Photo by Thom Kerr
Character is everything? Not really. Not in songs. Not always, anyway.
For a songwriter it can be something pulled on to deceive, and shucked off to suit. It can be a ruse, and it can be a truthteller in disguise. Like a voice.
Two years ago, Emma Louise’s album Supercry could legitimately be seen as a collection of characters learning how to communicate in stories told by a single voice. However, later, Emma Louise Lobb would confess that much of it reflected her own attempts to figure out how to express herself in something other than song.
On her internalised, soulful, new album, Lilac Everything (whose subtitle is tellingly specified as: A Project By Emma Louise), there is one central character appearing across the songs, but more importantly there’s a lot less obfuscation about the line between who is singing and who is being sung about.
“I did want to stay away from alter egos,” the Cairns-Melbourne-Mexico-Los Angeles resident says. “When I pitched the vocals down my manager was like, ‘oh yeah, does that mean you’re going to be a different character?’. But there’s something a bit false about becoming a different character because the songs are so truly me. Everything is written from my heart.”
There’s a line on this measured, almost stately, record, “love seeks this hollowness”, which also connects to Supercry’s forced education, the demand, as she put it back then, that she go “through a lot of learning and some pain”. What did she learn?
“What I’ve learned about myself is I tend to feel everything a lot more than people around me and I tend to look into things and examine my responses for being a human. It’s a whole new set of lessons learnt in the time of writing Lilac Everything.”
So, there’s a new/different voice deployed here – more about that soon – but away from the microphone, what is the difference between Emma Louise 2016 and Emma Louise 2018?
“I went through this very masculine period for a few years. I look back at those photos and I would hack away at my hair and I wore men’s clothes. I wasn’t in touch with my feminine side. I didn’t have any gentle kindness towards myself. I think I was definitely isolating myself and I was rough on myself,” Lobb says in a rush of words.
“When I first went to Mexico [prior to work beginning on the album] I saw this energy healer and he put his hands on me and he was hovering over my womb for a really long time. He was like, you are out of touch with your feminine energy and he kind of did this healing on me and my homework was to buy a dress and do these exercises with my hips and stuff.
“It was so funny. I could understand it but at the same time it flipped into the background until I started to get in touch with that feminine side slowly in a relationship where the masculine was fulfilled by him and I could get in touch with my feminine side as that balance.”
It’s interesting that she describes the difference between the masculine and feminine being in not caring/shutting herself off from tender feelings. Some of us might mildly object and offer #notallmen.
“Totally,” she says. “And my life is filled with the most tender, loving males.”
Of course, all this is less about male vs female than Lobb allowing all the sides of herself to come out, with now the added quirk or perversity of this release of her feminine side coming on an album where she has pitched her voice much lower, affecting a deep tone that could easily be mistaken for a man.
Which came first, the voice (which she nicknamed Joseph) or the songs? Did these songs become easier to do once she had found this almost shockingly different voice?
“All the songs were written were written while I was in that masculine stage,” Lobb says. “I wrote it during and just after the Supercry tour and the whole album was recorded without that voice in mind. It was only after everything was done that I said, what would it sound like if we pitched down the whole album? When I heard it I had such a strong reaction, and so did Tobias [Jesso Jr, producer], but it took a bit of convincing for everyone else. Everybody thought I was crazy but I was like, it feels like the right thing to do.”
The vocals were tweaked with technology rather than re-voiced, with many days spent eliminating “anything that dehumanised it”, leaving it as the bruised, tender instrument we get now that positions the album halfway between Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours and Antony & The Johnsons I Am A Bird Now.
Getting it right in the studio was one thing but now on stage not only is it proving easy to recreate, as she sings through a vocal processor, it is actually exciting her to do so.
“It’s so amazing to sing like that because if you close your eyes you are in a different realm, in a different body almost,” she says. “It has a strange calming effect.”
Which may be a character in itself of course. Or another side of the one character, Emma Louise Lobb.
Lilac Everything: A Project By Emma Louise is out now through Liberation.