an interview w/ Emma Ruth Rundle, whose new LP ‘On Dark Horses’ is out now
Emma Ruth Rundle is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and visual artist. Born in Los Angeles, she is now based in Louisville, Kentucky, where she wrote and recorded her latest album, On Dark Horses, out today via Sargent House. Rundle’s latest singles feature the duality which is common throughout much of her work: lyrically, while she is trapped in a "life spent uneasy" in "Fever Dreams," but on "Darkhorse," she sees a world where she can "still stand high." This dynamic is also reflected in the music, where dark, brooding guitars and percussion are both fighting against and propelling the emotion and melody carried by Rundle’s vocals.
Another compelling element of Rundle’s work is the commitment to change and experimentation found within her song writing and instrumentation. Four albums deep into a solo career, and a prolific musical collaborator on the side, Rundle approaches each album with a different musical palette and lyrical voice, having created works of ambient soundscapes for Electric Guitar One, sparse and eerie folk on Some Heavy Ocean, the grungy melancholy of Marked for Death and now the band-oriented 1990s-inspired rock of On Dark Horses. This creative spirit extends to her visual art, where Rundle deftly crosses and combines a variety of mediums, textures and subject matter.
While in the midst of preparations for an upcoming art show and back-to-back tours of the USA and Europe, Rundle was kind enough to join us on the phone to have a conversation about the writing and recording of her new album as well as her visual art, side projects, life in Louisville, touring, and some of her collaborative work.
-- Emily Marty
Congratulations on the new album, it’s your fourth studio album with Sargent House, a solo album; are you just in the middle of doing press at the moment, and promotion?
Yeah, been a lot of doing press and getting ready for the tours and ramping up for this art show that I have coming, so my days are mostly either just painting -- we also just moved house, so been moving, doing some press, trying to sort out touring logistics and it’s keeping me pretty busy.
I can imagine. So you’ve got three tours coming up, two of the States and one of Europe, and you just got back from Europe a few weeks ago?
Yeah, so the States we’re kind of just splitting into two parts, whereas we would normally do the whole thing at once, we’re wedging it East Coast, West Coast, and in between we’ll do Europe.
I guess it’s probably quite a difficult question to answer, but do you have a preference when it comes to touring certain regions of the US or Europe? Do you enjoy some areas more than others, or do you find them easier to play?
Yeah, there’s always favorites -- I think there’s some favorites for me, obviously, like playing my hometown in LA is stressful, but it’s a good feeling to play there, playing the Pacific Northwest… I do prefer touring in Europe, just because… I feel like my music is better received there, and the way that you’re treated and the lifestyle is a little bit easier there, versus here, we sleep on floors and eat at fast food places, and there they give you these wonderful meals and either put you up at a hostel, or a band apartment, so it makes things a little more comfortable. And I feel like the shows are good there as well, London is a big favourite for me, show-wise. I got to go to Portugal last year, and that was incredible, probably a highlight of my life.
I was wondering if it’s easier to tour with a band or solo, for you? I know you’ve [also] done some touring recently with Chelsea Wolfe, a few dates with her in Europe?
We did three shows, I was opening for her.
Does that make it any less monotonous, or easier in terms of logistics if you have a band to help you set up? Or if you’re touring solo and you just have a guitar and amp, do you find that easier, being more portable?
There’s just different ways of viewing it… it can be easier certainly in some ways not touring with the band, when you’re with so many people that has its extra that’s involved, but there’s something about playing with a full band that’s really rewarding, and I love my bandmates, but playing solo, I think, has a different emotional impact live. So, both have their pros and cons, definitely getting to do this tour which was in Europe, which was a few weeks and was sort of based around doing the Montreux Jazz Festival. Getting to do a tour like that, that’s more based around festivals with some club shows and then looping in on those Chelsea Wolfe shows, it kept it interesting and exciting. It’s nice to tour with a standard way, which is two or three band-billed together for four or five weeks, that can be fun also, every tour is different, I guess.
You’ve had the same steady band for about a year now and they’ve played on the new album, is that right?
Did they have much of a contribution when it came to writing the album?
Everybody brings their own style, personality to the songs. I write all the songs from start to finish on the acoustic guitar at home, and then the next stage is Dylan Nadon, the drummer who plays in my band will come, and we’ll kind of shed out the songs together in a rehearsal space -- getting the tempos right, feeling the songs, going back and forth -- I don’t drum parts typically or write all those parts out, there’s loose ideas of a feel or a beat or a rhythm and Dylan and I work on that together… and then, in this case Evan comes next, and sometimes, again, I’ll have a specific melodic idea that I’ll ask him to play, or I’ll say "can you play rhythm in this section, this is a section where there should be a melodic lead line," and he’ll flush out those ideas in his own way.
So, I think you can hear a lot of the style and personality of those musicians, and Todd Cook on bass of course, yeah. Really bringing a lot to the new album and on the other records, would record a lot of those parts on my own and typically write those parts in the studio, you know… would write all the overdubs in the moment, so I feel like having another guitarist and having a full band and getting to practice all together before we went into the studio really made a difference.
Yeah, and you actually recorded this in Louisville, is that right?
It seems like you recorded this in slightly more conventional circumstances than your three earlier albums, would you say that’s right? Like you recorded Marked for Death in a desert, I think, and Electric Guitar One was done in a van, whereas this was in a studio -- did you find that made it easier to record?
It did, there were a lot of sort-of challenges that we came across when in recording Marked for Death, and Sonny [DiPerri, engineer and co-producer] was awesome. We also got to do some interesting creative things as a result of that, but I really loved being able to go into a professional studio as a band, and just get to the music and get to the creative aspect of being in the studio, without the challenges of trying to work out of a place that -- yeah, less conventional sort of space.
And you wrote most of this album on tour, is that right?
No, I wrote this album mostly -- a bit last summer, when I was in between tours, and then at the beginning of this year, in our winter, in January, yeah. So, it was all written in Louisville, in between tours.
So how long ago did you relocate there?
It was in May of 2017.
Can you compare or sort of contrast the musical and also the visual arts scenes between -- you were based in Portland before, right? Between Portland and now, in Louisville?
Well I was born and raised in LA, and I was living in Portland for about a year, maybe even less than that. But my sisters live there, and I kind of was like, half-living in Portland and half in LA. Anyway, it’s very different, there’s a very tight-knit community here of musicians… I was introduced initially to Evan [Patterson of Jaye Jayle, her husband] when Red Sparowes did a tour with his band Young Widows ten years ago. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s so different from the West Coast.
I guess I would classify Portland and LA, while they have their own totally different respective scenes, there’s still a cultural feel that it’s the West Coast. And here, it’s more Midwest, on the border of the South and it just has a completely different feel. It’d be hard to sum up the differences in a sound, or a way… there’s definitely a lot less going on -- it’s a smaller scale than either Portland or LA, but there’s some really heavy-hitting, lifelong musicians that just chill here. And the biggest difference is that the cost of living is so much more manageable for an artist, you can have a good quality of life here and it’s not a day-to-day struggle just to make ends meet like it is on the West Coast.
I can imagine that would make it a lot easier to get art done and record things and put everything together. Speaking of art, you mentioned earlier that you’re going to do a solo show, as well as a listening party, I think on September 8th, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right.
Do you have any more plans in the future, after this, to kind of integrate your musical and visual art?
Well, I’ve had different ways of doing it in the past. I used to do more video stuff for the music, like I did the video for "The Distance" off my last split… I like that the visual art in terms of the painting, and the drawing has its own life that’s separate for me, it’s kind of like another music I can turn to when I get burnt out on music. So I’m not sure, I’m not sure if the worlds will collide fully. I like that there’s kind of a separation.
So when you approach say, a drawing or making a painting, do you have similar intentions as you might as when you start making a song or an album? Do you look to visual art to have the same effect for you as you might music? Or is it a different kind of process and outcome?
It’s definitely a different process and a different outcome. With music, it’s kind of working more in this… nebulous emotional conjuring process, where the guitar will sort of pull out this experience from me that I need to deal with, and in painting or drawing it’s more of a tactile fascination and an enjoyment of shapes and colours and body parts.
I think, between your three solo albums and also what I’ve heard of the new one, I wouldn’t say you completely reinvent yourself every time, but you definitely seem very comfortable playing with different styles and textures and instrumental approaches, and you also have side projects like Marriages and the Headless Prince of Zolpidem. So, I was wondering, when you do start a new album or writing process, do you deliberately think “I want to try this now, I want to have this approach as opposed to what I did last time?” Or does it kind of just happen organically as you’re writing the album; you kind of, then, come up with an understanding of what you want it to sound like?
It’s definitely a process of discovery. If I do set out with an intention, I never fulfill it. I change my mind constantly with what the plan is and what I want to do. I mean, at one point I thought this was going to be an acoustic album, and then I was like “no, this is going to be a full band, 1990s worship album.” I really wanted to capture the chemistry I developed with the three musicians I mentioned, I thought it was just the right time and place to make a full band record, and so, in writing and as the days were getting closer to the studio, I was just discovering it more and more every day and then committing to the plan of that… only really weeks before did I know that the whole thing was going to be a full band. It’s a rock album, I would say. Yeah… does that make sense?
Yeah, that makes sense. I was wondering as well, particularly the cover art of "Fever Dreams" reminds me of the album art from A Year of Spring by the Nocturnes, and musically, the bridge is kind of reminiscent of Less Than by Marriages. I was wondering if, while maybe it’s not deliberately self-referential, do you listen to your older work while you’re in the process of creating new work? Do you think about it?
No, not really… sometimes, I’ll think about -- if I feel particularly attached to a song, like the song "Real Big Sky" off the last record; I’m very attached to that song. I find myself putting pressure on in the writing process to try and maintain a quality control, like I should really try to achieve something that has this level of emotional impact, but then that never really works out either -- I don’t think it’s something you can necessarily control. But no, I don’t go back and listen to the old jams, I think there’s probably just some inherent quirks in my writing style that seem to crop up. And I had a lot of fun making that cover, that was actually a contender for the album cover, it’s a collage of photos I took all around our rehearsal space, with some of these photos I took on this polaroid camera with these horse finger-puppets. Anyway, there’s all these industrial... these brick buildings, train tracks, this element of Louisville that is in that collage. I wanted to have a visual representation of the city in there. So I’m glad it made it onto the single cover, it’s on the insert as well, in the vinyl LP.
Would you say that, when you’re writing, you’re fairly responsive to or influenced by the landscape or environment that you’re working in?
I think so, yeah. Someone asked me a similar question a few weeks ago, and I think I said “no,” but I realised that that’s not true. I mean, the whole Electric Guitar album was completely just channelling landscapes in my eyes and playing it through the guitar, and Marked for Death had a lot of desert moments in it as well, with the dusty slides… and this record, I think it even translated lyrically -- there’s a song called "Apathy on the Indiana Border" just about being… trapped in this, what I felt at the time, in the winter here was this oppressive surrounding, and the weather and the look of all. I mean, right now it’s the height of summer, and there’s just trees that are six stories tall, leaves everywhere, green, mansions, and in the winter everything dies, which is not something that I’m used to, it’s just not like that where I’m from.
It just felt really oppressive, and I had a hard time -- I was really struggling with inspiration and writing that song in particular took the longest to write. I think I had some oppressive moments with the landscape of Louisville. I don’t want to offend anybody, but that’s just how I felt.
I think that’s fair enough. I was thinking as well, given that in your music you often deal with pretty personal subject matter, maybe it’s cathartic recording these songs, but then when you have to play them over and over again on tour, is that difficult at all? Or do you kind of adjust to it?
It goes through phases. There’s adjustment periods, there’s difficult periods. Definitely when I started playing Marked for Death, I had come out of a six-month afterglow of making that record – afterglow in that I actually felt better, but I had stopped playing music for a while. I didn’t sing, I didn’t pick up my guitar, but I think psychologically I had some improvements. And then going on the road, playing that album, I kind of found myself back in my old ways: drinking too much, getting back in touch with some of that subject matter definitely takes its toll. And it’s something I’ve thought about while writing… it’s a challenging relationship with the live performance: should you censor your subject matter, knowing that you’re going to have to go relive it and perform it?
I don’t think you should. I think that it’s just part of the deal, and that’s what I do, until I discover a different source to write from. But it is challenging. It definitely wears on me on the road, for sure.
I was wondering if you want to talk a little bit more about the recording process? I was read a piece you did, I think it was for Consequence of Sound, you were talking about how you composed "Dark Horse," and you talked about some influences on that particular song: Sun Kil Moon, Chris Whitley -- do you listen to that music when you’re recording? For inspiration and also to get some release, or relief from the actual process of writing and recording your own music?
I’d say that in the writing process there’s more of a developing a palette moment, where, in referencing those artists, you’re like "okay, this is kind of drawing from some of these sources and inspiration in writing" -- but once we get into the actual ramping-up to go into the studio, there’s no time to even listen to anything at all, there’s just practice all day, and then you’re in the studio from when you get up to when you go to sleep, working. So until the record is finished, there’s probably a three-week deadzone of complete focus on making the record.
Do you enjoy the process of collaborating? I know you’ve worked with Evan, or Jaye Jayle, you’ve worked with Thrice as well recently… what is it like, compared to your own solo music, when you go into a project and you’re kind of enhancing it, as opposed to having to write the bulk of the material yourself?
Oh, it’s so much better [laughs], I like it so much. With Jaye Jayle, it was great, we had just been on tour and I kind of just waltzed into the studio with them and ate a bunch of mushrooms and played some weird guitar parts and sang. The Thrice thing, they just sent me the track and so was just one evening here of me recording with Kevin actually tracking the vocals and sending it back to them. The most intense collaboration I’ve ever done was with Dylan Carlson on his last record, Conquistador. I went to Salem, Massachusetts and met with him and Kurt Ballou and Dylan’s wife, Holly… he just had called me on the phone and asked me if I wanted to come make this record with him and I went there, not having heard any demos.
So that was actually like real work, getting in with an artist that I had actually never played with before but had massive respect for. The album Hex by Earth is one of my favorite albums of all time. Sitting down, focusing all your attention on the other artist and trying to respond to what they do with something that’s going to add to their work -- it was very intense, and stressful in ways, just because I felt a lot of pressure to do a good job, and to honor my hero. But I really enjoyed it, I love the collaborations I have done. It doesn’t feel entirely natural for me to write with other people, it’s always a bit of a challenge, but like I said, with Jaye Jayle and Thrice, just getting to come in and add something to what’s already there- that’s a pleasure to do.