Emily Wells is a performer, producer, singer and composer known for her varied use of classical and modern instrumentation as well as her deft approach to live sampling at shows. Classically trained as a violinist, she also plays drums, keys, beat machines and whatever else she can fit in her road case.
Emily Wells has been hailed for her multi-instrumental ambidexterity, a symphonic embroidering of swirling strings, ingenious electronics, and intricate, irresistible beats, sewn together with celestial vocals and deeply personal song-craft. Her new Mama Acoustic Recordings, out June 11th, sees the NYC-based singer/musician/producer casting it all aside, re-imagining songs first heard on 2012’s acclaimed Partisan Records debut, Mama . Where that collection was marked by Wells‘ extraordinary fusion of hip hop, experimental dance music, lyrical introspection, and classical complexity, the new album is stunningly austere, recorded solely with voice and guitar. Songs like “Dirty Sneakers” refract the singer and songwriter in a fresh light, illuminating altered emotional perspectives and melodic colors. With Mama Acoustic Recordings, Emily Wells has stripped off her own armor, leaving only her crystalline voice and equally unambiguous songwriting on display.
“There was nothing to hide behind,” she says. “I’m always wrestling with that, because so much of the music I love is incredibly simple, but what I usually do is very far from it.”
From the start, Wells’ musical interests were simply too wide ranging for but one instrument. Trained as a classical violinist, the Texas native soon created her own sonic “spaceship,” an ever-growing pulsating arsenal of synthesizers, effects pedals, and toy instruments, all tied together with live sampling and a genre agnostic approach that is diverse, distinctive, and utterly her own. Wells honed her sound on a series of independent releases – including a groundbreaking cover of The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic “Juicy” – while also playing countless live dates both as bandleader and solo performer.
Mama Acoustic Recordings is a kind of accidental album, recorded last year while Wells was on self-described “sabbatical” living with friends in Portland, Oregon. Having spent much of the past five years on the career track, Wells treated herself to a long deserved breather. She ran daily, polished her culinary skills, and even took old school music lessons, adding cello and drums to her instrumental repertoire.
“I needed to reassess what I was doing with my time,” Wells says. “I needed to be still for a little bit.”
Of course, an artist as restlessly creative as Wells can’t stay silent for long. The powerful fan reaction to her acoustic version of “Darlin’” – released as a Mama bonus track – led her to a revelatory reassessment of her own work.
“People responded to that song in a really interesting way,” she says, “which made me start to think about the acoustic form and about simplicity. I guess I was just kind of curious what some of the other songs would sound like.”
Wells began experimenting with her traveling reel-to-reel, recording gentle new versions of “Mama’s Gonna Give You Love” and “Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House” with just her voice and acoustic guitar (and beloved Fostex Spring Reverb unit). Peeling off her own ornate production, she revealed her songs to herself, exposing new meaning though stark minimalism.
“It was kind of like I was discovering the demos after the album was already recorded and released,” she says. “I think I was questioning myself as a writer, like, if I don’t do all this stuff as a producer, what’s actually in there?”
Ever the alchemist, Wells determined a set of rules: she would play no other instruments (bar the occasional ukulele part) and record only single takes. Forward motion came by asking herself, “I wonder what that would sound like…”
“I was just feeding my own curiosity,” she says. “There was no pressure.”
Before long Wells had recorded 10 tracks – including one new song in the plaintive “Los Angeles.” The naked renditions of Mama highlights like “Passenger” and “Fire Song” were both striking and subtle, reminiscent of such iconic works of pastoral folk as Karen Dalton’s classic In My Own Time and Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle (like Mama Acoustic Recordings, its hushed tone determined by others sleeping in the next room). Though Wells hadn’t previously given much thought to releasing the material, upon reflection it was clear that the recordings demanded something more.
“It was never intended to be an album,” she says. “It wasn’t until it was almost finished that I thought, ‘I want to hear this on vinyl…’”
Wells’ unaccompanied efforts were complimented by a series of collaborative undertakings alongside a remarkably varied range of artists. She penned “Becomes The Color” to serve as closing theme to Chan-wook Park’s acclaimed psychological thriller, Stoker, while her teaming with the film’s score composer, Clint Mansell, “If I Ever Had A Heart,” is featured as a bonus cut on the official soundtrack. As if that weren’t enough, 2013 has also seen the long awaited release of Pillowfight, Wells’ slinky partnership with the one and only Dan the Automator. Wells sees the sonically downtempo project as a direct link in the chain of events that led to the solo recordings.
“I learned a lot about the power of the single voice,” she says. “Dan and I disagreed initially. I’m from the school of, hey, I want all this stuff going on, I don’t want my voice to be at the center. But he taught me that it was okay to just sing, to have one clear arrow going through the middle.”
Wells is now considering how her recent activities – including travel to such faraway lands as Korea, Switzerland, and Los Angeles – will inform her next solo work, which she expects will see additional exploration into the sounds of deep soul and traditional gospel. Self-actualized and utterly unanticipated, Mama Acoustic Recordings is merely a milestone on Emily Wells’ infinite musical adventure.
“I’ve always been sort of stunned at how, as an artist, people expect you to keep doing the same thing,” she says, “and I never do.”