Like many pleasant things in life, the music of Emily Wells hit me unexpectedly. It was another routine day at the office, poring through the mountain of unsolicited and mostly unwanted music sent to any newspaper by record labels, publicists and anybody with a demo who wants some press.
It was a homemade cassette with a handwritten label, accompanied by a small autobiography. At that time, Emily was a student at Pike High School who was writing sounds that were much more mature than her years. More than that, her music had the one ingredient missing from the pile of 30 other albums that hit my desk that day: passion.
Listening to the tape, I was astonished by the breadth and depth of her lyrics and songs. It struck me the same way Ani DiFranco's music did when I first heard it. It was conventional singer-songwriter stuff but done so well, and with such intensity, that it spoke to the human condition and drew you into her world.
I called the number listed on the letter and Emily's mom answered the phone. I set up an interview and, even at that age, she made a distinctive impression. We put her on the cover of NUVO with two other emerging artists and the backlash from the local music community was immediate and almost universally negative. Shitty bands of every genre started griping on the Internet that they'd been making bad music for years and never got that kind of attention from NUVO.
Nevertheless, Emily withstood that and kept making music. She moved away, spurned the music-industry predators who wanted to turn her into Baby Jewel and kept on following her endless curiosity to explore new musical places. More than 10 years later, she's one of the most buzzed-about artists, getting attention from NPR, NBC and anyone who likes courageous, adventurous music.
Her more recent recordings, whether made solo or with the Emily Wells Trio, are markedly different than her first recordings but still have the same dedication to craft, the same passion, that fueled the songs on that cassette that landed on my desk 12 years ago. I caught up with her recently for an update and a look back.
Of that NUVO coverage, she says today, "I remember feeling pretty thrilled, and my friend driving me to a hotel lobby to get a copy, not knowing if I'd be on the cover or not. You were the first journalist, and the first paper to give me a chance, and write about what I was doing based upon the work, not a publicist or a label or anything else. Who knows, maybe that chance helped me to believe in the work and insist upon keeping it clean and pure all these years... Trusting it I guess. So, thank you."
NUVO: At that time it was mostly you and your guitar. At what point did that become not enough, that you had to try new instruments and sounds?
Wells: Around that same time a friend of mine lent me his four track and i was spun. Suddenly a new world opened up to me.... layers, more than one voice, trying out new instruments. I got a little obsessed with recording, and have been ever since.
NUVO. If you hadn't pursued your muse and your ambitions, where do you think you'd be now? Do you feel like you could ever hold a "normal" job?
Wells: Holding down a "normal" job might be a bit of a challenge, but maybe I'm just spoiled. I've always thought I would do something like make furniture or do installations if I wasn't making music. Maybe I still will. It's hard for me to imagine my life without my work, because so many choices are based around it.
NUVO: Your music was heartfelt even as a teenager. Does your music still draw on personal experiences or is it more externalized?
Wells: My lyrics definitely still draw on my life, but I think some of the literal has come out of that. I think the way I see the world and the way I hear sound has changed too. I'm still always with the metaphor, sweet sweet metaphor.
NUVO: What are you up to these days?
Wells: Living in the middle of nowhere by a creek, recording a new record...When I'm not traveling, that is. I also just finished a new record with Dan the Automator, which will probably come out this summer. My record with the Trio will hopefully be out in September of this year.
Check out emilywellsmusic.com for more information.