“They crest out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung on in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadow with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun go down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well…” ~Cormac McCarthy
It was these opening lines from the novel Outer Dark that settled into Emily Jane White‘s subconscious and inspired the title of her new album.
They Moved in Shadow Altogether is an extraordinary body of work that demonstrates the kind of aural vibrancy akin to evocations summoning ancient deities. It is in this highly-charged artistic mindset that Emily’s appeals, wrapped in allegory, unravel themselves as song.
Wherein many artists forgo the introduction of divisive political issues into their music, Emily strikes at the core of questionable truths and unethical situations. This impressive personal investment not only denotes her artistic sensibilities, but her humanitarian tendencies as well.
For some, it’s easy to disregard injustice when it doesn’t affect them directly, choosing to cling to the notion of self-preservation. For others, an instinctual response leaves no other option than to take action and relinquish the safety found in anonymity.
Emily’s principles arrive through vocal nuances that bring about sensations of exaltation and despondency, feelings reinforced by the soul-searching echoes of tribal drums that accent dreamlike piano and ever-winding acoustic guitars.
Where this album shines is in its unrelenting execution, which is carried decisively from one track to the next. The resulting emotional immediacy existing somewhere between bliss and exhaustion, as if Emily has slipped us a dose of nightshade just potent enough to cause the discomfort required to reveal the gravity of her messages.
Citizen LA: You begin your album with a statement that encompasses a profound duality. The first words from the first track reads “It’s a complicated state, how the waves break… sometimes they’re kind, sometimes they take lives.”
Emily Jane White: A wave may not be a sentient being, but it is energy. And though, when you talk about animals and people there’s consciousness and complexity involved, in some ways I think people often go about their lives like waves, just BEING, without much thought about how their actions can hurt other people.
Citizen LA: As the album continues, it becomes evident that you deliberately placed yourself in a vulnerable position emotionally in regards to specific scenarios and states-of-being. How deep was your exploration?
Emily: My work isn’t necessarily a study of others, but more about using my experience, and my particular sensitivity, to “emote” in relation to certain political issues.
Citizen LA: How has that played a role in your life?
Emily: I went to UC Santa Cruz for women’s studies and remember a friend saying “If you’re always looking at the world through your feminist eyes, Emily, it’s really gonna wear on you.” I understand that he was highlighting the implications of devoting yourself to HEAVY subject matter, and the possibility of having it consume you.
Citizen LA: Definitely something that must be carefully managed.
Emily: Later on, I became a domestic violence crisis counselor, then a rape crisis counselor, and within both of those you have to endure hours of training, learning realities of what it is like for survivors.
Citizen LA: And this made it onto the album.
Emily: I didn’t set out with specific topics when I began the album, but there are themes that have been a huge thread in my life, and in my work.
Citizen LA: When you delve into a song the theme affects you, but the extent depends on how an artist approaches the work. Have you seen the movie with actor Richard Gere, the one where he takes on the role of a homeless person?
Emily: I know what film you’re talking about.
Citizen LA: The film follows him, on the streets of NY, while he openly puts himself in heartbreakingly vulnerable situations. This must have had a profound effect on his view of the socially marginalized.
Emily: I’m sure.
Citizen LA: Has your songwriting allowed you to become more empathetic?
Emily: As you get older you bear witness to very disheartening things, or have awful things happen to you. I encourage myself to be more empathetic, because I think that’s really why I write songs.
Citizen LA: I do commend you for choosing this path.
Emily: Thank you. Well, after a while the only natural response is to either channel that energy or become hardened. Unfortunately, the world we live in today does not encourage us to live in a place of vulnerability and sensitivity.
Citizen LA: And we see the results.
Emily: We’re constantly bombarded by stimuli, which can be a distraction, but maybe I need my urban environment to provoke me. I didn’t write this album in the woods away from everything.
Citizen LA: As opposed to an exploration, do you think that this album may be more of a reaction?
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a reaction, because “exploration” assumes I have a choice, where as “reaction” assumes I don’t have a choice. I obviously have a choice to write about it.
Citizen LA: Taking an active stance on political issues and reacting publically through songwriting is risky, but it makes you more aware. How has being aware influenced particular songs?
Emily: In a relatively short period of time Trey Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown appeared in the news; criminalized African Americans whose deaths exposed police brutality and systemic racism. So, in my song The Black Dove there’s a line that reads “familiar, but how I know you shouldn’t be familiar” referring to the flawed way our population gets information. It’s really good to know who these people are and what has happened to them, but HOW we’re getting to know them is totally unjust.
Citizen LA: Your songs address the importance allowing ourselves to “feel” in the face of uncomfortable truths. What’s your view on committing in terms of music? Or life?
Emily: I have an agreement with myself to go as far as I can when writing an album, as creating music is the most important thing in my life. It’s a question of being present with what is happening in those moments and having control over being present.
Citizen LA: Have you ever been to a Native American Pow Wow?
Emily: No I haven’t.
Citizen LA: The chanting and dancing allow the performers to connect with something very primal. While listening to this album I heard a similar intensity in your performance. I had visions of smoke carrying prayers onto the heavens… very thought provoking. Did this album change your sense of self?
Emily: I definitely challenged myself with this album. There were feelings of being shook-up by the instability of living as an artist, but I had to persevere and continue to delve deeper into my area of interest. It was grim at times, to be honest. The universe was testing me.
Citizen LA: I love that.
Emily: When I began crossing over, nearing the completion of this album, I started to see the light. I now feel more spiritually connected and energetic. This has opened up areas unforeseen to me, in my immediate art world and beyond. It’s about staying true.
Citizen LA: Yes, it’s important to stay true, but also to accept our fallibility. Why do you think we often choose to avoid the truth?
Emily: I think people generally want to avoid pain, but just as the saying goes “the only way is through.” American culture in particular aids people in distraction and easing pain with comforts that aren’t healthy, and being vulnerable and being emotional aren’t necessarily socially acceptable. It’s really unfortunate because the emotional intelligence part of the human and animal world is powerful, and it’s so undermined in our culture.
Citizen LA: In your Bio there was some mention of individual versus the collective identity. It’s said that we’re born with all of our brain cells, and as we grow these cells develop connections, and it’s those connections that shape our individuality. How do you think that music shapes our life in terms of making us individuals?
Emily: There are many studies that show how both listening to and making music creates neurological connections. Then there’s the spiritual level and the emotional level. I think the more music and art is encouraged in a culture the healthier people are and the more thriving the community.
Citizen LA: Amazing how the very first verse of a book can be so inspiring.
Emily: Cormac McCarthy has a talent for melding emotions and perceptions into such beautiful language, and often very dark subject matter. That’s partially why I was struck by the opening paragraph. His cadence, his lyricism and his work in general reduces things down into really potent sensations and visualizations.
Citizen LA: I think that talent is evident in your song writing as well.
Emily: Thank you. The record label is actually sending him a copy of the album!
Citizen LA: Good idea… especially after all your hard work, soul-searching and inspiration.
Emily: Well, I would laugh if he were to just be like… “umm, ok, I don’t get it.” [laughs]
They Moved in Shadow Altogether delivers thought-provoking music, capturing the undeniable desires of a woman who has a clear sense of purpose, while unapologetically confronting the listener with a stern plea for reform and resolution.
The Stanislavski quote “there are no small parts, only small actors” is an insightful observation that we should all take to heart. Being that our identity is formed and reformed continuously by outer and inner dialogues, it is important that we practice tolerance, embrace selflessness and act fearlessly. As for Emily… it is good to know that she is willing to take that risk.
They Moved in Shadow Altogether is out now.