Under Her Skin: An Interview With Emma Ruth Rundle

It’s no longer a surprise that Emma Ruth Rundle has an enchantment and bravery in all her art. On her second solo album, entitled Marked For Death, Emma goes way more personal and raw in her songs resulting in a neat and bold effort. In a truly frank and inspiring chat, Emma told us all about the process she went through while making her new album and how that endeavour took her to a better place in her life.

Back in March you revealed on your Facebook page that you had to cancel shows with Boris because of an ongoing health issue and you really needed to take some time off. How are you feeling now? Did you fully recover?
I’ve made a full recovery… I had a surgery in March. I have some ongoing health issues… I have Adenomyosis, so that’s a sort of ongoing saga of just living in a human body, but it’s certainly not life threatening and the quality of my life has been very good in the last 6 months. I’m feeling much better.

Are those health issues permanent or you can heal over time?
As far as science knows, it’s a permanent condition that women have in their reproductive years, but there are things that one can do to treat it. I’ve been doing those things and I haven’t really been in too much pain lately, so it’s good.

You went through those health issues earlier this year, so did that have any effect on the new album?
The pain has affected me… I mean, I was having a hard time around the time we were recording the album. I think that having these health problems has definitely played a part in some of the emotions that I’ve expressed in the music.

Last year you released Marriages’ amazing debut album, Salome, and now you’re back with your solo album number two. When did you start working on Marked For Death?
I think the song “Marked For Death” was the first song I had finished for the record. I was writing this record in pieces. I guess I had written that song maybe even before Salome came out. There are some B-sides to the record that I had written also in between all the touring with Marriages last year and I’ve kind of finished writing the record when I was living out in the desert at The Farm. I was out there for a couple of months after I got back from the Alcest tour and I just stayed there out in the desert and wrote a lot of the record there. Some of it was pieces, some of it wasn’t pieces and the last part was “Real Big Sky” that I wrote in the desert…

Your songwriting has always been very honest and personal, but with Marked For Death you go into a much deeper level. It just feels like there’s no walls between you and your music. You really go under your skin with this one. What were the elements or inspirations behind this approach?
I think making Marked For Death to me had to really be the end of this time of very basic human sadness and what I wanted to do with the music and with the record was make something that was just a completely raw sort of expression of my experiences and feelings in the most basic human way. There’s nothing necessarily intellectual about the music, but as I was writing it, I was checking in always to make sure that I wasn’t writing any songs that were about… everything is autobiographical. The emotion was the most important thing for me, it was like if it wasn’t honest, it wouldn’t go on the record. That was something that I didn’t wanted to do. I guess what I’m trying to say is the idea behind writing this record was that I was going to be very brutally honest about things that I was experiencing like health issues, issues about being a woman, very basic human things… There’s no grand philosophical or intellectual piece or concept behind this, it’s just a very simple expression of me.

The cover artwork for Marked For Death is a portrait of you and it just reflects the whole feeling and rawness of the album. Can you tell me when did you took that photo and who did it?
I’m glad that comes across because that’s very much what I wanted to accomplish with this record. I wanted to really put these things down and I wanted this to be the end for me. I really need this to be the end of the suffering. All of the things that I was touching on that happened since Some Heavy Ocean and while I was making Some Heavy Ocean isn’t forming all the things that are on Marked For Death, but the artwork is a self-portrait. I took this photo when I was living out in the desert. All the photos in the record are self-portraits. I started doing photography and being working a lot with this very simple and basic camera that was a gift. I’ve been doing a lot of filming and I started doing a lot of self-portraits during that time. That particular photo was while I was doing the sort of pre-production/recording demos out in the desert where I had been living. By the time I got into the actual recording process of making that record, that photo is where I was… I guess that’s what the music in the photo is for, it’s a card for me to sing words, but I just wanted to capture the space that I was in. I was taking a lot of self-portraits during that whole time, trying to just document the experience and it’s weird to look back to that photo. I don’t really identify with that person anymore. I think with the artwork was also important for me later when I had the choice to rebrand the music, I could add like a prettier photograph but I didn’t want to do that. I did not want to make images that were false or not connected so directly with the time and the experience that the music is. I wanted to tell an honest story, I didn’t want to do the make-up and all that shit.


“The emotion was the most important thing for me, it was like if it wasn’t honest, it wouldn’t go on the record.”

There are few references to heaven on tracks like “Medusa” and “Protection”, even in the name of the tracks such as “Heaven”, Hand of God” and “Furious Angel”. Can you elaborate on that?
I’m not a religious person. I think that religious imagery has really affected me. I would say that my parents are sort of ideological or religious tourists. Separately, they both have these very intense journeys and connections with theology, spirituality, traditional new age and also some adventures into the world of cults… I was never raised or really brought deeply into any form of Christianity. I was baptized as a child and I do remember that happening, but there’s something moving and powerful to me about these ideas and images. I think I have a lot of nostalgic connections to the classic concept of heaven, discussions maybe with my grandmother… I think I have been very affected by her death and being very closed to my grandmother. Her name was Ruth. I think just watching people transitioning from life to death is just this idea of blissful possibility that exists a place to a transcendental idea, you know? I like the idea of it. My personal beliefs are not necessarily aligned with the concept. In the fantasy of my mind, I like this idea. I did realize later after the record was finished how many sort of Christian type references are in the music and in the lyrics, and I had to kind of question that… It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but there’s clearly something that moves me about that particular set of ideas and the mythology of Christianity. The song “Heaven” is also talking about revelation at the end and this idea of a very apocalyptic experience that happens to a person as an individual and on the other side of it there’s a personal apocalypse that can happen whether that’s the actual physical definition of the body and then transcending it into a sort of God’s headspace or heaven of blissfulness with something that’s more divine. I think I’m very fascinated by that idea. I enjoy playing that song the most of the songs off of the record because it’s sort of a narrative of these kind of basic human suffering, the idea of losing loved ones, losing children, losing partners, losing family members, losing all the things in the physical world to get to a transcendent place where you can see beyond that, through the fire of purification. I guess it’s like an alchemy.

Sometimes it feels like our body is just a vessel for us to go through this world and to our mind just transcend through that.
Yeah! And having to lose all the things in the physical world… I think this is a theme for me like losing the ability to be a mother, losing loved ones, loving my grandmother, losing hope, losing self-respect, losing sobriety… Those are the things that I’ve struggled with… Losing my health has been a big thing for me in the last couple of years. Losing the things in the physical world and what comes after that once you giving all of these things up.

You worked at The Farm, Sargent House’s recording studio outside Los Angeles. How was it like to work in there for this record?
The place was very bleak, very isolated and not luxurious at all. I think people have this idea that it is like “Oh, this luxurious desert oasis” and it was not… I mean, there was natural beauty. I was there in the winter and it was below freezing. It’s in the high desert, you can see a mountain there, you can see the Joshua Trees, you can walk out on these dirty roads, but it’s the kind of desert that’s full of garbage and it’s also full of beauty… But it was very bleak, isolated, cold… I was using a wood burning stove while I was out there. It’s a harsh landscape, very harsh, and it’s far enough away from the main city. People don’t really come out there to visit you, you know? It’s far enough away, it’s not an easy day trip to just go and head back. I think what you get there is just this extreme loneliness. There is this space to make noise and not being disturbing anybody, but that’s what I took away from there, which I was grateful to have a place to stay and to have a place to be completely isolated. I don’t think it would be healthy for me to stay out there anymore than I did…

How long did you stay there? Were you by yourself?
I was by myself and then the other musicians and Sonny (DiPerri, producer) joined me, and he brought all of his gear out there and set it up, because it was basically just an empty house, like a big empty living room with nothing in it, no furniture. [laughs]

Was it peaceful and healthy for you to work there?
I think it’s unhealthy to be there for too long. I think that I would have lost my mind completely, I think that’s me, you know? When you go into an empty space, the desert is just known for its void and so maybe you receive back what you’ve put into it and I think that I couldn’t have stayed there any longer. I know that other bands were going there to work on demos, because it is a good place and it’s close enough to the city where you can get there and stay for a weekend or stay for a few days or a week or whatever it is to go there and write, because you can sleep there obviously and so it’s convenient for bands to write music there. But again, I’m very grateful to have been able to be there and it was a very cool concept that Sargent House is still always working on this idea of these multiple purposed spaces, making these communal endeavors and I think that’s a very cool idea. This particular location was bleak, but I was also in a bleak space myself, so maybe that’s just reflecting where I was. For some people the desert is very energizing, for me I had some experiences with having lived in the desert and maybe situations that I wouldn’t necessarily categorize as being positive.

Like you mentioned early, you worked with engineer/producer Sonny DiPerri for this album. What did he bring to your sound and recording dynamics?
I love Sonny! He has been working with Henry who’s my friend and I really liked what he was bringing to the table with Henry. Sonny loves to do records on location, he enjoys going to places to make records and so it’s this concept of we were going to live in the space and make the record where I have been writing it and everybody was going to come out there and live there for ten days. He brought all of his gear out there, set it up like a spaceship and it was just a completely immersive process. In us doing that, I think we were able to access some things that we would not have been able to in a regular studio if we stayed in Los Angeles where everybody goes home in the end of the day. We really kept the energy of The Farm and contained in that record, you know? The writing of the record, the artwork, the recording… There’s a big empty metal barn up there on the property and all of the reverb on Marked For Death is that barn. He and Jason would take out to that barn and revamp it through the barn so it captured the sound of the reverb on that space… So, even the reverb that’s on the record is from The Farm and it’s a unique sound that could only be made in that barn. We were really excited and Sonny was really good at incorporating the energy of that space into the record. I think by the end of the record we developed a really good rapport working with one another. You can be friends with somebody, but once you enter in the space of working on something together, the dynamic changes and you have to kind of rediscover the relationship, so I think by the end of it we got into a really matter of fact smooth work space.


“The idea behind writing this record was that I was going to be very brutally honest about things that I was experiencing like health issues, issues about being a woman, very basic human things…”

“Real Big Sky” is like the centerpiece of this album, even though is the ending track. What can you tell me about this one in particular?
I had recorded and written “Real Big Sky” out at The Farm. I recorded it on an acoustic guitar, played it through this little amp with some distortion and just sang it. It’s just an iPhone demo and then when we came to making the record, there’s a lot of the record actually recording it and making the arrangements with the drums and the band that was exploratory. The song “Hand of God” with the band version we ended up cutting a huge junk of the middle of it out. Sonny was involved and he was very much like a sounding board for me. I would say “Sonny, do you think this part goes on too long?” and Sonny was right there with me in those kind of production calls. But with “Real Big Sky”, we recorded several versions of that song. There’s a version of it where Andrew is playing full drums and it was more like a rock song. Then we did a version of it where it was like an ambient song, like the guitar was used as almost a synthesizer, I was doing all my petals and it was like almost a textural thing and Sonny was very interested in exploring that version of it. I think we dedicated a few entire days to explore that song and in the end of it I decided that none of these things were going to work and I had to go back to the demo version. We got a bass sampler and we plugged the acoustic guitar through that and there’s the version that’s on the record, which I think it’s the most honest version that had to be that way. Sonny made things very easy in the recording process I think the way that he was miking my vocals and we came to an understanding about vocal’s sounds. I really trusted him with my vocal. He understood how I wanted my voice to translate on the record. We had a lot of discussions about other records that we both like, the production ideas and who we were influenced for production and it was a lot of Daniel Lanois. We were really both very interested in Daniel Lanois production on Emmylou Harris’s record Wrecking Ball… Sonny was really great to work with. He was very open to listening to and working together on these production ideas. I think we both come from a similar listening background. We like a lot of the same kind of music and I think we both had the same sort of references in mind.

You recorded other versions of “Real Big Sky”, are you planning on release them or not all?
Oh no. They were never finished versions and so it was like we were getting into recording it and then I would have a nervous breakdown and I started crying. [laughs] You know, none of those versions were ever finished because they were wrong… We would go half through it and I would be like “No, no, no…” and I would sit there with my head in my hands and saying this isn’t right, so those versions will never be even finished. There are two versions of “Hand of God”, there’s an acoustic version of that song.

What can we expect from your solo live shows this time around?
For this tour with Wovenhand is going to be really solo, there’s no band. It’s going to be reinterpreting the songs to make them appropriate for solo performance, because I’m not able to bring a band with me right now. I think people can expect to see… If you could imagine versions of the songs that are like “Real Big Sky”, it’s gonna be just guitar and vocals for this tour. I won’t be able to reinterpret the sounds, I don’t think I would be able to bring that reverb necessarily, but I think what you can expect to see at the shows is something that’s maybe more emotionally intense but production wise is very different. It’s going to be way more stripped down and intimate.

I’ve noticed that you did some guitar recording with Dylan Carlson and Kurt Ballou at GodCity. What are you guys up to?
Dylan is going to release another record and so that’s his project. He invited me to be a guest on that record. It was with such an honor and I was so terrified, and we recorded with Kurt Ballou. I really wanted Marriages to work with him. I’ve been a huge fan of Kurt’s recordings and everything that he does and it turned out he’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. I’m like such a big fan! If you could make a t-shirt that just had Kurt Ballou’s face on it, I would wear it all the time. [laughs] Dylan inviting me to play with him, I mean, my guitar playing is very influenced by him and by Earth. It’s his record and I appear as a guest working with him and Kurt. It was a very interesting process, it was very different and a very unique thing. Dylan has his way of working and coming into a studio with no idea what I was going to be doing, it was an adventure and it was an honor. I kind of can’t believe that it was real and so I’m excited to people to hear it. It was a lot of exploratory and fun to do it. If we could do another one, I would be thrilled. He’s just got his own unique way of being. He has this landscape in his mind and the music is telling us a story that’s taking you through it, so getting to walk along beside him and watch that and try to be part of it, it was really interesting.

You do a lot of photoshoots with Kristin Cofer, and they’re all so expressive and stunning.
She’s so brilliant! I’m in love with her. [laughs] She’s the one of the most sensitive, brilliant, special people that I’ve ever met. I wish that you could know her, her personality… I mean, her artwork is obviously incredible. She has such a strong style. You can see one of her photos and there’s no mistaking it for someone else’s work. I think she’s doing something really important right now, which she’s documenting a lot of artists in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles. I’m excited to see what Kristin does, I think she’s an important person and artist and I’m very grateful to have been so close to her and been working with her.

You are exploring more photography as well. Are you going to expose some of your photographic work?
I think we’ll see. [laughs] It was mostly like I wanted to have an art hobby that never touched money, so I wanted it to be just something for me. But I’ve been doing videos. I have Electric Guitar Two that I’ve been working on and each piece is going with a video. I’ve been collecting footage from my travels around tours and off tours, I’ve been filming a lot of nature and that’s kind of where I want to go with it. I do love portraits, but I want to release some of the visuals that I’ve been doing to accompany Electric Guitar Two.

Words: Andreia Alves // Photos: Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death is out now on Sargent House.
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