Many claim to wear the badge of singer/songwriter, but it is a title few can authentically say they own. Melbourne's Emily Ulman, with her soon to be released album, Wear It Well, definitely fits the songstress category. But what makes Emily special is that her 'badge' is and always has been turned upside down - Emily is a songwriter/singer. "I think the writing will always be my main love, my main passion."
Emily is a wordsmith, an artisan who wraps her lips around words, chewing them slowly, noticing how they sit on the palate: "It's a physical response, and that's where I create from." Literature is her songwriting portal, a place where some words taste sweet, others sour. Emily's folk pop sound fluctuates between observer, influencer and influenced. These contradictions make for a tender and thoughtful balance of tension and release, and her smoky and viscous vocals permeate and settle into the song's heart, letting the pain and pleasure nourish, enrich and inspire.
"It's definitely a space, a physical space and a mental space and often generated by a word. Some people are tactile or visual. I can hear a word and a whole story, a whole universe opens up."
Literature and life intertwine and serve as the inspiration and motivating factor behind Emily's music. It's who she is: "My mum is a writer, my sisters are writers."
It's Friday, and the robust spring morning shines onto Melbourne's State Library porch, Melbourne's home and refuge for words and stories. She gives me a hug upon arrival and claims she needs a coffee before she can find her morning words. However, this is far from true. "I did toy with having a Moniker or a stage name but I think what I do is so raw and personal. I felt like the only thing I would be disclosing, or the opposite to disclosing, (sorry coffee brain), would be my name, so there would be no point." Disclosure is something Emily is happy to give, but only on her own terms. She may associate with the folk idiom, but she has an attitude reminiscent of an air of rock. You have to look closely for this side of her, however; it is more evident in the way she carries herself rather than in her words. Emily might start her sentences with folkie discourse, but rock chick sums up her situation and ultimately wins the day. "Sometimes you just have to say - screw you," she says.
As the iconic Melbourne trams and La Trobe Street butterfly interrupt her train of thought, she playfully chats and contemplates her new found love for recording, what it means to find strength in one’s own version of femininity and the creative puddle she splashed around in from a young age. "I'm one of four girls, and my mum is fiercely creative. At home we were always listening to music: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie, the folkies." She isn't wearing makeup but has to point that out before it becomes apparent. Sunglasses cover her gentle yet spirited eyes, her brown hair falls naturally in an I-could-live-anywhere kind of way, and although her apartment and cat are just around the corner, she affirms, "I think I'm a beach girl at heart". She wears a 'white crystal', a hidden rainbow, on her petit frame. "Apparently crystals choose you," she laughs. But Emily is not a girly girl, and she is not a hippie; she is her own talent.
"I found my mum's guitar when I was about seven and it was just something I could do. I tried to have guitar lessons but it didn't stick and the lessons ended up resulting in me taking my songs that I had written that week and playing them.
My first song, do you want to hear it?" She sets the scene of the combo consisting of her and sister in their suburban Melbourne driveway (her family now resides mostly in artsy Daylesford), and continues, "Rollerskating ba ba ba ba ba rollerskating ba ba ba……" But all she shares is the chorus. Emily moves on to other topics of conversation; she is not one to side-step into self-indulgence.
"Melbourne is ablaze with artists, so many great musicians. I love the local scene."
As she speaks, words dance around the ideas surrounding her up-and-coming album, produced mostly by Marty Brown in Coburg and due for release in October, with tours in November. Words pour richly and consistently like a convincing Melbourne Coffee. "Wear it Well is about masks that we wear and what we reveal and what we don't. We are all constructed versions of ourselves. What we present is always a version and we have to 'wear it well'. Sometimes we just want to curl up in a corner with our cat but we don't, we fake it till we make it as Oprah says." Songs ebb and flow between personal, sentimental, nostalgic and sexual. Emily points out, "Sex and music, they are inextricably linked. That shifting of energy in space, it has to be sexual." The heartwarming aspect of Emily's music comes from the sense of community spirit infused into her sound, a 'welcome mat' at the front door that says 'please come in, let me show you around.'
The album "Took a few months, not consecutive days and weeks. This recording process was so great and so fun and I loved every fucking second of it. I love the result."
It's been a long time and a few glasses of vino since her last album, A Year of Perfect Days. "I have enough for several albums but I'm not one of those people that could churn out an album once a year. Picking a song apart is counterintuitive to what the song is supposed to be." Emily's songs are a contradiction. They move through the seasons, they shift with your mood, and even though she writes alone, Emily's songs are for other people. "There are some bands that write songs together and that's a really communal process, but for me it’s not like that." This album has been seven years in the making, and it is one she is proud of and for which she has shifted the goal posts.
"I always think about the trinity of the music practice being the writing, the performing and the recording. And for me the pyramid is always shifting."
But with Hurricane, her single off the album, going live this week, it will be up to the listeners to form their own interpretation. "People can either take the literal interpretation, face value, this is what it is about, and others will delve and come away with something for themselves. And I could not ask for more than that," she comments in response to the emails and messages she has received as listeners make their own interpretations of her endless amounts of prose. Emily knows life is not static and that humans don't live in a vacuum. She wants to share her music but not steal the listener’s rights away.
"For me it's like a film adaptation and once you have a visual it's harder to create your own."
As she re-lives her songs, she says, "I can feel it now, I'm completely over-whelmed." A few stories do rise to the surface, however. "For example, like, to dust from Up The Ante. I was reading The Grapes of Wrath and describing the dust bowl and I got caught up in this idea of dust…the dust that accumulates on a relationship but also the physical dust in the house, how we sweep it into the corners of our life." Emily continues, "There is a song on the new album called Light On which I love and I co - wrote that, well I wrote the song and the lyrics - actually it's too complicated, let's not go there. The story, actually, I can't go there either, I'll get too emotional, I'll start crying into my coffee." The stories are there, but it’s not as fun if you don't go and catch them for yourself.
On stage, solo, Emily's vulnerability and willingness to share, and intimately at that, are both signs of her strength. "I love to share my songs. I used to find the biggest guitar I could, I haven't always loved to perform but I do now. I don't like what I can't control but then on stage that begins to wash away." But her songs don't wash over you. Instead, they burn, like lighting a flame with a rock and a stone. The concepts and ideas become hotter and hotter until they ignite, and then there is a sense of contentment, acceptance, a release - but getting there can be a struggle, 'Hurricane, Hurricane, Hurricane'. After all, you have to work for things that are important, and to find meaning.
"The songs that come the most quickly are probably the ones I like the most. The ones I labour over, I doubt, and I feel like I am too conscious for them. Eventually you realise you don't have anything to fear."
Her album and launch has and will feature a core band and many guests. "I had a false start and was supposed to record last year but it has to be the time and place, an alchemy. Maybe it's the coffee talking but everything is playing its role, the musicians, producer, time of year, what the trees were doing outside of the window."
Fear doesn't suit Emily's character, but being fearless does. Her last albums, which were released all those moons ago, were timeless; Wear It Well will be too.