Emily Wells On Ghost Cities, Queer Art, & Her New Album, 'Promise'

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Emily Wells Interview

Singer-songwriter Emily Wells is many things—including a former child prodigy and a classically trained violinist—but above all, she's a deeply instinctual artist, one who uses those natural impulses to guide her through challenging compositions and creative collaborations that propel her ever-forward to new heights.

The 34-year-old Brooklyn-based musician is poised to release her new album, Promise, this Friday via her recently launched imprint, Thesis and Instinct. She coined the label name in a nod to the idea that writing and recording music involves a “struggle between thesis and instinct.”

You’ll no doubt discover the depths of such musings here, and then some. The artist generously shared her insights about art, the songwriting process, and some of the subjects she explores on the new album, an effort she calls “an internal conversation” and “a record about friendship and the climate changing and fear of the unknown and love and desire and risk and amnesia,” among other things.

Gwendolyn Elliott: From what I understand, you typically tour solo but it sounds like you’re bringing a band on the road with you.

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Emily Wells: Well, I’m playing the shows solo except for there’s going to be five dates that we’re gonna have a quintet ensemble playing with me. But I’m bringing, very excitedly, an opener and we’re all going to travel together. Her name is Lorna Dune and she’s also solo and then we’re also bringing a sound engineer, so it will be the three of us plus my 12-year-old pit bull. It’s going to be great.

GE: You’re bringing a pup! Have you toured with your dog before?

EW: I have, yes, and once I started touring with her there was no going back. Like, lonely hotel room? Yeah. That’s this time to spoon, you know? It makes it just so much better.

GE: Tell me about Fossa, the name of the composition you contributed to the multi-media art installation of the same name at the SITE Gallery in Santa Fe. You worked with your father on it?

EW: It was so incredible to work with my dear friend [visual artist Amy Cutler]. I saw one of Amy’s pieces in a museum remarkably with my father probably ten years ago and wrote her name down because I was just so taken with it. And through the powers of the internet eventually we met, mostly just because I kept dreaming about her work.

Fast forward to now and she was asked to do this piece and one of the caveats was that she had to bring on a collaborator who worked in a different medium. We had a few different concepts, but we finally came around to wanting to create something that sort of felt like there would be these bundles of held burden, essentially. I got off the phone with her after that conversation and just kept thinking what that means. What does [the word “burden”] mean? What does that feel like? Who? And the person that kept coming to my mind was my father.

So, I drew him into it and said, “Hey Dad, uh, can I come to your house for a week and record you talking about the idea [of] your burden?” So I did. And my father’s also a musician so we played music everyday, and we went to the Y, and went to some concerts and at certain points in the day we’d sit down and we’d talk. And we had always just talked. We always had a really open relationship, but part of the idea was, “Okay this is on the record, we’re doing this because we’re artists” and in doing so we are planting a flag or something.

[As we were creating the piece] I was calling it “unburdening” or something...but I think more than anything [the piece] was saying: “I’ll carry this with you,” “Let’s carry it together,” and “I care. I still care.” And my girlfriend, she’s a painter and makes videos and she’s done a lot of work with her family and I was so inspired by that idea that art could be this thing, this process of moving with someone. And the act of doing it was the peace in and of itself, and then whatever you make is almost an artifact of that moment or whatever you set out to do with that person. It required so much intimacy.

I’m a solo artist and my work relies on itself and this really stretched me. So, we did the week together and then I came home and spent a few weeks in my studio sort of reacting to the conversation. I would be listening to the audio and cutting it up thinking about what parts I wanted to include, what parts I wanted to exclude. It wasn’t an easy process, it was a struggle.

But it was revelatory time with him, and a lot of what we discussed was about both of us coming out around the same time, although it’s complicated. He’s from a very different generation and it’s become a very different reality with being married, with his family. So I [was] a 17-year-old coming out; what does that look like compared to, you know, a 40-something man reckoning with himself in that way and still reckoning with himself? It was really incredible.

I think the main thing that we got to was just that we are the same and so he can see me so cleanly if you know what I mean, in a way that he couldn’t see himself and so it was almost like turning a mirror on someone. It was incredible and continues to be. The flag was planted so we could move forward and keep planting them.

There’s two different compositions, both are 11 minutes, but I made it so that you could never totally turn off the different voices. The voices are not narrative, it’s not linear, and I didn’t want the story to feel too specific to our story. It didn’t have to be about a girl and her father or whatever, it could be about a lot of relationships and a lot of experiences, but still not removing the specificity because I love that in art. Like Bruce Springsteen or something, you know, like really getting to “this story is all of our stories” even if it has nothing to do with us, or at least, Americans.

We built this whole piece of machinery for it to be experienced, the viewer can manipulate both the volume and the panning of six different channels. Each time that it was experienced it was an act of improvisation on the part of the viewer/listener, and could never really be experienced the same twice.

But it was great to put it all together because there was this whole other [element to it]. I’m just describing sound, but we had hundreds and hundreds of feet of braids, and we built a forest of Aspen inside, a very thin forest [but] real trees from the area. And there was a little hut [that you went inside and listened]. The visual, physical side of it was just as immersive as what I did and we kind of brought it all together.

We went to the opening and watched people experience it and I felt like a weird hall monitor, like, “Are they going to go in? What are they doing? Oh! Put on the headphones! Don’t they know they can turn the knob?” You know, that whole thing.

GE: What do you like about bringing the visual arts together with music?

EW: For me, I love getting to shed the structure of creating a traditional album or even a traditional song. There’s some sort of self-imposed structuralism to my nature as a songwriter, and these other projects have allowed me to explore a lot more fluidity, stylistically, structurally, even just compositionally.

Then also, of course, conceptually you get to dive into different worlds that I wouldn’t otherwise have made necessarily a record about, or would’ve felt odd making a record about. But in that new context I can explore whatever I want and I try to allow that to reflect back on the record and the songs that I write as well. Both can really inform the other.

I’ve worked with dancers, I’ve worked with scoring for film, and writing for film so I’m kind of becoming a character, writing from a new perspective, like those kinds of things where you realize you really can do whatever you want. And I think the fine art world allows me to see that in a new way than like an indie music world or whatever could.

GE: It opens up different doors in your mind.

EW: Exactly. And you know I’m such a fan and such a reader, and so all these worlds they do conjoin, and it’s a venue for those to explore all of that. I did really try to approach the record with that kind of newness and to be bold where I might not have been bold in the past, and to be structurally flamboyant, or whatever. It’s definitely taught me a lot.

GE: You have a new album coming out at the end of the month, Promise, and I was reading that it was influenced by “the world of queer art.” Did it evolve out of your work at the gallery?

EW: No, my interest in that definitely goes back further than that installation, I mean, just being a queer kid. It was kind of interestingly phrased, it’s not my words, but it’s absolutely true. It’s an interesting thing to say about oneself when you just kind of grow up and are fascinated by queer art, and not just art, but feminism and literature and queer literature and all of that.

It’s just so vast that how do you say, “Yeah it was influenced by this thing that makes up so much of my interest and my life,” but I love plenty of straight, hetero, whatever artists as well, so those influences are present as well.

It’s kind of a funny thing to have said, but it’s fine, I stand behind it proudly. I think they’re referring to the cover, which was named for and is a photo used for the cover of the album by this team of artists, Cabello/Carceller. They are deeply immersed in queer art, gender studies, and they’re fascinating and I discovered their work by chance. Again, kind of like Amy in this sense of I took the chance of reaching out, totally not expecting to hear back from them, asking them if I could use this photograph and to my delight and surprise they responded in kind and we’re now forming a friendship.

GE: The new album is issuing on your own imprint; I know you’ve largely recorded and produced your own work, but is this label is a new enterprise, too?

EW: Yeah! You know I’ve self released in the past but this is the first time I’ve had a partnership with a strong distribution around North America and Europe as my own label. It’s terrifying and wonderful, and again just making a lot of decisions. It’s just such a personal world and I’ve built slowly, dreadfully slowly over time, a following of people that would be interested in my work to sustain the work. And that really is the goal. People don’t realize sometimes how their contribution, whether it be buying a record or coming to a show, both financially and emotionally, what that does for an artist like me; it really is what allows me to keep working full time.

GE: Where was the album recorded? You had a home studio in L.A. but now you are based out of Brooklyn?

EW: I’m in Brooklyn now and I had a studio in my house for a while and recorded a lot of the record there and wrote a lot of the record there. Although there’s a few songs that I wrote years ago, even before the last record came out, that weren’t right for that record. So yeah, it’s been written for quite a while and then I’ve had, I guess I’m on my second studio in Brooklyn right now.

Space here is at such a premium and space plus noise is at even a higher premium, and so is finding a place where you can make noise but you also don’t have a lot of other noise. So, the record was sort of pieced together in those ways and I worked out of a couple other studios but mostly I was producing, writing, recording whatever on my own in my own little cave.

GE: You’ve worked with some notable collaborators in the past; is this entirely a solo effort or did you bring anyone else into the mix?

EW: I did, I worked with a guy named Jacob Plasse who does a lot. It’s kind of an unexpected collaboration, I don’t know what you would exactly call it. Because he does a lot of Latin music and he was in like a Latin boy band, it’s funny. And he would kill me for saying that but it’s true.

When I played him the record, I thought it was totally done but he was like, “Uh, I love this, but what about the drums? Why are you doing that?” And I really re-thought and basically went back into the studio for a long time and just completely, structurally tore out all of the rhythmic elements and kind of started from scratch on that. Still leaving all the strings and vocals and all that and all the rest of the production.

So, he came along and kind of shook the boat and he also helped me to produce a couple of the songs; he added a few things rhythmically. More than anything I’d say he was like a new set of ears to help me understand the project and in a way that wasn’t so dreadfully alone. Of course my girlfriend was through and through the process incredible. We gave her the nickname “Pedestrian Ears,” because we would play something for her and ask, “What do you think?” She’s incredible. Your friends, your close people; they’re not credited on your records but boy are they vital to the process.

GE: Artists need that, a team of trusted advisers. Someone to say, “You know, don’t do that.”

EW: Exactly, and I had a few friends also come and play, a friend who plays cello and another percussionist. There were a few things that I thought would be better suited to someone who was finely tuned to their instruments in that way.

GE: “You Dream of China” has a pretty incredible story attached to it. Can you walk us through it?

EW: (Laughs) Gosh, it was just, I went to China. I was going to inner Mongolia to play a festival and I said, “Okay, I’ll go under one condition. I have to bring my best friend and she has to play too, I am not doing this by myself.” So, they said “Okay.”

So here we think we’re walking into this great adventure, we’re going to go to Beijing and then to inner Mongolia and having really no sense of what we’re getting ourselves into, that we were essentially being duped by the Chinese government into like, luring people into this blistering, awful place, this city called Ordos, in inner Mongolia.

I knew, “Oh yeah, the Republic of China controls inner Mongolia and outer Mongolia is its own thing, but it’s all Mongolia, right?” No. Inner Mongolia is deeply trashed by China at this point and it’s like nuclear power plants, sinkholes, people being lured from their farmlands. It’s just the deeper in you got, the more you felt you were in some Philip K. Dick nightmare. It was terrifying. Even just being in Beijing, the pollution and the air quality there makes L.A. look like Switzerland. It’s really was unbelievable.

In Mongolia, the real punchline of the story is that we were playing on the last night of the festival and a monsoon rolls in and they had literally built a concrete stage that was a total death trap. There’s lightning and after all of this, we didn’t play. We went out all the way there with all of this gear and all of this stuff, we sound checked the day before. We did not play, unbelievable.

One other final thing on Ordos is that China is really famous for their imitation cities which I didn’t really fully get that, but they’ll put a lot of money into things, like recreating Paris or a certain section of Paris.

GE: And “Christmas Town.”

EW: Exactly. In Ordos, there were all these really bad*ss architects and artists like Ai Weiwei and a lot of people from all around Europe, some from China. Tons of money was invested into the city, like billions and billions of dollars, and they kind of half built it and then ran out of money. It was during that economic downturn and it was as though someone had just blown a whistle or like the rapture had happened or something.

There would still be cranes or half built high rises, there were like McMansion neighborhoods that had no roads. They just had dirt roads, so there’d be these sort of fake, opulent, sh**ty, enormous houses, and then there would be dirt roads or no electricity. And you think, “Okay maybe this is contained in something like San Francisco.” No. It was like Los Angeles, you would drive for two hours and it was like this.

I know it sounds like I’m making this up but it was that crazy. It was totally totally insane and just Google this sh*t, I am serious. You can see pictures. There’s a really great Time Magazine photo, I think it’s Time, there’s a photo essay about it.

So we were there for five days in this brand new hotel that was kind of falling apart already and I came back from this experience just like, “I can’t be an artist. I have to go into biology, I have to figure out how to, this can’t go on. I have to be an environmentalist full-time.” It’s still with me a little bit. How do you cohere getting in a van and driving all over the country and flying all over the world to this reality? I’m still reckoning with that. And so I couldn’t stop dreaming about China.

Also, my girlfriend’s father just passed away so there was this, again, those two things were kind of joined for me as well. There was just so much grief in both experiences and they were kind of conflated in a way. Grief is funny like that, you don’t know where it’s going to show up or how you’re going to experience it.

I just kept having all these dreams about China and I had read a lot of, and maybe this will sound ignorant but, I just didn’t care that much about the history of China. I was just like “Whatever, everything’s made in China.” I didn’t know anything about it.

And then I was faced with this just agonizing history for the people of China and so much empathy. So my dreams were Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square and the front lines of World War I and it was all of these things that I was learning about. It was nightmarish. Being there and then coming home was very disorienting. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be like an expat there. I just can’t even imagine.

GE: What an incredible experience, and yet this beautiful song is the result.

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EW: Thank you. I’m sorry, if you ask me about China, I can’t stop. My girlfriend has this running joke, “Don’t get her on China, don’t get her on China!”

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