The incredibly talented Emma Frank has a great new record out this Friday, September 6th, and she’ll be celebrating the release with a show at the Knitting Factory here in Brooklyn. In advance of all this exciting news, she was nice enough to hop on the phone with me a few weeks ago while on vacation in Portugal; we talked about how her previous record, Ocean Av, influenced aspects of Come Back, plus we talked about how the hustle and bustle of NYC can be creatively beneficial, the importance of intentionally seeking out quiet, building a multifaceted live performance and MORE! Be sure to internet-eavesdrop on all of that below, and also check out her brand new music video for “Before You Go” right now!
So this newest record is coming pretty close on the heels of Ocean Av, yeah? About a year difference in terms of release time?
Yeah, I guess it’s about a year and a half in terms of the release of my last record, but I think we actually recorded my last record almost two years before this one. Creatively, it felt like a bit of a fast turnaround, but not so quick. I was really happy to make one right away, and now I feel kind of like, “Great, I need some time before I make another record.” [Laughs]
Absolutely! So even though there was a bit of distance between the two, do you feel like there was any sort of overlapping process with Ocean Av and Come Back?
Well, I think that being in the studio (because I’d finished most of the songs I’d written for Ocean Av by the time we were recording them in the studio), I was getting all of this new information about what was working and what was not working, what I liked to listen to and what I didn’t like to listen to. So I think moving forward, as soon as I got out of the studio in Montreal and came back to New York that winter (after recording Ocean Av), I was like, “Oh, okay. This is what we need to do right now.” And I felt like I had a really clear sense of direction, and I’m not sure how long that lasted; having a clear sense of direction is very lucky, and I think maybe a few months later I was like, “Okay, I’m going back to normal songwriting for a little bit.” More cyclical.
But I do think there was some very specific feedback from the band that some of the songs on Ocean Av were hard to play. And they weren’t necessarily hard to listen to, like as a listener it doesn’t sound like tricky music, but some of the ways I asked the band to change tempo and feel was just kind of heavy lifting in terms of rehearsing and making it sound good and natural. And Aaron had kind of called me out and said like, “You know, you can stay in one feel for longer.” So I kind of had that in my mind as a bit of a guiding idea that I wanted to stay in a feel, stay in an ambiance for longer and enjoy it, and not kind of disrupt it all the time. I think because I gave myself permission to do that…I think in general when I’m playing stuff live (especially when I’m playing it with jazz musicians), you know, I didn’t go to music school, I have a literature degree, and I think there’s this nagging thing of “You’re not interesting enough.” So it was also going into the studio and realizing that some of the songs I thought were boring to play live (because there’s not that much going on dynamically)…you know, the simpler songs might be my favorites to do in the studio, because we have so much space to shape them after the fact. So that gave me permission to write in a much simpler way, and not kind of second guess myself when using simpler and more traditional forms.
So what’s the process like for you to bring these songs to life night after night on stage? A lot of them do feel like they’re capturing a specific moment, but I’m sure they change on a nightly basis in terms of the way that you play them, so what goes into that?
So before Ocean Av I’d released two records in Canada, and if you listen to them, you’re like, “Oh, this sounds so young!” And I think the reason it sounds young is because…I mean, there are totally moments on it that I love and think, “Whoa, it’s really cool that we made that!” but I think in general, I think that what you hear is a kind of agitated quality in the playing. It doesn’t feel like we’ve settled on what the groove is, like we’ve worked out the songs for long enough, essentially. And so Ocean Av, working with Franky Rousseau and Aaron Parks and Jim Black, like, they all just taught me so much about how much care can go into deciding your tempo. Like always doing it at 71 BPM or whatever…that being the feel that you’re committing to. Just really taking care with the songs we played, and because we’re playing with jazz musicians a lot of the time, taking extra care to be really specific about the feel that I’m asking for when rehearsing so that they don’t sort of become vague in what they’re doing, basically. I think that that became even more of a focus because the songs were so much simpler in Come Back.
And when you’re working on songs, do you ever feel like you need to stay within certain parameters in terms of the way something sounds for things to fit with this particular project? Like, how do you determine what an Emma Frank song is?
That’s such a good question…I mean, there are definitely writing tangents that I’ll go on, but I’m like, “This doesn’t make sense with my set whatsoever, with my instrumentation, with my band.” And I have so many friends who are conservatory trained, and they have maybe five projects of their own that they’re composing for, and I don’t really have the time or attention span to do that. For sure there are definitely writing tangents where I think, “I don’t really think this helps the vibe that I’m crafting in this specific context.” So those are things that I kind of just write for myself, and then they’ll be little exercises that I’ve done.
I do think that with this record, especially with the song “I Thought”…I feel so silly, I’m most proud of that song, and part of the reason I’m proud of it is because that song was actually the one that I thought, “This is gonna suck to play. Everybody’s gonna hate this song.” And it’s also the one that in rehearsal and even in the studio we were kind of like, “This is a little…boring. Not feeling really good.” But it took me saying, “No, guys, it’s supposed to just move along like a landscape. We’re gonna add so much to it.” It took that, and then adding strings and synths for something that I think feels really cinematic and an ambient space that I want to sit in for a long time. It’s just sort of a soothing sonic space. I think that that’s given me more confidence in writing…I don’t want to say flatter music, but I think I have been drawn to a lot of vocalists and composers who write very dynamic music that sort of seems like it’s fun to play live, and when I say that I mean musicians where you’re just so aware of their musicality; it’s so palpable. I think personally I get so much from these different kinds of music, like I want to hear something that sounds alive, like there’s breath in it and real people in it, but I also love moodiness and ambiance.
Absolutely. Now, from what I’ve seen and read, it sounds like you’re very comfortable performing on stage. Was that always the case for you, or did that take some growing into? Like I think especially for me, a person who doesn’t play music (especially not live), it seems so daunting to play some of the quieter, more intimate songs in front of an audience. Were you always comfortable?
No. [Laughs] I mean, no and also yes; I think that I (for whatever reason) was just born with a little bit of a performance bug, and was always the kind of kid who was like “I WANNA BE ON STAGE!,” but then I have really clear memories of getting up on stage and basically blacking out from humiliation because I hadn’t prepared. Like, that happened to me several times in my childhood, got up there, did a terrible job and thought, “This is the worst feeling in the whole wide world!” [Laughs] But with a little practice, it was easier to get excited about the prospect of performing.
And then…I don’t know why I was such a sad little kid, but for whatever reason in high school, I did a lot of musical theater and tended to be cast as the wise, middle-aged matronly woman who has a ballad that makes all the moms cry. [Laughs] I was the kind of kid who, when I turned ten, I sobbed because I was no longer going to be in the single digits, and that meant my parents were getting closer to death. They were like, “Okay, that’s really dark…” [Laughs]
So I feel like I’ve always been drawn to theater spaces, and I feel drawn to talking to people about their feelings in that tender zone. I really like making a performance space that feels multifaceted. I want people to laugh and feel joy, but I also want it to be a safe space to feel feelings that we often silence when we’re in public spaces. I think some of my favorite performance artists are people who do that – like, I’m literally cracking up and then I’m crying. They’re just being really real and letting it all hang out there, sharing their tenderness with strength and self-awareness and humor.
And that’s such a great thing to strive for in a performance, especially in New York City, because there are so many shows happening each night, and we’re all so tired, and so it’s just like…when those magic moments happen, where you’re finally not in a crowded train and can just take a moment to like, decompress, it’s so incredible. Like, I see crazy shit happening all around me all day, but I don’t interact with it, so when you’re in a room watching a performance, being able to have that safe space to interact and connect is amazing.
Totally. And yeah, that’s exactly the thing. We’re in New York, and it’s like, “Somebody literally took a shit in front of me on the subway.” Like, whatever the thing is, it’s so much. I feel really not able to go to shows a lot of the time, too. It’s like, “I’m done seeing people for the day.” So when I do go to shows, I really appreciate feeling like it’s intentionally therapeutic. If I go to a show that’s too loud, I’m like, “No thanks, I’m good. I’ve had enough loud shit throughout the day, thank you.” It’s hard. It’s something I think about a lot, actually, and I think it’s funny, because I think a lot of people who maybe aren’t in the arts or live in a quieter place, especially in Europe, there’s just a different attitude towards the arts. Like, it’s less “Oh, another person wants to take my time and my money?” and more, “Cool, art is interesting for its own sake. It’s worthwhile just because.” I don’t know, I think because I have a lot of friends who are improvisers, when I first moved here I saw a lot of open improvised shows, and I was like, “What. In. The. World?” like “I already listen to the subway screeching for two hours of my daily commute, and now a saxophone is screeching. I’m good. No.” Like, when anybody describes my music as at all experimental, I’m like, “It’s not, though.” [Laughs]
Right? I think a lot of people have not experienced the true terrifying chaos that is an improvised experimental performance. Now, do you feel like the hustle of this city is helpful to you in your creative process? Do you feel that it makes you more…I don’t want to say “productive”, because that sounds like a bit of a sterile word, but do you feel you’re maybe able to hone your creative energy in a more efficient way?
Totally. Do you find that?
I do! I feel like having very limited windows of time where I can really sit down and be creative forces me to either do something or not, whereas if I’m off in some beautiful, isolated place for a week or more at a time with the intention of being creatively productive…you know, sometimes that’s when I completely freeze up. Like it’s almost too quiet, you know?
I’m so right there with you. Yeah, 100%. If anything, I think I’ve always been very ambitious, and not cold, but just…I don’t want to do things I don’t want to do. I’ve very much had a sense of “This is where I want to go,” and that’s changed, but I’m very committed to not going to a dinner party that I don’t want to go to or whatever it is. I’m very committed to feeling that my choices are mind, and that I’m independent.
I think in Canada I was the Type A person, and now…I’m clearly Type B, because there are actual Type A people everywhere who do all the things and in their specific windows of time just want to talk to strangers, and you’re like, “Who are you?!” [Laughs] I feel like New York has just sort of given me the thumbs up to live the way I’ve always lived, which is having a lot of projects on the go, spending a lot of time on my own, spending my time in a very specific way. I also think that it’s made me seek out quiet more actively and more intentionally, because that word “productivity”…I think if I start thinking about my productivity and my “career”, it’s really easy to look around and be like, “I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m not far enough along!” It’s also easy enough to look around and think “Oh, I’m actually doing pretty okay, things are moving…” but I think that for me, there are certain things I can do with a bit of ambition, like I can clean my house with a bit of stress, but approaching songwriting from that place of “You need to write something, you’ve been so unproductive,” can feel really inauthentic. Or, not even inauthentic, but I feel like there are a lot of different mediums in the world, and my interest in songwriting and what I go to songwriting for is for something a little bit more calm. I feel like if I want to write an angry essay I can do that, if I want to orate something…you know, humor is one thing, but the way that I’m interested in songwriting and music is…like, I like listening to music that makes me enjoy being alone, that feels cheerful and thoughtful and quiet.
Right. And you probably feel this to a certain extent, too, because we’re the same age, but I remember learning about the internet for the first time in like, the third grade. And so we didn’t fully grow up with it, and just having this weird thing of always being switched on now has, I think, really warped this concept of what is productive and what isn’t. It’s just kind of a mess. [Laughs] I’ve started to lean very hard into gauging things more based on whether or not I’m happy, calm, are my needs being met, rather than whether or not I’m hitting some sort of outdated benchmark.
100%. Isn’t that interesting? And I wonder about that sometimes. I feel like I was actually a more productive kid because there wasn’t this distinction between productivity and zoning out looking at Facebook. I was just drawing, because drawing was fun. And I made a picture, because it was fun.
Part of the reason that I feel like I need to take time before my next record is that it doesn’t feel instinctive right now for me to write. I’m not clear on what I want to say or what I’m writing for, and I want it to be…I mean, every practice takes work and discipline, so I don’t think songwriting happens naturally or pours out accidentally, but there have been many periods where songwriting happens because of how I need to articulate myself. There’s something I’m trying to understand and put my finger on, something that has to do with beauty and sorrow and all the complicated paradoxes of being a person, and it’s like, I need to sing this. And for whatever reason, I’m just like, “I actually want a nap. I don’t need to songwrite, I just need a really good night’s sleep.” That’s kind of where my baseline is at right now; I just feel like I need a little bit of time.