Emily Wells wants her music to speak for itself

Emily Wells once recorded a very cool cover of Notorious B.I.G.‘s “Juicy” that inadvertently had her labeled as a hip-hop artist, but since she also plays several instruments including the classical violin, she’s a little hard to place. That’s fine by Emily, because she’s inspired by all kinds of sounds, and her last album Mama was so eclectic most anyone would find at least one track to their liking. Songs like her single “Passenger” are genre-defying, and now the new acoustic versions of all the songs from that release will be available this June, along with one new song, “Los Angeles.”

Emily’s kind of all over the place, in the best of ways. She’s consistently touring but when she does stop to write and record it’s in New York or L.A. or wherever she may be living at the time. This past summer it was in Portland, Oregon, where she told us she wrote that song about L.A., strangely enough. The 31-year-old has been creating music for public consumption since she was 13, and outside of her own albums she’s composed a score for queer filmmaker Hilary Goldberg‘s short film In the Spotlight, starring Michelle Tea and Guinevere Turner, as well as an original song for Stoker starring Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman. She surely has a cinematic quality to her music, but it also lends itself well to a live show. On stage, she’ll beat a big drum, play some samples, have you dancing, or swaying slowly. Hard to peg is an understatement, but enjoyable might just be the ideal word.

We spoke to Emily about Mama: Acoustic Recordings, playing Mich Fest this year among its controversial “womyn born womyn only” policy and not wanting to exploit her queerness.

AftereEllen.com: I live in Portland I was reading that you came here on a sort of sabatical and it inspired the new acoustic album. What was it that inspired you during that time?
Emily Wells:
I sort of went there on a little more than a whim, i guess you could say. I don’t know what that is called. Like a hair more than a whim. My best friend lives there and I had been living in New York, touring a ton, and I just needed a moment. Anyway, so I went there and yeah, we all got a big house as people do in Portland, with a couple of friends, and had a couple of pit bulls and I lived in an attic and it was a very quintessential sort of I guess Portland in the 21st century sort of time. But yeah, you know, I think — well part of it was living with my friends, and being sort of more quiet, I guess. And I work a lot at night and so I’d almost pretend like they were my kids or something. Like they were in bed and I was playing and recording and stuff more quietly. I guess maybe it brings it out in people, I don’t.

AE: How do you balance the time you spend working with the time you are just living life in hopes of being inspired creatively?
I think that’s a constant — for me, anyway, it’s a balance. I sometimes think it’s really out of balance, and it can tip greatly one way or the other. I have a tendency, personally, to be hard on myself if I’m not really pushing, pushing, recording, writing. But then the things that do end up inspiring you are often can be really subtle. They can be walking past somebody — like I was walking past this kid who was, like, sobbing. When I say kid, he was like 19, 20-year-old guy yesterday and there was just this incredible empathy that came over me and those are the kinds of things that become part of the work. So if you’re always like shut away in a closet somewhere, you are perhaps missing out on something. It’s a balance, it’s definitely a balance. Because you can also end up just being lazy.

AE: Yeah, it’s like “I’m doing field work! I’m in the field!
[Laughs] And I’m like at the bar.

AE: You just wrote a song about L.A., and you’ve lived in Texas and Indiana. How do the places you’ve lived or spent time in shape the songs you write? Do they have a direct influence?
Talk about doing field research. I have in mind in about 10 years maybe, I have been sort of informally working on a sort of a thesis, so to speak, about this very idea — like how does the sound around us affect our music that we create? Or as writers or whatever. More specifically for me, I speak more as a musician — sometimes it’s really unexpected. When I moved to New York from L.A. recently I knew my sound would change in some ways. I kind of thought I’d end up making up electronic music or something, you know? I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe because I thought I’d have to be more quiet here. Now I’m here and I’m writing a bunch of soul songs, which is surprising. Actually I didn’t write very much in Portland at all. I could run six miles and eat a lot of kale. I practiced a lot and I had a lot of great space, but I didn’t find myself writing very much. I’d come to New York very often and I’d end up writing while I was here, so that was interesting, too, how did the place affect or inspire, or not inspire you. But in writing a song about Los Angeles, I lived there for most of my adult life. So many of the songs are born from that place, perhaps I’m still seeking that or something. [Laughs] “Los Angeles” is actually the only song I wrote in Portland.


AE: That’s funny! Were you missing it? Were you nostalgic for it? What made you write about it while you were here.
A very close friend of mine was leaving L.A. to move to New York right around the same time I was coming back from New York. The song was partially about friendship and love and change, I guess you could say. And she’s one of the characters in the song. And she has a real love, super super love, for L.A. in the way that people either love L.A. or they hate it and the people who love it are romantic about it. She’s definitely having that experience, which I understand. While I still lived in L.A. years ago, I wrote something that stuck with me. I wrote it when the town was on fire during one of the many fire seasons in L.A. So I’ve always kind of carried that melody around with me. But it is also in the present as well.

AE: So many times I read about you, the word “hip-hop” is used to describe your music. Acoustic doesn’t really align itself with hip-hop usually. Do you see yourself moving away from that? What’s your relationship with creating anything seen as hip-hop?
It’s funny that you bring that up, because it is a question for me. You know, I think some people do a great job of “This is who I am, and this is the band and this is what it sounds like, and we always wear red” or whatever. They have this really clear vision of how they want to be perceived. And I think, for me, especially being an individual, over the course of my life, I don’t see myself in that way, as a product or a genre. I am generally pretty curious about music and sound and I do love a lot of rap and it’s definitely been an influence for me. And in doing that Notorious B.I.G. cover — also kind of a whim — like I went out to my studio one night and was fucking around with it, never intending anyone to hear that. The vocals that are on that, I recorded that night, just like scratch vocals, playing around. Then this thing kind of caught on, some people hated it, some people loved it. And it unintentionally sort of put me in a category and kind of made my name synonymous with classical hip-hop. It is difficult because how do you define my work? How do I define my work? sure there’s definitely things I do that have elements of hip-hop in them, more from a production standpoint than anything else — creating samples, fading things in and out to create tension, or sections or whatever. But I think, yeah, I mean if you listen to Mama, that’s not a hip-hop influenced record much at all, in my mind, so the acoustic is just sort of furthering that sort of song-structure, making the song structure more clear, I guess. So once you kind of lose any of the production, yeah, there’s no rap. It’s kind of like I”m not intentionally moving farther away from that. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dirty South lately so maybe that’ll finds its way in somehow, into some things I do. I’ve also been listening to a lot of blues and West African music so what does that mean? It doesn’t make me a blues singer or a West African singer.

AE: Do you consider yourself an “out” artist? Do you identify as queer?
Yes, I identify as queer, but in the same way I don’t want to be like “I’m a female artist” or “I’m a queer artist” or “I’m a hip-hop artist” or whatever. Especially the female thing. I feel like it’s kind of, it takes away from the artist part.

AE: Do you think that part of you informs any part of your music or your sound? It sounds like you don’t think it really does.
Well sure, of course it informs me as a human being. My art is simply a reflection of that, as my experience as a human being. So to deny it is not a part of — absolutely I would never say it is not a part of my work, either being female or being queer, but I think that — I guess I haven’t wanted to exploit it one way or another.

AE: You’re playing Mich Fest this year — are you aware of the controversy around the festival? Do you have any opinions on that?
Yeah — simply, I stand with transgender people, always. I wouldn’t call that into question and I disagree with the stance there. I mean I kind of feel like, ultimately, this is an older — this fest has been around a long time. They’ve gotta get with the times. It’s time, it’s time to move forward. And I say that publicly. I’m going to keep what I’m doing on stage my own business for now, but I love the people that organize the festival, I think their hearts are really in the right place. I don’t think it’s a malicious thing for Michigan, but sometimes, inaction or not doing something might not be malicious but it ultimately — you have to take responsibility for what you do or don’t do. So I think change will come in that respect. It’s getting to the point where there’s either going to be a great divide or people are going to come together on it. So I hope it’s the latter.

AE: I really loved when you did the music for the HIlary Goldberg film. Can you tell me about how you got involved with that?
Oh yeah, that’s some ancient history, I like that! I’ve been friends with HIlary for along time, we kind of run in the same circle. And it was kind of like a friend saying “Hey, will you score my short film?” And me saying, “Sure, my pleasure.” It was a very simple moment and I learned a lot from that, actually. It was really fun and it was what sort of brought my violin back and having a really strong urge to bringing it back to my live performance.


AE: And then you did a song for Stoker, which was probably a much different experience since.
Yeah Stoker was different from anything else I’ve ever done because I wasn’t scoring anything. It was meant to be a song in the style of Emily Wells, so to speak. And yet I had to sort of speak from the voice of the protagonist so I had to believe, as I would one of my own songs, what I was saying, but I also had to be coming from the voice of the lead character, who was discovering sort of a truth and a darkness within herself and so in doing so I had to become empathetic with that side of myself. So it was really different in that way. And yeah, obviously, working with [director] Park Chan-wook and figuring out his style and collaborating with him on it — it was really inspiring.


AE: Are there any misconceptions about you that you wish you could clear up?
I’ve been thinking about this lately. It’s hard to say what people think about me. It’s hard to even consider that people think about me at all, beyond — hopefully people listen to my records and enjoy them and create their own experiences through them. That’s always my desire for what happens to my work after its created. I don’t know, I guess I Just have to keep rolling with it! [Laughs] Whatever misconceptions people have, I’ll just let them be.

Emily Wells is on tour this spring/summer. Mama: Acoustic Recordings wil be available June 11.