Quest for a cre­ative pitch

Song­writer Emma Louise delves deep for a fresh sound

The Australian - - ARTS - AN­DREW McMILLEN Li­lac Ev­ery­thing is out now via Lib­er­a­tion Records.

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.

AARON FRAN­CIS

Singer-song­writer Emma Louise

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