“It’s hard not to feel like an asshole just talking about myself,” Emma Ruth Rundle reveals as she ponders the deeper themes of her latest work through an intermittently crackling Skype call. Intertwining a mild-mannered and introverted personality with deeply personal and revealing music may sound oxymoronic, but Rundle’s career is built upon these vacillating foundations. The American songwriter and visual artist’s atmospheric contributions to the music scene have grown increasingly intimate throughout her career, from the lush ambience of The Nocturnes, the cinematic soundscapes of Red Sparrowes and the sprawling haze of Marriages to the ethereal musings of her solo work. 2016’s Marked for Death felt much like the peak of this introspection, brimming as it was with brooding reflections on life, addiction, and self-destructive tendencies.
Its follow-up, On Dark Horses, is suitably a reflection of an artist who has survived inner struggles and emerged stronger, though it doesn’t shy away from the dark realities of life. One of which being that life is seldom as uncomplicated as placing personal demons aside – many will wrestle with them for decades. To find out more, we had an in-depth conversation with the musician about the open and personal nature of her songwriting, collaborating with her partner Evan Patterson (Young Widows, Jaye Jayle), how this album’s creation differs from her past LPs, and how her visual art entwines with her musical output.
The last album was written in a remote artist’s residence whereas this one was largely written during breaks in touring after a move to Louisville, Kentucky. Did that change your approach at all? Are you inspired by your surroundings when writing?
I think it made the album a lot less desperate and I reached a lot of breaking points writing Marked For Death from being alone in the desert, but I think it allowed for maybe some more emotionally potent songs. For some of the stuff on this record, I took a week off in Cornwall and for some of the music I was able to access that same headspace, but it wasn’t as extreme as the last record. I do think it’s important and that it’s an effective way of writing to be in that kind of extreme setting of solitude.
This record was definitely influenced by the other musicians I was around in that having them playing with the band, getting to flesh out some of the songs, particularly with Dylan [Nadon, Wovenhand] and Evan [Patterson], the instrumentation of it lent itself to a little bit of a different approach. Being able to write an instrumental bridge in a song knowing that other musicians are gonna be there to play with you, that part wouldn’t really be as effective as a solo guitarist. There are some different things you can pull of as a band and I think I wrote some parts of the songs knowing that I was going to have that both in the studio and the live setting.
You mentioned before that this is the first time you didn’t play all of the guitar parts yourself. Was handing that over to someone else strange given how personal your music sometimes is? Or was it beneficial in that it allowed you to focus on other parts of the arrangement?
It was very difficult for me to do that. I had a really hard time not playing all the guitars on the record and especially letting a man do it was very hard for me. I love Evan and his playing is incredible and he’s been one of my favourite guitar players. I’m a huge fan of Young Widows and obviously tour a lot with Jaye Jayle… part of the reason we have a relationship in real life is based on us playing together. We were forced into the situation last year when going on tour together, I hadn’t played with them before and they became my backing band for the tour. As soon as he started playing guitar, I was like woah I’m in love with this person – his playing was like an extension of myself. We have the same inclinations and he brings his own unique style to it as well. I was in love with his guitar playing anyway and despite that it was very difficult for me to not track all of the guitar parts and then force him to play things. Evan is an incredible artist in his own right, an incredible songwriter and technically wonderful at the guitar.
So, while it was difficult, I think it benefits the music. Being able to have a second guitar does allow me to play different kinds of leads, riffs, and focus on vocals more in certain areas in the live setting, and I know that I wrote some of the album with that in mind. There was a little bit more planning with how I’m going to live through this album cycle as far as performance goes than the last album. With Marked For Death, I didn’t even know that I was going to tour or even make another record. This record there’s been a little bit more of a strategy in the writing, and part of that has been having the support of other musicians. It was really hard, even up until we were going to the studio. The parts that Evan did write bring so much to the songs and it’s fun. I think I vacillate between being a kind of controlling crazy person and then wanting support and help from my fellows.
How do you feel being a solo artist compares to being in a band where the output is a collaborative effort?
I think it’s a lot easier to write solo. Writing in a band is a democratic process and so you’ll have, like in Marriages, three separate people coming from different angles and obviously we have similar interests and similar backgrounds as far as what music made us wanna join a band together. But, the influences can be different enough that you can butt heads on where to take a song or how to start a song. Every band is so different, but the band experiences that I’ve had – which is mostly Red Sparrows and Marriages – it just takes a lot longer to write songs in some ways because you have to contend with other people’s opinions and styles and egos and all of the things that go into being a band.
When writing solo, that just isn’t a thing… all you have to rely on and deal with is your own work ethic, whatever it is that you’re drawing from and the time frame that you have. So it’s part of the reason that I started making solo records and leaning more and more in that direction. [It’s not] because I don’t love writing with a band or writing with my previous bandmates, it’s just natural things that happened and [people] kind of went their separate ways, and Marriages… maybe next year. Writing solo is just easier and something you can do sitting alone on a side porch or in your house or wherever you have a moment and space to yourself. Writing with a band you need a rehearsal space, everyone’s schedules have to meet. Writing alone is something you can do more easily for so many reasons. Interpersonal reasons, logistical reasons, all of that stuff.
Do you think that your music has become more open and personal over time?
The last record was really open and personal. I think that there are some songs on this album that are as well. It’s all personal. It kind of makes it hard to talk about in some ways. The personal nature of the music just feels natural. I think the last record seems more personal. This record is still personal but isn’t as desperate and fraught. The last song ‘You Don’t Have To Cry’ is a song I wrote for someone else and doesn’t have anything to do with my personal struggle and pain, which is a new step for me. Other songs on the album are very personal.
Do you think it’s important for artists to write about this kind of thing and to be so open and candid and truthful?
I can’t say what’s important for artists to do. I can’t say that my art is important in itself… it’s just what I do. I don’t even know that it’s important. I don’t think there are any rules for what artists should or shouldn’t do. Everyone brings something to the world… if everybody was writing this honest, open music about their struggle it would be kind of depressing, I think there’s got to be other kinds of expression that serve a purpose. Human beings are so multifaceted and complex. Everything has a value and at the same time nothing matters when it comes down to it, especially about art. Art is a luxury.
Is it important to you that people interpret your music in a particular way?
No. You can’t control how anyone is going to interpret your music. Once you record or say something and leave it, it’s open to interpretation and there’s just nothing you can do to control that. I’ve been getting asked a lot of political questions lately and I don’t want that. I don’t want people to interpret my music as a political statement. I don’t have any expectations about how it will or should be interpreted.
You’ve said before that folk music was integral to your musical beginnings. In what way did folk music inform your music? Is this perhaps where often sincere and honest lyrics derive from?
I don’t know where that inclination comes from. What really influenced me the most was hanging around a folk music store and hearing that music constantly in the background. This place called McCabe’s in Santa Monica. I took Celtic harp lessons there when I was eight and then just started hanging out in the store. It’s been a folk music store for 60 years in LA, they have concerts etc. I was exposed to lots of different types of music at home but working in the folk music store affected my guitar playing more than my lyrics.
Lots of people have said that your last album was all about performance and visuality and there are essences of that on this new album too. Do you think that derives from your being a visual artist? Is it your intention to combine the two mediums?
In the past, I would say no. I think that the visual element is something that is kind of just out of necessity, like I’d need to make an album cover or, like on this The Nocturnes record called Aokigahara, I kinda got into creating a visual world around the album. On Dark Horses is the first time since then that I feel I’ve really done that in the more extreme way, with the paintings I’ve been doing now and the album art and all the visual art. My visual art brain is coming into creating the world around the record more than it has in the past but I don’t think that the visual art that I do informs my music or my performances or vice versa. I think they’re kind of separate muses for me and I turn to one when I’m not doing the other.
Many metal fans can be judgemental and elitist about what they consider ‘metal enough’ to listen to. You said once that the metal scene is your world. Do you think that people like yourself – who experiment with the established sound – being embraced by the metal community is a sign that the genre is becoming more open-minded?
I would hesitate to speak for the metal community or for the genre or any genres. I think that there’s a listenership… the spectrum is so huge. I can only speak from my own experiences, which [are that] for some reason I have been invited to play metal festivals and seem to be embraced by that community. There are so many subgenres within metal – doom metal, classic metal, stoner metal, etc. – and maybe not all those people come from the same place. There’s this cross-section of bands and music that’s happening right now that has a very broad and open-minded listenership. I think people (not just metal listeners) in general’s tastes are broadening based on how accessible music is, not the content of music but the avenues through which people consume music is more accessible. Maybe listenership in general is broadening. At the same time, you have these festivals like Roadburn in the Netherlands that has a lot of different kinds of bands playing there. I would still say that it’s a heavy or extreme music festival, but there’s just something open-minded about it. I think it’s a progressive listenership.
What’s next for you. Any plans?
There’s lots of touring plans. I have a visual art show in Chicago on September 8th, and then I’m doing a full US tour that’s broken up in the middle by a European/UK tour which starts September 15th here in the states, breaks on September 25th, then I’m heading over to Europe and starting in France on October 6th. I’ll be in the UK November 3rd through to the 8th, and then I come back to the states and do the west coast November 20th to December 17th, so once September hits I’ll pretty much be on tour for the rest of the year, and then I’m hoping to finish writing this acoustic guitar album that I’ve been working on. It never ends.
On Dark Horses is out 14th September on Sargent House. Pre-order here.
Words: Paige Mathis
For the full interview feature and a more in-depth look into On Dark Horses, keep an eye out for an announcement regarding issue four of Astral Noize…