Emma Louise is widely perceived as a dance or electronic music artist because of her high-profile remixes and collabs. But she has always been a singer/songwriter first. Now the mysterious Queenslander is reclaiming her musical identity in indie-dom with a hyper-conceptual third album, Lilac Everything.
Emma Louise Lobb generated buzz as a high schooler in Cairns, uploading performances of her acoustic guitar songs to YouTube. In 2011, she issued an EP, Full Hearts And Empty Rooms, containing the triple j fave ‘Jungle’. ‘Jungle’ was remixed into a fluke house hit, retitled ‘My Head Is A Jungle’, by the German DJ/producer Wankelmut – and then again by Detroit legend Marc “MK” Kinchen. This afforded Emma H.U.G.E. exposure in Europe. (‘Jungle’ was even synced for a Yves Saint Laurent Black Opium perfume campaign.) Emma likewise collaborated with Sydney duo Flight Facilities on their 2014 bop ‘Two Bodies’ and, more recently, ‘Arty Boy’.
Meanwhile, the star charted at home in 2013 with her debut, vs Head vs Heart, leading to an ARIA nomination as “Best Female Artist”. After taking time out to travel, Emma resurfaced with 2016’s Supercry – produced by Belgian Pascal Gabriel (Kylie Minogue, Ladyhawke, Goldfrapp). Lilac Everything follows another mini-hiatus. This album, Emma recorded in Seattle’s rustic surrounds with Tobias Jesso, Jr – the Canadian artist-cum-songwriter behind Adele’s ‘When We Were Young’. Though Lilac Everything is about songcraft, it’s also experimental. Indeed, Emma pitched-down her vocals – a technique Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth previously used to haunting effect on ‘Keep Your Name’.
Defying any audio conceit, Lilac Everything sounds organic – being tracked live. The piano-laden single ‘Wish You Well’ becomes like a post-trap era Carpenters song, while Emma might be a long-forgotten jazz vocalist on ‘Falling Apart’. Reading the comments on her YouTube channel, Emma’s decision has both bewildered and enthralled fans.
These days, Emma resides in Byron Bay. Music Feeds found the quietly-spoken instrumentalist nonplussed early on a Monday morning. “I’m really proud of this album – and I don’t think I really said that about any other album,” she says. “It’s a very honest expression of myself. I’ve done something different… But I just hope that people feel it!”
Music Feeds: Lilac Everything is an utterly beguiling work. The thing that initially caught my attention was the vocal approach because it’s fairly unusual. It actually made me think of when Kanye West did 808s & Heartbreak – his use of Auto-Tune on that. It was supposedly because it was such raw subject matter, he almost needed to shield himself. But what was your interest in experimenting with these sorts of technologies – and pitching-down your vocals?
Emma Louise: Well, when I was 19, I heard my voice slowed down on tape and fell in love with it. I call it ‘Joseph’. I was like, “I’m gonna do an album, a full album, like that one day.” I told my band and my manager and they were like, “Whatever – you won’t do that!” Then we recorded this album and, at the very last session, we were kind of just playing around and we were like, “What does it sound like if you pitch it down?” Then I heard it and I was like, “Yes! That’s the way that it should go.” It just felt and sounded how it was supposed to sound. Yeah, I didn’t really think too hard about it. In my mind, it was always meant to be pitched-down.
MF: Did it influence your songwriting at all, given that you were writing for a different tone?
EL: Not really, no, ’cause all the songs were written before the decision. The decision to pitch it down was actually the last decision made for the album. So I wrote all the songs just normally. I had no idea about what they would sound like or anything. Yeah.
MF: This album is being presented as a concept project. What exactly is the concept for you? Because it’s not an obvious one. It’s more fluid than that – which I think the best concept albums are.
EL: Totally. None of the songs are written to a certain theme or anything – theme or concept. It’s just a different kind of vocal expression and it’s just a different kind of expression of myself.
MF: Do you feel that Lilac Everything has a masculine energy? Or is ‘Joseph’ just a nickname you gave the alter-ego? Is it arbitrary? What does it mean to you?
EL: I think it’s kind of genderless. I did it more for the sound and feeling of the album, not so much because it sounded more masculine or anything. It was just the sound of it felt good.
MF: It’s intriguing, too, that you travelled to Mexico for the writing. Then you went on to Seattle to do the actual recording. What was it like being in those environments?
EL: Well, Mexico was awesome in writing the album ’cause I felt a lot of freedom. ‘Cause it’s so disconnected from everything, it gave me permission to just write whatever I felt – which is always the best thing to do. And we recorded the album in Seattle and it was good because it was again far away from everything. It was in the woods of Seattle; this barn. I think going away to write and record, getting away from your familiar [surrounds] is definitely a good thing creatively. It kind of puts you in a pocket where you can focus more.
MF: How did you connect with Tobias Jesso, Jr – and why did you choose to work with him?
EL: We actually started talking on Instagram. I sent him a demo and he really liked it and then he invited me to LA. I showed him my songs and stuff and I asked him if he would produce it. He was like, “I’ve never produced an album.” But I had lots of faith in him as an artist. We were on the same page with a lot of stuff. So he said “Yes” and I was pretty stoked. Yeah, it was very fun, making the whole album. He did a great job in producing it.
MF: You have this dual music identity because you’re known for dance and electronic music through the ‘My Head Is A Jungle’ remix and collaborations but, at the same time, you’ve got this parallel career as a singer/songwriter. How do you balance those two perceptions of yourself? Are audiences understanding? Or do they sometimes expect you to bring bangers?
EL: The remix of ‘Jungle’ and stuff – I never wanted to be seen as an electronic artist; like a feature artist. So it is something that is good because it got my song out there a bit. But I don’t see myself as an electronic feature artist. I have been writing songs since I was 12. I guess I just need to kinda put that out there more, ’cause it’s a hard thing, you know?
MF: I remember MK told me that Lana Del Rey pulled back from remixes of her work because the Cedric Gervais remix of ‘Summertime Sadness’ became so big that people expected that every song of hers would get that treatment. So she said “No” to her A&R. I wondered if you’ve ever thought, “Right, that’s it, I’m not doing any more dance collabs.” Or do you enjoy them?
EL: Oh, yeah, no, I don’t really… I guess it is hard but, yeah, I don’t think I will do many more remixes. I kinda wanna get into writing songs – pop songs and stuff. But I definitely don’t wanna get into that remix world. I don’t wanna be seen as an electronic artist.
MF: You’ve now completed three albums, which is such an achievement. It’s just a good number. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a songwriter, and as an artist, over those records?
EL: I’m just trying to grow and get better with every album. And I hope I’ll keep doing that.
MF: You mentioned you’re keen to write more pop. Are you interested in writing for other artists? Have you done any of that as just a challenge or something on the side?
EL: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to get into now, which is a hard game. But that’s definitely I think what I’m more suited for. But it’s like a hunt. Everyone wants to get into that. But that’s just the next stage. It’s inspired me to develop that side of songwriting – it kind of forces me to hone in on my skills a bit more.
MF: You’re still quite a mysterious figure. People know your music, but they don’t know much about ‘Emma Louise’. What kinds of life experiences are feeding into your music? What aspects of your personality might come through, even subliminally on this record?
EL: Hmmm. I don’t know, really. I think that all the songs and all the lyrics are pretty honest and real to my life at the time – like everything I’ve gone through. I don’t know if you can really tell what a person’s like through their music. I’m not too sure [on] that one.
MF: How do you plan to translate this album live – especially with the vocal effects?
EL: I played one show with this vocal. I do use a special effect and it sounds really cool – like I think, if I do play this album live and tour it, it’s really a very special show. It should be good. But I’m not sure if I’m gonna tour it yet.
MF: Why do you think you wouldn’t tour it?
EL: I don’t know, actually… Honestly, I think I’m a bit burnt out. The last tour was so [intense]. So much effort was put into it. I think I’m a little bit burnt out. I just need a bit more time with this one. I wanna do it the best I can, but I need a bit of time to kind of gather energy. So it’s a balance of looking after myself and looking after the album as well.
MF: I’m hearing this more and more from artists – about how the whole ‘album, tour, repeat’ cycle is really exhausting and is a cause of anxiety. But I don’t know how that will change unless maybe someone really big takes a stance on it and it then reverberates through the industry. Do you talk about this with other musicians? Is there a general consensus it needs to change?
EL: I think every artist should be able to decide whether or not they tour their album or how they’re gonna treat it. Also some people are really suited to touring. They love it and their music is really suited to touring. I guess it’s just different with different artists – and also [about] different stages in an artist’s journey, too. But I’m kind of in a different stage of my life where it would take a lot of energy – and I don’t really have much energy at the moment.
Emma Louise’s new album ‘Lilac Everything’ is out now. Listen here.