Singer-composer Emma Frank uses live performance to document her development the way other artists use the studio. Moments on the bandstand reveal as much or as little of her true self as she’s compelled to share. These days, she’s sharing much more. “I’m just tired of hiding my insecurities from the audience,” she says.
From her home in Brooklyn, the Boston area native challenged herself to track music remotely during lockdown, a process she’d never attempted. “It was a little tricky,” she says. But prolonged self-engagement and reflection gave way to new sound, and a truer understanding of herself and her instrument.
This week at The Jazz Gallery, Frank performs unreleased music and new arrangements of older compositions alongside Marta Sanchez, Grey Mcmurray, Chris Morrissey and Bill Campbell.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re pretty candid with your viewers during livestreams: “I’m still working some of this stuff out, and I might forget the lyrics,” etcetera.
Emma Frank: [Laughs] There are some really great smart and funny examples right now of people who are clearly concerned with the tension of performing, and what’s happening in the performer’s mind, what performance means, what it maybe hides or obscures—all of these questions I think are really interesting.
I found that doing livestreams was painful for me. Physical humiliation was what I felt. So, every time I went live over the pandemic, I was like, “Maybe this tiiiiiime…” [laughs] “maybe I’ll be okay…” And I wasn’t. I guess I just really like transparency and communication. So, I would sign on, do two songs and say, “That felt pretty bad! Hope you’re all well. K bye!”
TJG: Especially now, it seems people are ready for that. Particularly for younger generations, expressions of live personal reflection feel ubiquitous.
EF: Totally. I’m 33. What I’m experiencing culturally is that I’m finding there are people newly in leadership positions, that are my peers. A lot of my women friends, we’re realizing it’s kind of up to us to lead the way in certain ways. I feel like I came out of the pandemic being like, “Nobody’s gonna give me permission to behave the way that I want to, except myself.” We’re all too evolved and too smart and too self-aware at this point to not acknowledge some of the constructs that are happening when they’re happening. Like me feeling nervous on stage—everybody feels it if they’re perceptive. Why not just say, “Hey, I’m nervous. I’m trying to settle my nerves. How are you guys?”
TJG: There’s something 1950s about refusing to acknowledge a shared feeling that’s real and palpable, for the sake of propriety or social veneer, especially in the age of #relatable.
EF: I’m about 10 years older than my [restaurant] coworkers. And I was talking to this very sweet, very ambitious 25 year old [who said,] “I didn’t wanna be in restaurants when I was 25.” And I’m like, Oh, I’m sure you have some feelings about me being 33 and in restaurants. And [I was] seeing people judging themselves and judging me, and seeing myself judging myself—seeing all of that, and wanting to opt out of that kind of hierarchical thinking because I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone, or helpful to me. We are all set up to compete, and to feel bad about ourselves when we don’t get the things that other people get, to feel shame and resentment. Especially in the arts, it’s something that takes some active dismantling.
TJG: Especially for creative professionals who take different career paths, it’s hard to step back and empathize rather than internalize.
EF: Totally. In New York City, most people have experienced feeling “behind.” Because we’re always “behind” someone.
TJG: During one of your livestreams you discussed inspiration for writing “Beautiful Things,” whose lyrics include self-reflection and ambivalence. You don’t often shy away from the complexity of a particular emotion or circumstance; and, maybe consequently, your music sounds at once simple and very layered. Did you have more space to explore that tendency, conceptually, in 2020?
EF: I wrote a bunch of songs during the quarantine, and we’re recording in January. Honestly, a lot of them are really country-esque. The forms are simple. The harmony is simple. There’s almost no nods to contemporary jazz. That’s just what came out. George Saunders—the amazing author—just wrote this book called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. In it, he says that we really don’t get to choose what our voice is. And he talks about the issue of getting out of your own way. That made me think about some of the ways my writing process is moving through me. It’s where it needs to be at the time that it’s happening.
I would like to avoid framing shit as, “Here is my latest hot-button confessional.” But, this is kind of the first year that I’m actively in recovery for an eating disorder. I put on a lot of weight. I found it upsetting, found it less upsetting. I practiced some serious body neutrality. I feel like my body has truly a different weight to it, a different sense of stability to it. My voice feels richer than it has ever before. And I think this is also [the result of] not being stressed. Now that I’m back to waitressing, I’m like, “Oh shit. My cortisol levels are spiking all the time.” But having this huge chunk of time to really—it wasn’t peaceful, obviously, but there was no fight or flight happening. And I feel like I really got the chance to feel that through singing. These songs are from that place.
TJG: Thank you for sharing that part of your development. I say this without wanting to minimize any aspect of your past work; it sounds as though you feel you’ve dropped a degree of pretense, not only with your work but with yourself.
EF: Yeah, I feel that.
TJG: The last time we spoke, you actually discussed this tendency you’d have to complicate your music because you feared if you didn’t, it wouldn’t be interesting enough.
EF: A hundred percent.
TJG: I think you even mentioned Aaron Parks telling you outright, Emma you don’t need to do that.
EF: So many people said that to me and I just didn’t believe them. I think that says a lot about what we’re ready to hear. But it comes back to: Who is gonna give me permission, if not myself? I really didn’t feel that I could make something on my own that was good — that didn’t feel possible. [At] the beginning of the pandemic, I was like, “This is kind of a big problem because nobody’s available.” And it was a problem before the pandemic because, you know, you make an album with Aaron Parks and he’s booked for the entire year.
TJG: Can’t tour with him.
EF: And the jazz chops are not mine. They’re certainly not mine. So, why am I playing jazz clubs in Europe? Just a lot of these questions that became, “Why?” And the answer for a while was, “Seems like a market.” I’m trying not to be too hard on myself for any decisions I’ve made artistically over the years, from that place of fear: “How the fuck am I gonna not go into debt?”
TJG: Elements of this more exposed Emma have been present in your music for some time. In terms of production, you seem drawn to the unadorned vocal.
TJG: A lot of your music, for years, really embraces this laid bare aesthetic. Are you exploring that bareness in the context of this “realer” self?
EF: On both of my last records, a lot of my energy at that time was going to: “Do I look thin?” … “How do I look in this jumpsuit on stage?” … “Is my belly too noticeable?” When I hear those records, I’m like, “Oh, I’m sucking in.” I’m not letting my belly soften. The idea of being “the pretty singer” is an archetype that I wanted to be. A lot of my energy was going to trying to convince myself and other people that I was thin and pretty. And saying it out loud now, it’s like: fuck, well that sucks. No wonder there were people at the shows who didn’t connect to it. And I felt it. I physically felt that lack of connection. And an awkwardness. And I don’t feel that right now when I’m performing. It feels like people are really responding to the fact that I’m not trying to convince them of something. And that feels so much better. So when I say, my voice laid bare, I actually feel less of a vulnerability in my voice now. I feel more strength. I think there are lots of ways that I was actively making myself weaker than I need to be. And I’m experiencing that shift in my voice as I’m owning myself more.
TJG: Do you feel as though you’re getting reacquainted with your voice?
EF: I feel like I’m not controlling it. I’m just letting it happen a little more, being less precious with it.
TJG: I can’t wait to hear what you’re doing at the Gallery.
EF: We’re playing a mix of older and newer stuff. I’m a little nervous about it. I played a couple shows with Marta, coming out of the pandemic. For all the feelings of [having] “grown past this,” I really like these older songs. Some arrangements are adjusted for how I feel them now, but I really like singing these songs. It feels like a gift that I still get to receive as I change and grow.
TJG: Marta has been helping create such a thriving scene in Brooklyn. You’ve been playing together for a little while now.
EF: I think we’ve been friends for maybe three years. She’s played piano in my projects and I sang in her project called Room Tales. I think Sara Serpa and Camila Meza had been the other singers for that. Honestly, it was so hard and I almost blacked out from humiliation in the fuckups that I made on some of those pieces. And she was like, “Emma, you are amazing. It was amazing.” And I was like, “Marta…” [laughs] and I remember this pure shame feeling. But she’s just a really good friend of mine, and she sounds so great. I love her dearly.
TJG: It’s kind of a hip band you have for this date.
EF: I hung out with Grey and Bill and Chris after Chris Morrissey’s show at Rockwood with his band. And I was like, “I love you guys! I wanna hang out forever!” [That] was sort of the impetus for this band.
TJG: You mentioned with Marta you’d revisited some of your older tunes, adapting some of their arrangements to reflect where you are. That prompts the question: what are you dealing with right now in terms of arranging?
EF: Basically across the board with the older tunes, it’s simplifying shit that felt hiccupy to me. Just clearing some of the roadmaps for me to sing.
TJG: Has that been challenging or painful, or has it been empowering?
EF: I think it’s been empowering. There’s only so much you can do sometimes with a song that’s already been written and recorded besides getting in there and rewriting it. The most work that I’ve done with a band since reopening, and the most work that I’ve done this past year has been with Franky Rousseau.
TJG: Can you discuss your experience tracking “Belonging” remotely with Franky?
EF: It was a lot of me recording my piano part and vocal from my home, which is something I hadn’t felt comfortable doing before. So [it was] just me empowering myself to record a fucking piano part.“I can’t do that. I’m not good enough” didn’t work over the pandemic. And it was holding me back, that attitude. So, for me, arranging has been just coming up with piano parts that work. That is arranging — being like, “What three notes here serve the song? What patterns are those three notes gonna be in?” I didn’t go to music school, so I’m aware that, from a technical perspective, this isn’t high-level shit, but it’s still music.
So then I gave my vocal and keyboard part to Franky. My husband [Pedro Barquinha] made a beat for it; our friend Thom Gill in Toronto played guitars. Franky produced it and added lots of sounds. He’s the best collaborator ever. I call him my work wife and I’m forever grateful for the love and care and brilliance that he puts into my music.
TJG: Of your currently released music, many songs are true stories with a beginning, middle and end and they really take the listener on that journey of development; others are more meditative, having almost a mantra feel to them. Have those concepts emerged maybe differently in your new music?
EF: With all of the alone time during the pandemic, there was a lot of thinking about my inner child. A lot of thinking about my childhood trauma, my various stories. Feeling a lot of compassion for my younger self and the challenges that I had at different moments. So there are definitely songs that feel like me just retelling: This is what this period of time was. In terms of mantra stuff, I love albums where I don’t see it coming and then all of a sudden there’s some section that repeats the same three words for like five minutes and I’m just like, “This is the baddest shit in the whole world. This is exactly what my body needs.” So a lot of it is just self soothing. I make music because I was in an unhappy home and singing was a self-soothing activity. That’s why I make music.
Emma Frank plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 14, 2021. The group features Ms. Frank on vocals, Marta Sanchez on piano, Grey Mcmurray on guitar, Chris Morrissey on bass and Bill Campbell on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. EDT, $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 limited cabaret seating ($10 for members). Purchase tickets here.