Music » Interviews

Emily Wells on bonding with The Roots, playing for the Clintons, and dealing with death



Wells: The missing link between John Cage, Bjork and the Wu-Tang Clan. - SHERVIN LAINEZ
  • Shervin Lainez
  • Wells: The missing link between John Cage, Bjork and the Wu-Tang Clan.

From a musician's perspective, there's no greater proof of an artist's talent and authenticity than being able to number Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson among your friends and collaborators. The Roots co-founder and guiding light has always shown an unerring eye for creative potential, one that's matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of music history.

So it's not entirely surprising that Questlove would hear about Emily Wells and go see her perform at the Knitting Factory, a New York City venue that helped foster artists like Cassandra Wilson and Sonic Youth.

Like Questlove, the Amarillo-born preacher's daughter draws upon an incredibly broad cross-section of genres: She's a classically trained violinist and a plaintively soulful singer who counts John Cage's experimental compositions and the Wu-Tang Clan's hardcore hip-hop among her influences. As a solo act, she serves as her own backing band, with live-looping, analog synths, guitars, real drums, and complicated violin parts that would make Laurie Anderson's head spin. Wells also has an oddly enunciated vocal style that can bring to mind pop-music eccentrics like Bjork and Karin Dreijer Andersson.

All of the above may not be a formula for mainstream success, but that's clearly not the point for the artist behind chamber-punk compositions like "Johnny Cash's Mama's House" and "Symphony 1 in the Barrel of a Gun."

Wells says her initial encounter with Questlove was encouraged by writer, actress and mutual friend Amber Tamblyn. "She invited him to one of my shows, and we've been collaborators and buddies ever since. And he's graciously invited me to do things that I'd never ever have been able to do otherwise."

Among those opportunities was a 2013 concert hosted by Bill and Hillary's Clinton Global Initiative, where Wells was on a bill with The Roots, Aloe Blacc and Elvis Costello.

"So my first time playing with The Roots was in front of the Clintons, as well as all these world ambassadors," she recalls. "I was like, 'OK, this is terrifying and exhilarating, let's do it.'"

Questlove subsequently enlisted Wells for a one-off show in the elegant surroundings of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he led a hand-picked array of relatively obscure musicians through artful deconstructions of works by legendary artists like Robert Moog and George Clinton.

More recently, Wells created and performed a piece for a 2015 concert celebrating electronic music pioneer Terry Riley's 80th birthday. "I remember seeing Terry Riley perform a decade ago and being completely blown away," she says. "It really challenged me to be more improvisational, to be more daring, to ask more of the audience. So getting to meditate on his work in order to create something of my own was really special."

That same spirit can be heard on Promise, which Wells released last month on her own Thesis & Impact imprint. Opening with the gospel-inflected "Don't Use Me Up," which Wells has described as "a song about whiskey, friendship and Jesus," the album reverberates throughout with church organs, electronically treated violin, and drum programming.

"I wanted there to be a feeling of cohesion in the production," says Wells. "And even though you probably can't hear it, I thought a lot about old soul and Stax Records, the intentions behind how things were panned and how upfront the vocals were. I really want to approach my own recordings like that.

"I'm old-fashioned, I guess," she adds with a laugh. "I believe in albums."

Wells is also dedicated to touring, something more easily accomplished without the expense of bringing along a band. That also gives her complete creative control and the ability to include jarring rhythms and avant-garde excursions in her music without losing focus.

"I set up clear parameters for myself, so that I can be free within them," says the musician, "There are things I know are gonna happen, that are gonna give space for me to go off, and then a place to land. So I do create safety for myself. It's kind of like a jazz band where you're playing with really tight players, and that's how you know you're going to be OK."

But there are also downsides. "Being alone is the biggest plus and it's also the biggest weakness," says Wells. "I can create whatever I want, I can tour whenever I want, but it can be a lonely endeavor."

After two years of composing, recording and mixing, Wells created an album that actually sounds like an album, and was ready to release it. But all that changed when she got word that longtime Roots manager Richard Nichols had lost an extended battle with leukemia.

"I definitely thought the album was finished, and then Richard, um, God..." Wells' voice trails off.

"He was such a genius," she says, recalling how it was Nichols who coached her prior to the Clinton Global Initiative appearance. "He had never seen me play at that point, but he clearly trolled YouTube enough to know the live versions of songs that hadn't even come out yet. He was like, 'All right, I want you to start with "Come to Me," and when you get to this one part where the beat drops, then it's gonna switch to "Symphony Number One" and the band's gonna come in.' It was like he had the whole thing planned out."

Upon hearing the news of Nichols' passing, Wells drove to Philadelphia, where she reunited with Questlove and his bandmates. Together, they played a private show in their friend and mentor's honor.

"I don't know that I can describe it in words," she says. "Everyone in the room, and every person onstage, it's like we weren't touching the ground. It was like feeling that your gravitational pull has changed, like the scientific makeup of the world has changed, now that this man has left it."

When Wells got home, she went straight into her studio and began recording one final song called "Richard."

"I felt like I needed the feeling of all the people in that room with me, for longer. And so that's when I wrote the initial sample and melodies for the song. And then I just stayed in my studio for hours and hours, just letting that loop play and adding to it."

Wells' keening vocals on the hypnotically layered track convey a sense of longing that only time will heal.

"It's just that feeling of wanting. Like if the person is able to just get out of the bed. Or not close their eyes. Like stay awake. You know, it's almost like a childish notion, just wanting that to happen."

But Wells can at least take consolation in that final parting show. "It was just such a rare experience to be so unified with a room full of people," she says. "I think that's why I play music. We're always grasping at that experience. And music give us that, if we let it."

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