BBC Radio Bristol interview (2017)
Emily talks about music for mental health with Jonathan Ray
BBC Radio 2 interview with Clare Balding (2017)
Clare Balding interviews Emily about her music, mental health and Buddhist faith
BBC Radio 4 interview with Libby Purves (2013)
Libby Purves interviews Emily for ‘Midweek’ about her music, her life in the Australian bush and her book ‘Start Over Again’.
Maverick Magazine interview (2017)
You recently released your latest album ‘A Bit Of Blue’. What would you say was the inspiration behind this album?
I knew I wanted to call this album ‘A Bit Of Blue’ and I knew I wanted these songs to be stripped bare, haunting and as beautiful as they could possibly be. I’d just spent two years unable to play my instruments due to chronic tendonitis, which triggered a severe depressive episode. I wanted to say that even in the midst of suffering there is hope, there is potential, there is even joy. That a bit of blue can sometimes be a good thing – it can make you think, reassess, find a new direction in your life. My last album ‘Bird Inside A Cage’ had a really rich multi-layered sound but this time I wanted to go back to the raw, organic feel of my first album ‘Stranger Place’. My producer Nigel Butler knew exactly where I was coming from and he created a sound for ‘A Bit Of Blue’ that was sparse yet hugely atmospheric.
What was the writing/recording process like for this album?
‘A Bit Of Blue’ is a collection of songs old and new. I actually wrote the title track nearly 20 years ago. I was writing songs for 7 years before I made my first album so I’ve got a lot of material that’s never been recorded. But as with all feelings – hope and despair, pain and joy – the idea behind all these songs holds true today. I recorded all the vocals for ‘A Bit Of Blue’ in a studio in the middle of a forest in Australia, the same studio where I made my first two albums when we were living in a shack on a goat farm out in the Queensland bush. I had an inspired two days of recording and when we got back to the UK we gave the tracks to Nigel to start work. As I was unable to play my instruments for the next two years, he created the album in his studio in Ross-on-Wye using old recordings of my guitar and piano parts and new arrangements he had written.
Is there a song that stands out as your favourite? If so why?
I don’t have a favourite but probably the biggest song on the album for me is ‘I’d Rather Be’. This was originally recorded for my third album ‘Believer’ and was playlisted on Radio 2 but the version on the radio was this really rocky uptempo song which completely belied what it was actually about. I wrote this song after my first psychosis when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’d gone through all the stages of being completely terrified and then chronically depressed, and I was starting to feel a bit stronger, starting to realise that all this energy in my head could actually be something precious, something I could transform into creativity. So ‘I’d Rather Be’ is my statement to the world that I would rather be the way I am, with all the passion and pain that entails. The piano ballad version of the song on ‘A Bit Of Blue’ is how we have always performed it live.
What has the reaction to this album been like?
The response to this album has been absolutely fantastic, not just from the music press but also most importantly my fans. I have an incredibly loyal and supportive fanbase who funded the release of this album and my last one ‘Bird Inside A Cage’. All my albums are quite different from each other and it had been 3 years since my last release so there’s always that moment of truth when people finally get to hear it. I was extremely relieved to get lots of really lovely emails and messages on Facebook. The songs have been getting quite a bit of airplay too which is great, particularly my single ‘For Free’, which is a kind of gentle social commentary on this crazy world we live in.
How have you found touring this album? What has the audience reaction been like?
I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to be back on the road again, playing my instruments again with my husband and bass player Christian Dunham. Just standing on stage with my guitar I feel a huge sense of gratitude and relief that my arms are now better. And I’m so grateful that I wasn’t forgotten and people are still coming to hear me sing, despite the fact that I disappeared for two years. The response to the new songs has been great and I really enjoy playing our old favourites as well. I love creating a show that has a great dynamic range, an ebb and flow, to draw people in. Playing live is really what it’s all about for me – I always go on stage with the intention to uplift, comfort and inspire, to somehow express in my lyrics and music the thoughts and feelings of the people listening. We’re all human after all, we all have highs and lows. There’s something in the words and music of a song that can be incredibly powerful, can really move people in a positive way. I know from the feedback I get from my fans that some of my songs have that power.
How do you find life on the road?
I love life on the road. I’ve done a lot of touring over the years and there’s just nothing like the routine of packing up the car, driving to the next venue, soundcheck, dinner, doing the show, meeting the audience afterwards, packing up, driving to the hotel, having a cup of tea before bed and waking up to start the whole thing again. Then coming home to Bath after a few weeks’ away to do the washing and walk slowly round my local cemetery and wander into town to a coffee shop to sit and make plans for the next tour. It’s my idea of heaven. But the best thing about touring is all the people you meet along the way – sound engineers, venue managers, and most of all the people who come to hear us play. I love coming out after the gig and seeing familiar friendly faces and meeting new fans at the merch desk.
What is next for you? What should we keep an eye out for?
I’ve got gigs coming up in the UK over the next few months then I’m going to start playing my cello again, record an instrumental album, produce a vinyl collection and guitar chord book of my songs, publish a new book of poetry and do some more gigs in mental health hospitals. I run my own record label Shaktu Records with Christian so there’s always lots of work to be done. I make the most of the times when I am well to get as much done as I can. And I’ll be enjoying the spring sunshine.
North East Volume Magazine interview (2017)
Your story is an intriguing one. You give up your flat in London for a shack made from recycled wood, tin and potato sacks on a farm out in the Australian bush and financed your music by making and selling goats cheese on the farm. That’s a little bit different than living in the big city and getting a label behind you…
I only went to Australia for a 3-week holiday to recover from a bad breakdown. I was visiting an old Aussie friend Christian Dunham and I thought I’d be coming back to London to get a proper job. I never imagined I’d end up living there for 4 years but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I loved the countryside, the animals and all that sunshine did me so much good. I started writing songs again, became a cheesemaker and made my first two albums.
You also had a fascinating childhood, having taught yourself how to play the guitar when you found yourself stuck at home with chronic illness, fibromyalgia pain syndrome. That must have been a difficult time, but did learning how to play the guitar and write songs bring a bit of light into the darkness?
I got fibromyalgia pain syndrome after a car crash when I was 16. I’d played classical instruments when I was a kid but only got a guitar for my 21st birthday because I was obsessed with Bob Marley and wanted to play his songs. When I started writing my own songs the illness became a complete blessing in disguise because I had all this time on my hands to write. I was on walking sticks and couldn’t work or go to university so I just sat in my bedroom and wrote songs. I was in constant pain but probably happier than I’d ever been in my life.
You’ve toured with some of the world’s great singer-songwriters including American legend Don McLean, Eric Bibb, Paul Brady and Roddy Frame. What was that like? And did they give you any advice?
When I was touring with Don McLean we played a couple of shows in Dublin and one time we were backstage and Don gave me some advice about microphone technique. I’m afraid I have the memory of a goldfish so I couldn’t tell you now what he said! I learnt a lot though from all the artists I’ve toured with. I feel very privileged to have had that opportunity to meet and tour with such incredible musicians.
You’re an advocate for mental health, having also published a highly personal account of your experiences of dealing with bipolar disorder. Was it hard for you to admit that you had the condition? And did writing the book help you to deal with the disorder?
Publishing ‘Start Over Again’ was a big decision. My manager at the time was worried it might end my career. But I had a single on Radio 2 and I was touring and having a bipolar episode at the same time and I just decided I couldn’t hide it anymore. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. People said I was brave but I didn’t feel brave, I just felt liberated. Since then, I’ve been able to talk about it, sing about it, write about it, and do gigs in mental health hospitals. Stigma only has power if you pander to it. People know now where my songs are coming from. I’ve just published my second book ‘Notes From The North Pole’.
What can we expect from your date at the Cluny, Newcastle?
I’ll be performing with my husband and bass player Christian, singing songs from my new album ‘A Bit Of Blue’ and old favourites from my other 4 albums. I love coming to Newcastle and playing The Cluny so I’m really looking forward to it.
You’ve been out of action for 2 years now, so are you excited to be out on tour?
I got chronic tendonitis in my arms in 2014 and couldn’t play my instruments at all which triggered a severe depressive episode. So now I’m recovered I have this amazing feeling of relief and gratitude when I’m standing on stage with my guitar. It is almost worth going through the hell to come out the other side.
Can you tell me some about your new album, ‘A Bit Of Blue’? What can listeners expect?
‘A Bit Of Blue’ came out of this recent dark time. I wanted the songs to be stripped bare, haunting and as beautiful as they could possibly be. My producer Nigel Butler did just that and I am completely delighted with the result.
And finally, what else do you have lined up for 2017?
I’m touring until the end of July and then I’m going to be starting work on an instrumental album. I play the cello and have composed some contemporary classical pieces for piano, cello and string orchestra. I’m also going to be working on a new book of poetry. Then we’ll be back on the road again in the spring of next year.
Retune interview (2016)
For readers not familiar with your work, what do you do and where do you live?
I’m a singer-songwriter now based in Bath.
Avoiding the phase ‘singer-songwriter’, what musical genre – ie, folk, pop, blues, rock, R&B, jazz, country, Americana, instrumental, roots, world, ska, punk, classical – best describes your music and what do your songs focus on?
My music doesn’t really fit any of those genres but I guess the closest description would be folk-pop. My songs are about the world outside my window and the world inside my head.
‘A Bit of Blue’ is your fifth album, and it came ‘out of a dark time in my life’. Can you tell us what happened?
I was unable to play my instruments for 18 months due to chronic tendonitis in both my arms. I’m bipolar so this triggered a severe depressive episode that went on for a long time.
Is there a theme running through the album? If so, can you tell us what it is?
These songs are my testament to the strength of the human spirit. I wanted to convey that a bit of blue is not always a bad thing: it can make us think, reassess, find a new direction in life.
What’s your favourite track on the album and why?
I don’t have favourites but the single ‘For Free’ is a song I particularly want to sing in this crazy time we’re living in.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about the album?
Working with my producer Nigel Butler again was an absolute joy.
What acoustic guitar are you playing at the moment? (Make, model number, colour, body size, style, ie, acoustic, semi-acoustic, etc)
Maton EAJ85 “Australian Jumbo” semi-acoustic.
Is this your regular guitar?
Why do you like it?
It has the most beautiful sound and feel. Sound engineers love it.
What equipment do you use to play it through? (DI via PA, or amp, make model number and any FX pedals)
DI via PA. Blue Sky reverb.
Has this been your favourite guitar to date?
Do you use anything else when gigging or recording?
My Fender ’52 reissue Hot Rod Telecaster and Yamaha CP5 keyboard which are both gorgeous.
Does an acoustic guitar help you compose new songs?
I started writing songs on an acoustic guitar and although I now write piano songs too, the guitar is still my main focus.
How do you write those songs?
I usually start by jamming some chords and a melody and words come after that.
What inspires your songwriting?
People I meet, places I visit, things I see on TV or read in books, thoughts in my head – anything that makes me feel either angst or joy.
How did you learn guitar – were you self-taught or did you have lessons?
I taught myself from Bob Marley songbooks (I was obsessed with Bob Marley’s songs). The first song I ever learnt was ‘Time Will Tell’ because it only had 2 chords.
Do you practice every day?
No, I run our record label so a lot of my time is spent in front of a computer unfortunately.
Do you use a pick or are you fingerstyle?
Do you use any alternate tunings?
Not really but that’s something I’d like to explore.
Who are your musical influences?
Bach and Bob Marley initially, then female singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega, Alanis Morrisette, Tracy Chapman and Sarah McLachlan.
What are you currently working on?
The release of my new album ‘A Bit Of Blue’ on 24th February then gigs around the UK for the next 6 months.
What (UK) gigs have you got coming up in the near future?
After my London album launch, I’m playing in Farnham, Cambridge, Bromsgrove, Bath, Helmsley, Penzance, Milton Keynes, Newcastle and Maidenhead. (Dates at the end)
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt as a musician?
To regard what I do as being of some benefit to others and that is the point of persevering with it.
Has there been a ‘wow’ moment in your career? If so, can you tell us about it?
Watching Don McLean sing ‘American Pie’ onstage at the Royal Albert Hall after opening for him.