Feminism, Miles Davis, and Mix Tapes: A Conversation with Emily Wells
Currently on tour for her new record Promise, Emily Wells came through Chicago’s Beat Kitchen to play a fun and memorable show. I sat down and spoke with her about her new record, mix tapes, and feminism’s role in the music industry, among other things.
TMB: You started more as a classical musician playing stringed instruments like violin and viola, how did you make that transition to pop and rock music?
Emily: I was just a teenager…. I just got exposed to more stuff. I was playing in a lot of youth orchestras and things like that, and I think I got a little bit like “Oh, I don’t want to play this music that’s so ancient”, now of course I have a whole different respect for it, but I was a kid, and I’ve gotten into lots of different kinds of music.
TMB: How would you say that your music has evolved over time? How would you describe it?
Emily:I think I’ve definitely allowed for more of the classical roots to become a main player and take over in a lot of ways. And on this album Promise that just came out there’s a lot more bold choices in certain ways, less conventional song structure…not that what I was doing before was all that conventional…
TMB: Did you have a certain goal for this album? Was there a sound you were going for?
Emily: I definitely took a lot of time with all the rhythm stuff, and that was one thing that I kind of had to reassess and was a real choice. It was the first record I was making without a live drummer I had worked with in the past, so that was a pretty big change, how I wanted to sculpt that. I made a lot of beats in the other records, but this was like a totally different approach.
TMB: What are you listening to right now that you are really excited about music-wise?
Emily: You know, you kinda get tour “things” you are really into, I was listening to a lot of Karen Maguire on the tour, I was listening to a lot of In a Silent Way, this Miles Davis record that has been a long term favorite of mine. And another band called Marhalla, they are from Mali, I’m a really big fan of West African music. It’s funny, I’m playing with Spotify and trying out new stuff, and before you know it I’m back between 1960 and 1990 listening to West African dance music and pop and folk and stuff like that.
TMB: Have you had a chance to check out any of the Damon Albarn stuff he’s done in Mali?
Emily: Yeah, I like that album a lot, the Mali Music Project, it’s really cool.
TMB: Do you have any artists you admire that has been a big influence on you?
Emily: There are so many, but for this album and live set in particular I would say a big influence was Terry Riley because I was asked to create a piece for his 80th birthday celebration, a concert in New York, so I was in the mind of Terry Riley. The record was almost done at that point, but he was definitely there with me when I was mixing (in my mind) and definitely in these shows… (in the sense of ) thinking about melding songs, thinking about songs in a different way, thinking about the set as a whole, and not being afraid to draw things out and let the audience be patient.
TMB: It’s worth it…
Emily: Yeah, absolutely, that would be a more recent influence for sure.
TMB: Do you remember what was on the first mix tape you ever made?
Emily: If I had to guess, there was some Tori Amos on there… I was a serious mixtape maker for sure, but I also maybe would have put something from a Tricky record on there. I had a typewriter and I would make the little jackets and type it out, I was serious… It’s a lost art.
TMB: It really is, I used to do the same thing, draw on the cassette cover and spend entire afternoons making mixtapes.. sorry, I’m talking more about myself here than I probably need to.
Emily: Hey, I wanna know too!
TMB: So what passions do you have outside of music?
Emily: I’m fascinated with dance and I use dance in my projections. I’m really interested in the greater art world. My girlfriend is a video artist and a painter and she’s always turning me on to stuff. I’m a pitbull enthusiast and a jogger…
TMB: Cool, these are all good things…
Emily: And I love literature….
TMB: Are you reading anything really cool right now?
Emily: There is this guy named Ben Lerner, he wrote this book called 10:04, which I read on my last tour and it was like having a companion. He wrote this other book called Leaving the Atocha Station which is also great, but I haven’t had enough time to read on this tour. And this other book that I’m kind of nursing along is called The Rest is Noise, and it’s about the history of music in the 19th/ 20th century. It’s pretty fascinating as well…
TMB: How do you feel about feminism’s role in the music industry right now? There’s a lot of dirt being kicked up about publicists taking advantage.
Emily: Oh yeah, I heard about that story.
TMB: Do you think now that this is brought to light that this kind of thing can be put to an end, are we headed in the right direction?
Emily: I think we are always headed in the right direction, women, we have our arrows pointed in the right direction. Whether that means immediate change or not it’s hard to say….
TMB: How can we support women I think is what I’m trying to ask…
Emily: I think not allowing a double standard all across the board… so if a woman is clear if what they need and want, that they are not a tyrannical bitch. And if a woman is clear about what works at a show for her or what doesn’t work for her, then those are just parameters that that person has setup because that’s what they need.
TMB: So it’s kind of breaking down a lot of those walls and expectations…
Emily: Well yeah, and it’s simple things, because we can talk about feminism in these wide swaths, but it’s just the day to day way of interacting with people of assumptions you make about a woman….when it’s a first and last name. People always think I’m gonna be a guitar singer-songwriter. Think of women as producers, and not just singers. Think of women in broader terms. I think it’s those kind of things that help change a state of mind, and in really simple ways, in these daily ways. But of course sexual harassment is something we deal with in a way that men don’t deal with.
TMB: It’s rampant..
Emily: Yeah, it’s really really rampant. And being a queer woman, I’ve dealt with that in different ways, sometimes less, or sometimes I’ve been judged differently as well. I think just letting women be their own boss.
TMB: Okay. Last question, it’s a fun one.
TMB: What do you think you would have named your band if you were 16 years old?
Emily: It probably would have been some sort of a dorky classical meets Tori Amos, because I was really into her, we could have been called Under The Pinks or something. Or the Cornflakes! Haha.
Emily Wells is currently on tour in Europe, check out her tour dates and new album which you can purchase HERE.