zaterdag 18 maart 2017

Interview with Emma Ruth Rundle

The release of Marked for Death in 2016 catapulted LA based artist Emma Ruth Rundle to high positions in many Best Of the Year lists from both fans and critics alike. Probably the best album to have come out last year, Marked for Death is the third solo record of Rundle, known as well for her work with Red Sparowes and Marriages. In April she will embark on an extensive tour through Europe.


At the Roadburn Festival 2015, in Tilburg, the Netherlands, the band Marriages from LA played a stunning set at the small Cul de Sac venue. An intense combination of drony shoegaze and hypnotic vocals made for one of the highlights of the festival of that year. Afterwards, I spoke with singer and guitarist Emma Ruth Rundle. Parts of that interview appeared online in Dutch, but here is the full interview in English, to get those who don't know her yet acquainted with her work in time to attend one of her shows here in Europe.

The Ice King

After their intense set in a fully packed Cul de Sac, I sit down with Emma Ruth Rundle in front of the cafe. Open, interested and genuine, Rundle comes across as a kind human being, with a passion for what she does. After realizing we have a shared love for the Ice King from Adventure Time, we talk a bit about Roadburn and playing there. “It’s great to be here, to walk around and enjoy other bands. We see many familiar faces here, and it’s always nice to see friends when you are away from home. Like the people from Helms Alee, one of my favourite bands, ever since they were on Hydra Head. I think they are so unique and special. When I found out that Cathy Pellow from Sargent House was going to sign them, it was quite a celebration! I got a bit nervous before playing here myself though, since there are so many heavy bands playing here and Marriages is not that heavy per se.” Luckily, playing here turned out quite amazing, with the Roadburn attendees mostly having quite a broad taste in music paired with an open mind.

Marriages

Kitsune

Marriages (read an interview I had with bassist Greg Burns here) kicked off their career with the EP Kitsune in 2012, and followed up that record with their full length Salome in 2015. Emma Ruth Rundle explains how Kitsune originated out of necessity. “We really wrote our first EP as one long piece. Our friends in Russian Circles had asked Red Sparowes [in which both Rundle and Greg Burns played] to open a show in Los Angeles, but not everyone in the band could make it. But Greg and I really wanted to do the show, so therefore we got together and wrote Kitsune. Pretty much so we could do that show. We wrote it with the intention of it being a set, so all songs are in a particular order.” Apparently they did a good job in writing the album, because they immediately got signed after that first performance. “It is hard to remember exactly, but what I do know is that at our very first show, with Russian Circles, Cathy Pellow of Sargent House saw us perform and she said ‘I want you guys to make a record’. So I guess we did something right!”



Salome

Whereas Kitsune comes across as a continuous flow because of how it was written, Salome has a somewhat different feel to it. The songs seem to have more a stream of conscious style of playing, with a heavier emphasis on vocals. Rundle mentions that both technicalities and a change in focus led to this. “At the time of Kitsune I was experimenting with this vocal processor, because I was doing another project called the The Headless Prince of Zolpidem, with vocals that were really affected. The idea with Marriages was to have my vocals to have more of a textural quality, more than in the traditional pop song structure. When we were coming out of Red Sparowes and on to our first recording with Marriages, we wrote music that has this flow and textural quality. At a later stage, when we were working on new material for Salome, the vocals were different, with a softer approach and in a different key. So we wrote songs that were again more traditional. We wanted them to be a little more structured, with verses and choruses. We wanted the vocals to be really present and the lyrics to have more impact. It was a big departure from Kitsune in that regard.”



Singing Live

The change in approach also meant a change in live performances, with a different role for Rundle as singer. “It changed a lot, the live shows. I used to sing a lot through this vocal processor, which meant that the lyrics didn’t stand out as much. And... I think having the vocals be more present really had an impact, because they are a more important element of the songs. It was and still is a struggle to sing live. I don’t use the processor anymore, but I am not used to singing in this way. The vocals are a lot louder, but I don’t always hear myself that well and that can be quite hard sometimes, with all the different ranges. But then again, the vocal processor was often causing us problems with creating a lot of feedback, which was another reason why we wanted to get rid of it. Technically it wasn’t easy to perform with and it often ended up hurting us more than it really helped us.”

Photo by Paul Verhagen

The Nocturnes

Next to her role as guitarist in Red Sparowes, Rundle also used to spearhead the alternative folkgaze outfit The Nocturnes, in which Andrew Clinco played drums, who is now the drummer of Marriages. Even though The Nocturnes has been an important outlet for Rundle, she doesn’t see herself going back to performing under that name. “Nocturnes was... really my music, but I wanted to pursue my solo music, which is more folk like, without having to call it a band and include anyone else, so I could tour by myself and make decisions myself. Nocturnes really needs a band behind the music, to really get to those songs. And it was... we had problems getting everyone together all the time to do that. That was stressful. We did one show together on the West Coast and that was the end of it. I didn’t want to invest any time in music that I couldn’t perform live anymore. Marriages will be the only band I’ll be in from now on. Nocturnes is done. Never again."



Some Heavy Ocean

So Marriages is the band Rundle is in now, but that doesn’t mean she will not focus on her solo career as well. She released an instrumental record with experimental drone and ambient music in 2011 (Electric Guitar: One) and released her sophomore album Some Heavy Ocean in 2014, her first solo record featuring vocals. “I’ll definitely keep writing and performing music under my own name. I did a tour in November 2014 in the States, and the reception has been amazing. It was so great to see the reactions to my music. I didn’t think that Some Heavy Ocean would ever really come out to begin with, so it was great to see that all happen. It is so much easier to pack up and tour without the need of a band. I still worry sometimes though about disappointing people, with the lack of instrumentation. No touring band, just me by myself playing electric guitar and singing and that’s it.”



A Scary Freedom

Photo by Kristin Cofer
Not having a band behind you of course means that everything comes down to you on stage. Apart from having full control, that emphasis can be a bit frightening as well of course. It took Rundle some time to really find her way as a solo musician. “It was scary at first. It took a little while to figure out how to really perform my music live. At first I tried taking an acoustic guitar, but that is a nightmare live... So I went back to what I know, which is electric guitar and trying to mess with that. The good thing about playing alone is that it allows me the space to really feel the songs every night, to really connect to the emotions. It allows me to change the songs every night in relation to how I am feeling. That’s a freedom that you get when you play by yourself.” The possibility of changing songs depending on her mood is an important one for Rundle, and is something that is more difficult to do when she is playing with Marriages. “For me, it is essential to be able to really feel the music and tune in to the emotions that I am feeling. The music with Marriages is really set -there’s not a lot of improvisation going on there. At least not on this tour. Sometimes we write songs with space to improvise a bit though. But with my solo stuff I can just do whatever I want. I can be very neurotic, so to do whatever I’m feeling... well yeah that’s very nice. But the combination of having both Marriages and my solo shows is a very good one.”

Photo by Reid Hathcock

Ambiguity

Lyrically, there is also a difference between what Rundle writes for Marriages and for her own music. While Salome deals more with mythology, the songs on Some Heavy Ocean are very personal. “With Marriages we write the music as a group. As far as the character of Salome goes, I had written a song that I decided to call Salome and that became the title of the record. There is an ongoing theme of sexuality, violence, and revenge on that album. I feel the way I approach writing music and lyrics in general has a very direct connection to what I am feeling, like and where I am at in my life. But with Marriages I might put it in a bit more abstract words. Those songs are still very personal, but not always in a clear way. I think my band mates don’t even always know what the songs are about. They trust me in that and give me the freedom to express myself lyrically. I guess it’s a little more abstract, but that’s fine, people can get what they want out of lyrics. That is the beauty of music -the message doesn’t need to be unambiguous. I prefer not to explain the lyrics, actually. Especially with the solo record, whic is a very, very personal record, close to my heart. You know, growing up, it was disappointing to me, listening to music as a young person. I get very invested emotionally in lyrics, they are an integral aspect of the experience.” The rest of the band interrupts shortly, since they need to pack and move their things. After a short break, which gave us the time to order two more beers, we continue the conversation and talk some more about Rundle’s solo work.

Photo by Gus Black

Electric Guitar

In 2011, Rundle released the more experimental, instrumental drone record Electric Guitar: 1. The shift to her more vocal orientated follow up (which still has haunting guitar pieces, mind you), was a natural one for Rundle, although she might still release another instrumental record some time. “At first, Nocturnes was kind of my vessel for writing and singing songs. I had gone to CalArts in LA, a school for music, and I was doing a lot of experimental guitar and noise music there. The way I made Electric Guitar was... well, the last time Red Sparowes was on tour, I wrote and recorded that album on the van while we were driving around. I was just looking at the landscapes and writing music to that. It was sort of a soundtrack to traveling through Europe.” Knowing this, it suddenly seems a lot more fitting that when listening to that record, landscapes seem to unfold before your eyes... The style of singing on The Nocturnes’ releases and Kitsune seems a bit different from on Salome, on which Rundle seems to have really found her own voice. On Shadows of My Name that seems even more the case, like her voice is coming from a different realm, bringing divergent worlds together. To the question whether that was long process or a conscious effort, Rundle answers that she doesn’t feel like her singing has changed that much. “I think it has a lot to do with how these records were recorded and mixed. With The Nocturnes for example we used a lot of harmonies. On my own records my voice is a more important aspect though, and the singing is an important element of my live shows when I am touring on my own. Which is again an other thing entirely, singing live. I don’t know, maybe just something cracked and fell into place..? Cathy from Sargent House really encouraged me to use my voice and so... I guess that is part of it as well.”



Comparisons

Often when hearing a new artist for the first time, you almost automatically start relating it to other artists that it reminds you of. With Some Heavy Ocean, that really didn’t happen to me. It connected straight away on a deeper, profound level. It’s difficult to describe, but the music and vocals aren’t insular, but seem to come from different planes of immanence. “A lot of people try to relate my voice to usually the same ten people. All very different though! Ranging from Sinead O’Connor to Bjork, to the woman of Cocteau Twins... It’s a little disappointing sometimes. But I guess it is human nature, making it seem familiar but... yeah it is my voice and that is how it sounds.” As already mentioned, with her own voice Rundle sings very personal songs, which is not always easy when performing them live. “It was difficult and it is still very difficult. I am a very sensitive person... It is especially hard when I am tired, haven’t slept or not eaten enough. The last tour I started crying a lot, during the show sometimes. When you play the music, you get back to where you were when you wrote the song. And if that is a painful place, you feel that...”

Photo by Adam Gasson

The Artist is Present

I mention a comment from a Dutch artist, who said that on stage you should try to feel the emotion of your songs to the verge of crying yourself, without actually doing it, since that would take away the emotion from the audience back to the artist. Rundle doesn’t necessarily agrees with this. “I just let it happen. I believe it is important to be honest as an artist, especially in solo music. Some Heavy Ocean is not about shredding guitar, it is about the emotional content of the songs. So if I am playing and I get emotional, to me that means I am in a good space to perform the music. The worst thing is to play a show and not feel anything. Then it’s just an act.” Something that seems to happen too often with some other artists, but when asked if that ever happened to her, Rundle, with a slight hesitation, says it hasn’t. “No... not really with the solo stuff at least. There is a quote in this documentary by Marina Abramovich, The Artist is Present, that says something like: ‘If you are just going through the motions, it is acting. If you feel it, it is a performance’. So I think it is one or the other, and the solo stuff to me is always a performance. With Marriages I try to have that as well, be emotionally involved. But sometimes I get a bit too nervous and that can get in the way of feeling. There is a lot more thinking going on in coordinating playing in real time with other people, so there is a different focus, instead of just focusing of giving yourself to the songs.”

Dissolving Boundaries

We talk a bit more about the Abramovich documentary, in which the artist advocates really connecting with people, up close and personal. The levels of intensity that can arise when that happens, when you really connect to someone, can be quite overpowering. When playing live on a stage though, that seems a bit harder to achieve. “That’s the whole thing with playing music live that’s so interesting... I used to go to art school and was more involved in performance art, but being in a band, there is a separation. There is us and them. There’s the stage and the audience. When I play solo I do try to do away with that, to connect more. But what Abramovich does is incredible.” I mention remarks from singer Geoff Rickley during a Thursday concert, when he talked about the band being on a stage and the audience in the room, that it is just a construct. To him, both band and audience need each other and need to try to dissolve the idea of a separation between them, to have no boundaries. “It is hard, but if you can pull it off it becomes a successful and wonderful moment. I find that sometimes hard to do while playing with Marriages. I feel a bit too introverted sometimes, I’d like to do it more. It takes a few shows to really get into it.”

Present Future

For the time being, Rundle sees herself combining Marriages with her solo work. “Well, there’s always a lot of time between writing and recording the music and when it comes out. It’s been easy to shift the focus between the two because of that. My solo stuff is a little bit on a break right now, and the focus is on Marriages. When this tour is over I will probably write another solo album.” That is something to look forward to. Not many artists can build worlds and invite you to explore them like Rundle does. While wrapping up the interview, we talk a bit about Smashing Pumpkins, for both of us one of our favourite bands growing up. When I express my fondness of the Pisces of Iscariot album, Rundle agrees to its quality. “Such an underrated record! I did a cover of Starla once. I love that record. My first ever show was Smashing Pumpkins actually. Together with Garbage, when I was like 13, in LA. They are the only reason why I play music. I started playing guitar because of them. I stopped being a fan though since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness...” Which is something we can probably all agree on. To the question what other kinds of music she is into, Rundle shows she is a lover of music regardless of genre. “I loved Tori Amos and Kate Bush when growing up, but Skinny Puppy was also a big band for me. At the moment I am listening to a lot of Barkmarket and Them Are Us Too. There is so much music out there though... Both my parents were musicians, so I grew up listening to a lot of music. My dad listened to a lot of jazz and classic rock, my mum loves classical music and surf. And in LA there’s always so much music going on all the time, you never run out of it.” And that is a very reassuring thought.


Emma Ruth Rundle European Tour Dates 2017


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