Emma Russack (Conversations)
Emma Russack has just released a beautiful new album 'In A New State'. I spoke to her at the Darwin Bowls club just before her show that night, and about a week before the release of that album. We discussed creation of the record, as well as her approach to live performance and the sometimes mysterious process of songwriting.
Simon Fazio: So, your new record is called ‘In A New State’…
Emma Russack: Yes, it is.
Simon: …and we’re in a new state right now…
Emma: We are in a new state, and I’m glad you actually said that. I wrote that song… well it’s from a song called Cottesloe, and Cottesloe beach is in Western Australia, and I was in a new state then… so, I’m glad you picked up on the wordplay there, Simon.
Simon: Thank you. Well, I thought it was more about, like, a psychological state.
Emma: Well, that’s the mystery of it.
Simon: It’s multi-layered…
Simon: Even thought it might be about a psychological state, we’re in Darwin right now; do you find being in new places conducive to be being creative and writing songs that you wouldn’t usually at home? I guess you just alluded to it right there…
Emma: Yeah, I think I do… I’ve been in Darwin for three days now and I feel like I could go home and write a song about it soon, y’know? Especially places that are quite culturally different to what I’m used to… I find quite inspiring. Not necessarily the landscape of the place, but the vibe. Y’know… being here is very strange for some reason. I’m having such a great time but something is odd… It’s like I’m in a different country. So if I wrote a song about it, I’d probably mention, y’know… the pool on the rooftop and the rooftop bar, and just times where I’ve felt a bit weird… or when the lady outside yelled at me for sitting on the smokers table. Y’know, shit like that. That’s what makes a good song. So, in answer to your question, YES.
Simon: But you’re not someone who likes to write on the road; you have to go home and take stock of your experiences.
Emma: Absolutely, and it might take years. It might be in three years time I might go “Oh, I have these vague recollections of being in Darwin, that was a weird time. I’ll write a song about it.” Do you know what I mean? I can’t imagine sitting down with a guitar tonight and sitting down on the hotel bed, strumming away…
Simon: Well, some people like going out… just them and the road and they sit in a hotel room and just…
Emma: Well, Alex Gow [from Oh Mercy]… I notice him recording things to his iPhone and I’m probably too lazy to do things like that… but it’s just a different approach.
Simon: That dovetails nicely into my second question.
Emma: Oh, goodo.
Simon: So you put records out pretty regularly… you’ve put out an album every two years…
Emma: Is that regularly?
Simon: I think it’s pretty good.
Emma: It’s not King Gizzard [and the Lizard Wizard] or The Ocean Party…
[redacted chat about personal King Gizzard/Tote/housemate/family connections]
Simon: …so, with this new album, are the songs on it just written in the past two years, or are you someone who has songs kicking around for a few years and then finds the right album to put them on?
Emma: The oldest song is probably about three and a half years old, and the newest song I wrote the night before I went into the studio. But you know, for me, they’re relatively new songs. My last record, I recorded a lot of songs that were really old, so it feels a lot fresher for me.
Simon: Has it been long since you’ve had this record in the can?
Emma: No, it hasn’t it all, because I got the government grand last year in June. I’d pretty much given up on music until I found I had won this grant; I’d forgotten about it. I was like “Right, I’ll get into the studio and record these songs”. I finished it in about October of last year, so, that’s a pretty fast turnaround for my standards.
Simon: Playing the songs now, do they still feel fresh or are you ready to move onto the next thing?
Emma: Yeah, they’re getting a little bit old I’ve got to admit… but I’ll just start writing a new bunch of songs.
Simon: So there’s nothing in the set now that’s from the new batch..? I guess the album’s not even out yet.
Emma: I have this habit of when my albums come out, I’ll have a new batch of songs that I want to play instead of those songs, and I think that can be fairly infuriating to the people who are paying to put out my new record… so, yeah, these songs have been kicking around for a while.
Simon: I think the last time I saw you it was probably at the Fitzroy Pinnacle, out the back…
Emma: Was that with a band?
Simon: No it was just you…
Emma: Oh, that was the WORST gig I’ve ever played in my life… I hated that SO much…
Simon: I think I even came up to you and said “Hey, that was really good” and you were like “Yeah. Thanks.”
Emma: I was like “…that was probably horrible”. Yeah.
Simon: It’s tough when you’re in an environment where people are talking, having a beer…
Emma: …and I totally understand that. I wished that I was in a ska band or a reggae band that day, because that’s what they wanted to hear, or whatever. They don’t want to hear some fucking sadsack singer-songwriter singing about ex-boyfriends. I totally get that… I’ve gotten a lot better at just doing it. “Right, I’m getting paid for this, I’ll just finish the songs on my set and get the hell out of here.” On that particular day I just felt really shit; I couldn’t hear myself… It sounds so whingy and whiny but, oh man, that was a shocker.
Simon: It’s tough. You’re playing a lot of opening slots in a lot of strong places, just you and a guitar… it must be tough to plow through sometimes, just you and guitar. It’s a pretty hard thing to do.
Emma: You’re quite vulnerable. [When ‘In A New State’ is released], I’ll definitely play with a band, but it will only be a three-piece; me, Snowy (bass player, member of Cool Sounds and countless other bands), and I think Cameron Potts (Baseball, ninetynine) is in India so I’ll get someone to drum. It’ll be a very simple setup. On these new songs, my guitar playing is a lot more intricate, so that will kinda fatten it out. But the solo thing is good, because this tour has built up my confidence, because I’ve had to play by myself every night, but it is hard, especially when my songs are so….
Emma: …exactly. They really are, and it’s not everyone’s cup-of-tea, and I don’t even know if it’d be my cup-of-tea when I just wanna go out with my mates and have a good time. But, you know, that’s what I do, and people ask me to play, so, y’know… some people like it, I guess.
Simon: You just gotta do it. I’m sure some people enjoyed it that day…
Emma: Oh… god…. (as if remember something deeply traumatic)… I never want to think about that day again…
[redacted chatter about ticketing to that evening’s show]
Simon: I was excited to see this show was on because I missed the show in Melbourne… I think you played with a bass player?
Emma: Yeah, Snowy. That was a good show… I think even having one more person on stage is… good.
Simon: Originally you wanted to record a Neil Young song for this album (“Looking For A Love” from Zuma)…
Emma: That’s right… where did you read that?
Simon: You just have a really good bio somewhere… I know that Neil Young likes to do first and second takes… and so you didn’t get to record the cover…
Emma: I did record the cover, it just didn’t make the album.
Simon: ...and I also read that a lot of the takes with Cam and Snowy on this record were first or second takes. Was that your way of sneaking that idea into your record, or was maybe a subconscious thing?
Emma: Mm, that’s a good question… It worked out like that because that was the plan; I was not booking any rehearsal time before the recording, and I usually do a few recordings or practice sessions, but I just wanted it to be very loose, and that’s totally Crazy Horse vibe.
Simon: Glad I got in a good question there.
Emma: That was good.
Simon: So, you said you didn’t really practice the songs before recording; did you idea of what the songs were going to sound differ from what they ended up like on the finished record?
Emma: Totally. I worked with John Lee (Phaedra Studios, Mountains In The Sky) who kind of took a producer role, so he was overseeing the project. He was the one that said “Don’t put any covers on the record, just do your own songs, because they’re good and people need to hear them.” I actually had no idea how the record was going to sound, and I was worried about that.
Simon: Were you pleasantly surprised when you finished up?
Emma: Yeah. John said “That’s fine that you don’t have any idea [what the end product would be], but it can either be really bad or really good”, and I tend to think it falls into the latter category.
Simon: Which is good.
Emma: Fuckin’ good, mate.
Simon: (laughter) So, were the other two records more of a self-produced, self-directed affair?
Emma: Yes. I was working with my ex-boyfriend who used to record me. He’d mix and record all of my records, and it was almost a little bit too close for comfort. He was very invested in the records and I think that ultimately it took a bit of power away from me. I’m not a power hungry person at all… but I was kind of liberated by this latest recording experience because I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do, or even suggesting things, I had to just make decisions for myself. Also, for a very long time I worked with Alec who’d play guitar on my records, and I decided not to go on that path for this record… and I’m really happy [that I did]. it just meant that I had complete autonomy. But I also John [who could] suggest things. If you’re working with friends, it’s kinda harder to say no.
Emma: But I’m increasingly finding that everyone has a different opinion on things, and you can only really go with whatever you think is the right thing to do. I’ve definitely learned to trust my own judgement a bit more. Y’know, I can give my new record to my parents and say “Hey, what do you think”, and they’ll say “Oh my gawd, it’s amaaazing”, or whatever, but I’m not going to go (deadpan) “Yay, my parents think it’s my best record ever so it must be.”
Simon: My mum called me up last Thursday and said “Y’know, Simon, this song [Burning Well by YIS, Simon’s old band] is actually my favourite song. It used to be “Touch Me” by The Doors, but now it’s YOUR song” (laughs). Y’know, parent validation is still nice.
Emma: It’s still nice… but… it feeds my ego more than anything.
Simon: You can’t always trust your folks.
Emma: I mean, you can in a lot of ways, but not with compliments.
Simon: So, changing tact a little bit, when you’re at home writing, what does your writing setup look like? Is it a guitar and a notebook, or is it something else?
Emma: It’s basically, I’ll get a real feeling that “Oh, I really want to write a song” or something, which doesn’t happen all the time. And then I’ll just get my guitar and start mucking around, and then it just comes. I’ll write it down, and record it to my phone in sections as I write it. I’ve kinda got a rule; if I can remember it the next day, I’ll persevere with it.
Simon: I think that’s a good rule. If it sticks in your brain…
Emma: If the melody sticks in my brain then that’s a good sign.
Simon: So the next batch of songs could be coming any time? Are you someone who has to sit down and devote time to creating or are you just a slave to whenever it comes, you just have to go with it?
Emma: That never works. I often find that if I assign time to anything in my life, it rarely happens, especially if it’s something creative. For me, I’ve never been particularly disciplined about it, which I think says a lot about where I am today and the fact that I’m not particularly successful, which is fine…
Simon: Well, we’re in Darwin.
Emma: We’re in Darwin. You’re right Simon, that’s very true. But, I’m back at Uni now and I can be disciplined about that because there are rules and things that are set out for your do for the assessment tasks… I’ve always found music very abstract, and I’m never disciplined enough to… you know what I mean? There’s no rulebook that says “This. Is. How. You. Do. Mu. Sic.”
Simon: The example I can give you from me, not to talk about myself too much because this is your interview…
Emma: No, do it…
Simon: …but, like, when I quit my job, I’m just going to get back into playing music, but what I did instead was start a podcast (chuckles) because it was way easier. Every Monday, I have to put this out, and there’s a timetable… Trying to make creative stuff come… it can be difficult.
Emma: And it’s an interesting thing in itself, because in some ways, to make it disciplined, it takes away from the creative side of things. Y’know, someone like Nick Cave - I’m not a huge Nick Cave fan; this is just a piece of trivia - every day he gets in his work clothes and goes to his office which is his studio and works on his music which is his job. He treats it like a 9-to-5 essentially. That’s one approach that obviously works for him, and I think Tom Waits works in a very similar manner. For me, I have to work another job to do this job, so it’s not that feasible to approach it like that. But, y’know… I’m sounding so negative unfortunately, am I?
Simon: No! I think it’s coming across as REAL. Just “real talk”.
Emma: It’s just Darwin, mate, brings it out in me.