Text by Erin Lyndal Martin
Image by Gus Black
“I personally can’t continue to write and tour on music that focuses on such dark subject matter. It’s really not good for me,” says Emma Ruth Rundle by phone from her home in Portland, Oregon.
Indeed, the imagery in Rundle’s work has often included grim Biblical references and inspirations from Rundle’s struggle with the chronic medical condition, adenomyosis. It’s not surprising that after a decade working as a professional musician, Rundle is ready to leave all the gloomy adjectives behind. In fact, it’s hard to find a review of her music that doesn’t use words like “dark,” “gloomy,” or even “gothic.” “Rundle has made her name performing mournful, minor key compositions, swelling with gothic drama,” wrote Pitchfork. “All her disparate musical projects carry a dark underbelly of vulnerability that washes over and seduces the listener, but we only see Rundle at her lowest ebbs through her solo work,” wrote the Independent.
Rundle’s moody guitar work is the product of a musical education she pieced together. She took up the guitar at age 13, having already forged a deep bond with LA’s legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop (which included a flirtation with the Celtic harp). Though Rundle received a few lessons at McCabe’s, mostly she taught herself to play by looking up chords and tablatures online. Later, during a year at CalArts, Rundle took some individual classes with master guitarist Miroslav Tadić. “He really imparted the idea that the instrument was a vehicle for creativity and hugely versatile and never to feel less than for playing in non-virtuosic ways,” she says.
Rundle has honed her intricate guitarscapes and vocals through a number of projects. Her solo career began with Electric Guitar One (2011), whose sequel Rundle is working on now. Her next two solo LPs, Some Heavy Ocean (2014) and Marked for Death (2016)—both released on Sargent House—received massive critical praise for Rundle’s skilled vocals, sharp songwriting, and adept guitar work. In addition to her solo releases, Rundle has collaborated in the bands Red Sparowes, Nocturnes, the Headless Prince of Zolpidem, and currently, Marriages.
Marriages, comprised of Rundle, Greg Burns, and Andrew Clinco, is a little bit post-rock and a little bit pop-goth—the band is often compared to Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure. The band began as a fluke: “Russian Circles asked Red Sparowes to join the bill with them and Deafheaven at a show in LA. When the band couldn’t agree to do it, Greg and I formed Marriages and played the show. The whole first record [Kitsune, 2012] was the set we wrote just for that show,” Rundle says, adding that making their acclaimed 2015 full-length, Salome was “grueling and seemingly unending.”
Despite the tediousness of recording the LP, Rundle sees her work in Marriages as a true collaboration: “With Marriages, Greg and I have a partnership in writing. Historically, that is how we’ve done that music. But with the solo stuff, I write it alone and I play guitar everyday and it comes out, especially because these days I haven’t been writing for Marriages. When we were working on things, sometimes I’d have a little riff or idea melodically that I could bring to Greg and he would have a bass line and we’d come together. Songs would come from that collaboration.”
Despite her successes as a solo artist as well as with Marriages, Rundle isn’t done learning yet. “I’ve been taking classical guitar lessons recently, actually, so I’m performing it and writing to hone my skills. I’ve been playing a lot more nylon string and that’s been pulling into the writing. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake a lot lately. I’m mostly a finger-style guitarist already, but I’m writing exclusively on acoustic and nylon-string guitar these days.”
Rundle loves creating layers of texture, so keeping her guitar work simple goes against her impulses. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to not add all the atmospheric guitar stuff. It’s my favorite thing to do. I love coming up with guitar textures. ‘This is the sound of a blue owl flying out of a tree for 10 seconds.’ I take the Brian Eno approach to textures and colors and exploring that through the electric guitar and effect pedals. But I am focusing on acoustic guitar side-by-side with this,” Rundle says, adding that her favorite guitarist is Billy Corgan.
Rundle’s latest release is The Time Between Us, a split EP with Jaye Jayle (a Louisville, Kentucky punk project featuring Evan Patterson of Young Widows). Two previously unreleased songs, “The Distance” and “Hours (To Fold in England)” are full of the intricate guitar strata that Rundle so loves. Both songs were recorded during the sessions for Marked for Death. “The Distance” was too long to fit on the vinyl version of the LP. A shimmering love song with Rundle’s voice haunting several delicious layers of distortion, this song proved challenging from a guitar perspective for Rundle.
“It took several revisions in the sense that I couldn’t really find the right key for that song to be in. I couldn’t physically tune my guitar as low as it needed to be. So I got this Digitech drop pedal. It’s like a whammy pedal, but it specifically changes the entire tuning by a half step down. It goes all the way to seven half steps down. I ended up using that in the studio instead of tuning the guitar itself because it was impossible. I kind of fucked myself over with all the tuning on the record because I didn’t come up with a strategy for that tuning situation—it’s pretty out there.”
That willingness to embrace new tunings is part of what makes Rundle’s guitar work so enthralling, whether in her solo work or in Marriages. Rundle hopes that there will be a new Marriages album sometime in the future, but right now she feels more committed to her solo work. “It feels more well-received and it’s natural for me to write alone and be alone these days anyway.” Given her newfound classical guitar skills and her desire to make more hopeful music, it’s anybody’s guess what her new solo music will sound like. But even if Rundle leaves the gloom and fuzzed-out soundscapes behind, her music will surely remain alive with the ambition and honesty that have so many singing her praises already.