Mama (Partisan Records). Since the record's release, she has laid down a stellar live session for Daytrotter, toured relentlessly, and has been putting the finishing touches on her upcoming collaboration with Dan The Automator (as the duo Pillowfight). As if all of this prolific activity is not enough to keep herself busy, Emily is in the midst of plotting more live appearances while beginning work on new compositions for her next recording.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Emily at length regarding her musical evolution as a songwriter and performer, as well as dig into the wide scope of her influences and sources of inspiration that fuel her work. I am thrilled to share our conversation, which uncovers Emily's philosophical and stylistic sensibilities, while offering an in-depth look into all that she invests of herself into her recordings, live performances, and collaborations.

Can you describe your trajectory as a violinist and how/ when that led to others?

Emily Wells: I was a Suzuki violin kid, starting violin at 4, enthralled by the instrument and the idea of performance. I think the other instruments came along as my interest in sound and production started taking more of priority as a teenager. A friend loaned me a 4-track when I was 16 or so and this whole idea of multi-tracking myself, and being able to use even the simplest tools to make beats and sounds was fascinating.

I began playing these other instruments as a means to get an idea across because I don’t have a large ensemble at my disposal, or because I’m curious about how to draw emotion out of an instrument I might not know very well. I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to have just stayed with the violin, or had a single focus on one instrument.

When did you begin writing your own material?

Emily: I always loved exploring the violin, but I borrowed my older brother's guitar when I was around 13 and started imitating him and his band and other bands of that time. I was also getting turned onto people like Tori Amos or Mazzy Star.

As you began writing your own music and lyrics, who were some of your biggest influences and how would they fueled your own development and evolution early on?

Emily: I was very open to art and music as a teenager. I can only hope to remain so curious and engaged as an adult. You could catch me listening to Enya along side Nirvana. This was before I got turned onto rap. I would say there were two pivotal events for me musically that really shaped where I would go.

First, I stumbled on a jazz club, the Chatterbox, in Indianapolis where I went to high school. I was incredibly drawn in, I hadn’t seen live performance outside of the traditional rock and roll band, church, or classical type ensemble. This was a three-piece: upright, simple drums, and a horn of some sort. Oh, wait, maybe there was a guitar too.

I went inside just so I could experience a couple minutes before getting carded, but then the most amazing thing happened. The waitress came over and asked me if I’d like a drink. I ordered coffee and came back a couple nights a week for months. I was fascinated by this form and with the ease of performance.

The other change that happened around this time was hearing and buying Method Man’s Tical. The first song, “Release Yo Delf” revealed something about rap music to me: The limitless creativity inside of the production. It was the perfect form of music because it could borrow from all others seamlessly, while maintaining a clear thread right through the middle with the beat, and on top of it tell whatever story, or convey whatever idea through voice. The lyrics could be playful and humorous and metaphoric without being cheesy or silly or lacking meaning. 

On a non-musical level, one afternoon in the basement of the library I stumbled on a book of work by the Austrian Painter Egon Schiele. In the same way as the other two moments hit me, I was struck by Schiele’s work because, again, it was completely new and fresh and foreign and evocative. He was brave, and brash, and ugly and alluring all at once.

When did you begin integrating samples into your compositions?

Emily: It’s hard to pinpoint that exactly, although I got my first sampler when I was around 20. Previously I’d used a Dr. Rhythm or the Lynn 9000, but only with the given drum sounds. I’d played around with the concept of sampling in a less structured way before, but the sampler (the very one I still use today in fact) got me going for making beats and taking samples and drum sounds off records.

As a performer, producer, singer, and composer who utilizes both traditional and modern instrumentation, can you discuss your philosophical and artistic approach to combining your own classically trained sensibilities with other styles and approaches of songwriting and performing?

Emily: The thing that classical music taught me first and foremost is the importance of practice and discipline and the ever elusive push for perfection. It also informed my ear in a very specific, western way regarding pitch and harmony. Because I came up in the Suzuki method my theory is a bit challenged and I am guided by my ear and my ability to memorize. This helps me a great deal when creating string sections in the studio that I am doubling or tripling. I don’t always have to write them out, which is a bit painstaking.

These concepts, however, are what I learned from classical music, though I don’t feel that they are exclusive to that practice. They simply help me to approach other instruments, as well as my performance, with discipline. Sometimes this western education can be tricky on a sonic or rhythmic level and create habits that are difficult to break away from.

I have a huge interest in music from other parts of the world, Africa in particular, that I find my body understands while my mind does not. It is a dream of mine to shake myself of what I know about music and be a fresh student somewhere besides the United States. 

For readers who may be new to your work, can you briefly discuss your previous recordings?

Emily: I’ve made a number of records since I first started recording as a kid. Much of this work is unreleased or out of print and I think of it like my college papers. The process taught me a great deal, even if the outcome wasn’t what I had envisioned. Of this work, I’m still proud enough of a couple records to keep dragging them around on tour with me. 

The first record to start connecting me with a wider audience and push me to a more satisfying place as a producer was Beautiful Sleepyhead and the Laughing Yaks. This record is certainly more song based than the record that would come after, and less experimental than much of what I’d been doing before, but it taught me a little about recording strings and recording more conventional sounds.

I had begun working on a follow up to Sleepyhead that would have perhaps been in similar vein, when I starting pairing my violin with a loop pedal I’d had lying around for a few years but had never perfected. One evening I stumbled on the song that would become “Symphony 1” and I knew that this was a new direction for me. I was thrilled and excited by the prospect of performing in this new way with this instrument that I loved and knew only used in the studio. I dropped everything else and started writing The Symphonies (a term I use lightly) and perfecting the live sampling so I could demonstrate these songs on stage. (Aka looping… I try to stay away from this term, it bugs me)

The Symphonies were all written with the live show in the forefront, which obviously greatly influenced (and limited) their structure. When I went to record them I didn’t want to approach the strings or anything else as loops, even though they were absolutely written to loop on stage.  I thought it would be interesting to take the parts and actually play them out and then double or most often triple these parts. As you can imagine it was incredibly time consuming and sometimes boring as the parts were so repetitive and long, but I had committed to this concept goddamn it!!

I shouldn’t forget the EP, Dirty, that came after The Symphonies. I had gone into my studio one evening and begun messing around with a cover of Biggie’s “Juicy”. This was never intended to be played for anyone or performed. It was just something I was having fun with one summer night, but I ended up creating the samples and recording the vocals that would go on the final recording that very night.

I started performing the song live and Dirty in many ways was a means to release this recording, which would receive praise and criticism alike, as well as a couple of other live show favorites that had yet to be released (“Take It Easy San Francisco”) and a remix of “Symphony” 9.  While Dirty certainly lacked the conceptual clarity of The Symphonies it gave my touring audience what they wanted: a way to take these songs home. 

How did your previous work prepare you for beginning to work on material for Mama?

Emily: I think all the live performance that came in support of Symphonies prepared me more than anything. That and all the mistakes I’d made on those records in getting sounds or approaching the performances. I also decided to move to a tape/ Pro Tools combination instead of using a 32-track unit.

Can you talk about how and when you began working on Mama?

Emily: I started working on Mama at the end of 2009. I had moved to a small cabin in Topanga Canyon and knew I wanted to finish writing the record and also record it there. I was recording the first eight tracks to tape so had a pretty strict policy about doing 1 or 2 takes only and no punch ins. I wanted it to have a live feel even though of course it was impossible to record live.

Did you have a set plan or any preconceived idea of the record?

Emily: I had an extreme shift in my life when I began writing the record, most specifically the break up of my long-term relationship. It was inevitable that this would influence the record in a great way conceptually, lyrically. These were universal ideas and experiences, however, and I used the specificity of my own experience to delve into these themes.

Can you discuss your songwriting process, both musically and lyrically.

Emily: This is always a fluid process. While I have my habits, I don’t have a set way writing. Since I began using the looping pedal I have found myself keeping live performance in mind while writing, though for Mama and the songs I’ve written since then, I’ve tried not to let that restrict me too much and have challenged myself to find other approaches to the pedal and to performance.

I might begin by building samples and singing over those loops, perhaps just creating the hook or some semblance and then building the lyrics around both the concept and the tempo. I’ve learned to record the writing process so that I don’t lose simple melodies vocally, and so that I can find the map for building complex string arrangements.  I don’t listen to these rough one mic in a room or on my phone recordings, but fish through them for the gems or to get back something I’ve lost.

Recently I found a few of these on a hard drive for some of the Mama songs.  “Passenger” took a couple of hours and “Fire Song” the most heart wrenching and melancholy song on the record, came at the end of a rather cheerful attempt at a dance song with rap lyrics that kept referencing Neil Young.

It is interesting to hear the songs come together in this way, dancing around what will eventually become a melody set in stone or locking on to a new and specific direction. I rarely write a song over a long period of time (though I try). For the most part if the song isn’t mostly complete lyrically and melodically in a few hours then it won’t come to pass. Also, if I can’t play it live, it usually fades.

How does each process inform each other while your writing?

Emily: Each time you give yourself to the process of writing, recording, or performing you learn something.  Your failures are just as important as your successes. This is always changing and almost impossible for me to describe.

Lately I have found myself going to more solid ideas rather than story telling so much, but again, I’m not sticking with this. I like conversation and I like specificity… It’s oddly the most universal thing out there.

Which writers are inspiring to you lyrically?

Emily: Of course Bob Dylan, and Biggie Smalls. I’m currently being influenced by the writer Milan Kundura’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in a major way.

Was there a tune that set the direction for Mama?

Emily: I don’t know, but if I had to choose I’d say “Passenger”. I have been playing that song live since 2009, so it was on “the next record” long before there even was Mama.

What were you listening to during the making of Mama that you found significantly inspiring?

Emily: Almost every morning I listened to a vinyl from 1981 called Viva Zimbabwe! of simple, yet frenetic electric guitar driven songs. I also listened to another vinyl of traditional Hawaiian music an awful lot through that time and a couple of Lil Kim’s songs on repeat.

What would you say are your biggest sources of non-musical inspiration and influences?

Emily: The city I’m in. My friends. Whatever book I’m reading. The weather.

Now that Mama is completed and living in the world, what would you say connects it most to your previous work?

Emily: Most likely, the vocals. I’m not objective about these things. 

What distinguishes Mama most from your previous recordings?

Emily: I think it takes the clear songwriting from Sleepyhead, and the complexity and richness of the strings from Symphonies.  Perhaps it takes fewer risks musically from Symphonies but more risks lyrically than anything that’s come before it.

Can you describe your live performance for the uninitiated?

Emily: Imagine a spaceship’s cockpit, but made out of instruments and mixers. I wish I could draw a picture. I have a table in front of me with a synth and drum machine and 2 mixers, plus a melodica and a bunch of different mallets. Behind me is a kick drum I play with my heel, on my right a floor tom and a ride, on my left a snare and high hat. At my feet the looping pedal and then of course the violin, guitar, and ukulele are on stands around me wherever they’ll fit.

Often there’s a beat or something to get things going, and I begin building the different parts of the song as quickly and seamlessly as possible. This has been a big focus for me in the last year or so: Getting everything moving quickly. I want the audience to be aware of the process but not to stop there. I don’t want people to come the shows to watch someone do a good job with a loop pedal.

I want the experience to be moving and musical just as it would be with any band or solo performer. I’m setting the bar there, not at, “check out that girl who loops the violin and does that B.I.G. cover”. This is my means of conveying songs, not my gimmick.

I want you to forget I’m even looping or anything by then end of the show. It’s a challenge, and I can’t say that I always succeed, but it keeps me pushing as a performer. After I get the song built I’ll sing and play drums over it all, bringing elements in and out, much like traditional hip-hop production.

Sometimes I’ll play guitar and sing and start sampling only at the end, sometimes I have samples already ready to go in the pedal so I can use sounds and performances it would be impossible to create on the spot. I want the show to be varied both sonically and visually. The visual element of the show is definitely the next frontier.

I really enjoyed your Daytrotter session. Can you discuss how that came together and what you enjoyed most about doing that?

Emily: I’m a big fan of Daytrotter so I was of course thrilled to be asked to perform. I loved having the live performance isolated in such a strong sounding studio with great mics, and a fantastic engineer. I’d never done that before. They also had a gorgeous old Ludwig kit I got to use, which pretty much made my day.

Can you discuss Pillowfight, your collaboration with Dan The Automator?

Emily: Dan and I met through Kid Koala after he and I performed at Calgary Folk Festival in 2009. Eric (Koala) knew Dan had an unnamed secret passion project he’d been working on and that he hoped to find a female vocalist/lyricist for it. Eric called Dan during my solo performance that day and held up the phone while I was performing “Passenger”. A few weeks later I went up to San Francisco for the weekend to meet Dan and try my hand at writing to some of his recordings.

Four days and three songs later we decided to make a record together, which over the course of the next several months we did. The project is finished including mastering and artwork (by painter David Choe), but has been stalled for various reasons. I can’t tell you when it will come out exactly but I’m hoping this year! What I can say is that we had a real blast making the record and I learned a lot from the process, most notably, how to value my own vocals. 

What are your plans for the rest of 2012?

Emily: Aside from a few festivals and thinking about how I want to approach my next record, I’m going to focus on getting sounds, recording a few covers, practicing drums and doing some remixes. I had another (top secret) recording project come up that I’m just finishing up.

Since I wrapped the spring tour I’ve also been working on a group of acoustic recordings of songs from Mama in addition to a couple other projects I’ve got up my sleeve for release later this year. I’ll also spend the entire month of October touring the US again.

If you had to pick one recording that you have been listening to lately that best represents where you are presently, both creatively and personally, what would it be and why?

It is a dead tie. Tinariwen’s Tassili and the recently reissued Wendy Rene's After Laughter Comes Tears: The Complete Stax and Volt Singles + Rarities 1964-65.

I saw Tinariwen play a couple weeks ago and it’s making me want to drop everything and go to Africa for a couple of years to study music. They recorded this brilliant record outside! In the Desert of Algeria! It is graceful, and simple and stunningly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

A few weeks ago I got turned onto the soul singer Wendy Rene and bought the vinyl immediately. I’ve been studying the production from the old Stax recordings for some time now and thinking about experimenting with some of those approaches in future recordings. This collection really gets me because of her voice, and the way the sounds were captured and mixed.

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