digging at the roots
An Interview with…
Emma Ruth Rundle
words by tom johnson
photograph by emma wondra
The voice is a remarkable tool, capable by desire or design of twisting itself into all manner of shapes, of carrying out all manner of tasks. Shrinking into a tiny whisper it can be both gently alluring or deeply sinister. Erupting into song, into guttural yells, it can face down an opposing force to make a space all for itself. Most captivating, perhaps, is the fact that we can ourselves choose how, where, and when to use our voice; when to shriek and when to shrink, when to leap and when to let go…
Emma Ruth Rundle, the songwriter originally from LA, has often used her voice as a substantial instrument, as a dense part of her armoury that helped to form a handful of records hulking and layered with sentiment. Though her earliest work was centred around the guitar, and sometimes solely instrumental – she joined the post-rock band Red Sparowes for their third album, The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer – her debut album Some Heavy Ocean reinventing her artistic work, led as it was by a soaring voice that emphasised the shades of darkness she was detailing. Her following works, 2016’s Marked For Death and 2018’s On Dark Horses, were folded with similar textures, full-band efforts that exploded with sound creating cacophonous soundscapes that her voice powered above, through, and beyond.
Her new album, Engine of Hell, is none of these things. Marked by the difficulties of her recent years, it casts Rundle in a completely different light, a murky before-dawn darkness so fragile you can hear it creaking at the seams, so brittle you’re almost expecting it to fall apart before it finds a flicker of peace at its end. Her voice is almost unrecognisable, but within its new form is every scratch, every scuff of dirt and dust collected on the journey that led to its new shape.
And yes, it’s remarkable.
Emma Ruth Rundle currently lives in Portland, Oregon. She grew up in LA and more recently moved to Kentucky for a marriage that broke under the weight of its excess. So, for now, it’s the Pacific Northwest, that supposedly dense and lush patch of green on America’s right shoulder. “It hasn’t rained the entire time I’ve been living here,” Rundle tells us when we speak; her first time talking about her latest work. “I just took a walk through this really old cemetery near my house and all the grass was brown. They had put out signs that say “Fire Danger” everywhere, which has never happened before.” The world is changing in more ways than one.
Rundle’s world has changed drastically since the release of On Dark Horses and its follow-up, a collaborative album made with New Orleans’ sludge metal band Thou. Those two projects exhausted her, in ways both good and bad, but it was the touring that accompanied On Dark Horses that finally shifted something in her for good, that closed a lid on a very specific facet of her life. “We did a lot of touring together as a band, and I relate it to a circus: a group of people becoming a family, with all of our idiosyncratic behaviours and relationships, and the way we take care of each other, and there are some beautiful memories from that,” Emma explains. “We don’t tour in a bus, it’s not fancy, it’s sleeping on floors and passing out. There was lots of raucous drinking – and drugging to some degree – and after a couple of years of that, it was hard on me mentally. I just knew that I didn’t want to do that anymore. At the tail end of that, I did the Thou collaboration and it was so great and brought me back in touch with where I came from, in terms of playing post-rock and my love for heavy music, but it was also the perfect moment to be like ‘This is the moment’. I was ready to step away from everybody.”
As with most life-altering decisions, it wasn’t one Rundle made overnight, more an accumulation of realisations and small, retreating steps you don’t even initially realise you’re taking, and though she didn’t know it then, those steps were the initial moves towards her new Engine of Hell LP. “I had slowly been retreating into myself mentally,” Rundle states. “My marriage was odd, and I just started to feel more and more estranged from everything. I had moved to Kentucky, and that was a culture shock, and I never really felt like I settled there. I’d done so much maximal music for so long, I was just exhausted from the whole experience. I felt like I needed to retreat into myself, so I went to Wales and just spent a month there by myself.”
Rundle had spent some alone time in the UK previously, staying on after a tour to shack up in Cornwall, walking the coastal paths and fleetingly embedding herself in the local community. This time, for no specific reason, she chose Wales, spending a month in Pembrokeshire to walk and to write, making friends with the women in the local bookstore and seeking out parts of herself in the time spent reflecting and ruminating. She’d long wanted to write a record similar to one of her personal favourites – Nick Drake’s Pink Moon – but while she did write at least one of the songs that feature on the new album, what came out during that time was something more idiosyncratic and improvised, a recording that remains in the vaults. Finding herself back in the States, she felt burned out with the guitar and was sparked by a sudden desire to return to her first instrument, the piano. “I suddenly felt like I was missing the piano, and because I had a place to live which was more stable, I bought one. I started playing and writing immediately and that was when it became clear what I wanted to do.” In those keys, Rundle found herself stirred into life, her mind drifting to long-held memories of her life that took place when she last sat at a piano to play. “It did bring up a lot of memories and specific incidents that shaped what the album became about,” she says. “Some of these songs are tied into the time when I was playing the piano as a young person and things that were happening in my life – and so it did become a window. Going back to the piano, for me, was very romantic. It helped me convey a mixture of apathy and despair in a subtle, soft way that just worked. I think that you can express a whole set of different emotions on the piano compared to the guitar.”
Engine of Hell is incredibly raw and unflinchingly sad. Despite the delicacy through which it is presented, it’s Rundle’s heaviest and most vulnerable work to date. The written introduction which accompanies the album makes clear that it won’t be for everyone. It also opens with a quote from Emma which states: I don’t know what to reveal about this album. I feel like I want to be left alone for a little bit. “I don’t want to make a definitive statement about it in any direction,” Emma reaffirms during our conversation. “The whole purpose of art and music is to say what we can’t say just with words. I guess that could seem like a cop-out to some people, but there’s an exploration into emotions and mental spaces, that I don’t have the vocabulary or the style of thinking to connect in language alone. So I don’t think it’s helpful to sit down and say ‘that song is about this, that other song is about this’. I think that can detract from a listener’s experience.”
Engine of Hell indeed remains transfixing even in its most ambiguous moments. While it might well require a very specific time and place, there has always been a space for music this dark. “I feel more comfortable being as honest and open in the music right now,” Emma says. “I think it’s the saddest album I’ve made and emotionally the heaviest one. And that’s intentional, to a degree.” Though we’re now on the cusp of release, Emma admits that it hasn’t been an easy ride behind the scenes, and she’s had to deal with some push-back against the shift in her sound and the album she’s made. “Some of the first listens were not necessarily well-received,” she admits, tip-toeing through a difficult aspect of the album’s journey. “It’s made people uncomfortable in a way that there’s been some concern for my future; ‘Is this going to repel listeners in a way that they go away forever and never come back?’.”
Emma acknowledged that the kickback from her own team was particularly hard to deal with – although she can understand certain aspects of that position. “There are many moments with this record where it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s a person, totally naked, looking like a fool running through the streets. But I’m personally okay with that. I’ve grown more comfortable with the art and music that I make and the fact that it is coming from a very personal place. So I personally don’t care,” she continues. “At a certain point you do things in life because they’re fulfilling – and being genuine is at the core of what I’m striving to do. I just want a connection. I want to say something in a particular way that someone’s going to connect with.”
That sense of nakedness that Emma references comes from the aforementioned change in her voice which, coupled with the completely stripped-back nature of the recordings, completely redefines her craft. From the first second of the opening track ‘Return’ it’s immediately clear that everything has changed. Her voice hangs in the air, breathy and wispy amid the quiet piano, occasionally lifting into a falsetto that feels like an incantation, the kind that stops you in your tracks, that makes you wince at the fragility. “Across my other albums there is a lot of very powerful, forceful singing,” Emma explains. “On this album, I don’t sing that way and I think it has to do with a mental change. There’s an element of defeat in the record that I do feel in my life, and so it came naturally to sing that way. I want the listener to feel close to the song, to the sound of the voice – and it being imperfect. In some of my past work, it’s been like I’m telling you how I feel really intensely, but with this one, it’s like I’m whispering all my dark feelings to you.”
It’s important to note that the shift in Emma’s singing wasn’t necessarily a stylistic choice it is a by-product of the struggles she’s been working through in her life. Shortly before recording the album, Emma spent ten days in a psychiatric facility and came out the other side of that with a different outlook and a reconfiguring of where her spirit should be directed. “I always felt like I needed a warrior energy to survive,” Emma says, about her musical work. “I was opening for metal bands mostly and so my delivery had to be forceful. I was also around men most of the time. I love men, but being on tour I felt like I needed to defend my space. In the last few years, I’ve turned a corner and I just don’t have that in me anymore. I’m not that person. I’m not in opposition to that kind of energy. I came out of the mental hospital and this way of singing had become my voice. I’m not trying to exert an intense control, I’m expressing something more fragile.”
That fragility has nowhere to hide on Engine of Hell. The guitar songs, of which there are still a few here, are full live takes and appear on the record with their movement intact and plenty of “big fuck ups” committed to tape. On another song, which was eventually pulled from the record, you could hear Emma’s stomach growling on the finished recording. “When you’re going into recording knowing it won’t be perfect, there’s still a bar that makes a take passable,” Emma explains. “I would do several takes and then we would have to decide ‘Did I sing the lyrics perfectly or was the emotional performance more there?’ and we always chose the ones that had the most emotion in them.”
Whether that emotion is buried within the song’s roots or suspended out front in the timbre of her voice, it is the album’s lifeblood. Emma admits that it will make some of these songs potentially impossible to play live, due to the overwhelming nature of the content. “Some of these songs are cathartic for me. I think performing ‘Return’ or ‘In My Afterlife’ will take me to a bad place, I think it will be transcendent,” she says. “I think songs like ‘Blooms of Oblivion’ and ‘The Company’ are going to be a little bit more brutal and I do wonder about that. I’m in therapy now and I’ve read a lot about trauma and in the research I’ve done, it is said that talking about certain traumatic experiences just makes you relive it. So some of this stuff isn’t necessarily healthy for me to think about, but maybe it was important to do at the time. It’s a journey and a process. As we get older we gain distance from where we came from, and it becomes confusing, and we want to put all these stories and memories in a framework that can contextualise who we are as a person and why we are the way we are. And for me, this music does that. But I don’t think that constantly reliving trauma is healthy. I don’t recommend that.”
Engine of Hell closes with the aforementioned song ‘In My Afterlife’ – the album’s most striking moment and the song which gives it its title. The last song written before she entered the studio, Emma has said that this song specifically made her realise what the album was about. “I was feeling unhinged. I’d left Louisville, and I knew my marriage was over. I’d been writing all these songs and then I’d been in a mental hospital. It’d been a strange trip and I felt that I was not walking among the living. The journey through my music and my real-life experiences… I just felt so untethered,” Emma explains. “That ending, about being out in space and being free, that’s about as positive as it gets, I think, and I feel really proud of it. It is the last song I wrote, and it’s where everything led to. I think it is the perfect ending.”
Emma’s choice of words here is deliberate: A perfect ending. An ending. Despite the tonal shift of this album, Emma describes it as the end of an era, rather than the beginning of a new one and this is a purposeful and considered statement. “I think a lot of the album is in response to and coming out of and so it feels like a closing to me,” Emma says, expanding upon those words. “I’ve considered giving up music quite a lot lately and since making this record I’ve been feeling that maybe this has just been my time, and I’ve said what I need to. I don’t want to go on record as saying I’m one-hundred per cent done but it feels that way a little bit. I got to revisit my roots and play the piano, and I got to put my life inside that framework and contextualise my existence and reflect on where I came from. I did what I always wanted to do and that makes it feel like the end of an era. I just feel different; I’m not the same person anymore. Maybe it is the beginning of something,” she continues, “but if it is, it’s beyond the horizon – and I can’t see what’s coming.”
If Engine of Hell does prove to be Emma Ruth Rundle’s swan dive, then it’s hard to imagine a more affecting one. Peeling back the layers of herself, she hangs here suspended in flight, while her dark whispers are carried away in the wind, just loud enough to form their own cryptic shapes, just far enough to reach those who have come to listen.