ABOVE: EMILY WELLS IN SOHO, NEW YORK.
Emily Wells has quite the internet following—her songs “Take it Easy” and “Passenger” and her surprisingly fluid Notorious B.I.G. cover “Juicy” are constantly topping the Hype Machine charts. After a three-year hiatus, Emily is entering back into our lives with her new album, Mama. Mama, whatever that might mean to Wells, is a recurring theme on the album, which features songs like “Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House” and “Mama’s Gonna Give You Love.” Wells’ most personal album by far, there’s a dirty, blues-like, honest quality to Wells’ layered vocals, simple beats, violin, and piano.
Interview sat down with Emily while she was on her way to SXSW last month to talk about Biggie, adding instruments to her repertoire and just what exactly Mama means to her.
EMMA BROWN: So, when did you get to New York?
EMILY WELLS: A couple days ago.
BROWN: And what have you been doing here so far?
WELLS: Well, yesterday I went and did a rehearsal—I’m going out on the road this weekend and [my friends, the band] Live Footage are going to be playing a set as well so we’re going to get to collaborate onstage. We were setting up [our rehearsal] yesterday in the tiniest apartment ever. I play drums, [but] there’s also [another] drummer, and a cellist who has all of this stuff. There was just enough room for our bodies and all the gear.
BROWN: You’ll steam up the windows.
WELLS: I know, totally. There are barely even windows in there. It’s kind of like a basement apartment.
BROWN: Do you have a drum kit here? Or did the band lend you one?
WELLS: Trying to find drum sets is the bane of my existence coming in [to New York]. I basically ask all my friends to call in favor. Once I get to New York, that’s my mission, to get my drums. I can’t rest until I have them.
BROWN: You started off playing the violin. When did you start playing drums?
WELLS: The drums are kind of a new thing for me. That was the one instrument where I was like, “My body just doesn’t get this.” [laughs] When I moved to New York, my drummer ended up going out with another band, and so I was kind of forced to [learn]. I had used drum machines to make beats, which I love, but I found it a little two-dimensional. So I bought a big-ass kick drum, and I had a snare lying around and slowly started. Now I’m obsessed. [laughs] I took lessons and all that kind of stuff, and it’s been fun to be a kid again, as a learner. And also to approach an instrument at its core instead of creatively; learning the skills are around it that really have nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with technique and muscle memory.
BROWN: And do you have a newfound respect for drummers, or are you like “This is so easy!”?
WELLS: No, no. I definitely have respect. [laughs]
BROWN: Do you sing at the same time?
WELLS: As I play? Yeah, I do. In the past I had built up all the samples [separately] and banged along to that—turn samples on and off, or add some more vocals, but there’s something about that that has a karaoke feel. [laughs] Something about playing the drums and singing at the same time; when I first started doing it, I would describe it as if I felt like I had handlebars to hold onto, it surrounded me and put me as a part of the sound in a way that nothing else had been able to do. Playing a guitar and singing, or playing another instrument and singing, my mind would kind of wander, but playing drums engages me. And it’s beautiful; I like that about it, too.
BROWN: Okay, so can you tell me a little bit about your new album Mama? Why is it called Mama?
WELLS: [laughs] I know this is a question I’m going to have to answer a lot, I should have thought about that before I named the album Mama. It’s super, super personal, but it’s my own damn fault, I should have called it something else. I think the word has a lot of connotations for everybody. It has to do with family and stuff in my life, old family, new family.
BROWN: I was listening to your song “Let Your Guard Down,” right before I came here, and that seems particularly personal. As does “Darling.”
WELLS: Yeah. I think those songs are pretty visual, and they tell stories—I’m not writing in code by any stretch of the imagination. I guess you could say that it’s kind of a break-up record, but I think to call it a break-up album is limiting. It’s about rebirth, when you leave something, no matter what it is, it changes your perspective, you see yourself and everything around you differently.
BROWN: When you play a song like “Let Your Guard Down” over and over again on tour, does it lose some of its original meaning for you?
WELLS: While it loses some of its original meaning, it gains new meaning, and the further I get away from the song, often the more true it becomes. Or I don’t want to play it anymore. So if it remains true, or grows in its truth, then I’m still drawn to it and I’m still engaging. I finished this record quite a while ago and so, I’ve [already] written a whole new record. I have a tendency to write the best songs for the next record right after recording a record, and then you’re stuck playing it for a year or two before, and everybody says, “Oh, what album is that song on?” [But] I often start a show with new material, because it’s where I am at the moment, and it’s like a hallway into memories, it allows me to engage in a song that I might have played a million times.
BROWN: How does the audience respond to new stuff?
WELLS: I haven’t released a record in three years and have been playing whatever I want, [so I think] the audience has gotten used to it at this point. Someone covered [my song] “Passenger,” and it’s not even out yet. [laughs] I hadn’t even recorded it, it’s just like people pulling out their cell phones and recording live shows. Which is kind of cool, for a song to take on its own life form before it’s been recorded, and it [helps] that you’ve had the chance to flush out live.
You do notice a difference between the songs that are on record, that people know and love, and the ones that are not. People will get like excited to hear “Symphony 1” or “Take it Easy,” which is also exciting because it’s part of the song being born again. All of these [old] songs get to be new again, because people get to have their own personal experience—in their cars, walking down the street, riding the subway—that I had nothing to do with, other than I made this recording.
BROWN: Do people ever come up and tell you their interpretation of your songs?
WELLS: I don’t think they really tell me interpretations, but definitely that they felt something or were really moved by something. I am curious if this record, because it is more personal, if people will…
BROWN: Identify more with it?
WELLS: Exactly. Give me more details of their lives. [laughs]
BROWN: Your Biggie Smalls cover is sort of blew up on the internet. What made you choose “Juicy?”
WELLS: I thought conceptually, there are things about it that are pretty universal. To me, it’s the new classic of American music. I thought I could sing those lyrics, and really engage with those lyrics in a way and I wanted to be honest in these in the choice of the cover. I got knocked a little bit for singing that song sometimes—the public sees a white girl singing a Biggie Smalls song…
MAMA COMES OUT APRIL 10. EMILY WELLS IS PLAYING AT THE BOWERY BALLROOM ON APRIL 9.