IS there anything more serious than a lapel ribbon at an awards show?
When Death Cab For Cutie turned up to the 2009 Grammys with blue ribbons pinned to their jackets, people assumed the cause was somehow worthy. Was it for a rare type of cancer? Feline AIDS? Support for the US Navy?
None of the above according to frontman Ben Gibbard. Death Cab For Cutie were raising awareness of an issue “affecting literally thousands of singers today”. That issue, he said, was Auto-Tune.
“[This is about] how people really sing,” he told the press at a time where AutoTune wasn’t just pitch-correcting average singers like Ashlee Simpson into pop perfection. It was being used as an aesthetic tool of expression by the likes of T-Pain and Lil Wayne.
“I was spending a lot of time, just alone. Just scared of everything.”
The stunt came four months after Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, which proved that something once maligned as “robotic” and “inhuman” could convey deep emotions – love, loss, and everything in between.
Ben Gibbard’s comments about “real singing” seemed mostly directed at the mainstream pop world in which Kanye operated in. In Ben’s world of humble indie songwriting, artists always made studio choices that would yield the most “real” results: analog consoles, reel-to-reel tape, tube amplifiers, minimal compression.
It’s against this backdrop that Emma Louise’s decision to pitch-shift her voice down for the entirety of third album Lilac Everything seems rather, well, brave. For better or worse that word has dominated the media narrative around the record, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Even though Emma is part of a generation that’s grown up with Auto-Tune – Cher’s once radical ‘Believe’ is now a normalised and widely accepted pop standard – she operates in a singer-songwriter idiom where the human voice is sacrosanct.
A guitarist in this world can manipulate their tone by stepping on a pedal and no one bats an eye, but pitch-shifting your voice? That’s something for the Travis Scotts, Lil Uzi Verts and Ariana Grandes of the world, not an acclaimed singer with distinctive, god-given pipes.
“It’s so weird,” Emma explains. “In all the interviews, everyone’s been like, ‘It’s such a dangerous thing to do.’ But in my head I feel like I don’t have much to lose.”
Was she worried about losing what defines her as Emma Louise. “The essence is in the song,” she says. “Any song that’s a good song can be produced any which way and still be amazing.”
However, the voice is not where the Lilac Everything journey begins.
San Pancho, Mexico
“If I could paint a picture of myself tonight/It would be the deepest shade of blue/Of my face lit by the moon/Oh so I took a flight to Mexico.” –
EMMA Louise is sitting in Melbourne coffee institution St Ali wearing a peach jacket and white skivvy.
Her hair is dyed LA blonde and blowdried ahead of a Spotify “Fans First” show in a Richmond nursery later that night. Her styling choices are worth noting because they’re deliberate; seemingly at odds with the more “masculine” pitch-shifted persona she inhibits on the album.
Emma says she used to hack at her hair, wearing it short around the release of 2016’s
“He put his hands on my womb and said to me, ‘Your feminine side is being compressed and is really hurting you.’ He gave me all these exercises and he said that I should start wearing pink and makeup and doing my hair.
“At that time my hair was so fucked up. And he was so right. Once I started bringing my feminine side out, this kindness and gentleness came over me. It was very transformative as a human.”
Emma had found herself in Mexico on a whim. After a period of self-imposed isolation in Melbourne, she wrote a song about flying off to Mexico and in a case of life imitating art did just that. “I was spending a lot of time, just alone. Just scared of everything,” she says of that time.
The ticket was booked so impulsively that Emma didn’t have anywhere to stay. She called up a friend who put her in touch with American couple Joe and Manny Hadlock, who had retired to a beachside village on the Mexican Pacific Coast. (The Hadlocks also own Seattle’s Bear Creek Studios, where Lilac Everything was eventually recorded during a two week stint.)
Emma split her time in Mexico between the Hadlocks and a nearby resort called Playa Escondido, which she’d return to periodically over the next 18 months. “I would stay there for five days at a time,” she says.
"In all the interviews, everyone's been like, ‘It's such a dangerous thing to do.’ But in my head I feel like I don’t have much to lose.”
What was the resort like?
The most beautiful handmade clay huts on a mountain overlooking the ocean. It was just so fresh and real and natural. Then I would go over to the next little village and that’s where the family lives. [Their friends] were all old rockers in their 60s, 70s, even 80s … I was like their little baby. I just got passed around into all these families of old rockers. And they showed me all of this music from the ‘70s – stuff I’d never really heard of.
Any particular stuff?
They were mostly gringos, Americans. So stuff like Nick Drake, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. Really that old school stuff that I should have heard of but I’d never really delved into. And every afternoon we’d get together on the beach and drink margaritas. Then I would go back and write some more and it was so peaceful and so separate from everything.
What was it about this particular place that really resonated with you?
It felt like I was going home. I think because it’s so far away from everything I know. The village was so simple and beautiful. The people are so beautiful. The artists there are just free and fluid and [creating] not for any purpose other than to express … The sun would set over the ocean and go into the ocean every afternoon. And it was so beautiful because the whole community gathers on the beach every afternoon. It’s just so simple. There’s no phones. My phone didn’t work there.
And what were you writing on over there?
I was writing on this guy’s keyboard and he was an old jazz pianist. It was so funny. Every time I would go over there, he would be playing. I would have to listen to him for half-an-hour as a gateway to being able to write songs. [Laughs] His name’s Chaz.
I think so, yeah. There was lots of kids, it’s just a very joyous, happy time. I was also listening to a lot of Paul Simon in Mexico. That song has got a really Paul Simony feel.
Any specific era of Paul Simon?
I listened a lot to the album
‘A Crazy Dream’
ANOTHER towering figure in the Lilac Everything story is Tobias Jesso Jr.
The Canadian singer – whose 2015 album Goon served as a launchpad for high-profile songwriting credits for the likes of Sia and
What prompted you to send those songs to Tobias in the first place?
Actually it was funny. I had a dream about Tobias. It was this crazy dream that I had where, in real life, my door blew open at four in the morning. It was a crazy dream about Zeus who was bigger than any mountain or building. I was looking at him and I felt fear. And for some reason Tobias was behind me and I didn’t know much about him. I just knew his album [Goon] … It was crazy, and then I wrote a song about that. I messaged him, totally forgot about it. Six months later he was like, “Yeah. Crazy dream. Send us the song.” And then I sent him that song and another called ‘Wish You Well’. And he said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever been sent … Come over and let’s work together.” I had never met him. I rocked up to his house and just played him song after song. That was the day I asked him if he’d produce it.
It’s a pretty big leap from just meeting someone to trusting them with your songs. Obviously that [initial] connection was really strong.
I played him
‘Shadowman’ is an incredibly complex song, I think. I just love the way that it almost sounds like it’s collapsing on itself towards the end. Is that how you structured it initially? Or a studio experiment?
There’s a lot of tension at the end of it, and within the song itself the emotions are pretty dense. And then Shawn [Everett – the album’s engineer] is just a wizard of sound. We recorded the whole album live. It was like two weeks in Seattle [at Bear Creek]. And we were in a vortex. It was like we were making something so special. There there were a few songs that we really felt. ‘Shadowman’ was one of them. Shawn took it into his studio – this was after the record was pitched down – and he just went crazy on it. The first time I heard it, I was sitting on the couch and it melted my brain.
I’ve been lucky enough to actually sit in on a studio session with Shawn. He has this incredible way of making quite ugly sounds sounding really beautiful.
That’s what’s amazing about him. Although, sometimes you have to be like, “Oh, Shawn. Too much.” [Laugh] ‘Wish You Well’ was completely different. And I have to say, out of all of them, that needed to be the most simple.
And why was that?
It meant a lot to me, that song. ‘Wish You Well’ was written back here [Melbourne]. It was an older song. And then in Mexico the rest just kind of fell out. But ‘Wish You Well’ was like saying goodbye to a person that I loved. My first love. It was the last song that I wrote about that situation. It began the next movement for me … It was like, “Oh, shit. I gotta fucking go, I gotta move on.” I was spending a lot of time, just alone. Just scared of everything. [Laughs] And then, you know, I really broke down and learned a lot.
What brought on some of those fears? Was it the pressure of another record?
I mean, definitely that. I put the most pressure on myself. I never really feel pressure from people … I just have these high expectations of what I want to write. I also think everyone in their 20s goes through a really messy [period] like, “What the fuck’s happening? Who am I?” I feel like everything that I feel is amplified anyway. I just maybe isolated myself a bit too much there.
Do you feel like this record has brought you back?
[Pauses] Songwriting for me is so healing. Mexico was so healing. Sometimes I think I need to leave and have solitude outside of any scene or whatever. And it was healing because I was learning a lot and going through a lot. And then I wrote the songs … I’d say that even in the past two years or whatever, I’ve broken out of my fears of just like being a human being. And, the stuff that I’ve gained through walking through my fear instead of running away from it is amazing. So much good’s come from that.
FEARLESS is how Shawn Everett describes Emma Louise.
The Grammy-winning engineer has seen a lot in his career, but he can’t recall a musician in the history of recorded music dropping an entire album so drastically in pitch. In simple terms it’s the equivalent of an artist recasting a completed work in an entirely different palette of paint.
“One thing that’s different about Emma is how badass she is,” he says in the album notes. “A lot of artists think they’re badass but they’re just terrified.”
Emma has a name for this bit of studio badassery. When she first heard herself pitched down aged 19 (she’s 27 now), the name “Joseph” was the first thing that popped into her head.
It happened during the final few days of her time at Bear Creek Studios, representing a full circle moment that started when she met the Hadlocks in San Pancho. She describes her time at Bear Creek – situated on a 10-acre horse farm outside of Seattle – as magical.
In what sense as it magical?
We were away from everything, again. It was raining. And everyone was just so on board and loved the songs and loved the music and really felt it. There was something about sharing myself intimately and musically with those people. It was just filled with joy and happiness. And plus, I could also really trust Tobias. On other albums I felt like I had to really try hard to shape it. Whereas with this one, it was like the songs kind of told us what to do. And Tobias is pretty good at telling people what to do. So just to be on the same page as someone, and then to trust them, it was like, “Ah, it’s a relief”, you know?
The decision to pitch shift came really late in the piece for you, but it’s something you had experimented with before, is that right?
Yeah. So when I was like 19, I heard my voice pitched down, like on tape. And it was such a whole feeling. I was like, “Oh fuck. l’ve gotta do a whole album like that one day.” When we were in the last session, I was like, “This sounds great. Can I hear what it sounds like pitched down?” I heard it and I had a full on emotional experience. The seed was planted. For me it wasn’t scary or brave. It was just beautiful and something fulfilling itself that I’d always thought was a part of me.
And then, you know, the album and the songs – everything just swelled. The voice swelled. And then Shawn came on board and it just took up this whole new space. It almost amplified all of the feelings within it. People really freaked out but then I was like, “Just listen to it and feel it and don’t judge it.”’ And I think it has a good effect. Hopefully people will be able to connect to it. But if not, I mean, I’m so happy. It couldn’t be more of an honest album to me. And that is my job.