interview: Emily Reo
Emily Reo’s delightfully dazzling new album, Only You Can See It, has officially arrived. It’s the artist’s newest album since 2013, and the wait proves more than worth it. As Reo hits the road in support of the record — including an April 28th date at the Mr. Roboto Project — we chatted with her about the new record, opening about mental illness, and the video game universe this record would be suited for.
One of the things I've always really loved about your music is that I feel like it could definitely be used in a video game. So, if you could place this new album as the soundtrack to any video game ever, what would it be? I'd like to imagine angry guests at Roller Coaster Tycoon jamming.
Oh wow, I’m so glad to hear that! I feel like if Olive Juice was the soundtrack to Mario Kart 64, Only You Can See It would be like, Super Mario 3D World. It still exists within the same universe but the fuzz is stripped away, the vision is a lot clearer, the worlds are vast and represent a spectrum of emotions and you can play on the same team as friends, which feels like a nice comparison since this is the first album I’ve recorded with my band.
In the album's first single release "Strawberry," you explored the very real and always occurring toxic masculinity. What made you decide to put that to song? And how did you manage to present that idea in a musical way that was very true to you, and wasn't like weighted down by the subject?
Although I wrote it pretty early on Strawberry was definitely the most upbeat and playful song I had for the record at that time, and the first vocal melody I wrote was the chorus. Before I even put words to it it had a really bratty vibe which I tried to play up towards the end of the song with the Na Na Na part. It felt like being on the playground or playing games growing up, like we might not be on the same team right now but we’re having fun and nothing is that serious. I wanted to write a song about my experiences with fear, condescension and frustration regarding the ways my non-male friends and I have been treated, and it seemed like a good opportunity to get it out there but pair it with these light and somewhat teasing melodies. The goal was to make a heavy topic as accessible as possible because it’s something that obviously needs to keep being talked about.
It's been quite awhile since we last heard from you in an album form. Love Olive Juice forever. What were you doing during this time period, and when did you first begin working on this album?
It’s been so long, I’ve been doing so much! I started making little loops in Garageband on my phone on breaks at work as early as 2011 or 2012 and some of these actually ended up being fleshed out into songs on this record, including Strawberry. Besides writing Spell in 2013 I didn’t write for a bit after I finished Olive Juice, not intentionally, life and work just got in the way. I moved to Boston and then LA, did some cross country tours in 2013 and 2014, then spent some time back in Brooklyn and started touring as a member of Foxes in Fiction. That pretty much took me through the end of 2014. At that point I decided to spend a few months in Montreal while I figured out where I wanted to go next. I sublet my friend’s room for January and February of 2015, and still having spent the majority of my winters in Florida I hadn’t even considered how brutally cold it would be in Canada. Needless to say I stayed in a lot and it was honestly a nice opportunity to start seriously working on new material as a cohesive project. Later in 2015 I moved back to Brooklyn, and that’s when I stopped moving around. I’ve been in the same apartment ever since, which is where I made the Spell 10” that summer.
Once I started feeling settled and like I had a place that was mine I felt comfortable writing more and incorporating vocals into some of the instrumental ideas I had been working on in Montreal. I think Fleur and Candy were the first ones to become actual songs. I had to remember how to write a song again at first, my thinking had become so loop based that I ended up making a bunch of overlapping vocal melodies for Fleur and being like, hey maybe this is cool it sounds like Stereolab! Narrator: it did not sound like Stereolab. I eventually remembered how to make an actual linear song though, that was good. I spent 2016 writing Sundowning, Strawberry and Charlie, touring and playing in other people’s bands and taking some necessary breaks from music for my mental well being. We released Spell in October and I went on a few small tours after that.
In the spring of 2017 my mental health was suffering badly and I needed to completely focus my attention on getting healthy, so I put the record on hold. During all the times that I wasn’t working on music I felt constant guilt for not being productive enough, and that’s a bad place to put yourself when it lasts for years and you’re stepping away to take care of yourself. By the fall I was in a better place, and decided I wanted to finish this project and not feel like it was controlling me and taking up all of my mental real estate. I booked some studio time for the winter before even fully writing 5 of the songs on the record, which basically kicked my ass into finishing. It still took almost all of 2018 to finish engineering and production-wise, including 5 months of non-stop mixing until I felt good about everything. That’s a huge amount of my life to invest in a project but I can’t explain how great it feels to have accomplished something I really didn’t think I could do or see the end of on lots of occasions.
How do you feel that you might have changed as an artist and as a person since your last release?
As an artist I feel like this is the first time I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about lyricism. It was never something I focused on before, I’d usually write lyrics pretty quickly and kinetically while working on ideas for new songs. This time I really tried to put a lot of meaning into every word and fill the songs with little poem puzzles of what’s in my head. Even if they come across as gibberish to everyone else they mean something specific and exact to me and I think that’s a type of creative catharsis I hadn’t experienced before. I also started pushing myself to write more complicated songs, become a better producer, develop my voice as a singer and so on. Basically I spent a lot of time trying to better my craft and make something I didn’t know I was capable of making. As a real life person, I’d hope that 5 or 6 years would make me significantly different and I think it has. I’ve learned a lot about necessary self care and I feel like I have a much better idea of who I am. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m extra particular or I’m just getting to really know the preferences of the mind inside of this flesh sack that I’ve spent so much time with at this point. I’ve tried to start thinking of myself as my own best friend instead of someone to constantly critique, which is hard and I’ll probably always still be working on that in some way. I think I’ve also learned a lot about how to treat other people. There have definitely been times when I was doing badly and I wasn’t there for people or didn’t treat them the way they deserve to be treated. Once I recognized that was happening I made a big effort to not let my health affect my relationships, and I hope to always be working on getting better at that too.
On "Ghosting" you talk about mental illness. Why was that important to you? And how did you manage to find a musical way to encapsulate such a terrifying experience?
Mental illness is something I’ve struggled with since childhood and I’ve tried to be pretty open about my experience in the past, particularly starting with the release of Spell. When I felt completely numb and uninspired by everything I wrote about it, and it felt important to express that and share it with people. Ghosting was like that but times one thousand and it was the hardest song to write for sure. I found myself trapped in this vicious cycle where my OCD made me too anxious and scared to do anything, which in turn made me horribly depressed because when you’re not doing anything you don’t feel like you’re living. I tried to start writing about that but at the time it was too close and I think it actually made me realize how bad the situation had become, which sent me into an even deeper depression. That’s when I stopped working on music for a while and worked on getting healthy.
Once I got to a better place Ghosting was the first song I finished and revisiting it felt like looking back on a specific time and feeling instead of reckoning with problems you haven’t fully acknowledged yet. Musically this one came to me in pieces, I made the beat and started on production first which is kind of backwards and also how I did most of this record for some reason. Then I wrote the chorus melody which was actually a Drake song playing on a boom box in a nap dream I had, which is cool because it’s not a real Drake song as far as I know so I get to keep it. The other vocal melodies came to me in the shower one day, and as I pieced everything together the sort of melancholy slash creepy mood of the song unfolded. That combined with what I had been going through at the time just sort of clicked together and it felt right.
For fun, what would be the dream Emily Reo merch item?
Oh wow, can I pick a few? The first thing that comes to mind is some sort of pedal that encapsulates my favorite effects or maybe even a plugin for mixing, although having something physical to hold is probably more rewarding and also more accessible than something computer based. Also you know that really famous pomeranian named Boo? I’d kind of like to make merch of my cats like that. Maybe they could even have something inside them Build-a-Bear style that rumbles or purrs. There could be a string on the back you pull to make them meow. I’ve thought a lot about how much money famous pets must bring in and how cool it would be if my cats could help pay rent just by existing and being cute. Last idea would be some sort of film camera, I actually tried to make decorated black and white disposables for this upcoming tour but they were too expensive. I thought it would be fun to have people send me some of the photos they took with the cameras and post them all together somewhere like a little photo book made by people that have probably never met.
You used a live band to help fill out these tracks, so what can fans expect from your live performances? Will you be bringing some of these collaborators on the road?
Yes! I really hate playing without my band now that I’ve gotten spoiled by having them. They’re honestly some of the best musicians I’ve ever met and it’s so great to be able to bring their parts from the album to life, it sounds so full. And I’ve also learned it’s a lot more comforting to have other people on stage with you. Unfortunately it’s really hard financially to fly everyone out for shows that are farther away and I’ll be playing solo for the West Coast run of my upcoming tour for that reason, but all the East Coast dates from DC to Boston will be full band style.
What are some of the things (food, music, cartoons, etc) that inspired this record?
Not sure why ice cream was the first thing to pop into my head but since it did make its way lyrically onto the album I might as well be honest here and mention it. I think more than anything else I get inspiration from being outside. My songs definitely exist in the realm of like “take a shot every time she mentions a tree” although I don’t condone irresponsible alcohol consumption. It’s hard to think of specific media that inspire my songs but when I imagine them I usually see some outdoor place like a field or a cliff and that kind of helps me figure out the mood as I’m writing. Not to sound cliche and I’ve already sort of mentioned this but dreams have been a source of inspiration too, when I’m lucky I wake up remembering some song or melody I’ve been writing in my sleep and I mumble it into a voice memo before I completely forget it and every once in a while they’re decipherable or have potential. A few of the songs on the record contain some little dream melodies and a few songs I’ve released in the past do as well.
What advice do you have for our readers?
Be your own best friend and take care of yourself! We live in a busy and overwhelming time and it can be hard to prioritize your well being but it’s the most important thing in the world. Cook for yourself when you can, you’ll feel better and save so much money. Try something new you’ve been thinking about doing for a while, unless it’s harmful to anyone in which case actually please don’t! Also get a cat if you’ve been considering it! They will spark joy, you will not regret it! Then call your mom and tell her you love her!!!