BlackBook Interview: Emily Wells on Leonard Cohen, Free Will & Not Letting Cynicism Win the Day

 

As the “experimental wing” of contemporary music finds itself inching ever further towards the cultural margins, the glorious anomaly that is Emily Wells somehow manages to continue to enrapture bigger and bigger audiences with each passing year.

The American singer-composer-multi-instrumentalist (described by The New Yorker as having “a boundless imagination”), has just released her 10th studio album, intriguingly named This World Is Too _____ For You – which pulls no punches in regards to the intensity of its socio-political, yet very human observations. To wit, the acerbically titled “Come on Doom, Let’s Party” – a haunted, Teutonic dirge, which finds her doomfully chanting, “Let’s get it over.” The psychedelic-baroque “Eulogy For the Lucky” chillingly finishes the thought: “No personal Jesus / Gonna save us.”

 

 

Above all, Wells stunningly exhibits the startling scope of her instrumental acumen and aesthetic reach. She flits between gothic, folk, prog, and veritably every classical sub-genre as if she were merely skipping across a hopscotch board – all the while coming off like the sonic equivalent of a pan-European musical detente. But there’s a barely controlled fire burning beneath it all. Indeed, the stunningly visceral “I Need a Placebo” could almost be Kate Bush, but for its eerily confessional lyrics.

It culminates in the sardonically worded “Your Apocalypse Was Fab,” followed by “Hymn For the New World”…which actually wants to offer some measure of hope amidst the ostensible hopelessness. And indeed, This World Is Too _____ For You will make you want to storm the barricades one moment, and collapse into tears of both sadness and joy the next.

We managed to sit her down as she was launching a select tour of Europe and North America, to discuss the new album, the creative process, and why, in the end, hope will still win the day.

 

 

You’re from Texas – but I hear elements of pastoral Englishness, neo-baroque flourishes and also a kind of Teutonic precision in your music. Who and what are some of your most pronounced influences?

I think you’re onto something. The Euro – neo-baroque thing in there arrived for me initially as a kid playing Bach and Vivaldi, and also through hymns and choral and orchestral music my father, the former music minister, brought to the household. Though I wouldn’t say jazz is a pronounced influence I sure have spent a lot of time with Nina Simone, Miles Davis, the Éthiopiques collection…and with West African music, like Tinariwin.

There is also something of Leonard Cohen…?

Yes, this album’s influence tended toward songwriters, I was following in the shadow of artists who can be aphoristic and personal at once, and I think he’s the master of this. I [also] thought a lot about David Bowie and Nick Drake, and I wore a hole in Blonde by Frank Ocean. Beyond music, this album is infused with two books in particular: John Berger’s About Looking and Mary Rueful’s Madness Rack and Honey, both [collections] of essays about art and writing and thinking and making. I think it would be a very different album had I not had their companionship.

You’re known as a violinist. But do you actually play most of the instruments on the new album?

On this album I chose to collaborate with the exceptional Metropolis Ensemble, as well as the composer Michi Wiancko, who arranged the songs’ chamber parts. I created demos of synth, vocals, vocoder, simple drums, and some violin, and sent them to Michi, who interpreted the material for string ensemble and french horn. Some synths stayed, some were taken over by the chamber ensemble or the horn. Much of the live drums were performed by Shayna Dunkleman. I do play quite a bit though, all of the synths, vocoders, drum machines.

 

 

You cross a number of aesthetic and genre boundaries. What is your audience like?

It’s hard to know what one’s audience is precisely, but I don’t find mine to be homogenous. If you look at a crowd at one of my shows you’ll see different genders, races, ages. This makes me happy. There are fellow queers, nerdy music gear people, an occasional drunk. Generally, in whatever country, everyone seems pretty earnest.

What are you trying to tell us with the title This World Is Too _____ For You?

I’m leaving space for you. And for me. The songs can insert themselves, as well as the future, the past…so can our anger, humor, shame and perhaps our hope.

On “I Need a Placebo,” you sing, “I’ll ask for small relief.” Do you find that the world that we’re existing in right now is sometimes too much to bear?

No, I think we can bear it; much worse has certainly been endured, is being endured, than anything I face in my current life. That line “I asked for small relief, all I got was free will”… it’s about the thing in me that seeks comfort, small reliefs, despite the bigness, the potential radicalness of being alive, of being endowed with free will. I wish not to squander this on the simple sorrows of daily life, nor on their false and temporary reliefs: booze, consumerism, whim. “Pour a little out for all the days I lost to misery, some small desire.”

Well, on “Remind Me to Remember,” you confess, “In the morning I wake up / With tears in my eyes” – does your music act as an effective catharsis?

It does. I also find it to be a form of redemption. Songwriting, I think, is often my way of asking for absolution, from myself, from the listener, from God. A brief penance, even for transgressions unknown. 

 

 

Both “Come on Doom, Let’s Party” and “Your Apocalypse Was Fab” come off something like a requiem. Do you believe humanity is nearing its ultimate fate?

The planet is in trouble and so are we. These songs, this album, tries to acknowledge this with tenderness for people, for the natural world, and tries to reckon with my own complicit behaviors and mindsets.Your Apocalypse Was Fab” asks “What’s better than understanding / What’s better than knowing the price of your sins?”then answers, “Don’t you dare say ignorance.” James Baldwin said, “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.” I held onto this thread while writing the record and tried not to give way to cynicism, despite the ease with which despair and pessimism might creep in…given our current cultural moment.

You are doing quite a few shows in Europe this spring before returning to the States. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine you have very receptive audience there?

I love touring there, often full of surprises, sometimes playing in old churches, encountering new people, ideas, and through them my own curiosity and engagement with language, place and history.

What will the live shows be like?

The shows vary. For instance, we just did a full performance of the album in New York with string quintet, french horn, and drums, plus me on my rig with synth, violin, vocals, samplers. Europe will be a bit different. We intend to play much of the new album with interpretations and arrangements that suit the varied configurations, as well as some of my older songs.

You conclude the album with “Hymn for the New World,” suggesting some measure of hope. What is your state of mind right now?

I wrote that one in the few days after that godforsaken 2016 election, and in the wake of Leonard Cohen’s death. I felt quite bleak, but I did want there to be an “after,” and understood that things had fundamentally changed, perhaps existentially, in terms of what would transpire for the planet and the animals who inhabit it. Now, honestly, I’m a bit less raw and open. I’ve learned some defenses and modes of distraction for coping with and trying to discern what to listen to, where to place limited attention and energy. I’ve been working on some essays, thinking about the potential relationship between the activists of ACT Up, which formed to fight AIDS, and our current climate crisis. What can we learn from them and their fault lines, victories, approaches, and art? How and when will we fight like our lives depend on it? Personally I’m in that process of setting down one project, the album which I’ve so thoroughly given myself to, and picking up others, knowing I will, I must, keep making, keep learning. 

 

 

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