A sweet-voiced chanteuse with a penchant for the Notorious B.I.G. and a record collection full of Nina Simone, there’s no easy way to pigeonhole Emily Wells. Tracing the entomology of her music’s toy pianos, bells, guitars and looped violins would be a Herculean task — with roots in her high school infatuation with jazz, hip-hop and her parents well-trod record collections.
Unafraid of reinvention, Wells’s third full-length Mama contains hints of her folk-friendly debut Beautiful Sleepyhead and the Laughing Yaks and 2008′s experimental The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties. “I think a static sound is boring to the artist, at least,” she laughs. “I keep it interesting for myself.”
eMusic’s Laura Studarus caught up with Wells for a pre-gig jog at SXSW. The two talked about burying the past, Johnny Cash’s mother, and Wells’s forthcoming collaboration with Dan the Automator.
On the recordings she made before her “official” debut, Beautiful Sleepyhead and the Laughing Yaks:
I think the most I ever made of anything was 500 copies. To me, they were like my college papers. No one wants to publish their college papers! Luckily none of that stuff has surfaced too much. Most people probably threw those away at some point.
On drawing inspiration from youthful “rebellion”:
I got really into jazz in high school. I would go to this club; I didn’t ever drink there, but they would let me sneak in and just listen. They had great jazz every night. It was in Indianapolis, at this little place called The Chatter Box. I guess I was just interested and hungry for music. Just nutrients. I was hanging around, drinking coffee, trying to blend. The people who worked there eventually told me they knew I was not 21. Because I never took advantage of the situation they could tell I was there just to listen to music.
On the community surrounding the recording of her third album, Mama:
While I was out in the middle of nowhere, people would come and bring food and add stuff to the record. That communal attitude was more a part of this record. I hope for even more of that in the next record. The next thing that I want to learn how to do is work with other people. I really admire that when people can bring a large group of people together and have a vision and translate that.
On giving up her status as an “indie” artist to release Mama with a label:
It was kind of getting to the point where I knew I was letting things slip through the cracks. I knew I was going to need help if I was going to do this record right. I also got to the point where I was like, “Well, I can spend all my time on marketing the record?” Which I know nothing about — which I kind of find appalling! [Laughs] It’s part of the lot in life I’ve chosen, to be in commerce in some way. [Laughs] Life is too short. I know that’s an extreme clichÃ©, but I mean it. There’s too much to do. I went abroad to Israel for the second time in August. Thinking about wanting to go to Palestine, thinking about wanting to go all over the world. Music is really important to me, but I don’t want to be completely self-absorbed, I want to live life.
On support from her mama:
I’m going on tour with the Portland Cello Project; I’m driving from Portland to Indianapolis. My mom is flying into Denver and driving with me to keep me company. She’s like, “I don’t want you to have to do that by yourself!”
On Johnny Cash’s mama:
["Johnny Cash's Mama's House"] was a working title that became, “I’d never call this anything else.” I wrote the song, and it just sounded like it to me. Not that I can even define what Johnny Cash’s mama’s house sounds like. The imagery I have when I sing that song is really really bright sunlight coming into a tiny kitchen in the woods.
My writing is really image-based. Which is not a choice. It’s like, “What instruments do I pick up now?” Some of it’s based on experiences, and some of it is based on “This is what’s coming to me and I have no control over it.” A lot of it is really light influenced. It’s not so much that I’m seeing what’s in front of us, I’m seeing the way the light’s coming into my inner eye.
On what she’s not:
I actually went to art school. I would have been a terrible artist. Or I would be making really experimental sound art or something like that. It would be very, very different. I actually just finished a music video for “Passenger.” It’s a series of images taken over the last three years of touring, and some other filming and self-portraiture stuff that I did. I think it’s a really interesting medium.
On throwing genre out the window:
I think a static sound is boring to the artist, at least. Me as a listener, sometimes I’m like, “Why are you changing?” Felice Brothers, for instance — I love them. I cover one of their songs. Now they’re beat machining it up, and I’m like, “What are you guys doing?” I’m sure there are people who say the same thing to me. But I keep it interesting for myself. Oddly, I think this record is if you combined where I was going as a songwriter with Sleepyhead and where I was going as a producer with Symphonies. They’re finally meeting up a little bit.
On Pillowfight, her forthcoming collaboration with Dan the Automator:
Dan was working on this passion project that did not have a name yet, or a singer. He knew he wanted a female vocalist. Kid Koala was like, “Check out my girl Emily.” Dan called me. I had listened to him when I was like 17 years old, listening to Handsome Boy Modeling School.
By the end of the first meeting we were homies. And then we became really close friends. I learned a lot from him. I don’t play a single instrument on the entire record. All I did was write the lyrics and sing. That was really cool for me. It allowed me to value my voice in a different way. I know that Dan values my voice in a way that I don’t. I liked that. It felt like I was seeing myself through different eyes.