Analogue Music | Emily Jane White

Emily Jane White

By Matt Conner

Twelve years hasn't changed much for Emily Jane White.

Over a decade into her musical career, the artist that you hear on her latest work, Immanent Fire, is the same one who released Dark Undercoat to critical acclaim back in 2008. That's not to say that White hasn't imported new textures or explored new sounds. Rather, she's an artist whose integrity was always present, whose moorings were in place from an early stage.

On the eve of releasing her latest full-length album, White recently spoke to us about her approach to songwriting, her "calling" as an artist, and why she finally opened up to working with a producer on this latest batch of songs.

Analogue: Much of the focus of an interview is on what's different on the new recording from before, but I'm curious about the opposite. What is similar about you as an artist on Immanent Fire that's always been true? And what's true now that wasn't before?

Emily Jane White: I think what brought me to songwriting initially was a calling. It's always been a calling of mine to write songs. It started really organically and I'd say it's continued in that fashion. Despite the ups and downs in my life that anyone experiences in anything they pursue, I've always had a strong feeling that I would stick to my craft no matter what, no matter what happened or what it looked like on the outside.

There has been some struggle with that, just as any artist experiences, because the world is not really constructed in a way to foster artists—at least American culture. So that's something you have to pioneer a bit on your own. In college, in terms of a career, I never really saw it as my steadfast path, but I studed women and gender studies under the American studies department. The older I get, the more I've realized my studies led me to being a songwriter.

I see a lot of connections between things that I didn't see while I was in them. I was also in a really close-knit community of musicians in Santa Cruz at the time. It was pre-social media, so I think that really helped. Maybe I would have pursued songwriting anywhere I was, but that really laid the foundation. I really feel like my studies and interests have stayed to a lot of the things I've cared about over the years.

"When I'm songwriting, I first think, 'Is this meaningful to me? How do I feel and sense things?' When I feel strong about it, I put it into the world."

The thing about making art is that nuance is sort of the key for me. It's not a linear track. One thing led to another led to another. The less time I spend thinking about what I do, the better off I am. [Laughs] But at this point, to answer your question, I see connections between things that I would have never maybe seen prior to this. What is seemingly unconventional about the life of an artist, I'm actually seeing some synchronicity and logic.

Also the music industry changes constantly. The more you do to get your music out to the world is important, but I don't really spend a whole lot of time focusing on what my career actually looks like. Maybe that's a bad thing. [Laughs] I don't know. I'm a pretty introverted person. I like to write songs. I like to record. The rest is a struggle for me, especially the rise of social media and visual imagery being hyperdominant.

Analogue: What informs the use of the word calling to describe what you do?

EJW: Well, in pragmatic terms, I've tried to quit before. [Laughs] I mean, loosely. Just a thought in my mind. 'What if I didn't do music anymore?' The answer I've received within myself is always 'no.' Despite feeling like it's inconvenient to hear that, I've always honored it despite my circumstances. So to me, that necessitates some kind of calling.

At the same time, it's sacred but it doesn't feel precious. I've been able to answer to something deep inside of me for a long time, as I think most artists do. I continue down that path and, at the moment, I can make sense of it. That hasn't always been the case. Like I said, there have been times where I've said, 'I can't do this anymore.'

Analogue: Immanent Fire speaks to these dark times, or at least the darkness within them. Does that stem from a vision you had going into writing them, then? Do you just gather them and see what has emerged thematically?

EJW: There are as many approaches to songwriting as there are songs. That's what's so great about a song is that you can distill down so many things into that three or four-minute chunk of time. There's really nothing like it. I would say the goal of my songwriting has never been to put out an obvious voice, as in to make a statement. My goal, I guess, has been to distill down something kind of potent for someone to listen to and then have an experience with it.

'Immanent Fire' cover
'Immanent Fire' cover

I mean, I don't even think I would think about it that way. When I'm songwriting, I first think, 'Is this meaningful to me? How do I feel and sense things?' When I feel strong about it, I put it into the world. Those who listen to me have their own experience with it. So it's all personal and the kind of music I write requires an intimate listening setting, in a more one-on-one environment. I'm not necessarily interested in making some overt political statement. However, what I do think is important, like in my bio for example, is to really draw some connections to what it is I think about as an artist and what really leads me to write music.

I really appreciate, for example, interviews like this that are sort of a great filtration system for weeding out people who might not be interested in talking about these things. [Laughs] I've never been really interested in a lot of music writing that's not super in-depth, I guess. But I am one person among many, many people on this planet. I don't think my songs speak truth to power directly, but if they can offer something that's meaningful, I feel like I've succeeded.

Analogue: Has that always been the metric for you or is that learned?

EJW: I think on some level, yes. It comes on some level from artists writing something meaningful for me. I saw how rich and beautiful that is and that's been a big part of my inspiration. It's also feeling like the magic of music can provide a meaningful experience like nothing else can. I will also say that maybe my music doesn't touch some people and that's totally cool too. I've pretty much entirely let go of the outcome because I've had lots of awkward conversations where people will say, 'I listened to your music. It's really sad.' Then that's all they will say. [Laughs]

So it doesn't resonate. Or maybe it does. I don't know. But I've had family members and friends make it clear that my music is not their thing, which is totally fine. But also many people have written me to tell me that my music has helped them through things. So it's all good.

There's a book called Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke that talks about the calling of an artist. That book definitely resonated with me. I read it a long time ago after it was given to me by someone I used to work with closely. That's helped sprinkle some ideas into what I was doing but revealed the direction I was going as an artist.

Analogue: Musically speaking, did you go into the studio with a specific approach in mind on what you wanted to explore?

EJW: I'd never worked with a producer before. Anton [Patzner] and his wife played on the last big European tour I did for my last album. They played in my band and then also with their band. I had a sense that Anton might be a good producer to work with. We took it song by song. I would play my song, we would record my basic parts and then we'd think about it a little bit. We'd try different things arrangement-wise, and there were just things that clicked right off the bat. I didn't really look at anything as an overall theme for the record. We took it song by song. But once we shaped things up in the studio and then Anton arranged and added strings, that element tied everything together.

We also talked a lot about having variety. That's the cool part of working through my songs like that was that we could really create that variety. Then in the end, there's my songwriting too. I mean, I do what I do and I have for many years. But I can't highlight enough how cool it was to work with a producer/arranger like Anton. It was really awesome.

Analogue: What kept a producer at bay in the past?

EJW: I never really knew anybody that I clicked with or that I trusted. It sounded so foreign to me. It also sounded expensive. I'd seen certain artists work with a producer and thought it was likely very expensive or I'd heard albums by another producer and it all felt heavy-handed. I felt like it strayed from the artist and their previous work. So I was definitely skeptical and had some red flags about that idea in general, but having worked with Anton and known him over the years, I got the sense that it could work.

VISIT: Emily Jane White