To say her music went on heavy rotation on my iPod would be an understatement. Her music shocked me with its power and might have even, if I were to be honest about it, made me tear up a little bit. Her voice was like Ma Rainey meets PJ Harvey, and the musicianship was simple and quiet and melancholy and, well, raw. It, along with a few other bands, did the business of living for me while I was stuck inside during the eight months of snow that is a Syracuse winter.
But what really shocked me was that I knew Emily in college — I’d even played music with her — and for this type of music to come from her didn’t gel. My strongest memory of Emily was when we’d both been on a stage somewhere in Santa Cruz in 2002, playing an unreasonably loud song in a Cramps-esque band called The Veynz. The lead singer of our band, Aleks Prechtl, was humping the floor and wearing nothing but spider man skivvies meant for a five year old, screaming as loud as he could into a mic that was covered in spit that may or may not have been his. I wasn’t wearing a shirt and drinking straight out of a bottle of whiskey, occasionally plucking at my bass whenever I thought of it. Our drummer did her best with all the chaos, but she’d only been playing a couple months.
But then, when I thought about it, it made some sense. All that time, Emily sat in the background, rocking the guitar, making sure we didn’t fall apart more than we were supposed to. Actually playing the songs.
I ran into her a few months ago and asked if I could interview her. We met at the Rickshaw Shop in San Francisco before a show. Her new album, Victorian America, was released in April, and she started a west coast tour last week.
— Seth Fischer
Seth: So eight years ago, we were playing next to Aleks in his underwear, and now Rolling Stone and Spin are calling your music beautiful and melodic and deeply moving and “contemplative dark folk.”. I think you probably went in the right direction, but what happened?
Emily Jane White: Yeah, how many times were you traumatized? (laughter)
It was an organic process of writing my own songs and then I moved to France after I lived in Santa Cruz and played with some people there and I continued to write songs and then when I moved back to the states from France, I really made a serious effort. I made it a goal in my life to record an album and do song writing no matter what. And I didn’t really have any expectations of it going anywhere in particular because I was frankly extremely happy playing house shows in Santa Cruz. I wanted to focus more on vocals, and playing really loud, sloppy guitars and stuff like that doesn’t really go well with doing vocals.
SF: I mean, it is a lot sadder, and instrumentation wise, it’s a lot different than the Veynz. Was there something that inspired you to go down a little bit of a sadder path, aside from wanting more vocals?
I thing that for some reason the songs that have touched me the most have always been sad. Like Elliott Smith in the late 90’s and early 2000s. I wouldn’t say necessarily that his music was a huge influence on my songwriting, but in terms of feeling touched and moved by very sad music, he’s someone who’s had an influence on me that way. For some reason I don’t feel like I have a gift or a natural talent or a desire to write upbeat music. I don’t feel I can articulate that kind of stuff. For some reason, writing sad music provides contrast, whereas writing happy music doesn’t provide contrast for people. It also just doesn’t come naturally to me for whatever reason. Maybe it’s genetic.
SF: Your songs, all of them, but particularly on this new album, seem to have kind of a literary edge to them. I’ve seen your music compared to Cat Power and some other similar artists, but I’ve also heard it compared to Cormac McCarthy and Edgar Allen Poe.
EJW: Well it’s interesting because I’d say the more literary aspects of my songwriting are really sort of British classic Gothic literature. Um, you know, for example, Wuthering Heights by Emily Jane Bronte. That’s her name, by the way. I did an interview in France, and they were like “Oh, were you named after her?” I’m like, “Noooo.” It’s a family name. It’s my grandmother’s name.
I’m also a big fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She’s one of my favorite American poets. I have many favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, but one that I favor in particular is “The Little Ghost.” It’s a very playful poem that maps out an observational anecdote of a little ghost she found in her garden. It’s an example of a poem where she depicts the visceral shock and confrontation of the death (which she does a lot in her poetry). She used death as a metaphor in her work. She also confronts depression, darkness, and the fragility of life in her writing.
It is also something through which she uses to explain her own personal struggle. She was a big activist and a lot of her other work reflects that. I have always admired the way she uses “life” and “death” as metaphors and themes to express existence or to shock the reader into dealing with his or her own “aliveness” or “mortality.” This is something I strive to do in my own work.
And of course Edgar Allen Poe. Those are the main literary influences. And in certain songs I did try to move more in that direction and I’m still trying to move more in that direction. It’s difficult and it’s challenging to write good songs that have narrative and convey that narrative and try to convey emotion and do a bunch of different things at the same time.
SF: If you had to choose your favorite story in one of your songs, which story would that be.
EJW: Oh gosh, well, one example is I wrote that song Wild Tigers I Have Known for Cam Archer’s film Wild Tiger’s I Have Known. He actually gave me three sentences and I want a song that has the title of the movie in the song. The theme song, if you will. And the film is basically about isolation and a young boy grappling with being gay. If you listen to the lyrics they’re more about impressions and imagery and suggestion. And then of course there’s melody that creates a mood and an atmosphere, so I delicately try to weave all those things together. “Stairs,” which is on my new album, is definitely a very abstract thrown together narrative about someone falling down the stairs and dying and sort of going into … that song is actually about Edna St. Vincent Millay. Because she died falling down the stairs, that sounds so dark and morbid talking about it that way. She had some serious problems toward the end of her life. But it’s also sort of paying tribute to her because she was an amazing poet.
But that’s the thing about song writing, I think. Because when you write a song and release it into the world it’s up to other people to interpret it. There are songs that hit you over the head, and you’re like “I get it,” and there’s no where I can go, no interpretation.
SF: You’ve also talk about the difference between Europe and America. You’ve had a lot of success in both places but you’ve been touring all over there. And you said in one of the interviews that Europe might be more receptive to darker music.
EJW: That’s just been my experience, that people are more inclined to just sit and listen, for over an hour, to slow, melancholic music, and that doesn’t really happen here. I would also say that one of the reasons I play in France a lot is I have an incredible record label there, too, and my music was really well received, and the infrastructure there is really different than it is here. I’m not an insider really so I don’t know quite the way it works here, but there’s a lot more support for the arts in France. There’s a lot more people employed it seems. In the music industry anyway. And I’ve done a lot of interviews, particularly in France, and it seems they’re very interested in American female singer-songwriters. Now. Well at least for the last couple years. I don’t know, maybe it’s a phase.
SF: Your new album is called Victorian America and it’s pretty critical of American politics.
EJW: My album is critical of American politics in few overt ways and in many hidden ways. The song Victorian America was written after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. The Victorian period in British history marked the high point of British imperialism and colonialism and the cultural behavior reflected this political stance. I had been reading about women in the US during this time period. I wrote the song very naturally, and didn’t intend to have a thesis statement behind it, but my subconscious point was to link two periods in history that deeply reflected injustice.
SF: In the first album, there were a lot of critics who said it was too much like Cat Power, or they said it was too simple.
EJW: I would probably tell them that I had no idea that that record was gonna go anywhere. So I just was doing it because I had written these songs and I wanted to put them out there. For example, Chan Marshall (of Cat Power) was a really big influence on me and I feel she opened a door for many people and I think she deserves to hear that. I feel like that’s fair to say. But I feel fortunately I think my music has gone intentionally and rationally in a totally different direction. And it’s continuing to. And I feel like developing something takes time and a lot of opportunity to perform in front of other people, and that’ll actually send you in the right direction in terms of developing your own style.
You can get purchase her album here.