Singer/songwriter Emily Wells emerged onto the Indianapolis music scene in 1998 as a 16-year-old prodigy, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Ani DiFranco. She landed on the cover of NUVO, was written about in other local media and became a local celebrity of sorts.
Soon after her graduation from Pike High School, though, the earnest songwriter hit the road - literally. She recorded many albums, some by herself and some with others, some experimental, some not.
Her accumulated life experiences brought her to Making Static, her new album, released this week and available locally at Luna Music. It's a serious, sometimes somber album about life, love and the other experiences she found.
From her office in Los Angeles, she talked with NUVO about the journey that took her from then to now.
When I left Indianapolis, I had three weeks of shows booked on the West Coast. I played the shows, then ran out of shows and almost money, then continued to do my best to tour, which involved getting shows wherever I could. When I got really desperate, I was playing on the street to get money.
I was 19 at the time. It was about survival. I did that for seven or eight months.
Before that, Epic Records was interested in me around the time I was 18. I had a development deal with them for a few years. I went back to New York and was involved with them. They had me working with producers from all over the country, which was kind of weird. I was 18 and these guys were 30 to 40. Their assignment was to make this girl accessible. Make sure she writes in a chorus. They wanted a single. They wanted two or three songs that could make an album sell. They said, 'Do whatever you want as long as you have those three songs.' And I was saying that I had to have complete creative control. But that was an unrealistic teen-ager's ideal. I didn't have anything to back me up. My idea for complete control meant I could do anything. And they're a major label. They need to sell records. It wasn't a match. I wasn't going to write hit singles and they weren't going to let me mess around and do whatever I want.
It was an amicable parting. I just decided to keep releasing my own albums. So I moved to Los Angeles three years ago. I've done some touring, but I've been concentrating on playing shows here and recording. I've gotten really into recording. I have my own home studio and I recorded my last two albums there. My last album, Music for Geek Love, I did everything on. It was 18 tracks, very experimental. It was everything I wanted to do with Epic but couldn't. I played everything on the album, every instrument.
I've made so many albums. And they've all been huge learning experiences. They were like me getting to go to college. One was completely acoustic. I recorded it with Paul Mahern in Bloomington. He had this beautiful old mike and set it up, got this beautiful sound, and we just recorded it. That was coming off my gypsy street-playing experience. Both of those things taught me about the experience of playing the song and singing it and just letting it be that.
I had to go through all of these different experiences with other people, experiences with myself, wanting to be so experimental and wanting to do seven-minute songs with weird drumbeats. It finally brought me to the point where I wanted to make an album of just good songs. No bullshit, just good songs. The concept of the album is "just what's needed." I kicked a lot of songs off the album. They were fine, and they were recorded, but they weren't good enough. They weren't clear enough. It was the same way with the production, too. I didn't want to put on anything that wasn't essential to the song. So I've gone from completely minimal to totally over the top to back again.
There's obviously a big difference between somebody who's 23 and somebody who's 16. When you're 16, you may not fully accept that as reality, but when you're 23 you do. This album is somber in a lot of ways. It's very honest. A lot of the album was recorded after my grandfather died, which was a very profound experience to me. Anyone who listens to the last song on the album, "Goodbye," is going to know. That was heavy. I spent the last week with him at his bedside. And maturity-wise, that kicked it up several notches. I was in the beginning of the album when I spent time with him. I came back to finish the album. That grief, that experience is infused in that record. Even though every song isn't about it, it's all in there.
Being in a mature relationship and learning about that has definitely changed my life experience. When you're 16, you can imagine it but when you really live it, it's no longer imagination.
I don't come back to Indianapolis that often, maybe two or three times a year. When I come back to town, I can be pretty incognito about it, as any of my friends can tell you. I haven't played a show in Indy in forever. It's that feeling of wanting to be with my family and nothing else. I do want to play in Indianapolis the next time I come there. Maybe around the holidays.
I'm more fond of Indianapolis now than at any time when I lived there. And I have a lot of friends there and a lot of good memories. I think of Los Angeles as home now.
I look back at the recordings I made when I was a teen-ager and I wince. But I do that with material I recorded a year ago. The first tapes I made as a teen-ager are pretty painful. At least there's the occasional time when I can understand what I've been trying to do.
I've been making a living through my music. It's not a big living at all, but I'm going to keep working and learning. I'm taking classical piano now and getting back to my classical roots. I'm a classical violinist. I want to be able to play whatever I want on piano. I'm interested in producing other artists as well. Right now, promoting myself is enough. I want to build an incredible body of work. That's my dream. My lifetime dream. It's hard going. If I'm the right match for a major label, I'd sign. If it happens, it happens.
When I was 16, I wanted to be Ani DiFranco. Now I just want to be Emily Wells. The best Emily Wells I can be. That's more than enough for me.