Thursday, June 3, 2010

Emily Jane White Interview

Emily Jane White is a joyously macabre poet from California. She has recently released her second album Victorian America, to critical acclaim. On June 3rd 2010, I conducted a phone interview with her to discuss her career, and herself as an artist.

What types of ideas, or moments in life, inspire songs?

I’d say that music is very emotional, and I write songs mostly about things that I feel very strongly about. It usually has to do with feelings of sadness, or injustice, or the realities that happen in life that are very strong and powerful. So, ya, its mostly emotional reactions to things.

Do you usually begin with a poem or a melody?

I do both. I usually play guitar and start with a melody and the lyrics come after that. But, they aren’t two separate process, I do them together.

You’ve previously mentioned Edna St. Vincent Milla, whose spirit I think you carry on in your poetry. Could you elaborate on your relationship with her poetry and how it affects your writing?

Well, the language that she uses can be very song-like, and she explores a lot of really intense subject matter. She talks a lot about death, and she uses death very much as a metaphor for life, and for experiences in life, and for change. So, I really like that about her poetry, and I do the same in mine. But, its not like I got that from her and was inspired; it was actually that I discovered her work after I had already been songwriting for a long time, and I was like, “wow, this is someone who effectively does, I think, something very similar to what I’m interested in doing.” And, not to mention, she’s just a really incredible writer. So, she’s someone that I took interest in after I had already established a lot of what I was interested in writing about.

Any other female poets, songwriters or authors you feel deserve more appreciation?

Well, I feel like most of the female writers I like have recognition on the level they deserve. I mean, I came to learn about them, and to know about them, because they had exposure. I don’t quite know about a lot of underground female poets, unfortunately. I wish I did.

Who specifically are you referring to in that answer?

I’m a big fan of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich. There are so many… like, Charolette and Emily Jane Bront√ę, those are two writers I really like.

Speaking of female writers, your cellist is Jen Grady, who is also incredible. I was curious as to how you two got together?

She lives in San Fransisco, and she and Carrey, who plays violin with me, had contacted me over two years ago, interested in playing music with me. And, I think she was sort of in a period of flux, and wasn’t playing with a lot of people at the time. So, she started playing with me, and then I invited her on a lot of tours. She and I have toured a lot together over the last two years. We also did a tour in Germany last year where she played a lot of her solo music, which was really cool. How do you know about her?

(Laughing, with slight embarrassment) Actually, through you. Her solo stuff is great, though.

(laughs) Oh, ok. Ya, she’s totally awesome.

Did she come and tour with you before you started recording Victorian America?


Do you ever think you’d be interested in collaborating with her as a songwriter?

Well, like any of my band members, I think it would be fun to collaborate. But, I am so busy, and have so little time for my own work. I mean, I have to focus my so much time and energy on writing my own stuff that I don’t really have time right now, unfortunately. But, that’s not say I wouldn’t; they are all fucking fantastic musicians. I feel like it would have to go under a different project. It wouldn’t fall under the umbrella of this project.

After Jen and Carrey, who else makes up the band?

My friend Ross Harris is playing drums. Then, a guy named Jake Mann is playing bass, another guy named Josh Fossgreen played upright, bowed bass. And then, Henry Nagle, who I’m touring with right now, is a pedal-steel and electric guitar play, and he’s on the record as well.

A lot of people have asked about the sparseness of Dark Undercoat versus the richer composition on Victorian America. I was curious if you write those songs with a full band in mind, or was it something you were inspired to do after they had been written?

I didn’t write it with a full band in mind at all. I just found that I had this group of people, and we worked out the arrangements for a while, and it kind of grew organically and naturally from there. Everyone on that record wrote their own parts for the songs. I was really open to that, because I didn’t necessarily have a particular vision for the songs, and I knew that they all had great intuition about it. So, I was just very trusting that they would come up with something else, and they totally did. It was a very collaborative project.

Wow, that’s surprising, considering how cohesive and orchestrated the album feels. It really almost feels like the songs wouldn’t be finished if any of those parts were missing.

Ya, totally. I’m really happy with it.

Something a lot of people haven’t really mentioned is the increased strength in your voice. Do you feel that you’ve grown more confident as a singer since the time of recording Dark Undercoat?

Ya, totally, because I’ve done like eight tours, and played so many shows, that my voice has really changed.

What about as a guitar player?

Ya, I feel like I’ve progressed as guitar play, and as a performer in general.

Both albums are very cohesive. Do you write songs with a feeling for the entire album in mind, or are they written under differerent inspirations and then placed together?

I write songs all the time, so it’s not like they’re topical albums. I just go along in life and write songs as I go, and then I end up forming a list of songs that I want to put on the record. The next record is kind of like that as well, but in the future I think I would like to write something, where, you know, I sat down for a few months and wrote a group of songs all together. I’d be interested in doing something like that, but unfortunately I haven’t been afforded these last few years to do something like that.

You’ve done several video performances, for example, on Le cargo, Lavomatik, and La Blogotheque. Do you feel more comfortable in the privacy or those types of things, or do you like to be in front of a crowd?

I feel like playing by myself and recording, for example, is very different from performing in front of an audience. I feel very strongly about the fact that those two things are very different for me, because, I mean, I like to record and play music by myself, for sure, and its taken me a lot of strength, and I’ve had to go through a lot of changes to be able to put myself in front of people on a regular basis. And now I’m a lot better at it than I was before, but it was really difficult for me, just because I’m a pretty introverted person and get really overwhelmed really easily. So, as of now I feel like I can handle it a lot better. I enjoy performing, definitely. Of course, everyone prefers to play those shows that are well laid-out. (laughs) you know? I’ve only played a few shows in my life where I wasn’t happy with the sound, or I didn’t feel that I could convey what I do. That’s frustrating, but that happens very rarely now.

The first time I saw you was on that first Blogotheque performance, the one they showed on Current TV. Now, that was a couple years before Victorian America, closer to the release of Dark Undercoat, yet you performed the song “Liza”, and, additionally, they show a clip of what I later found out to be “Stairs”.

Ya, "Liza" is a really old song, and I kind of kept it in the repertoire. I mean, I had all these songs for so long that I didn’t do anything with until I started recording again. I wanted to play new songs; I didn’t want to play songs off of Dark Undercoat. So, those songs were new at the time.

You sort of just answered it, but I was going to ask how long you had those songs before they were recorded?

Well, I mean, I wrote those songs very quickly, and they were finished, but the arrangements didn’t come for a while because I didn’t have a full band formed until the beginning of 2008.

Before we leave the video topic, you’ve had a working relationship with the director/cinematographer Cam Archer. How did you guys get together.

He’s a friend of mine from college, and we were both very much attracted to each other’s work, and have become really good friends.

You did the title song for his film Wild Tigers I Have Known. How did you feel about writing a song at the request of someone else, as opposed to writing on your own whim.

Well, I love Cam’s work, and I felt that I understood what it was he was interested in doing with his film. I never saw the film, or any footage, or even really knew what the film was about until he mapped it out for me in very basic language. He was kind of like, “this is what the film is about”, and then wrote, like, three sentences about it. and so I ended up writing a song based on that. But, I loved it. I don’t think I could work with just anyone, and write a song for their film or something, but, with him, I totally got the essence of what the film was about, and it was something that I felt very strongly about. So, ya, I was happy about that (laughs).

This is a question that I asked The Lighthouse and the Whaler last night, and I sort of love and hate this question simultaneously, because there really is no good answer for it: Do you, personally, think that music is more powerful to the musician as its being written and played, or to the listener as its being received and interpreted?

Well, I mean, I guess it depends on the way that you define “powerful”. I feel like someone could write a song and not feel very strongly about it, but then someone might hear it and feel super-strongly about it. So, I don’t know; I think its very subjective.

Looking ahead, how do you see your songwriting continuing to progress, that is to say, what is vision for your next set of recordings?

The next record is really different. It’s more sparse in some way, and has more vocals, which I’m really happy about. And, it’s going to be shorter and more concise than Victorian America.

Have you already begun recording it?


How long do you think you’ll allow yourself to work on it before it is released?

I’m not quite sure, but it might come out in the states next spring.

You tour a lot in Europe, especially in France, where it seems you’ve been much more well-received and appreciated, but, I was curious if you were excited to come home and do a tour through California?

Ya, I just went through the state, and it was really fun. And tomorrow I’m starting a series of four more dates, going up to Seattle. I’m really excited about it; I like playing in my own country, and I hope that something comes of it that is appropriate for my music and what I do. So, we’ll have to see. I definitely like playing small shows too, so that’s never a problem for me.

Thank you so much, Emily.

You’re very welcome

I just wanted to thank you, and tell you how much your music means to me. Certain art seems to intertwine with your life at the strangest times, and, so, I just wanted to tell you how important your music is to me, and how much I appreciate you.

Oh, thank you! It means a lot, thank you.

I hope everything goes well, and, enjoy your tour.

Thank you. Take care.

–Zane St. James. Recorded on June 3rd, 2010 .

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