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  • Writer's pictureThe Sound Cafe

Keeping The Edges Wild

By Carl-Eric Tangen

Emily Brown is a Californian songwriter and poet. Her impressive vocal range, wandering melodies, and conversational lyrical style have drawn frequent comparisons to songwriters including Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Bridgers, and Fiona Apple. While in college, she was a founding member of folk bands Book on Tape Worm and Porch Lights. She was also a touring member of folk-pop group The National Parks. As a solo artist she has opened for or performed with Laura Veirs, Anna Tivel, and Mindy Gledhill. Her most recent full-length album Bee Eater received glowing reviews on countless indie-folk music blogs. A forthcoming album, A Fish of Earth, will be released this fall.

Emily Brown's latest is a wild bramble of orchestration and vivid lyricism.

On the cover of Emily Brown’s A Fish Of Earth an assortment of fruit lies scattered at the songwriter-poet’s feet. A solitary grapefruit husk lies off to the side, a corner of the un-hemmed scarlet drapery drags in the dirt, five candles stand crooked and unlit as the sun descends. Like a painting from the Dutch Golden Age, the image juxtaposes still life and movement, as Brown sits patiently in the centre, sporting a Mona-Lisa frown, unconcerned with the tangled array. Where her last album, 2018’s Bee Eater, was a pristine arrangement of lyrical chamber pop and film-grain flourishes, A Fish Of Earth leaves the edges wild. An untameable bramble of orchestration and vivid lyricism, A Fish of Earth (out October 23 on Song Club Records) is a love letter to the romantic sublime, honouring all that is wild, un-molded, resisting outside influence. Passionately evolving and unmitigated by perfectionist censor, the album swerves and leaps in a lyrical stream-of-consciousness, as Brown grapples with the disorienting and yet sublime realities of living in partnership.

Born and raised in the desert of Southern California, Emily Brown is the daughter of several generations of Mormon pioneers. “Mormonism has this running thread of controlling appetite, taming the hungry self. That self is called the ‘natural’ self– the natural man or the natural woman. A female church leader once made a joke that if someone made you feel like a “Natural Woman” (like the Carole King song), you ought to run! Anyway, I grew up with this very powerful inner censor, always wanting to be correct and believing that what came ‘naturally’ to me wasn’t necessarily right. The desire to make art became sort of a struggle when I judged it against what the church expected of me-- self-denial, motherhood and wifehood. But I had a grandma who really honoured that very hungry, very artistic part of me. She taught me to play the piano and introduced me to all kinds of art, and because of her, I felt allowed to explore these really natural parts of myself. Because of her, I’d come across art or literature or music and I think “Oh, I can do that” and I’m suddenly painting all the flowers in her house, or writing my first poem in fourth grade, or realizing my chord theory workbook is giving me the tools to make songs. Today it’s that very natural part of me, that curious and exploratory self, who is still trying to make poetry and songs and sort of scratching at the door of these huge, romantic ideas.”

In the midst of an MFA in Creative Writing, and seeking a change of pace for the followup to 2018’s Bee Eater, Brown shared a smattering of phone recordings with Utah-based producer-arrangers Bly Wallentine (Choir Boy) and Stuart Wheeler. “I was a bit musically exhausted,” says Brown, “so I just gathered this messy collection of song drafts off my phone, dropped them into  a Google Drive folder, and sent it over. I wasn’t particularly discerning about what I put in there. I just wanted to throw out anything we could possibly use on the record.” Eschewing the meticulous mise en scène of Bee Eater’s production, Wallentine and Wheeler suggested an unorthodox approach to Brown’s phone recordings: Strip out the piano and guitar and orchestrate them all, highlighting the unfinished nature of the song sketches. Wallentine and Wheeler began sending arrangements from Provo back to Brown while she attended grad school in the Bay Area until the team converged in January 2019 to track the album. Enlisting an august cast of Salt Lake musicians, A Fish of Earth thrives in the spaces between disparate musical phrases, voices, and hanging thoughts, exploring womanhood, relationships, and the wrestling match of ego and soul. Trombones and pedal steel breathe life into the subject of a Van Eyck painting, who ponders her impending marriage (“Mrs. Arnolfini”). Banjos and breathy clarinet rhythms turn a Joni Mitchell-like musing on childbearing and British TV into a Fiona Apple-inspired experiment (“Baby Wanting”). A lone guitar carries the existential weight of a relationship before flourishing into a soda shop collage of symphonic bits and pieces, like a Sufjan Stevens cover of a lost track from Radiohead’s middle-period (“Game Show”). Picking up further queues from Phoebe Bridgers, Glen Campbell, Joanna Newsom, and Benjamin Britten, Emily Brown's A Fish of Earth is patient and unworried, bearing a considerable existential load with humor and adept musical vocabulary. It’s a generous musical companion for any listener contending with their own expectations of life in the face of its realities.

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