Last Tuesday, I met up with Emmeline at the Dunn Brothers Coffee in Addison to interview her. The only problem was that there was someone performing there, and that doesn’t work well for an interview. We then headed up to the Starbucks at Belt Line and the Dallas North Tollway, only to find out we chose the one Starbucks location that closes before eight. This was not exactly the best omen. We finally made our way to the Texadelphia restaurant in the same shopping area before beginning the interview. Here is just part of the interview, even featuring interruptions by the waitstaff. Bet the waitress wasn't counting on being part of the interview.
GOBL: Here’s something I’ve wondered: Most of your songs are about heartbreak, sadness, painful times, etc., and yet on a personal level, you are about the complete antithesis of that. You’re actually one of the happiest musicians I know. So, how do you explain that dichotomy?
Emmeline: Well, first of all, thanks for thinking I’m one of the happiest musicians you know. That’s a huge compliment. I think that actually it makes more sense for me to write sad songs and then be a happy person. The music becomes an outlet and a channel through which I can express all of the sadness. I think that the other beauty of music is that it allows you to give voice to things that people don’t usually talk about. When you get your heart broken, it’s not something that you want to go spill all over town; you don’t want to invite the criticism. You don’t want to deal with other people’s perceptions of whatever relationship you had, and this allows you to be completely and totally honest about what you’re feeling. The beauty of music is that you can be as vulnerable as you want to be, and at the end of the day you’ve exercised those feelings. You can be a happier person for it.
GOBL: Let me discuss one of those heartbreak songs. One of my favorites off the album, as you know, is “Where the Light Is.” How did that song come to be?
E: That’s actually an interesting question because for me, “Where the Light Is” isn’t necessarily about a romantic relationship. I was very close to someone who was struggling with addiction, and one of the hardest lessons to learn is that you can’t make anybody do anything that they don’t want to do. It was something my dad always told me when I was growing up, and I always thought he was a liar because I was like, “There has to be something harder than that.” But I think it’s true, especially when you see somebody suffering and you know that there’s a way they can fix it and you give them the answer over and over and over and over, but for whatever reason they won’t apply it. For me, that’s what that song is about, learning that you can only try so many times before you recognize the toll it’s taking in your life and then you have to walk away.
GOBL: There was a line in the song and I’m wondering if it was directly inspired by your father. It was…
Waitress: Are you ready?
E: I’d like to get the chicken tenders and could I get some applesauce to go with that?
GOBL: Okay, now where was I…
E: (commenting on the sound playing in the background) I cover this song and change the words. Have you heard this song?
GOBL: Is this Taylor Swift?
E: I cover this song and change the words because this is the most ridiculous notion ever, that you’re only in a happy relationship if you own the other person and they own you. “You’re the best thing that’s ever been mine”. I mean, that sounds like the worst relationship ever. Also, the notion that any problems that you have can be solved by one memory of sitting by the water and being happy is… poppycock. It’s not true. Is the tape recorder still on?
GOBL: It is, and…
E: (trying to avoid a potential Emmeline/Taylor Swift war of words) I love Taylor Swift, I do. She has this song on the record called “Last Kiss” that is amazing! It’s such a beautifully morose picture of heartbreak. I love it.
GOBL: So you’ve talked about what a love song should NOT be. What are some love songs that you think are good songs?
E: I’m so glad you asked. Have you heard “The Reasons” by The Weakerthans? I love it. I really enjoy unconventional portrayals of love because I think that those are the most honest portrayals of it. I don’t think that there’s any relationship that’s flowers and rainbows and cotton candy all the time. I think you go through things that are difficult. There’s this song by The Afters called “Ocean Wide” that has a line that goes “When love is a raging sea, you can hold on to me, and we’re going to make it.” I think that that’s the way it works. There are great times and there are really hard times, but at the end of the day if you can hold on to each other and you can still want to be with the other person, that’s what love is. It’s not somewhere where everything goes perfectly.
GOBL: Let me ask you about another one of your songs. What is the story behind “The Story”?
E: This is so lame. Honestly, one of the things I struggled with when writing this record was how to hold on to the people you love, how tightly to hold them, how to guide them. That doesn’t necessarily just mean romantic relationships. There are friendships and familial relationships where the politics are difficult. You have to figure out a way to be the best and most honest person you can be while not stepping on their toes and letting them be who they’re going to be. It’s an odd dichotomy of acceptance and growth. I think that’s the idea that I was struggling with when I wrote this story. That and loss.
GOBL: (mishearing) Lost, as in the TV show?
E: No, loss, as in the idea of losing somebody (laughing). Yes, well I was thinking about this plane and how it landed on this island with all these crazy people and I wonder what would happen if one of them took a whole bunch of pills. That’s going into the interview, isn’t it?
GOBL: I’ll have to incorporate that. If I’m going to have Taylor Swift in the interview, I’ve got to include my issues with hearing.
E: I had this very cool seven chord progression that was very jazzy that I was working with. I was going to try to write a happy song and it just was not working for me. I took the dog for a walk and ended up by the lake and was staring at the water and the line “There’s a lady named Miranda on the sidewalk by the bay” popped into my head. It wrote itself…
Waitress: Here’s your food.
E: Thanks. Anyway, the song wrote itself essentially in twenty minutes as I was taking laps around the park. I had heard about pharm parties a few days before that, and I just kept thinking about what kind of situation has to come together for that to arise. All I could think of was these kids whose parents have a lot of money, but not a lot of time to pay attention. I think that’s when the saddest things happen. Ultimately, my goal in writing that was not to bum the whole world out, but to make people think about appreciating the people that are close to them and about paying attention really. The idea in my head behind Miranda and her husband in the song is that he went to war, he came back, he had PTSD, and it was something that ultimately drove him to self-destruction. Then you have kind of the same issue with Sebastian and his parents. They’re not around a whole lot. There’s a reason that I said “He pulls the pills out of the cabinet, hoping that they’ll reprimand,” because he’s looking for any shred of attention. I think there are so many instances in which people are crying out for help before something happens and if you can hear those cries for help if you can pay attention to that need then maybe there wouldn’t be as loss.
GOBL: I’ve heard that John Keener, from Lakewood Bar & Grill, had a part in helping you write that song. Did he have any part in helping you with the song?
E: Funny story. OK, John had teased me about writing a bunch of first person confessional songs and so I had been thinking a lot about writing a song in 3rd person and it’s not the only song I’ve ever written in 3rd person but yeah, that was definitely a big part of it. I had totally forgotten about that.
GOBL: I was curious; I think John takes a great amount of pride in having a part in helping you write the song. Speaking of “The Story”, you’ve created a, shall we say, interesting way of promoting this song (and others) through video. Where did you find these people for the video?
E: Well you know I’m kind of a kooky, happy, crazy personality. I was thinking about ways of promoting this record and I sat down with a good friend of mine, Mandy Caulkins, who helps me with a lot of the things I’ve been doing. She asked “What do you want people to get out of it?” What I want people to get out of it is that having a record is like a best friend, something you can go to and feel better, and it can give you advice. I went through a period in high school, and even now, where records can do things for you that people can’t necessarily. There’s something about the music that can get a message in that somebody might have been trying to give you for five or six years, but you hear it in a song and all of a sudden it’s like the cartoon light bulb goes off over your head. I took the serious notion of having a record that speaks to you and try to figure out what kind of people would be affected by these songs. I wanted it to be a little bit ridiculous. I am aware that a lot of my music is sad, but I do have a pretty strong, persistent sense of humor and so I wanted to bring light to some of these things. I think if you can laugh at it, it’s a lot less scary. It started as a joke the first time we both went to Cali to play, we were on the plane back and I suggested promoting each song with a character. Mandy asked how that was going to work. I said, “Well, what if there was this boy who went to a pharm party” She said, “That’s the most twisted thing I’ve heard in my life, and you’re going to try to make a joke out of this,” and I was like “Yeah, I think it’d be funny.” I mean, pharm parties themselves are not funny at all. It’s a horrible, horrible idea and a terrible situation that I wouldn’t want any child ever to get involved in. But having a funny character explain why it’s a bad idea is not necessarily the most awful thing ever. So Mandy was like, “You’re going to dress up like a guy?” “Uh-huh.” “And you’re going to talk like a guy.” “Uh-huh.” Mandy was like, “Okay…” So then I kept thinking and said, “Ooh… and there can be a 4 year old” and she was like “Really?” Just wait until you see the video for “Exit.”
GOBL: That was my next question. I was about to ask if there were any more characters…
E: Oh, there’s one for every song.
GOBL: Oh, really?
GOBL: So you’re not going to let my readers in on the secret?
E: I will tell you that one involves a gorilla costume.
There were many more interesting moments that I couldn’t fit into the interview, including the time she played “Ice Ice Baby” in Katy, our mutual love for Daria, the merits of applesauce as a dipping sauce for chicken tenders, and her most awkward moment at a show of hers ever. If you want to discuss any of these random topics with her, I’d encourage you to go to her CD release show for Early Morning Hours. It takes place this Friday at Ten Times Cellar, with Steve Jackson and Josh Cooley opening.