Interview: Emma Ruth Rundle
With this album, I wanted to really communicate a sense of despair that I feel and a deep sadness. For me, this is the heaviest record and I wanted it to be the heaviest record, emotionally.
The past year has delivered some truly incredible works of art, with a potent mix of uncertainty, strife and isolation combining to bring out some of the most introspective and daring albums of the new millennium, but few can truly compare with the naked honesty of Engine Of Hell, the new full-length from singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle. It’s a genuinely uncomfortable listen, eight songs of soul-searching and outpourings of unfiltered despair, so it was with some trepidation that David Bowes caught up with Rundle to discuss her year, her voice and her craft.
E&D: Hi, how are things in L.A.?
Emma: I’m actually in Portland, Oregon. That’s where I live now.
E&D: Ah, cool. How long have you been there now?
Emma: This time, I’ve lived here since January but my sister moved here from L.A. maybe 13 years ago. So I’ve kind crashed in between tours and spent a lot of time living here. It’s been like a second home – a third home!
E&D: How have things been with recording, writing, lockdown…al that jazz?
Emma: This year has been hard. I live alone, but I am fortunate to live near my sister so we have formed a bubble, her and her partner, so I get to see them quite often. I have my own apartment for the first time as an adult, and it’s a different experience. Trying to navigate how things are happening with COVID, we thought things were opening, they closed down again, but it seems like it’s getting better now. I recorded Engine Of Hell at the very end of last year so there’s been a lot of sitting around and waiting to see how it’ll be when it comes out. In the interim, I did have a job working on a movie soundtrack so that was interesting. It took up a lot of time and kept me occupied, which I’m grateful for, plus I made some income which is useful since touring has become non-existent. I felt grateful that that came along.
E&D: Was that working on the engineering side, or were you scoring the movie?
Emma: I was scoring.
E&D: How was that experience? It’s got to be quite different from what you’re used to.
Emma: It was really great, actually. The director is a fan and really loved the record I made, Electric Guitar One, so I just made improv music on guitar with effects and added some other instrumentation. He did push the envelope and I ended up writing, recording and producing a pop song for the movie. That was really weird but it was fun. It ended up being a challenge and I did a lot of homework listening to certain kinds of music that I wouldn’t normally listen to. It got me out of myself and was quite interesting.
E&D: It sounds a million miles away from Engine Of Hell, which is such a naked record. I can’t think of another way to put it. What prompted you to make an album so honest and bare?
Emma: For a long time I’ve wanted to make a record like Engine Of Hell. I like what you said; I call it the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ record! Before I made On Dark Horses, even, I wanted to make an album that was completely stripped down – no production, live performance, something completely different from what I had been doing but that represented how I actually write music. All my music starts out this way, as a guitar and a voice – now, also a piano and a voice. I think that after doing the full band tours with On Dark Horses’ album cycle and then going into the Thou collaboration, which is just this maximal, heavy, loud, four guitars, screaming – all of this stuff – I thought that this was the time. I felt like that had been exhausted. My energy level on that was diminished, and I’d explored everything I’d wanted to say in that way, so this felt like the perfect moment. In my personal life, I was retreating more into myself and doing some deep searching and processing a lot of changes and feelings. It just lined up that this was the time to make this album. I love albums like Pink Moon, and Sibyl Baier’s Colour Green. When I hear those records, especially that Sibyl Baier one where the guitar will be out of tune in a moment that just passes, or she’ll do this little vocal thing that’s not planned, or it doesn’t sound planned… it’s just so touching. It really moves me, and it gave me the bravery to say that it’s okay for me to do that too, and to portray an honest and flawed version of myself, which is very much how I am. I’m performing the songs mostly live on that album, with live meaning a studio where I’m performing takes in front of three microphones and recording guitars and vocals at the same time.
E&D: What about your move back to piano? Had it been a while since playing, as I think it’s what you started out on?
Emma: Yeah, I stopped playing. Back in the day, when I was really playing the piano as my main instrument – I started playing guitar as well as a teenager, but I was much more proficient on piano – keyboards at that time sounded terrible. They’ve gotten much better but then, it didn’t sound good to play on a keyboard and carrying round an 88-key thing in a backpack, trying to jam with whoever when you wanted to start playing in bands, or perform even, it was inconvenient and it didn’t sound great. So, I switched over to guitar, as you don’t need to plug it in, it goes everywhere easily – I think one day I’ll just transition to the flute, and that’ll be the easiest thing! All my life, I’ve been so nomadic and moved from one place to another in my adult life. With touring, living in a garage, living with my sister, living with so-and-so, there was never room and I could never afford to have a piano. Then last year, I was stable enough and living in one place, so I was able to afford to get a piano again and that was as I was starting to write Engine Of Hell. I had a longing to reconnect with that instrument. I have this relationship where I can just sit down and confess anything to it and it just comes out, rather than guitar which is a little bit more analytical. Again, it was just the circumstances lining up that allowed me to have access.
E&D: There seems to be a great deal of, maybe not nostalgia, but self-reflection on this record. What part did moving back to an instrument from your youth have to play in that? Did that allow you to travel back?
Emma: Absolutely, it was like a time machine and I was able to travel back to the experiences I had when I was younger. It also reconnected me to some of the music I really loved at that time, like Tori Amos. That really influenced me and I think you can hear it come through on the record. I’m very pleased with that, that the piano put me back in touch with my musical influences from when I was younger, and I can hear that in the songs. I was aware of it and it was almost a way of adding an additional dimension to connecting the songs that are taking place in a time with the music of the time. I love that about it. And the visceral, tactile element of playing did also connect me to those moments.
E&D: Given how open you always are with your music, do you still feel a need to maintain barriers between It and your life? Is there still a desire for privacy?
Emma: I don’t know.. I’m navigating it now because I think every record is evolving. It’s all personal, it’s autobiographical to some degree. I think Engine Of Hell takes it to a new level because it’s so upfront; there’s nothing to hide behind; there are no effects to disguise the lyrics. How was I going to enter this conversation with you and maintain the honesty, because that is important to me? I think that what I set out to do was just an honest representation of feelings and experiences, but I don’t want to give away so much that it would, for instance, jeopardise the privacy of someone else in my life and I wouldn’t want to detract from the experience that someone else might have with the song. It might mean something totally different to them so I wouldn’t want to explain the narrative exactly, which is why we make music – it’s like poetry, re-arranging things so that they’re slightly obscured.
E&D: Over the lockdown, you had a couple of collaborative covers surface, namely Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and The Cranberries’ ‘Hollywood’, with Thou. Are there any artists that you’d be interested in tackling like that again, either yourself or collaboratively?
Emma: That stuff was recorded several years ago so when it finally came out, it felt good. I loved collaborating with Thou. They’re friends now but before they were friends they were one of my favourite bands. It’s kind of a dream to get to collaborate with a band that you love so much. I think that I need to take more time to myself with Engine Of Hell and re-discovering what my relationship to music is. I’m not ready to do more collaborations. I did do the song with Chelsea Wolfe too and I think that just taking some time to let this album live, tour it, really flesh it out and try to figure out all the little ways that it’ll be; playing an album on tour is like rediscovering it for myself. I don’t see myself collaborating with anyone right now or in the near future. Sometimes I get an inkling that I want to do a little cover song but it’s usually just for me and then I don’t want to release it. In the future, it’s maybe possible – I mean, if Brian Eno called me on the phone right now and said, “Hey, I want you to stand in the back corner of my studio and hold this key for ten hours,” I’d be, like, “I’m there!” Will that happen? Probably not.
E&D: You never know. We live in strange times. What are your plans for touring this album, assuming touring can go ahead soon? Will it be a completely solo venture?
Emma: Yeah, we’ve been working on two legs of the tour, one in western Europe and the other in 2022 coming and doing a UK portion and the idea is to present the album as it is. I want to play small venues so that it’s an intimate experience – small venues, a piano, a guitar, a vocal. We’ve booked a tour, we’re going to announce it soon and it’s a lot of special places, unique venues. I’m looking forward to that; I’m also terrified.
E&D: Have you performed like that much before?
Emma: Actually, I’ve done that more than playing with a band. I do it quite often with my album cycles because sometimes tours will come up, particularly support tours or a small run of shows, and I can’t afford to bring a band, or it doesn’t make sense. My first time at Roadburn was supposed to be with a band and it just wasn’t well-rehearsed enough so at the last second I decided to do it alone. I’m pretty used to playing alone onstage. I stopped drinking and doing drugs last year so this will be different, doing it sober. I love playing with a band because you can do things different, like play a guitar solo. You get the power of the whole band behind you and really feeling that energy, the driving of the drums, everyone playing together can really make the time go by but when I play by myself there’s more room for me to change things around, for improv and for just a unique stroke on every song, and to get extremely into the music. I think that the solo performance is more emotional, and I hope that the people who come to attend these shows are there to see that part of it. I love a loud rock show too but that’s not what this’ll be.
E&D: When you first started out writing and recording solo, was there anything that you wanted to convey? On the other side, was there anything you particularly wanted to avoid?
Emma: With this album, I wanted to really communicate a sense of despair that I feel and a deep sadness. For me, this is the heaviest record and I wanted it to be the heaviest record, emotionally. There are some comedic lines that I’ve written into the songs that are a bit of black humour that I let show through, but I didn’t want it to go so far that it was just laughable. But at the same time I have no control over how people react, but I guess that I have a little bone in my body that vibrates when it’s hokey or something. That is what I was hoping to communicate. Also, I change the way I sing on the record. I think that fragility and the deranged sort of feeling and the despair come across.
E&D: With that said, is there any hope on the record or is it just nothingness?
Emma: The nothingness. There’s no real hopeful message or resolution on this album. I think some of the other records have a bit more of that ‘triumphant, we’re all going to overcome this’ feeling but on this record, no.
E&D: Is there anything you want to talk about? Something you’d like to be asked but never do.
Emma: I guess I’m interested in talking a little about how I’ve changed singing on this record.
E&D: I did wonder, as that fragility really comes across. Was that difficult to pull off?
Emma: When I’m writing songs for a band, or it’s also just my energy in the music I’ve made up until now on the three solo records at least, and on the Thou record, I felt like projecting my voice really intensely into a tight, upper range of my vocal range. Part of that evolved from playing in bands and needing to carry my vocal above the volume of the band. It was also an energy the angsty, aggro side of me that felt compelled to show. I also felt compelled by that side of singing, really pushing it to the limit of my chest voice. With this record, I felt that sense of despair robbed me of that ability to do that with my voice. I simply didn’t have that fight anymore, and there’s a little of that fight in that style of singing. I used my falsetto voice quite a lot on this album because it’s easier to sing that way in a certain sense but it’s also unhinged a little, psychically. It’s not possible to sing that way when there’s a band either and do that live. After doing Marriages, I didn’t want to sing in a way that I couldn’t sing live ever again because it was so difficult on tour. So I abandoned the head voice and on this album I was able to return to it. I like the imperfections and I really wanted to keep things that were strange and flawed. The vibrato was not right and… it’s a different approach, really trying to convey with the timbre of the voice these things I set out to do. The unhinged quality and the personal quality too, because in person, in a room, singing that way is much quieter so you have to lean in to hear what’s happening. I wanted it to feel like I was really singing next to you.
E&D: Was there any difficulty in moving back to your head voice after having left it for so many years?
Emma: Oh no, it’s very natural. I sing in head voice a lot in my daily life as my neighbour wouldn’t be able to hear me doing that, whereas if I was really singing the way that I sing on stage with my older work, this whole building would hear it. I do have a downstairs neighbour who sings quite a bit, and I can sing along to some of the songs he plays. He loves to play Rolling Stones songs and then when Charlie passed away he was just playing ‘Wild Horses’ all the time. I love that song. So yeah, the head voice is natural to me.
E&D: How do you maintain your voice?
Emma: I haven’t done a great job of it, actually. After I finished recording Engine Of Hell, I completely stopped singing for six months and then recently I started taking vocal lessons with someone here via Zoom in the hope that they can help me learn some exercises and also some musical material that would inspire me to want to sing. Without touring, I don’t have an incentive to practice and after I make an album, I typically step away from music as I feel like I’ve exhausted all the things I want to say. I’ve spent so much time writing and focusing so intensely on the process of the album that I just get away from it. Now, with no touring coming, that need to go back isn’t really there. I actually have become concerned that I might lose my voice so I started taking vocal lessons. I’ve had three or four so far, and it’s interesting. We’re eventually going to work on an opera piece! It’s worked for me in the past – I took classical guitar lessons at one time in the past when I was also struggling with my relationship with guitar. I think learning a style of music that’s so completely out of your wheelhouse allows you to approach your instrument again in a way that you don’t associate with trauma. A lot of my music is about trauma so then I want to avoid it. So yeah, taking vocal lessons is helping but I’m not really doing my homework the way I’m supposed to; I’ll try to do better.
E&D: With what you managed to put out on Engine Of Hell, do you feel like there are parts of your life that you are able to move on from, or is that not how it works?
Emma: It’s revealing itself more and more. I think that writing that record, right up until recording it, is a huge demarcation in where my personal life has changed massively. Almost right after getting out of the studio, I pulled up my whole life and moved across the country. I left my marriage, and we’re on great terms, but it’s been a huge pivot writing the record. Focussing on the record, writing the material, right up until the recording has been this huge process of – this is almost a strange term, but ‘soul retrieval’. Like pulling pieces of myself back from the world and the universe that I’ve left. Like, “I left this piece on the side of the road in Tennessee on tour, I left this piece at Roadburn, I left this piece in this time with this project and this person,” and I didn’t know at the time that this was what I was doing, but it’s like gathering the balloons that are flying away, or the bit in The Little Prince where he’s gathering all the birds and flies off to another planet. It felt very painful and strange, and I’m like, “Why am I isolating myself in this time when isolation is already forced upon us?” Also, after getting sober and all of these things happening at the same time, I’m hoping by the end of this year that it will be clear that there will be some kind of reward. By reward, I mean things like the video for ‘Return’, for instance. Getting to write and direct a music video, I would not have been capable of that a year and a half ago. I just simply wouldn’t have been able to have my wits about me enough to do something like that so that’s how I can measure the success of this, and how this record has helped me move on and change.