With four albums now into her solo career, Emma Ruth Rundle brings to her new album On Dark Horses a different musical palette, where she had a new writing approach and special contributions to it. This is another deeply beautiful collection of songs and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to catch up with Emma to know more about what went down while creating these new songs.
It’s been almost three years since you released your latest album, Marked For Death (out on Sargent House in September 2016), an album that had a really huge impact on you. How do you look back to that period time of your life?
It’s hard to say because when I started touring that record, it’s been sort of a blur since then. It just feels like everything has been in constant motion. I looked back on making that record and I’m a lot healthier and happier now than I was then at that time. It’s been a nonstop process and just constantly moving around since then.
You are currently living in Louisville, Kentucky, so did that have any kind of impact on you and on your writing approach?
It did because what really had impacted me was meeting the guys in the band Jay Jayle and meeting Evan Patterson. We’d met before. I think touring with them in 2017, making the friendships, falling in love with Evan and moving here definitely affected the record. Kevin Ratterman, who is a reputable local producer and engineer, did this record and there’s so much about the record that really wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t moved here. It would have been a different record entirely.
You started working on your new album On Dark Horses in the latter half of 2017 while you were touring. Did you have any kind of mindset while going into it or it just happened over time when you moved to Louisville?
I think the mindset I had going in sort of eased in last summer as I was here writing in a more casual way. “Control” and “Dark Horse” were some of the early songs to be written last summer and those took a lot longer to write. I really took my time with them. I didn’t feel like I was in a hurry and then after we toured in the fall and winter and I had decided to record in February. I took all of the end of December and January to write the rest of the record. I worked really hard on that. Every day I would wake up and just be writing. There was more of a purpose at a schedule. I also was kind of conflicted about whether to make an acoustic record or to make a full band record, because of all the touring with these other musicians – Evan, Todd and Dylan. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to capture some of the dynamic that we had developed, so I decided to make this full band record and I wrote all the songs on an acoustic guitar, but this record is definitely intended to be performed with a band. I have been playing solo and with the band, and kind of getting away with playing some of the songs from Marked For Death and Some Heavy Ocean alone, but this record is not intended to be played that way.
For this album you had a new writing approach. It was the first time you haven’t played all the guitars on your own record, which you had Evan Patterson (Jaye Jayle) contributions to the writing process. What can you tell me about that?
It was difficult for me to let go and let somebody else write some of the guitar and record the second guitar parts, because that’s usually something that I do in the studio or in the recording process. I have written the base, the song and most of the guitars, and then we’ll go in and discover extra textures, melodic lines and discovering the song in the studio. Whereas with this record, Evan and I worked together. I’d take the song to him and I’d be like, “In this bridge, I have this idea for a second guitar part, can you play this?” Or he will have an idea like, “Here’s the melodic line that could happen over the outro.” It was a collaborative effort in crafting the second guitar. He’s such an amazing player and our styles are so complimentary. I can’t really think of anybody else I would trust. There’s a lot of trust that’s been developed between us and we’re actually married now. I found my other half. It was hard for me to let go, especially because it was a man playing on my record and suddenly this is going to be a thing everyone wants to talk about and I was really paranoid about it. And that’s actually true. Everyone asks me why I am writing with someone else. I’m not actually writing with someone else. I wrote all these songs. Evan is a musician playing on my album, so it is what it is. [laughs] But it’s great and I love playing with him. He’s incredible.
Jaye Jayle had released their new album, No Trails and Other Unholy Paths, and it features your contribution on the song “Marry Us”. On your album, you have the song “Light Song”, which features Evan Patterson as well. How was it like to write both songs? Were they written at the same period time?
Actually, “Light Song” is technically the oldest song on my record and I do love that “Light Song” and “Marry Us” are sort of mirror songs. I had a seed of a demo of an idea for “Light Song” a couple of years ago right after I finished Marked For Death. It’s sort of loosely based in these two kinds of traditional songs like a wedding song and also like a baptism song. I think doing “Marry Us” with them definitely brought “Light Song” back into focus and finished it. It just seems like a cool little real world crossing over into this fantasy musical land, where Evan and I not only are we together in real life, but we have these mirror songs on our albums. It seemed only natural.
“There’s a goodness somewhere and that it’s not worth getting all fucked up and twisted forever about some of these things that are happening.”
Do you ever thought about doing something like a record together just the two of you?
We have talked about that and I’m not sure. I feel like after this year we’ll probably have to part ways a little musically just because they’ll be touring with somebody else and I’ll have to be on tour at the same time. It’s something that could happen. We’ve talked about it, we’ve done a lot of stuff together over the last year and a half, so we’ll see…
You said that this record is about “overcoming—understanding and embracing the crippling situation and then growing beyond it”. Can you elaborate more about that?
Some of the songs, not, not all of them, I would have to go song by song specifically. The song “Dark Horse” was really about childhood trauma, abuse and overcoming those patterns, breaking free of that and taking the opportunity to move beyond. I wrote the song “You Don’t Have To Cry” for a friend who had been struggling in his personal life and in a social setting as well. I wrote that song for somebody that had been struggling and it has also a positive message that there’s a goodness somewhere and that it’s not worth getting all fucked up and twisted forever about some of these things that are happening. “Control” is about the cycle of addiction. This record still deals with some of these themes that Marked For Death did. I wrote it with a band because I thought that was sort of empowering and helpful and it wouldn’t be so traumatic to perform. The message and some of the lyrics isn’t as dismal, there are hopeful lyrics in there that run through the album.
It’s clear that horses were a big influence for the writing of the new album and there are equestrian themes on it. What led you to get so inspired by horses for this album?
I don’t really know. I think it’s just I’ve always loved to draw horses and I live in Kentucky now. I am just fascinated by them. I can really spend all day staring at photos of horses and I’ve checked out like 25 books about horses, which really is just something that kind of entertains my mind. The album became On Dark Horses because the song “Dark Horse” is the centerpiece song for me and even within that song Kevin did this thing in the bridge where he took the drums in a way that it sounds like you’re being surrounded by animals charging. Of course, the concept of the dark horses is someone that’s like an outlier, you know? Someone who isn’t expected to succeed and who’s able to come and get ahead of things. There’s the idea to write On Dark Horses the way that a writer would write a thesis, like each of these songs is kind of about a situation or for a dynamic that creates a sort of dark horse character person and then the idea of riding on horses. It’s sort of like a double meaning that goes hand in hand. There’s like the visual element – the actual real horses, – but then there’s really the concept of the dark horse being a dark horse and the message of hope and getting ahead through that. It’s kind of a convoluted, strange, surreal little world that I created in this album.
I really connected with the way you described the horses, which was they are powerful and beautiful, yet not free really. Do you feel that way about yourself as a way to describe the whole feeling of the album, which that you are strong powerful, but at the same time you are still trying to free yourself?
Yeah, I do feel that way actually. It’s always a process of discovering how you are and who you are. I don’t always have all the answers to all these questions, but I would definitely say that I do not feel free, but things are better. I think that the last album was more defeated and a little bit more maybe wrong and traumatized, but this new one is a little bit more of a emboldened approach to the music.
The cover’s artwork itself is a blurry photo of you holding a large toy horse with broken legs. Why choose that photo for the cover and what’s the meaning behind it?
I have a little polaroid camera and I had been documenting the recording process with that. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for the artwork. I went out and took photos of Louisville and did some collages. That horse that’s on the cover is a ceramic statue of a horse that was actually in the studio and it had the legs broken off. It was a black horse and it was sitting on top of this tape machine and all the legs were broken off of it. It seemed to me to be like a direct manifestation of the lyrics of the song “Dark Horse” and it was just in the studio. Kevin just had it in some corner and it was just a forgotten broken statue that somebody had used clamps to prop it up. To me it was like visually encapsulated everything about my music and everything about the themes of what I write about, just this broken ceramic black horse with legs missing, but it’s still propped up somehow. It was just beautiful and I took it, Kevin gave it to me. I took it home and I just started taking all these photos of it and with it. That’s a polaroid photo on the cover and that’s just the one hat I thought was the strongest image.
This time around you worked with producer Kevin Ratterman at LA LA LAND in Louisville, Kentucky. How were the recording sessions like?
Recording with Kevin is very exciting. It’s a really fun time. This was the first record that I actually went into a real recording studio because Some Heavy Ocean and Marked For Death were both recorded in a domestic setting. They were in a house where the studio gear was either brought in or was already there. It wasn’t a super professional studio like La La Land. Kevin is a very colorful and excited person. He’s really just brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve ever met a person that’s just so full of ideas and energy and they’re so excited about things and its kind of makes you feel good. We got really into layering a lot of feedback. He just understood what we’re doing. With this record, we wanted to capture this sort of almost 90s guitar kind of moment. It’s like midwestern shoegazey kind of vibe in some of the guitars. Kevin just understood it and he really ran with it. He really influenced the sound of the music so much. The recording thad 10 days, that was seven days of recording and three days of mixing. We tracked the album mostly live the four of us: Todd Cook on bass, Evan Patterson on second guitar, Dylan Naydon on drums and Kevin engineering. We tracked that way and then I overdubbed vocals, we all did little overdubs here and there and Kevin mixed it. We would go out and have dinner or go do things during the day and Kevin would just stay in the studio, mixing the record and then would call us to listen to what he created. I would just give him some notes and some feedback, but he crafted the sound of this record and I think that’s why it’s got this like colorful, cohesive sound. It’s just different from the last one, but it’s cool. He’s a mad genius and I love working with him.