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A Conversation with Emma Ruth Rundle

It’s a particularly cold and cruel April evening in London.

Emma Ruth Rundle is in front of a sold-out crowd, “Hi, I’m Emma” she says in a voice that flutters with nervousness. She sings about shame, defective love, mortality… and the audience are so enraptured that there’s no need for an amp or microphone for her final song, ‘Real Big Sky’. There’s no sound save for her, a single tiny beeping and beating light, and intermittent sniffling.

I’m uncertain of what we’re all sharing here, but each of us in the audience stands singular and silent – reduced to total dumbness. Although it’s not something anyone should be burdened with – perhaps what Emma is showing us is a window of hope. That an original sin can be transcended, that our terrible ineptitude can be rectified, that the cyclical nature of bad behaviour can be abated. She’s rendered darkness visible, but there comes a point when one must disinherit dysfunction, and latch onto new, healthier ways of living. She’s yet to get there, but neither have many of us either.

She steps off the stage both exhausted and invigorated, ready to repeat the experience each night on her seemingly never-ending European tour. I spoke with her a couple of hours before this moment.

***

I’ve noticed several references to Medusa, especially in your latest album – and she features on this tour poster. What’s the significance?

I get asked about religion and mythology in my music a lot, and it’s something that’s personal to me. But with Medusa, it’s the concept of someone who was once beautiful but who has been turned into a monster, that no one can be close to because of what’s happened to them – a sort of descent from beauty into ugliness that then turns others away.

You also sing in ‘Hand of God’ that you ‘wear the colours of Babylon’ – is this a similar concept?

She’s [the Whore of Babylon] more like the opposition to the Virgin Mary. There’s this kind of duality that can exist within one person. It’s a song about a shame of sexuality and love, and there’s a longing for some kind of redemption for the things that have gone on, or for the things that I’ve done. But I believe that that character is also powerful, and that’s also a reference to what we as people have done; taking over the earth, pillaging nature.

There seems like there’s an urgent need to transcend on Marked for Death. You talk about how ‘the Earth is your church’, and you’re trying to overcome that and reach out for God

I struggle with the cyclical nature of behaviour and elements of oneself, and even knowing that they exist, you still can’t overcome them. A lot of what I talk about has to do with mortality, and it’s not metaphorical, I’ve lost some very close people. I think what I strive to do with my music is to be completely honest and transparent without telling people the actual details of my personal life, but that’s what matters to me when making music, that it comes straight from the heart. I don’t write music about made-up characters. The music has to be emotionally impactful. I find myself writing in very extreme situations to get to these places.

You’re doing a dutiful thing here – in that people can project their own experiences onto the vagueness and broadness of the feeling that your music creates.

It is that ability as a listener – to place your own experience over what someone else is going through.

A consistency throughout your music, is the theme of staying in a situation which is bad or unhealthy for – but remaining in it because it feels safe. Will this continue?

I don’t know, it depends on what happens in my life. After the recording of Marked for Death, I was experiencing a time of release – ‘OK, I’ve ended a chapter’. This record was going to be the end of that dark chapter for me. I’m going to pick myself up and start living, and start doing things that are good for my heart and my soul, and I don’t have to keep making this kind of music anymore, and I don’t have to be feeling this way. And there was a time, last spring when I was playing guitar and I was feeling really hopeful. Part of the curse of playing music for a living is that you have to go out and repeat the words of what you were going through and to do a performance that’s honest, you have to be in that feeling and in that time. I go through phases of drinking a lot, I go through phases of sobriety, constantly this flux. It suffers when you have to tour a lot; it’s like taking a step back. There was a time when I thought I didn’t even wanna play this record at all. It would be healthy for me to move on.

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Have you found a way to progress yet?

I felt like I was making steps, I think that I’m less afraid than I used to be. I used to be very shy and nervous, I’m still a nervous person, but I think what’s going on for me personally now, is owning things a little more. But a more permanent way to deal with some of the stuff I’m dealing with? I haven’t quite found that yet, no. It will be a lifelong exploration.

Marked for Death was made in a place of total discomfort, do you think that you can progress from this and make music in a place of comfort?

I don’t know the answer to that yet. I also put myself in an insane situation for Some Heavy Ocean. But I want to find a way of doing that – a healthy way of creation – in that I don’t have to put myself to the brink of extinction in order to make something that is meaningful or beautiful. I think it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’m still figuring it out. One thing that I did really enjoy, was when I was taking some time off, I took up classical guitar lessons, and while doing that I focused on someone else’s music, and that brought joy to playing the instrument for me, in a new way, when ordinarily I would turn to a guitar the same way I’d turn to a drink. Usually, when I play guitar, I play it to get out of myself.

In the music video for ‘Real Big Sky’, you talked about how nothing was as exhilarating for you as natural beauty. Where is the most beautiful place for you, and does a geographical surrounding change how your music sounds?

I think it does, yes, absolutely. I made my first record, Electric Guitar in a van on a Red Sparowes tour in Europe. And this is not to flatter the English, but England is one of my favourite countries in the world. The beauty of the southern coast in and the hills and the green. I feel very at home in it, and it moves me. This is the place I wanna die.

Some Heavy Ocean, on the other hand, feels like a very American album to me, especially with all the elements of slide guitar.

Well I feel like the slide guitar accomplishes a landscape. And the magic of music is that you can conjure landscapes from it, and it’s also a tool to conjure up feeling or a space. And there’s this one little guitar part in ‘Protection’, where we were calling it the little owl that comes out of the tree and goes back in.

How do you feel about the term ‘folk-metal’?

I love it! I feel so very grateful to be embraced by the metal community. But I’m going to do a tour later with a band that I’d describe as ‘dream pop’, and there’s a little bit of me that’s nervous because the metal scene is my world.

You’ve been recording in spaces provided by your record label, Sargent House. Does the label itself have any influence on your music?

Cathy [founder of Sargent House] is one of my best friends and she’s family. There’s no separation.

Do you need to be in solitude to create?

When I recorded Marked For Death I was out there in solitude, and it’s just nothingness. So writing that record, it was a lot of drinking alone in a trailer in the middle of nowhere.

Will you be showcasing any of your visual art in the future?

I’d love to be given the opportunity to, yeah. I guess in my mind, this isn’t going to last forever. This has been my plan, to transition into visual art at some point in my life. The value in art and music comes from the emotional quality in it, and that there’s no amount of training anyone can ever practice or acquire to give off some that’s truly emotionally potent.

And I think that people are here for that specific feeling that you’re giving out.

Well I hope I don’t disappoint them. It’s very nerve-wracking to play a show in London that was sold out a long time ago. It’s kind of scary. I’ve never been treated like this before, and it’s really strange for me [she pauses] I’m gonna cry. It’s just… [she does] I don’t know, I don’t understand. I’m just trying to make honest music, and if people show up to listen, it’s a little shocking.

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Well this is your first headline tour, it must be overwhelming.

Yup, it is, but as much as I get nervous and as much as I get caught up in the moment of ‘oh my gosh we’re here’ – control will never work, and music is great, and it means things to us as people, and for our culture and who we are, and our hearts, all of these things are important. But at the end of the day, like I said, this is just rock and roll. Cathy once said something to me, I was really nervous before a show, and she said, “it’s just music, you’re not curing cancer”, and I’m like, y’know what, holy shit. That’s the truth.

Well, it must be really difficult juggling this kind of duality – on the one hand, this is everything to someone, this is someone’s whole life.

This is my whole life.

Yes, this is your whole life, and sure it’s not going to cure cancer, but it’s doing something for someone.

Yeah but it’s important to take yourself not-so-seriously. Like, we’re having this honest conversation about me, but none of it really matters. I think getting too caught up in it is wrong. Like, yes this is my life, but also, it could change at any time. I think taking yourself too seriously as an artist – although I do take myself seriously when I’m making art – it’s a dangerous place for people to get caught up in. I’m not any different from you. We both play guitar; we’re actually both named Emma, we’re all just people. Does that make sense?

Yeah definitely, but you’re still trying to reach some kind of transcendence.

Well we all are, aren’t we? There’s something more, I think, deeply in our hearts. I think everyone on so many different scales, and for so many different reasons experiences suffering. Mine isn’t greater or lesser, or more important, or less important than anybody else’s on Earth. I think that music and art is both the practice of trying to capture feeling, but also for me, in making music, it’s trying to transcend the feelings, and explore the feelings, of the simplicity of human suffering, and both how that manifests and how we can push through it.

But at the same time, as a musician and as a performer, you’re sort of platforming your own suffering.

Yeah, it’s a very strange thing. I always describe this as a bit of a circus. And like I said, going back and having to play the same music over and over again, it is a very strange concept. And, I dunno, the idea of having to go in front of people and doing what we’re doing, it’s a little bit twisted. Because the music is for me, that’s the end of really what it is. It’s not really for anyone else, and I’m very appreciative and grateful that people wanna hear it, but accepting money for it is really weird. It almost has a dirty quality to it in my mind. So I have some strange difficulties trying to reconcile accepting money for making art or music, but at the same time, it’s also what I want to do all the time.

And it is your job.

It is a job, and I actually like some of the job parts of it – the driving parts, and loading the gear, the things like that I do love. If you try to think about giving an emotional performance as a job then it’s not gonna work – and that’s why I try to think of it as something that will end at any time, because it’s fleeting.

A Conversation With Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie

How do we talk about the only thing that we all have in common? We don’t. A fear of death, or of the people we love dying, or of finitude more broadly – maybe talked about in that 5am post-party puff – but it’s not usually befitting for sober smalltalk. So when Phil Elverum released his latest Mount Eerie project, A Crow Looked At Me, some people were put off. ‘He released an album about his wife dying? I’m not listening to that. That’s too real.’ Others switched off after the record’s very first line: “Death is real.” A statement so totally obvious, but one in which we have to blindside day-by-day, since it nullifies the life that we’re compelled to keep on living. “I don’t expect everyone to like it, but I did my best”, Elverum tells me. But death doesn’t have to nullify life. After the passing of his wife last summer, he considered quitting music, but he now decides that “I don’t think this is a good note to leave things on.” The decision to keep on living in the wake of death can sometimes be as painful as the death itself, but he tells me firmly that, “I don’t want to live in the shadow of this trauma indefinitely.  I want to keep surviving and living.” Though if death doesn’t have the power to totally nullify life, then it certainly has the force to at least abstract it from ourselves. On the album, Phil refers to it as a ‘crushing absurdity’. So, instead of trying to find meaning in an often meaningless world, he tells me that the album is a meditation on “the very prospect of meaning.” He clarifies: “What is symbolic and how trustworthy could it be?  What’s up with this mind’s continual organising and mythologising?  Nothing is meaningful, and the random death of my wife is proof of that in the most stupid way, the most graceless lesson.” Despite the crow in the album’s title, and the ravens throughout the album who seem to be a sort of harbinger of death, he tells me that, “I rejected, and still reject, significance, meaning, learning.” It seems that life has to be synonymous with meaning and significance, and we have to be intoxicated with life to willingly go along with it. However, ‘when real death enters the house all poetry is dumb’, and seems to be the greatest cause of sobriety. We become unattached from the world of the blissfully living and the meaningful, and can see it as nothing other than fraudulent.

Writing only a month after the death of his wife, neither did he have the hindsight to exorcise his grief with symbolism. As of writing, it’s still been less a year since Elverum’s wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum passed away from pancreatic cancer. He tells me that, “I am probably too close to this all still to be able to have any useful perspective on it.  I’m still in it.  I don’t know what I was going for or what happened.  I just made these songs of and about my life, a life that continues in the same complex and confusing and joyful and brutal way.” Whatever symbolism can be found in the album, therefore, is unintentional. The birds appear in the album because they appeared in Elverum’s life – nothing more. Though, as a listener and an outsider – it’s impossible not to see the unfortunate symbolism. The outer world seems to have colluded with this specific and domestic death. On Crow, the album’s closing song, Elverum asks his and Geneviève’s child: “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? Smoldering and fascist with no mother.” Four months after his wife’s death, Donald Trump was elected president. As of writing this, it’s been a week since the poet Joanne Kyger (whose poem Night Palace is featured on the album cover) died. Though, now as a father of an almost two-year-old daughter, Elverum is obligated to imbue this apocalyptic-like devastation with life-giving force. He recorded this album in his wife’s empty art studio, using her instruments, to create an album that has received reviews more favourable than the majority of his projects throughout his long-spanning career. It seems almost crude to treat this album as a piece of art.

During the creation of the album, he tells me that, “I really only thought of myself and expressing myself.” Now, since it’s been released, “it is meant for everyone now in the sense that I am offering it for sale to whoever wants it on the supposition that there is the potential for some kind of appreciation there for everyone.” A Crow Looked At Me is, after all, a piece of art meant for public consumption. So how are we meant to listen to it responsibly? How am I, after to listening to an album of painfully private recollections supposed to approach this subject? We talk about a phrase that I found particularly pertinent on the album: ‘conceptual emptiness’. I ask him what he considers to be the difference between this and actual absence. There will, of course, be two types of listeners of this album – those who have had someone they love die and those who haven’t. The latter will only be able to relate to this album through ‘conceptual emptiness’. Or as Elverum explains far more eloquently than I can, that this will be a person with “less hard life experience”, and someone who “enjoys sitting comfortably, noodling around in the mind, talking about theories and philosophy.” While the former, those who are forced to feel an actual absence, will achingly relate to, “the feeling of walking into my dead wife’s drawing studio and looking at her empty chair and her unfinished drawings.” Either way, Elverum’s grief is one that is as gentle as it is brutal. Nonetheless, death after all is real, and it’s not, he tells me, “fun to play around with, it’s not theoretical or interesting. It’s just shitty.” And then: “my cat who has been missing for 36 hours, who I’d assumed was dead, just walked in the door and meowed at me. Maybe it’s relevant?”

Shoegaze was a British Miracle

Shoegaze, Nu-gaze, Blackgaze; Chillwave, New Wave, Doritos Chilli Heatwave. As prefixes and suffixes are constantly added to help you make sense of your latest Garageband product, it does not come without ridicule. It is far better to be tolerable than trendy, so when asked “what music are you into?” it may be preferable to answer with “Oh everything… Except country” -rather than “circa-1991 shoegaze”. The term ‘shoe gaze’ itself was originally a mockery of the incoming bands with hair to their chins and eyes fixed to their guitar pedals below, but its ‘golden age’ has largely been considered to have only spanned a year. With the release of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Lush’s Spook this shortly-lived ‘scene that celebrated itself’ was one of the finest and most miraculous moments in recent British musical memory. Despite being nudged over hastily by the bourgeoning of Britpop in 1994, it has seen somewhat of a resurgence recently with Slowdive’s comeback tour and ‘Ride’ peppered on many festival posters this year. At its time, Shoegaze was an apolitical blank. It found itself sandwiched between the working-class efforts of the Madchester scene and the class struggles narrated by an array of regional accents in Britpop. In a country whose most lionised bands are so for their rugged Britishness and songs concerning life in Britain, the Shoegazers were glaringly un-British.

slowdive

On my first listen of Ride’s 1990 record, Nowhere, I imagined sleepy limbs walking the Nevada desert, infinite horizons turned to pink bokehs from exhaustion. Oceans big enough to be forgotten in, the beginning of time, kisses as big as America. It was like having everything I’d ever felt squashed together and presented to me, saying: “this is your life.” Instead, I found that they came from the skimpy city of Oxford and were made famous in my homecity, Reading. The little city that had always bored me somehow heralded the most exciting music I had heard. My Bloody Valentine played the first show of their Loveless tour at Reading University and Shoegaze greats Chapterhouse and Slowdive too originated from Reading. The Face even talked of a ‘Thames Valley Scene’ which encompassed the bands who created sonic cathedrals, making it mandatory for audience members to wear earplugs. These were bands that dismantled the expectations of songs and made the musician-listener relationship interactive. By stripping away the traditional verse-chorus-verse architecture, they made music comprised of hints and impressions. The lyrics are almost wordless and watery, the instrumentation whirls together in its indecipherable maelstrom and the listener is left to fill in the gaps. It is like no other musical experience — it is miraculous.

shoegazereading

Shoegaze was quickly forgotten with the arrival of Britpop, and the much needed return to music of the working-class was reaffirmed. Journalist David Quantick wrote a satirical column each week entitled, “Memoirs of a Shoegazing Gentleman” which portrayed Shoegazers as overripe aristocrats. British music was once again made a class issue. Those who had struggled most under the Thatcherite government came to the forefront in the form of Britpop and Shoegaze was satirised into non-existence. But for that brief moment it was extraordinary – Shoegazers could create that bigger-than-Britain sound from the ennui of the middle-class.

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