Singer/songwriter Emma Back has created a sophisticated debut album that holds up a mirror to the world. She talks to Cazz Blase about songwriting, singing and activism
In 2014, singer/songwriter, teacher and activist Emma Back made the decision to leave her then base of Boulder, Colorado in the US and travel full-time. For an artist who has never stayed in one place for too long, having lived in Paris for six months after high school and toured constantly, it made perfect sense: “And so I packed my things and just started doing it. And I started touring and teaching workshops.” However, she tells me that, after a couple of years, this constant motion took its toll: “My body pretty much gave out. I got very ill, so I came back home to live with my parents [in Vermont, US] and was in bed, pretty much, for six months trying to figure out what was going on with me. It was a very, very intense time.”
Back and I have never met, but our conversation, which takes place in late April via FaceTime, is marked not only by the kind of polite mutual curiosity about each other’s lives to be expected in an interview but is also a revelation of Back’s outward-looking nature. I am intrigued as to how a singer/songwriter from the US came to draw so much on the music of the Balkans, and the ways in which Back has contrived to see the world outside of Vermont, and the US more widely, right from the beginning of her career.
For an always busily creative person like Back, her illness meant that her life was effectively put on hold and, not only could she no longer travel, but she often couldn’t even practice or play her instrument. Finding out what was wrong took a long time but she was eventually diagnosed with a “really rare form of anaemia” and says that she believes her work pattern was to blame. The enforced stillness and solitude of her life during this time also meant that she was often scared and lonely: “I was unable to even see very many people, and I was very confused about what to do with my life.”
A common theme for those who have been directly affected by long term illness or disability is to take stock of their lives. There is a desire to pull back and accept what is happening and ask “What now?” I have found this in my own life, so what Back has to say about this really resonates:
I felt like I had to surrender. I could either keep pushing, keep being angry and upset and confused, or I could just completely let go and completely surrender and have complete faith that this is what’s going on, and what’s the wisdom here? What can I learn from this?
Back tells me she realised she had been going about her career all wrong and that there was a “really aggressive, ambitious side to me that wasn’t ultimately in alignment with what I feel like I want to offer with music.” She becomes very animated as she reflects that she found herself to be “just really pushing, pushing all the time, trying to prove myself, and it just felt very inauthentic. So, I think getting ill helped me really return to myself. And write a lot of these songs!”
Back’s debut album, Little World, features many of the songs she wrote while she was ill two years ago. Her main instrument is the violin and she makes extensive use of loop pedals to create her sound. Her musical influences are both sophisticated and esoteric, with a strong influence and interest in the music cultures of Bulgaria and Greece. These musical influences go all the way back to Back’s childhood and the time she spent singing in the Vermont choir Village Harmony, which she joined at the age of 11: “They bring in teachers from all over the world to teach different music from those areas, as well as teachers that are American who still teach that kind of music. So, from a young age I was exposed to Balkan [music], South African music, Georgian music.”
The young Back fell most in love with the Balkan music and South African music, and it is Balkan music that is a particularly key part of her sound. She went to a few musicians’ summer camps (“what they call Balkan Camp”), where she was able to study the music of the Balkan countries in more depth. There are no familial or historical links to the Balkans in her background, yet she found herself drawn to the music. I can hear the happiness in her voice as she elaborates: “Even as a young child, even before Village Harmony, I was humming these melodies. I don’t even know where I heard them. They were somehow just being really deeply connected to that heritage and that sound.”
The sounds of the Balkans can be heard all over the album, from the lilting rhythms of the title track to the haunting violin of ‘This Fear’ and ‘Refugee’. The song ‘Alive’ has an incredibly hypnotic hook to it whereas ‘Shadow’ is a passionate and very timely song that builds a real sense of tension and musical climax.
Back’s creative process as violinist, singer and writer tends towards the experimental. ‘Shadow’ was written on a loop pedal and Back tells me she feels that using a loop pedal has changed how she writes. Originally, the melody and lyrics would come first and were “always kind of intertwined and I would have this idea that would start to emerge by improving and singing and seeing what came out there, putting it all together.” The loop pedal led her to become fascinated by the layers of sound she could create; ‘Shadow’ emerged from an exploration of beat boxing rhythms on it, to which Back then added violin. “I started to write the melody on top of it,” she explains, adding that the layering in this case drove “the writing of the song versus the other way round.”
Back recorded the album in Vermont with producer Colin McCaffrey and the pair further developed Back’s layering technique, playing around not only with what she could add to the sound, but also what she could take away. Aspects of the recording were hard for her.
“I’m a very kinaesthetic person,” she tells me emphatically, continuing:
…It’s why I love live looping because it feels like a dance. I’m moving my whole body the whole time, and when it comes to working on the computer to try to create, I can do it, but it’s almost like my brain shuts off, like something isn’t quite accessible when it’s not tangible the way an instrument is.
In addition to writing her own songs and teaching violin, Back also works as a voice coach and has developed a programme for female singers, the She Sings Out Loud programme. I ask how the programme has come about and she answers that, when she began performing, she “was someone who had terrible stage fright – worst of all, debilitating stage fright”:
And [I] had a lot of aggression in how I went about making music. Underneath it was this kind of belief: ‘Who am I to do this? I can’t do this, I’m not good enough.’
Back tells me that she dealt with the stage fright by getting aggressive, elaborating:
What I mean by that was it was an energetic kind of aggression that would also result in me blowing my voice out completely because I was singing with so much tension, or the audience would feel attacked!
Back laughs at this point, adding that she was also left feeling “really disconnected from the audience”.
While it’s clear during the interview that Back is able to recognise that her experience of performing didn’t “feel good” and that her process of dealing with the stage fright wasn’t helping her to get over it, it was through her role as a voice teacher that she was able to hit on a solution:
It was with one of my female students, in a lesson. She was kind of doing a similar thing that I knew I was doing on stage. [She] was pushing with her voice, constricting, and it was all very, very tense and intense. And I just said to her ‘What would happen if you just focused on allowing yourself to receive me as an audience member, that you just allowed yourself to be witnessed’ and it was instantaneous, like everything shifted, everything softened. All of a sudden, her voice just came out in this really pure, beautiful sound. And so I started examining this more, and developed the first practice of She Sings Out Loud, which I call the receiving practice, which is this sense of working through the blocks that a lot of women have around being seen and heard on their own terms, and one of the ways that we do that is to work with the energy of receiving and allowing other people to witness our gifts.
Back reveals that she discovered the problems she had been having were not uncommon and this was something she was seeing with a lot of her female voice students. It also came out in conversations with other female songwriters and performers, who “were struggling with this kind of intensity to prove themselves and this kind of aggressive way of being themselves”.
Back decided to act on this discovery. She began by “gathering circles of women together to really explore what it meant to return to feminine power as a way of being on stage”. This then “developed into working with women to help them discover their authentic voice and then develop that so they can deliver their true sound to the world”.
I ask Back what she means by feminine qualities, explaining that I’m interested in how they are labelled as ‘feminine’, or why. Back, possibly sensing my unspoken concerns, is thoughtful in her response:
I think you could call it a lot of things. I think you could call it yin or yang, there’s inner and outer, there’s different kinds of juxtapositions. And when I say feminine there’s definitely, I would say, a spiritual element to connecting to the sacred feminine and archetypes in different spiritual dictions in the feminine. But there’s also a component of that which is hidden, which is inner, which is of connecting and heart, receiving, nurturing. And then there’s also the aspect of the feminine which is the wild and the creative, and we can even say the wrathful, not necessarily in a violent, aggressive way but just this incredible creative energy that cuts through what doesn’t serve.
For Back, the feminine is not just for women:
I think that it exists in all of us. And I think that what the world is really seeking right now is allowing these energies that have been really belittled and suppressed and not allowed to come forth.
Invariably, the very term ‘feminine’ is loaded with preconception, something Back is well aware of:
It’s funny to call the feminine gender fluid, but I feel like when I look at that I can say that I identify as a straight woman with a feminine essence as my core. I’m not in the non-binary community in that way, and yet I feel like that community really gets this.
Back laughs, adding that part of the above is “a balancing of the masculine and feminine” and telling me that “It doesn’t have to show up in a way that’s just a biological body” and “It’s a constant balancing we’re all working with.”
For Back herself, the feminine is tied to her own experience of wellness:
I think it’s just important to be really connected to what is your dominant essence, because I know from me, when I’m connected to the feminine as my essence, not just my biology but my inner energetic field, then I am very different. And when that gets out of balance, then I start to lead more with my masculine side. That’s when I get sick, to be honest.
Lest she be misconstrued as an essentialist, or traditionalist, Back elaborates:
“[It’s] not to be said that the masculine isn’t a huge part of me, and is really, really necessary, and that I will use it all the time. I just personally need to lead with my feminine.”
Forging a connection with her audience is very important to Back: “Whatever energy they’re [the audience] giving me definitely comes through in the music, she says, adding that this is often to the point where she will sometimes change her set “on the fly” according to how she interprets the energy in the room. For her, music “in its essence is incredibly healing”, which she tells me means healing for herself and healing for the audience: “I definitely feel that connection for people and that we’re in that together. And with these songs on this record especially, we’re in the dialogue of these topics; we’re investigating them together.”
Although the album emerged from a time of illness for Back, it’s also very outward looking and concerned with a sense of darkness that goes beyond the self: a darkness within the world itself. Following on from this, Back tells me that there are a lot of songs on it that are about war and aggression, but that the urge to tackle such subjects stems from a healing perspective. In her view, “we need to change that in our world. I think it starts with ourselves.”
Back sounds slightly rueful when she talks about the lengthy gestation period the Little World album has had: “I feel like this album lives in [a] paradox when the songs feel like they really resonate with what’s happening, which is also really wonderful because I’ve been writing these songs and really working on them for five years. And, honestly, there was a part of me that was like ‘Oh no, they’re not gonna be relevant anymore’ and, unfortunately, I think they are, in our world.” She clearly has mixed feelings about this and would, I suspect, rather have found herself to be living in a less dysfunctional world than to have written such eerily prescient songs.
Despite the current state of the US, and the wider world, Back is hopeful. This is particularly the case with regards to the #MeToo movement, which she hopes will lead to a world that “honours sexuality in a really new way”. Her excitement about this can be heard in her voice as she continues to speak:
Part of this culture of sexual assault is that we don’t really honour the sacredness of sexuality. And I think, for women, that that has to do with being able to fully claim it? And also being responsible for how we’re using that power. We have a history, in the history of the suppression of women, of not really having any access to a voice, or to power.
While Back feels that women use sexuality as a form of power, she furthers this thought in terms of how this can be used in an empowering way:
[It] is really understanding how potent and powerful this energy is and how we can fully embody and fully be responsible for it. And that includes being empowered and knowing when we need to say no. And it also includes noticing if we’re using that energy to manipulate or to pull a situation and making it a clear choice, so we can really, really deeply honour this energy.
Back is currently touring the Little World album across the US and hopes to come to the UK in 2019. Another project on the horizon is further development of the She Sings Out Loud programme and she is clearly excited about her plans for that:
“I’m looking to bring the She Sings Out Loud workshop to middle school aged [roughly 11-14] young women” she explains, cautiously at first, before enthusiastically adding that she came to this decision after teaching music in a school for a few years and that her work there made her realise that it would be worth bringing her message to that age group:
I led a workshop with a friend last fall, where we had all these amazingly poised, wise young women, and we asked them the question: ‘What is the feminine?’ We got some very interesting answers.
Back goes on to talk about how she used to run three-month She Sings Out Loud programmes all year round, but that she’s been doing less of this kind of work recently. She wistfully reflects that she would like to return to it:
I would like to begin these song circles where I have women come in and meet and we learn songs. It’s basically a choir but it’s different in that there’s also room for check-ins and dialogue around how we’re doing as women.
Anyone who identifies as female is invited to take part in these programmes.
In 2019, Back hopes to make a return trip to France, and also to the UK and maybe Greece: “I am looking at potentially April [or] June of 2019 for that.” Her favourite type of performance is the house concert because it’s more of a community event and she feels “the music creates a space of connection and then the connection gets a chance to really happen. Whereas sometimes at venue shows, the music creates a space of connection and then … You’re in a venue and you’ve having to get your gear off stage and you’re rushing, or people are just out of the door, and it’s different.”
Meanwhile, house concerts are “almost exclusively what I do when I tour, so if any [F-Word] reader were to send me a message and say ‘I wanna host a house concert!’ that might bring me to the UK”, she laughs.
The Little World album is out now. If you would like to host one of Back’s UK house concerts, you can contact her here.
All images courtesy of Emma Back
The feature image is of Emma Back on stage playing violin. Her eyes are closed and she is wearing a red dress.
Image two is the sleeve art for Emma Back’s album, Little World. The image is black and white and shows Back facing the camera, wearing a cloche hat and holding out a globe of the world in front of her.
Image three is of Emma Back performing on stage. She is singing and holding a drum.