Sense Memory: Emma Frank Speaks
The ability to be vulnerable in performance is a vital trait for singer-composer Emma Frank. With the release of her third album Ocean Av (Susan Records, 2018), Frank draws listeners in to the depth of her intention. Within each song, the New England native shares not only her thoughts but the often messy process that leads from one thought to another.
Only months after recording Ocean Av, Frank found herself back in the studio, settling into her forthcoming release Come Back (Justin Time, 2019) that features Aaron Parks, Franky Rousseau, Tommy Crane and Zack Lober. This Tuesday, April 16, at The Jazz Gallery, Frank and Parks, along with Rousseau, Desmond White and Daniel Dor, premiere new music from Come Back including the album’s newly-released single “I Thought.”
The Jazz Gallery: Your compositions sound and feel as though they’re very thoughtfully arranged. In terms of your process, are you typically composing at the piano or with a guitar, and does that process vary depending on the project?
Emma Frank: The instrument I write on is piano, if I’m sitting at an instrument. Sometimes I am. I guess, ideally, a song will come out kind of in one piece—not necessarily the full song itself, but just like I’m writing lyrics and chords and melody kind of at the same time. And that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, especially if I’m challenging myself to write with a musical idea that’s challenging to me, I might hone in on that before I set words to it. Or I’ll be a little bit looser with what those words are, maybe depend more on sounds to guide my lyrical process. And then there’s a lot of writing that just happens walking around.
TJG: Do you document that writing on your phone?
EF: Totally. A hundred percent.
TJG: During those instances when you feel you have to deal with the music ahead of the lyrics, do you ever find yourself revising the music based on what lyrics you come up with?
EF: Interesting question. I guess I was kind of unclear. I can’t even think of a single situation where I’ve written an entire piece and then set lyrics to it. So it’s more like 16 bars of something and I’m like, “That’s a cool idea. And here are some words to go with it. Okay. What’s next?” Really, if I don’t know what the lyrics are about, I don’t know what the piece of music is about. And I wish that I—I’m so in awe of composers that are telling fully-fledged stories musically, and have that vision all set out. And if there aren’t lyrics, it’s very rare that I do.
TJG: We’re talking about compositions that go to some very haunting and, to me, very unexpected places harmonically and rhythmically, and it almost feels as though you’re working out certain internal struggles – human struggles – in your music.
TJG: Is that somewhat relevant an interpretation of your expression?
EF: Totally. It’s so spot on that it’s actually a little embarrassing to hear. The things that we set out to do and the things that we now want to do are often different. I think that I developed a bit of a philosophy for how I wanted to write music, at least in a certain period. And I don’t know if it’s the same now. But it was that listening to odd meters, listening to music that had a lot of rhythmic variation, was a way for me to learn to feel new things. I had to move with it because I didn’t always know how to count it. I had to learn how to feel it. And there were a handful of records that were just so powerful and therapeutic to me because they were introducing me to musical ideas that I had to feel and integrate physically and, at the same times, were presenting lyrics that were really deep and beautiful and powerful. I’m thinking about Becca Stevens’ album Weightless, and I just spent a lot of time, in my room, you know – modern dancing to that album (laughs), and really learning a lot from it, spiritually.
And [something] just occurred to me today listening to Andy Shauf. He’s a songwriter from Toronto and he’s so weird and great. He has this great record called The Party. Every song is a scene with this guy being colossally socially awkward at a party. There’s this one song where he’s telling his best friend’s girlfriend he has a crush on her – all these things. I was feeling anxious this morning and I was listening to this record. And it’s such a great record to listen to when you’re anxious because you’re like, “Oh my god, this guy. He kinda has it worse.” Someone creating a musical space for you to feel a specific set of feelings in is, in itself, highly therapeutic. It’s slowing my breathing down, getting me to sway a bit. It’s doing all these things to me that are helping me through what would otherwise be a really not nice feeling – not to mention the fact that I feel connected to somebody else, heard and seen.
TJG: When I’m interviewing songwriters—those artists who are writing songs that are meant to be sung—I wonder about the odd meter component. I had the opportunity to interview Camila Meza a while back.
EF: She is so wonderful.
TJG: She mentioned that she would just figure out what she wanted to say, out loud, and that would become the lyric. She then would create the music around that lyric, and so a lot of the time it would be in this odd meter.
EF: Totally. And that’s definitely a writing tool that I have used—I’m not using it very often these days – where you have this specific thing to say. But the way that I was trying to do it for a little while, was I was trying to use movement and my voice. Whether this means that I’m walking while I’m singing, or creating some kind of interpretive dance—and if I had a teenage child, they’d be so embarrassed by me. And [it gets at] the idea of embodiment: What is this thing that you’re trying to say? How does it feel in your body? What’s the actual rhythm of how you would speak it? There are so many interesting rhythms, and there’s so much musicality in how we speak and how we say something in a really precise way. And when you transcribe that, you’re like, “Oh shit, I guess that was in 15. Okay. Now we’re doing that.”
TJG: I hear that a lot, too, from artists who are transcribing. One of the many reasons they enjoy transcribing—or hate it—is just to figure it out and think, “Okay, at least that component is demystified a little.”
EF: Yeah. Totally.
TJG: You’ve been pretty prolific since you’ve been in New York. I recently spoke with Shai Maestro about his process in between his processes. He mentioned that, after he puts out a record, he has to go through this period of observation and absorption before he can start writing again. And I was wondering if you had similar process or an opposing process, in terms of your output.
EF: It’s hilarious to me that you would use the term prolific, and I so appreciate it. That’s awesome. But, in my mind, I’m so slow. Part of that is also that I’m not a sideman and I’m not touring with other groups. I waitress. A lot. And so the musical work that I do is work on my own projects, and that can only go so fast. I try to not write from an intellectual place. Not to say that my brain isn’t working, but I just—the voice in my head that’s like, “You should really write something. You’re really slow. You’re not being productive…” is a voice that very rarely helps me make things that I feel proud of. So I feel that my actual writing process is slow. I do write for practice. I do pop out songs, and I’m like, “That’s fine. I don’t like that so much or wanna record that.” But the songs that usually do stick around are songs that I’m like, “Oh, well that actually came out of an experience or a long-term development thing that made me realize this or led to these lyrics.” I think that really good songs, for me, take a lot of time to be born—not necessarily in the actual writing process because sometimes it can come out in a couple hours or over a couple days, but more in those songs that get thrown away and those lyrics that you were like, “Man, but that was a nice lyric, and that one melodic idea was really cool.” And that maybe comes back to you three years later and ends up in the chorus of a song that you are happy with.
So I’m really slow, and I always feel like I’m in this downloading period. I think that’s how Erykah Badu said it in some cool little New York Times interview; she was like, “You have your uploading period and you have your downloading period.” I love the process of making albums. I think it’s so cool to kind of collect a part of yourself in this little nine-song or ten-song vessel. So I’m always kind of working with an album in mind, and at some point I’m like, “Oh, I have four songs that are from this period of my life and exploring these ideas. This is my next album. What else do I need to write?” But it takes me a lot of time to get there.
TJG: You say you’re not a sideman typically, but you are collaborative, as are so many of the artists who perform at The Jazz Gallery. Can you talk a little bit about your association with Aaron Parks and how that partnership began?
EF: My voice teacher when I was in high school was my favorite voice teacher. Ever. I was 16 and had braces and she was this glowing goddess who sang exactly like I wanted to sing. Her name is Amanda Baisinger, and she released a little EP around that time and Aaron was on it. And I listened to those songs—I remember being 16 and taking a bath and crying. I knew this recording inside and out. And I didn’t even really know what a piano solo was, but I could sing all the piano solos. And I remember, years later, having my own band and referencing this album. It’s called Short Songs. I’d reference this and I’d be like, “You see how composed these solos feel? They’re so of the song. They’re so melodic. They’re so singable.” And people would kind of get annoyed with me and be like, “Well, Emma that’s Aaron Parks. Can you not tell me to play like Aaron Parks? I mean yeah, it’d be really cool if I could play like Aaron Parks.” And I’d be like, “Oh. Okay, who’s this guy?” So then I met him through friends of friends, actually after a Keith Jarrett concert at Carnegie Hall, and we met up and started playing together. And it was really cool because I think, for a long time, I’d really been writing with him in mind. So I think the songs were instinctive for him, the entry point was really natural and intuitive. And for me, I was like, “Okay. My songs are finally in the hands I’ve wanted them to be in.”
TJG: That explains the beautiful shared expression you seem to have between you. Do you want to talk about the story behind Come Back?
EF: Coming out of the studio from Ocean Av, I was just floored by what a wonderful experience it was. And I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to do more. Let’s go.” And I rode that inspiration for a couple of songs. And then life sort of became normal colored again. Working with Aaron, he gave me a few things I wanted to work on in my writing. One of them was, if I’m writing with odd meters—it’s kind of embarrassing to say, but a narrative tool that I lean on is using odd meter or coming out of a groove that’s into a new feel, but for just a second, as a way to reflect the way our minds and hearts can feel pulled out of the moment or in different directions. Basically Aaron was just like, “Don’t overuse that. Does this odd bar of 5 really need to be here, or is there another way that you could express the same thing?” So what that really gave me permission to do with this next set of songs that I wrote was to simplify, trust my gut and not listen to that voice that’s [saying], “That’s not interesting enough.”
So what I came up with on this album are a handful of songs that are really just songs. And I think that somebody that didn’t listen to jazz music wouldn’t be like, “Oh this sounds like jazz.” They’d be like, “Oh, this sounds like a song.” And that feels really nice because, ultimately, I just want to make something that moves people.
Emma Frank plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. The group features Ms. Frank on vocals, Aaron Parks on piano, Franky Rousseau on guitar, Desmond White on bass, and Daniel Dor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.