By Katie Hare, Liquid Music Intern
On November 16, 2017, New York-based multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, and producer Emily Wells brings the world premiere of her new project, This World Is Too ___ For You to Minneapolis. With our current cultural moment in mind, the project includes arrangements of Wells' music by violinist/composer Michi Wiancko and original visual work designed by Wells exploring the depth of repetition and body movement.
In anticipation of the project's premiere, we asked Wells a few questions about her creative process, influences, and collaborative experiences in the making of This World Is Too ____ For You, chatted about her beloved dog Oly, and discussed finding a sense of comfort and friendship within art.
Tell us a bit about your background and explorations of various musical genres.
I grew up playing the violin and my dad was a musical minister so church music was a big part of my life – like it or not. He took a classical approach, though, more of the Brahms approach to church music. Over years I became really fascinated with writing and recording music. I got a four track when I was a teenager and thought, "This is it. This is so fun". It set my path toward being interested in what a songwriter could do beyond the simple structure of a song, but also through production and layering. Being a string player, I was interested in the sound of an ensemble. In the meantime, I also discovered all sorts of music via whatever was happening, I guess, in the early 2000s. That's sort of the seed of where it started, but it's developed over the years and through every record. Every tour I've learned so much.
What did you listen to growing up? Was there a particular artist or genre that you were most influenced by?
It was highly classical music. Being a violinist, it was Vivaldi, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach. You know, all of those traditional old guys you learn from. I had an older brother, though, so I had a window outside of my sheltered existence into Nirvana and the Beatles and stuff like that. Also through his girlfriends I was introduced to gods like Tori Amos and Björk. Everyone in my school was into hip-hop, we were all obsessed with Outkast, Tupac. That was all happening at that time. I think I'm revealing my age, perhaps...
As a multi-instrumentalist, what is your favorite instrument to play and why?
I mean, I really love playing the violin because that's what I know how to play. With other instruments, I'm just trying to get an idea across. I also love the voice. Sometimes I hate it because it's mine but for the same reason I love it because it's truly uniquely mine and it's the thing that can express lyrics.
What inspired and drove you to work on the project, This World Is Too ___ For You?
I had just come back from a European tour and whenever you get back from a tour, you feel kind of washed clean. You have a new mind. You come back to the life that you had created for yourself before you left and have to reorient within that.
The world we are all inhabiting now is so wild and confusing... I had to find a way to focus inside of that and channel some of the storm. I tried to approach every song structurally and simply, almost in opposition to the way I've created in the past where I can get hung up on the production or what the arrangement will be. Knowing that I was going to hand the songs to Michi Wiancko and also Greg Fox (who is playing drums)—and these players were going to be able to do things on their instruments that I couldn't do on my own in the studio—was incredibly liberating as a writer. It allowed me to think in terms of form, less so in product. I was able to think through ideas more simply. It was such a gift. Working solo and producing so much of my own work is a very alone recording process, and this has enabled me to have these sorts of imaginary friends, even though they won't be imaginary forever!
Was there a particular setting that helped you in working through this project?
Mostly I recorded in my in my studio in New York, which is a recording studio I've created. It's a humble setting, but it's mine. It has four windows, a little sound booth. It was such a haven. I have a fourteen-year-old pit bull, Oly, who has been at my feet for like every record I've ever made, so she was there snoozing on the couch through the whole process. She can't really walk so much anymore, so I have a giant dog stroller that I walk her to the studio in every day.
I also gave myself a self-imposed residency in the middle of the process. Some friends let me borrow their cabin upstate, so I went there for a week and set up all my gear and wrote there as well. That was interesting after having a focused couple of months in the city, to then take that energy to a really different place and be totally alone.
Does Oly ever make it on tour with you?
Yes! She came on the road with me several times. Although, I think she may be getting too old now, sadly. She was the best tour companion anyone could ever hope for. She had minimal votes on what restaurant we went to, she would always spoon me at night in the hotel. So, she is pretty perfect.
How has working with Michi Wiancko helped build the project?
I usually create my own arrangements through recording and performing. I don't often put sheet music in front of a player and say, "okay, go"... I feel my way through the dark. It's more of a recording-oriented process of composition, so this project is really different because A: I wasn't arranging, and B: Michi is a different writer, a different player, she comes from a different background. It has been really fascinating to hear what she has come up with and how these songs called to her as an arranger. I wrote, she responded, and we created something together.
What can we expect from a visual media standpoint? Is this something you have worked with before?
A few tours ago I started adding this element. I got interested first in Pina Bausch, which then opened up my world to other contemporary dance. That has really influenced what the visuals have become. It's not all dance footage – that is part of the footage that I use, but I'm also interested in repetition and how bodies move. I try to focus in on form and find correlations. I don't want to give too much away about what the visuals will be, but I am working on a new piece that is specific to this project. It is going to incorporate a lot of the same ideas that I've used in the past, but with fresh eyes.
Check out some of the ways Wells has explored contemporary dance and body movement in her previous work and performances:
Do you have any pre-performance rituals that you are dedicated to?
I love to go for a run if I can. Also, this sounds so cheesy, but I try to remind myself to enter the experience from a place of gratitude. That's a bit of mantra before I step on stage.
Is there anything else you would like the audience to know before being introduced to This World Is Too ____ For You?
Going back to the notion of gratitude, just how special it's been for me to write with the SPCO in mind and get to visualize something so specific for the writing process. For artists like me, who often write a record and figure out how we're going to play it live, and then go on the road and play clubs, theaters, churches, etc... You walk into a lot of situations where you have to deal with whatever you have in hand and figure out a way to make it work there. It has been extraordinary for me to get to visualize a performance so far in advance with such specific parameters and know that it could open into these certain ways. I'm really grateful to have had a chance to write in that way.
Prior to and throughout the process of creating This World is Too ____ For You, Wells admirably referred to two books: About Looking by John Berger, and Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle as well as a self-curated musical playlist. Not only did this content help her find a sense of stability within our current cultural moment, but it also stood as a strong symbol of art's purpose and why she continues to create it:
I started making the playlist as a way to communicate with Michi before we met and then it ended up becoming a real dialogue with myself through the process. If I would hear a song that spoke to me specifically with this project in mind, I would put it on the playlist. Some songs lasted, others didn't. I finished it around the time I went to the cabin for my self-imposed residency and I probably listened to it a hundred times that week. It was truly my friend. I think that's another thing this process has been and also those songs have been to me: a form of friendship. When you're alone making, you have to find friends in those who have come before you – they help make sense of what you're doing. Sometimes making art feels totally senseless, especially when the world has so many things going on that need attention... Those songs spoke to me and reminded me why I make work. They are now imprinted on me in a really specific way – they'll always be in that order in my mind.
On About Looking and Madness, Rack, and Honey:
I started reading the John Berger book while I was still on tour, so in a way it wasn't so much a part of the process while I was writing, but it was the lead-up. It allowed my mind to push beyond concepts like, "how long are we driving today?" or "what is our soundcheck time?" When you're on the road, you're so day to day, and you need a window to look through to even believe that you'll ever have a future. It's six weeks of a life of repeating the same thing every day. I love how Berger approaches really big concepts through art – art making, looking, thinking, and our relationships to those things. The first essay is about photography and our relationship to it. He references a lot of Susan Sontag's On Photography, which I also picked up. It's a really good conversation between two artists. She's responding to him through her work and he's responding to that. I was moved by the way he made more of her work come to life. I considered this as I was creating This World Is Too ___ For You. Berger's writing helped me understand an intention that I wanted to bring into my process.
We all approach 'making' differently but 'fear' is also always a part of the process in some way. You have to find a way to move around it. Madness, Rack, and Honey is a book of lectures by Mary Ruefle – it's really interesting because it's so direct, her individuality so present. The thing that hooked me was this lecture she has on fear, speaking directly this idea of "why are we doing this, what's the point?" and how we have to face that as makers. She's a poet and talks a lot about poetry and references poets. She helped me to be brave around language and look for its potency, to explore ideas in really humorous and totally engaged, present ways. Everything is so distracting right now... it's hard not to be caught up in the distractions of the day such as looking at the news. Ruefle really helped ground me in thinking about ideas and not "what did our president do today that's ruining our lives?" These are ideas to be explored and they all relate to each other and to now and the future.
Anyway, I digress, but it was total light for me...
Liquid Music Series presents the world premiere of Emily Wells: This World Is Too ____ For You on Thursday, November 16, 2017, at 7:30pm at Machine Shop in Minneapolis. The performance features violinist/composer Michi Wiancko, percussionist Greg Fox, and musicians from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Purchase tickets here.
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