Redefining heaviness. If you’ve had any sort of interaction with the world of Roadburn in the past few years, you have surely come across this notion at some point. Just like everything else in art, culture and human innovation, heavy music is changing, evolving, becoming richer and gaining new meanings. As a festival that strives to give a home to groundbreaking and unusual artists – the “freaks in the corner”, as Steve Von Till from Neurosis so wonderfully puts it – it’s almost a mission statement for Roadburn to not only keep up with what it means for music to be “heavy” but actively contribute to that expansion and that discovery of new territories. And if that might seem like a complex goal, or even a rather vague ethos to follow, sometimes everything comes together and is crystallised in a single moment; something you can point at and just go, “yeah, that’s it”.
That’s precisely what happened when one lonely – and, as it turns out, rather terrified – woman stepped up to the Green Room stage on the last day of Roadburn 2017. Emma Ruth Rundle didn’t know it at the time, but she was about to make Roadburn history.
— José Carlos Santos
— Paul Verhagen (Pics)
“It was such a turning point for the festival,” says Becky Laverty, one of the main faces of Roadburn, as the festival’s Press & Communications manager, who was instrumental in getting Emma to perform this show of shows. “It helped us to open up some doors and explore what heaviness meant. That show summed up really well that ethos of redefining heaviness. That one woman, with no accompaniment, was able to create this unique atmosphere, so dense and overwhelming. It was absolutely a heavy performance, but not necessarily the kind of thing that people associate with heavy music. It immediately became one of the shows that we’ve referenced the most when booking shows. What is heaviness, and in what ways can you define it? That’s a question we ask ourselves all the time, and this show is an important part of the reply to that.”
For all the show’s impact on Roadburn and on Emma herself – we’ll get to that in a minute – it’s funny to realise, when talking to the parties involved, how different it all could have been, if not for a few random details that, with seemingly cosmic will, worked together to create the conditions for that powerful performance. Like, for example, why she stepped up to the stage all alone.
“Before Roadburn, I was on a really long tour, which started with Deafheaven in the United States, and I basically never got out of the van,” Emma says. “I kept going with Jaye Jayle, who were touring. When I got the Roadburn offer, I decided to book a European tour around it as a lot of American bands do, to make it more affordable. Because I couldn’t afford to take my own band, the idea was to use Jaye Jayle as my backing band, and have them open the shows during the tour – that would give them the opportunity to go to Europe too.”
When things didn’t work out with Jaye Jayles‘ drummer, Emma brought in the drummer from her own US-based backing band, and the group only had a few days to rehearse for the tour. Then they all went to Europe, without ever having played a show together.
“We had a day, as a long soundcheck, before a show somewhere, to play as a band. That was it. I’m saying this, and I realise that I would never do any of this now, when I look back on it,” she laughs. “We made it through that night’s show. But was it good? I don’t know! But it didn’t feel right to me. The whole purpose of this trip was to be at Roadburn, so I reached out to Walter and Becky asking them if a solo show was a possibility they could consider.
“If I had the opportunity to present it as a band, and to represent well the album I had made, which was the reason why I was invited, I would have chosen to do that. But I felt that it wasn’t good, it wasn’t presentable, and the last thing I wanted to do was to be humiliated at Roadburn. I was finally going there, it was such an honour to be there as an artist, at that magical place… So I eventually made the choice at the last minute to do it alone.
“I hadn’t played a solo show for some time because I had been touring with my US band,” Emma continues. “I hadn’t played in that format since I did solo opening slots for other bands, with reimagined versions of what the albums were, but at least that’s something I did do for a long time. I felt I had enough experience and I felt strong enough to do it like that again.”
To add to this sense of a-woman-against-the-world loneliness, another unfortunate event unfolded: “This was the same year that Chelsea Wolfe, King Woman and True Widow played,” Becky recalls. “There is actually a photo with Chelsea, Nicole, Kristina and Caro from Oathbreaker – this group of great women who played Roadburn, and Emma wasn’t in it because she was only there on the Sunday. I remember a conversation with her when she told me she was really looking forward to coming here and seeing all these women who were playing that year and with whom she’s friends with, and none of them were there anymore when she arrived and she was all on her own!”
But Emma never backed down. She was prepared. Scared, but prepared. “I knew that it was going to be terrifying,” she says. “All of the emotions leading up to it, I would describe them as terror and fear. You know that nightmare where people are standing naked in front of their class or something? That was what this whole Roadburn thing was like to me. I hadn’t performed in front of metal audiences in a long time either, but I do have a lot of experience with people heckling, talking to each other, not listening, even dumping beer on my stuff. I was ready for all that. I was ready to go into battle. I wanted to have this accomplishment of performing no matter what. I had this idea that if I had a band, people would have more respect for it and listen. And if they didn’t, at least we’d be louder than them.”
Fortunately Roadburners came through and proved themselves up to the situation. The audience in the Green Room on that magical evening was in itself a sanctuary, it lifted rather than brought down the brave performer singing her heart out to them.
“The Green Room was absolutely crammed!” Becky recalls, still in some awe of the atmosphere that was built in there. “Emma looked a bit nervous when she first came out, but then she totally owned the stage. It was such a powerful performance. Although I believe it would also have been incredible if she had played with a full band, it was really a stark performance, which felt right because that album, Marked For Death, is quite stark as well. She looked so strong and powerful, she dominated in such a calm and quiet way. Afterwards I spoke to her backstage and I told her this, and she said it had been one of the shows where she’d been the most terrified. But it didn’t come through at all.”
It did not, but Emma was indeed: “I’m super disorganised, and Becky and everyone from the staff really helped me. I was like a little bird and they picked me up and put me back up on my nest. Once I got to the Green Room – and I’m reliving the fear right now! – as soon as the show started, I realised people were silent,” Emma says quietly, her own voice hushing as if still in acknowledgement of the incredible response she got on the occasion. “It was a very powerful and moving experience for me. I think to this day it still remains my favourite show that I’ve ever played.
“I’ve never felt the respect that I felt from the Roadburn community and the audience, it really blew my mind,” Emma says. “It changed my life, honestly. I felt that was a pivotal moment in my career as a performer. Nothing has ever been the same for me since that moment. It was the first time that I felt… maybe this isn’t placed in the right way, because people should get their sense of self-worth from other places, but at Roadburn I felt respect as a musician for the first time in a way that I had never felt before in my life: I felt like I had a place.
“It gave me a strength that I’ve taken with me forever since then. That I have the right to do what I’m doing, that I have a place to have a voice, that I shouldn’t feel ashamed for myself, for what I’m saying and what I’m singing.”
All of this somehow makes missing Emma’s curation-that-never-was in 2020 even more heartbreaking, but there are also good things to take away from that. “It’s such a shame her curation never came to fruition,” Beckylaments. “But I do feel that our relationship with her is not over and there is much more to come. That was just the beginning. It’s also to do with how heavy music has evolved. I don’t think Emma would be covered in the likes of Metal Hammer ten or fifteen years ago, for example, and for that matter nor do I necessarily think she would have made much sense at Roadburn then, even. The boundaries of heavy music are shifting, and she is a prime example of how they are evolving.”
Emma herself says of the pandemic-interrupted Roadburn 2020: “It’s sad. It’s crushing. We all did the work, it was there. It would have been so cool. It was such an honour, and such a highlight of my career as a musician, working with Walter and with Becky and everyone involved, making the decisions, talking to the bands, getting to know some of them, getting a feel for this amazing community and how it was all coming together in this moment.” But she also comes away with the positives and with the hope that doesn’t fade: “I don’t feel like everything was lost for me though, I still took away an amazing experience. I do feel horrible for everyone who didn’t get to see the shows, I’m sad that I didn’t get to see the shows! And for all the bands that didn’t make it there, too. But this is what it is now. We’re still here, we didn’t lose our lives and a lot of people did, that’s how I have to look at it. I really look forward to when I can get back to Tilburg and to Roadburn again.”
We’re all counting seconds over here, dear Emma.