Photo by Philip Laubner
It’s one of New York’s more frostbiting January nights and Emily Wells has a creative solution for how to deal with the cold winter she is still adjusting to: espresso in a coffee machine and work. We’re in her apartment, where sweatshirts, candles, fruit bowls, coffee mugs, and the arts and crafts trinkets of diorama supplies are strewn about the wide, open kitchen. She explains that her house has become the makeshift set for a stop-motion music video of one of the songs on her upcoming album.
A particularly prolific electric violinist, she has not one but two albums coming out this year, the first produced by Dan the Automator. Her fresh move from L.A., has her itching to write some New York songs. “There’s something about this city- the pulse of it. And the people, more than anything.” Making a cup of espresso, she describes what she calls the “’we’re all in this together’” mentality of New York.
Wells plays me a song from the new album and it’s winsome and optimistic. It is slow and sentimental with her spiraling voice and careful violin. She is modest when I ask how she got started making music that is so vivid. She explains, “I’d always played music. It’s just in me, you know?”
The layering of strange combinations of odd instruments evokes a kind of gypsy mysteriousness, which is appropriate because Wells has done a fair amount of wandering in her day. Born in Texas, her teen years were spent in Indiana. She was four-years-old when the violin came into her life. “I was in the Suzuki Method, so it was all about practice and discipline. Learning by ear.” Her parents were supportive, reminded her to practice, and also urged her to pick up piano. At 19, she enjoyed an interlude in New York City before traveling for a while, songwriting and trying out town after town. Falling in love brought her to L.A., where she “accidentally” ended up staying for eight years, years that resulted in a lot of recording including the hushed, haunted masterpiece Beautiful Sleepyheads and the Laughing Yaks, and the slightly hysterical, sensual EP Dirty.
A recent development in her music-making is her renewed interest in drumming. “There’s nothing like a well-miced (sic) bass drum. That was the first thing I bought when I came here, a 72 Ludwig. Twenty-four inches. It had only been owned by female drummers. Ever. The woman who sold it to me in Brooklyn was like, ‘This guy wanted to buy it but after you called I really want to give it to you because you know, you’re a lady.’” The live drumming will add a new element of quirk to her already complicated style.
The fascinating thing about Emily Wells’ work is the dichotomy of the natural and the synthetic in her music. She recorded the impending album in Topenga Canyon in the middle of the woods: “I remember the morning I finished one of the songs, I hadn’t slept- there was this giant hill on the ranch and I walked out on it and watched the sun come up.”
There is an earthy realness to every pitch of her vocals, which are inspired by Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, but she’s also a mad scientist in her construction of a song, matching up electric violin with synthesizer with glockenspiel. Her overall sound is usually typified as “classical meets hip hop.” People say this because of her famous cover of the Biggie classic, “Juicy.” If anyone could pull the weirdness of classical hip- hop off, it’s Wells, who does not flinch at the notion of innovation, and is also a very tiny person who can produce massive sound. The contradiction is hard to look away from.
Her live shows are an incredible display of multi-tasking, and she manages to seduce the audience anyway, conquering the feat of ten instruments to be played essentially at once with apparent effortlessness.
Lucky for New Yorkers, we have a chance to see her live every week. She has a residency starting at <a href=”http://www.acehotel.com/”>The Ace Hotel</a> every Sunday at 9 p.m. in February. A residency at an art gallery of a hotel isn’t a bad way to start off in New York as a new musician on the scene.
“A friend and I were talking about New York right after I moved and she was thinking about moving here. She said, ‘You know, I just feel like New York doesn’t need me.’ And I said ‘Yeah, New York doesn’t need me either, I need New York.’ It’s food, right? So for now I’m just going to try to keep eating, and then hopefully I’ll have something to give back to New York.” There is zero doubt that she’ll deliver.
– Michele Koury