Name: Emily Elbert
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Emily Elbert's new album Woven Together is out now.
If you enjoyed this interview with Emily Elbert and would like to keep up to date with her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I tend to start things without much preconceived notion of what they’ll turn into - for me, that lets it be a more free and exploratory experience. I find that when I let the creative process lead the way, subconscious layers have an opportunity to work their way to the surface, whereas otherwise I might revert to old patterning, or what I think “should” happen. Concepts and structures will inevitably arise, so I do my best to let them to unfold organically.
Everything feels more like a collaboration with unseen forces than just a “solo” effort anyway - that’s one thing I love about music. It’s always co-created with the spirit, environment, history, our whole web of life. I learn a lot by approaching it this way, and it feels nourishing to be a part of.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
In my experience, a helpful way to prepare is to practice staying in a creative, receptive mindset as much as I can - that way, whenever ideas or little bits of inspiration come, I’m ready to dance with them. I try to do that by keeping up regular reflective practices of meditation, journaling, movement, outdoor time, focused listening, etc. It ebbs and flows when I’m on tour, but I aim to stick with it as much as I can.
If I’m feeling less focused, going for a quiet hike alone helps me sift through whatever I’m working through - moving my body outside really helps me move through my interior world.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I love to write in the morning, when my mind and the day are fresh, and I’m still kind of lingering in that liminal space of having just left the dream realm. Ideally, waking up, hydrating, stretching, and making a nice coffee or tea while taking care of my dog and house, then sitting down with my guitar or journal for a while before engaging much with my phone.
Sometimes reading a poem or few pages of a book to tune into new ideas. That sets up an ideal writing flow, to me. I also live near the forest, so taking a notebook on a hike and finding a quiet spot to sit is a frequent practice. Being engaged in my body and surrounded by nature makes me feel so much more aware of interconnectivity, which is a very inspiring and musical sensation.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first ones flow freely, it’s that middle section that can be the tough bit for me! I’ll get caught in my head in second verses. That’s when I need to make a tea and go for a walk, to keep things flowing.
The beginning is a beautiful moment of inspiration, but where I’ll get hung up is in making the choices required to commit to a particular path or form. Feels sooo satisfying when you break through the clouds though - I feel like once the second verse is done it’s already almost the home stretch, because I always love writing bridges or weird b-sections, or concluding final verses.
By that point I’ve already seen the vision and surrendered to it.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Most often they’re either a starting point, or a musical idea opens the door and they enter soon thereafter. I’m always looking for seeds, whether it comes from my own journaling, piggybacking off of something I’ve read or heard, an image, or some other introspective moment. I like to let them co-evolve with the music. That makes it feel really intuitive to me, when the melody and lyric support each other naturally.
I’ll try to write as much as I can in an initial sitting / process, without getting too critical, then come back and refine and add to it. That way my inner critic doesn’t get in the driver’s seat before I already know where I’m going.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
What moves me most is the intersection of authenticity and craft. Our stories are all so inherently full of beauty and meaning, and the first job of an artist / writer, I think, is to have the vulnerability to dig deep into that story, the details, symbols, etc - really feel it, and convey it honestly. But while that alone can be moving, and important, I think what makes lyrics great is combining that authenticity with craft.
It can totally be on very idiosyncratic terms - there are no rules, and leaning into weirdness is super valuable. But taking the care to understand and nurture that weirdness, listen thoughtfully, to study the world around, interpret and integrate influences, to develop one’s own voice and make sure there’s a solid sense of purpose in each turn of phrase - that makes it extra potent, to me.
As a listener, it heightens my sense of wonder and lets me enter into someone’s musical world more fully, because I can trust the care they’ve put into building it.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
This is an interesting one! Making sure all of those different inner voices are invited to the party, but that they don’t get too crazy … I find myself so drawn to so many different musical ideas, that once in a while I can get stuck in the mud between too many curious little pathways.
But mostly I try to keep it balanced, setting an intention for the project that sets some nice parameters to work within, but allowing for some fluidity and flexibility if there’s new ideas worth exploring.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I’m not sure I have a concrete or consistent finish line, but usually (thankfully) it feels pretty clear! I mean, I always love for a song to continue evolving for as long as I play it, but in terms of the initial writing and recording, I let it find a resolution point without too much stress. When the lyrics feel true, each word and phrase feels intentional and purposeful; and when the recording also feels authentic and interesting, and I genuinely believe it and have a good time listening to it - then I’m ready to give it away.
Sometimes it can take a while, the process can zig zag or change forms or whatever may happen, but once it’s there it just clicks in and feels right.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I get that feeling of emptiness, but I love it. In finishing a project, I feel like I’ve given myself to its creation, and now it’s time to give it away … then it feels super liberating. The emptiness is almost like … alright, now there’s room for whatever’s next to flow through.
It’s an exciting space, because the next phase will inevitably be something different. A rare blank canvas moment. Maybe a little daunting, but moreso a space of curiosity; an exhale.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I love this question, and it’s something I think about a lot. Yes and no, in my mind …
On one hand, I think music is an incredibly, inherently sacred medium. It’s so innate, so universal, so of the body and far beyond it at the same time. So in that regard, there’s nothing quite like expressing one’s self through the creation of sound, especially once rhythm and craft and collaboration get involved on a higher level. It’s one of the coolest parts of being alive, to me.
Then on the other hand, I really believe that any act can be an act of creativity, devotion, of prayer, play, or pleasure; making a cup of coffee or reading to someone, tending to a garden or even a wound; it all has the capacity to be an expression of reverence, curiosity or gratitude.
That’s actually exactly what the song “A Thousand Ways,” which closes out the record, is about. It’s based around a Rumi line that translates to (roughly) “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Being in that heart-space isn’t always the most easily accessible, but it’s something I’m always striving for. One of my big goals while I’m in a human body. (laughs)