Emma Ruth Rundle is one of the best singer-songwriters and guitarists around. Marked for Death, her last album, was released via Sargent House in September 2016. Recording Marked For Death was such an arduous process for Emma and one year later, in Berlin, I talked with her about what has changed since its release.
Marked for Death was released in September 2016. It’s been a bit over a year. How has your career changed since its release?
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My career has actually changed a lot since then. When that album came out, Wovenhand took me on a European tour, and since then things have changed a lot. I’m able to come here and play shows like this now, and that’s a huge surprise and very humbling. I don’t think my approach to playing music is so different. I’m able now to tour with a band, whereas before Marked for Death came out, I always toured as a solo artist without any other musicians. That tour with Wovenhand was also solo, just playing guitar and singing. So more recently, I have been taking a band and that has changed how the songs are performed and everything like that.
Do you feel like a different artist after Marked for Death?
I feel that album was important for me to purge a lot of my personal troubles. I think I had a period after the record came out where I felt really changed and transformed, and now I’ve sort of gone back to my old ways and maybe the next record won’t sound so different from this one.
It’s getting a little heavier I think. But there are some songs that are more hopeful. I think playing with a band is different and more liberating for me. I think there will always still be solo songs, but I can play more lead guitar, which I really miss doing. When it’s just me, I’m playing a more simple style. So in the new album I have more room to play.
Do you like playing with a band?
I do like playing with a band. But tonight what’s important is to keep playing solo because I think that the emotional content of the music doesn’t come across as well with the band
I had planned to see you in play in Barcelona last year but that show was cancelled. Are you OK now?
Yeah. I was really fucked up. I had a lot x-rays done. I kept getting sick and I had this horrible cough. I think that what happened was that I tore a muscle while coughing and it caused an inflammation in my shoulder and chest. So I went to the hospital three different times on that tour. I went on steroids and tried to stay on the tour. Finally, I just couldn’t do it. I had the band, but when they went home I was touring alone, trying to carry everything on my own and I couldn’t lift my arm. It was a nightmare. So I went home and took three or four months for my ribs to heal.
Marked for Death was about personal issues and darkness. Do you feel the same way now?
I feel that some of the issues that I have struggled with and are themes in Marked for Death are still things that I’m battling. But I think that as I get older and the more that I’m doing this, some things have fallen away, some things have been resolved, some things have become stronger and some things remain the same.
Are you working on anything right now?
Yeah, there’s a new record.
We heard the song that your wrote a year ago here in Berlin. Can you tell us more about it?
I came to Berlin to rehearse for the Wovenhand tour and I stayed here for a couple of weeks with some friends. I had a lot of time, especially on that tour because I was opening. I could walk around and I found myself playing the acoustic guitar a lot and I was just very inspired by being in Berlin and I wrote that song. I love it here. That song is kind of more of an acoustic solo song. I think a lot of the record has more instrumentation and there’s more of a post-rock element to it. But we’ll see.
What inspires your lyrics?
The new song that I played tonight called “Gilded Cage” is partially about some artists I know and it’s also about this division in human being, this us-and-them kind of idea, about overcoming these stresses and how none of these things will ultimately derail you. I don’t know, I think the theme of overcoming something and redemption is very important to me, acknowledging the personal struggles that people have and then finding a way to get over it. I think especially in the US right now with the political situation. I don’t write political music but that song had a little bit to do with that.
Where did you find the strength to talk about something so personal?
I spent two months in the desert drinking. There’s a desert called Pinion Hills near LA, about an hour and a half away. And my record label, Sargent House, had a house there. There’s nothing glamorous about this place. It’s very bleak. And I think I just sat there for many days, sort of getting very deeply in touch with some of the things I needed to figure out. I was drinking a lot at the time, and the day we started recording I completely quit drinking for six months and made the record. It was intense.
What’s the creation process of your songs like?
The beginning of a song always starts with the guitar: a riff, or a chord or a picking pattern that inspires the beginning of a song. And then there’s something that I need to sing about, and that’s how it works.
Do you have an album or a song from your childhood that you feel emotionally connected to?
My favorite record of all times is Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins. I love that record. I still listen to it all the time. I’ve been listening to it since I was 12 years old and I love the guitar playing on that record. So that’s my go-to answer because I still listen to it all the time. There’s a lot of different music that we’ve all listened to growing up, but I think that’s my favorite rock record, my favorite guitar playing. If it wasn’t for that record I probably wouldn’t play guitar.
Do you have any memories linked to that album?
I think it was a nostalgic time, like when you first fall in love. Also it was when I first got a guitar, so I was sitting there trying to play along to the record. People make fun of me a lot. Stephen Brodsky will text me links to Billy Corgan things. It’s a constant source of humor for everybody.
My favorite song from your last album is “Real Big Sky.” You sing, “When they broke your body, the broke your mind but with broken spirits you have always tried.” What inspired this song?
This song (and I feel comfortable saying this because I don’t think he’ll ever see this) is really about my father. My father was shot by the police in 1969. He was shot in many different places at a protest. He’s still alive, obviously, because I am here. He’s a deeply spiritual person and he’s also legally blind because of a degenerative eye disease. So part of the lyrics are about him and part of them are about my grandmother, who also raised me and who I think about a lot. But it’s really about my father.
Do you think that being a woman in this society is hard?
Fuck yes. It is fucking hard as fuck. And you know what? We got this. We can do this. But it makes me mad. It’s really hard. I’ve been playing in bands for 10 years and I’m always the only woman on tour. There are plenty of amazing women doing this and I’m not saying that I’m the only one. And there’s a lot going on, I don’t want to derail anybody else’s struggle and I feel very lucky to be living in the “free world,” but the way that it’s hard is so insidious. It’s not entirely obvious to everyone. It’s just subtle. And it’s not all the time; sometimes it’s wonderful. There are just certain things that I can’t necessarily describe, but it’s true.
So what do you think about the female music scene?
So this is the other part of it. What I feel is that I don’t personally get too invested. I think the progressive thing to do is to not take the sides of male and female and just like what you like and support what you want to. I’ve thought about this and I’ve asked myself if I should find an all female band, if that would be the most forward-thinking thing to do. But at the same time, I have these people that I’m so connected with and that I love and that issue doesn’t exist in my band or in my world.
I think it’s great that in 2017 all these women who are playing around the world are inspiring. For example, Chelsea Wolfe is a friend of mine and she is a fucking badass lady. She’s an incredible songwriter and a very strong woman and I have the utmost respect for her. It makes me so happy to see that someone like that can make art and be supported. I think it’s a positive thing. And you see a lot of support from men in the scene as well. I think our scene is actually pretty good in that regard.
The first time I saw the cover of Marked for Death, I was surprised by the natural way in which you show yourself before the camera: no makeup, no particular poses. Do you think that presenting yourself as you are to your audience is your way to be real?
Yes, absolutely. I took that photo myself when I was out there in the desert writing. It was very important to me with this record, especially in the song “Real Big Sky,” that it was really honest, really from my heart and as true as it could be because that’s what I have, that’s what I’m able to give and do. My music brings something that is very human, and a very real experience.
Not everyone was a fan of this idea when I said that was the artwork, it’s from when I was writing the record there. I wrote the record there and then the engineer came with his material and recorded me in the same place where I wrote it. And I took that photo and it was just important to me. There’s a lot of beauty and sexualization of things as well, which is very depressing and it’s something that women have to deal with in this world and that men don’t really have to worry too much about. And that’s bullshit. So, that’s who I was at the time and it’s important that that is what the art is.
How important is the connection with your audience.
To me it has become more important. I think I’ve played so many tours opening that I became very used to having no connection at times. And this makes you hardened in a certain way. But doing my own tours it’s important to me. Like the thing tonight with the PA not working; it’s like, I want to give the song the emotion it should have. And with all this shit in the way it’s not going to happen, you’re singing into this unnatural thing. It’s important for that moment to happen for me and for everyone that’s there and is willing to be open to listening to this kind of music that that kind of connection can happen.
What does someone expect when they go to one of your shows?
I don’t know. It depends on whether I’m with a band or solo, but I think you can expect to have a real human experience. We’re not here to put on a show with light and all that shit. It’s just music and something from the heart. That’s it.
Could you please give some advice to any young female musician or any band that wants to play personal music or write intimate lyrics?
I would say just be real and be honest about whatever it is. No matter how mundane something is, if it’s truly what you’re feeling and you write about it, then it’s going to translate. And the other thing I would say, especially to female musicians—because I’ve played with a lot of bands and I’ve been touring for 10 years—you must never give up and you must value yourself enough to pursue what it is that you do and just keep going. And there may be many years where no one cares, but it doesn’t matter if that’s your passion.
Is there any artist or band that you would like to collaborate with right now? Dead or alive.
I’m not that great at collaborating. But I’ve started collaborating with Jaye Jayle. So I recorded a lot on their record, and that was great. I did some work with Dylan Carlson and we’re probably going to tour together in 2018. I don’t know… collaborating is so hard because I’m kind of nervous and introverted so if I wasn’t shy… I’m not sure. I have to think about that more. Maybe Nick Drake would be my first choice actually.
And what do you see in your future as an artist?
Well, I see the future of the next record, which I’m very excited about, and putting out an acoustic EP. At some point I would like to retire from touring so much and do some more painting and be at home. Have a family some day. Who knows.