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8th December 2013
Here at Metal Discovery, we pride ourselves on looking beyond the parameters of heavy music and general heterogeneity of the metal genre, by exploring other areas of alternative and unique sonic expression. One such artist is the stupendously talented Emily Wells. Ever evolving with her aural aesthetic, her music has always been characterised by a cross-genre, retro/modern fusion, blending sounds of yore with more contemporary elements and a genuinely innovative edge. A classically trained violinist, multi-instrumentalist and master of sampled loops, she's become renowned for her live performances where she showcases each of these talents with technical precision, while simultaneously conveying stirringly affective depths through her skilfully layered music and captivating vocals. And in some kind of curiosity experiment where she wanted to explore the standalone strength of her songwriting, Emily's voice took centre-stage earlier this year with the release of 'Mama Acoustic Recordings' - stripped-down, rearranged and hauntingly melancholic versions of tracks from last year's 'Mama' album. A departure from the usual complexity of her layered sonics, the resulting music is sublimity exemplified. While Emily was over in the UK as part of a 2013 European tour, Metal Discovery took the opportunity to meet up with this most uniquely talented of musicians to find out more about the re-worked 'Mama' tracks, as well as general discussions around her artistry and last year's collaboration with cult South Korean movie director Park Chan-wook...
METAL DISCOVERY: Your first ever UK gig was in June this year in London at the Water Rats?
EMILY: Thatís true.
(Emily Wells on balancing out the technical aspect of her performance with the emotions in her music)
"...I certainly want people to understand the concept of what Iím doing onstage, but I want them to get it within the first two minutes and then forget and just experience the show, and the songs, and emotions."
Emily Wells in The Ruby Lounge, Manchester, UK, 8th December 2013
Photograph copyright © 2013 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Now youíre back here for a string of ten shows, do you have mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension, bringing your music to new audiences and new territories?
EMILY: Iím just excited to play every night and, yeah, whenever youíre walking into a new situationÖ I mean, I feel that way meeting anyone; Iím like, what is this gonna be? So when you multiply that by however many people are gonna show up at the show, you have a little bit of apprehension but itís so overcome by getting to play.
MD: The ĎMama Acoustic Recordingsí album was released earlier this year and Iíve read you describe it as ďa kind of accidental albumĒÖ
EMILY: Thatís true.
MD: So, considering it was just ďaccidentalĒ, how pleased were you with the outcome of stripping down the ĎMamaí songs?
EMILY: I was just curious about it and, yeah, I was really pleased. It pushed me as an artist and, as a producer, I had to really make simpler choices Ė really rely on the voice and that kind of thing. I like that. I like that challenge.
MD: I guess itís testament to how good the songwriting is in the first place that they work so well in a minimalist form, so did you surprise yourself at just how strong your songs stood up when stripping them of all their layers?
EMILY: Well, youíre really hitting on something there because that was the big reason why I did it. It was kind of a test, and there was a feeling of weeding out the songs or finding them within there. Someone had once told me, and I was young at the time, eighteen or seventeen or something, and I was really into Aphex Twin and experimental music and all this stuff, and someone said: ďHey, no song is a good song unless it can be played on an acoustic guitar.Ē I was like: ďOh, thatís bullshit.Ē But, I donít know, Iíve kinda come around to that concept a little bit. So it was just putting the songs to the test, I guess.
MD: And putting yourself to the test as well, I guess.
EMILY: Yeah, totally.
MD: Interestingly, the track orderís different for the ĎÖAcoustic Recordingsí, so did the reworked versions dictate a different flow to the material to make the album work as a whole?
EMILY: A little bit. I mean, for one thing, we were releasing it on vinyl exclusively; the album didnít come out on CD in the US. I really wanted to think about it as a piece of work that you play from the beginning to the end and that would also have two sides so that it can be heard in that way. You guys got the CD here but itís still conceptually there; that ideaís there. Also, yeah, it just kinda called for a new order. I had written one new song for the albumÖ
MD: ĎLos AngelesíÖ
EMILY: ĎLos Angelesí, yeah, and I didnít want to replace ĎInstrumentalí with that, so I was like, ďokay, a new approach.Ē And, actually, the original is ordered chronologically from when the songs were written. I didnít necessarily intend to do that as I was writing it, but I thought that could be an interesting approach for telling the stories and things like that.
MD: And you record on tape, donít you, so the vinyl format must be good for capturing that warm, analogue soundÖ
EMILY: Yeah.
MD: Ödo you think it loses a little something on CD?
EMILY: I donít know. I think everything isÖ how good are your speakers?! I love vinyl, at least for the ritual of it and the physicality of it, if nothing else. But, yeah, I think it sounds good on vinyl.
MD: The songs have taken on an almost folky vibe in their minimalist form Ė did that transpire naturally from the rearrangements, or were you aiming for a folk essence?
EMILY: I was thinking a lot about Karen Dalton at the time. I was thinking a lot about Iron & Wineís first record, and I had read something about that record - heíd just had a kid or something; he lived in a small place; he was making these minimalist recordings quietly at night, not to wake his kid. And I, at the time, was living with my two best friends and I kind of pretended they were my kidsÖ
EMILY: So, yeah, I guess itís folk music in a way but I also wanted the spring reverb to be a real character. I didnít use any digital effects at all; on the record, itís all spring reverb and tape andÖ I knew those were the three main componentsÖ and the voice. The voice was like a real dare for myself, to let the voice do so much work.
MD: To express yourself in different ways with your vocalsÖ
EMILY: Yeah, and I was also thinking about these songs; their meanings grow and change, and you start to feel more tender about the time, maybe, that you wrote them, after you get some distance from it. So I wanted to sing the songs more tenderly and more gently, because some of the songs are really painful, you know. And I wanted to see Ė how does this song feel if I sing it in this way thatís more gentle with the approach and the sentiment behind it.
MD: Thereís quite a haunting melancholy in a lot of those reworked tracks Ė I guess the heavy reverb sound adds to the haunting quality, but do you think the melancholic feeling was already inherent in the songs, waiting to be discovered?
EMILY: YeahÖ [laughs]Ö it definitely was, yeah, for sure. And, again, that goes with the vocal approach because the way a person says or sings something is everything. The words are almost secondary sometimes.
MD: Did you surprise yourself at the new emotional depths you could bring to the songs in their minimalist form?
EMILY: Yeah. I mean, when Iím producing my typical style, I can hide behind so many things that arenít emotional. Obviously, melodies and things can be emotional without words and without the voice but I can get really caught up in the process of making it. And with this, there was nothing to get caught up on; it was just like, this is it. And again, too, that distance from the time when Iíd written them gave me a new depth.
MD: Did you end up preferring any of the songs in their stripped-down form?
EMILY: I do, yeah. I think I prefer ĎJohnny CashÖí in that version. And I actually really love ĎMama's Gonna Give You Loveí in the stripped-down version too. Those are probably the two standouts for me.
MD: Do you find it easier to express emotions through your music in a stripped-down form, or with all the different layers?
EMILY: I did some live shows where I was playing acoustic guitar and I never saw myself as being that kind of performer. Itís kind of like meeting a person, one-on-one, that youíre shy about. I was like, oh cringe, I donít wanna do that! But I sort of forced myself to because I had actually released this record so I was like, I guess I have to support it a little! [laughs] And it was really incredible, the experience ofÖ I would play those songs first; I didnít do the whole record, I would do four or five of them. And I felt the audience really just leaning in to the songs in a way that, you know. When I started out with just the regular setup, thereís beats and thereís a lot going on. But, I think, also one goal for me has been Ė how do I stay emotionally engaged doing so much onstage? And, so, itís made some of my arrangements for liveÖ I try to simplify them a little bit; I try to make certain things easier for myself; and also practice because, once you have it in you, then you can go deep, emotionallyÖ [laughs]
MD: So those shows where you start with the acoustic stuff, thatís about luring an audience in before you hit Ďem with the full-on intensity?
EMILY: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And Iíve kind of been trying that, even without playing the acoustic songs; just starting with quieter things, or starting with things which are super, super bare, and then hitting it hard after that.
MD: I guess this is a philosophical question, but do you regard music as creating your mood or feeding your mood, or a bit of both?
EMILY: Yeah, as a fan of music, it can make or break a day and, if you choose to engage with it, it can give you so much. And then, as far as my own work, thatís where I go to be myself, you knowÖ where I'm truly the most myself.
MD: What kind of reactions do you generally notice at gigs? Are there always a number of people that seem to be admiring the technical aspect of your performance, or do people get lost in the emotions of your music more?
EMILY: Well, you know, I think itís mostly the latter. I do have an interesting, small fan-group/sub-group or whatever, like geeky dudesÖ
EMILY: Öreally into that part of things. My goal is, I certainly want people to understand the concept of what Iím doing onstage, but I want them to get it within the first two minutes and then forget and just experience the show, and the songs, and emotions. I want people to think about their own lives, their own love, their own familyÖ all that stuff. Thatís where I want people to go; not to be like, ďdamn, howís she doing that?Ē, because then it takes the focus away from themselves and I think thatís when people really engage.
MD: So having done those shows where you started with the acoustic songs, are you more tempted now to do more of those so you can reel people in more easily and then youíve already got them from the start?
EMILY: I think I wanna figure out how to do it without having to play an acoustic guitar! [laughs]
MD: You donít enjoy that?
EMILY: I donít know. I say I donít and then always walk away from the experience grateful for it. So yeah, I donít know. I think, also, Iím a little bit wary of Iím not really a guitarist so thatís not the thing Iím really gonna work on; Iíd rather take viola/cello lessons or something thanÖ you know, thereís other things I want to get better at. And, also, I think being a female who goes by their own name, people pigeonhole you or whatever and I really donít want to feed into that. Iíll show up, doing what I do, and people make assumptions, or having support for me thatís not really suited, or whatever. So Iím like, okay, Iíd better chill out on this acoustic guitar business!
MD: What with all the looping and layers, is it a fairly natural process for you to balance out the technical aspects with the emotional qualities of your music, or is that something you always work hard to achieve?
EMILY: Yeah, I want it to be flawless as much as possible. I want to be so well practiced, like I was saying before, that by the time I get to the stageÖ I almost feel like the technical side is more like athletics. Like an ice skater or a diver who has to have these techniques down in a way thatís so practice, practice, practice. Thatís probably because Iím a classical musician at heart and so thatís how I learned how to be good, you know, you just practice a lot. And then, once you have it perfectly, then you have room for the emotion.
MD: Exactly, because I think thereís a difference between being a virtuoso on an instrument and expressing emotion through virtuosity. I donít think being a virtuoso automatically implies emotional depth, those are two different things.
EMILY: Sure, totally.
MD: As youíve said, youíre classically trained on the violin, but how much of a classical approach do you bring to your art? Do you see parallels between your songwriting methods and the work of a traditional classical composer?
EMILY: Yeah, you know, I want to. I think more harmonically than structurally at this point. Iíve been a little limited structurally by writing, for want of a better word, pop music and also by the nature of my production which is so sample-based and, therefore, loop-based. So there are things Iím curious about and I find my work getting a little more challenging in the sense of maybe the songs are longer; maybe thereís multiple sections that donít repeat. Thatís becoming more interesting to me and Iím kind of pushing myself in that way as a writer. But I hear, definitely, even more, classically-based I think. My ears think in that way.
MD: I guess once youíve had that kind of training, thatís inherent in you as a person so itís hard to kind of break with that?
EMILY: Yeah, it is and I like so many different kinds of music, but thatís the thing thatís like totally in me.