Quest for a creative pitch
Songwriter Emma Louise delves deep for a fresh sound
While recording her debut album at the age of 19, singer and songwriter Emma Louise was exposed to a bit of studio trickery that stuck in her mind. When her voice was slowed down, as she listened back to the tape recordings of vocal parts for 2013’s Vs Head vs Heart, she noticed a contrast between her regular singing voice and the deeper tone she was hearing for the first time.
A name popped into her head, unbidden, that immediately felt as if it suited that new voice: Joseph. One day, she thought, I’m going to record a whole album as Joseph. But not just yet.
For the artist born Emma Louise Lobb in Cairns, that debut album arrived two years after the release of Jungle, a dark earworm that had an unusually long and prosperous life for a pop song. Domestically, its high rotation on public broadcaster Triple J led to polling at No 23 on the Hottest 100 of 2011, and an ARIA award nomination for best female artist.
Internationally, the song had a second life when it was remixed in 2013 by a German DJ and producer named Wankelmut, who renamed the song after its memorable chorus phrase, My Head is a Jungle.
A year later, it was granted a third life when it was remixed by an American producer, MK, which introduced it to another audience, and a fourth life when it appeared in a worldwide advertis- ing campaign for French perfume brand Yves Saint Laurent.
Joseph was nowhere in sight then, nor while writing and recording 2016’s Supercry. Less than a fortnight before she was due to begin band rehearsals to tour her second album, though, Louise was feeling torn between her artistic responsibilities and a desire to flee.
“I was living in Melbourne by myself and I guess I isolated myself quite a bit, for a long time,” she says from her home in Rosebank, NSW. “I was kind of sad. I started writing this song and wrote the first few lines: ‘If I could paint a picture of myself tonight / It would be the deepest shade of blue, half my face lit by the moon / So I’m gonna book a flight to Mexico / ’Cause I just felt so lost, I might as well be there, you know?’ ”
She wrote those lines over a glass of wine, and by the time she had finished writing another verse and a chorus, she decided to follow her own advice — written in a song that would come to be named Mexico — by booking an overseas trip.
She left the next night for a village named San Pedro. A request for accommodation suggestions on social media put her in touch with a community of “old rockers” who welcomed her with open arms. The local kids called her Casper, like the friendly ghost, because of the colour of her skin.
Modesty is her style, not bravado. At no point during her first visit did she tell her new friends that she had written a song that had been heard by millions of people on the radio, on television ads or on the radio.
The old rockers knew she was writing songs, though, and when she showed them some of her new work — inspired by listening to classic folk artists such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Nick Drake — they urged her to record at a studio near Seattle named Bear Creek. It was there that Joseph eventually would reemerge.
A key partner in that process was Canadian pop songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. “I had written most of the songs and I sent him the demo of Wish You Well,” she says. “He really liked it and was like, ‘Come to LA and let’s see what we can do.’ We sat down at the piano and I played him the song Shadowman. He helped me with some chord changes. Our musical chemistry was amazing; we were on the same page.” In Jesso Jr, Louise had found a producer, despite the fact he’d never done that job before.
At Bear Creek Studio in Washington, they convened with his band and recording engineer Shawn Everett, who has won Grammy awards for his work with rock bands The War on Drugs and Alabama Shakes.
“It was magical,” Louise recalls with a smile. “We had like seven bottles of wine a night over a twoweek period. We were kind of stuck in a little vortex.”
It was on the very last day of recording, when Louise was adding vocal harmonies, that she asked a question that would turn the entire album on its head: what happens if we pitch my voice down?
“When I heard it pitched down, I was like, ‘ Oh f..k, this is the way that it’s meant to be,’ ” she says. Her new-found producer agreed that Joseph should stay, but her manager, label and publisher were not so easily convinced, as they were afraid of sabotaging audience expectations.
“But they also know I’m not a typical artist,” she says. “I’m not striving for certain things; I’m not trying to be a pop star.” The result is Lilac Everything, 10 songs that sound unlike anything the singer and songwriter has released to date.
Artistic reinventions don’t come much bolder than this. By divorcing herself from the voice that her audience has come to know and love on two previous albums — not to mention her long-lived international hit song — Louise is taking a leap of faith.
The album’s recording engineer, Everett, is full of praise for her decision to pursue this new direction.
“I think that what she’s doing with this record is more of an artistic statement than almost anyone I’ve ever seen before,” Everett says in a video published on Facebook last week. “It’s such a strong statement, and she’s so willing to go where nobody has gone before, especially considering she has such a pretty voice to begin with. Normally someone with a voice like that would do anything possible to protect that part of their identity, but she does the opposite, and screws with it for her entire piece of art.”
The artist herself, however, is unperturbed about the stylistic pitch-shift, which to her feels as natural as booking a flight to Mexico on a whim. “I do a lot of weird shit,” she says with a shrug.
Singer-songwriter Emma Louise