The magnificence of torch singing is a lost art, one of folklore, even. An intersection of raw perceptibility and the kind of classic pop vocal embedded in a singer’s wherewithal, dressed down in vulnerability but embellished with flashy costumes, spellbinding fanaticism and gently sweeping melodies, the craftsmanship was remarkable on its own. The music, as presented so strikingly by such prolific storytellers as Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Patsy Cline, was breathtaking in its simplicity and often lingered somewhere between the ordinary and the marvelous. Production was faithfully luscious and cinematic, honing in on a sound or a mood rather than hooks or addictive studio tricks: from “Strange Fruit” to “Over the Rainbow” to “Crazy.” It’s an approach that has long fallen out of favor with mainstream music, except for a rare few, like Adele, Lana Del Ray and Sia, who appear to be mounting a revolution through aptly-primed songs observing a seductive bygone era.
Count Emily West, of America’s Got Talent fame, among the exclusive club of purveyors banking on the element of nostalgia and consumers’ desire for more honesty and adventure. As radio continues clipping hit singles to under three minutes, with an arousing thirst for syncopated singing styles, autotune and complete transparency in provocatively-driven themes, the soul of the music has deteriorated significantly. “Well, back then, people used to have to be talented. Raw, unfiltered, unquestionable talented singers and players had to perform. There weren’t computers doing it for them,” West, who hails from Waterloo, Iowa, talks candidly with B-Sides & Badlands. “They had to pick up a shitty mic and blow the audience away. Now, everyone is ‘talented,’ so this makes me very heartsick in a way. A lot of young people today are getting inspired from a YouTube video of someone singing a cover of a song that is on Top 40 and that video is their tutorial of how to sing or how to feel.”
“I’m afraid we have reached a time where likes and views are teaching the world what’s good and what’s not. Everything is at our fingertips and there is too much information where nobody is going to know who Miles Davis is. No one is going to remember how a little, petite Judy Garland taught a full house at Carnegie Hall how to feel by her just being a raw thing up there blowing minds,” she continues. “The reason why people like Sia and Adele is because they are the last of the torch singers….Rufus Wainwright, too.”
West’s perception shines on record, too. Her upcoming Symphonies EP (out Aug. 18) is a rich, eviscerating and altogether hearty blend of those aforementioned trailblazers ⎯⎯ but she swerves when you think she’s hurling straight ahead ⎯⎯ with her very own velvety manifestations of lover’s regret, sticky-sweet enchantments and stinging melancholy. “Don’t Ever Go to Paris (When You’re Lonely)” is excruciatingly brittle ⎯⎯ “when you see all the flowers, you’ll just want to lay down and die,” she languishes, fervently ⎯⎯ and supposes a more bitingly urgent rebuild of Del Rey’s more complex creations. “Pirate Ships,” then, is the closest West comes to exploiting a more hook-aware, groove-based work, but she drowns the lyrics with substantial enough earnestness that you can’t help but get transfixed in a time warp. “Stop Messing with My Heart” (her most chillingly film-noir-ready recording) transports the listener to a smokey nightclub lounge Holiday may have very well graced in her lifetime, as the onlookers gazed upon the stage with quiet intrigue.
The titular track, however, captures the sheer magic of West at her best, innocent but wholly self-aware. “I’ve been the girl in the rain waiting for the stars to glow. I’ve missed so many trains. Someday, I know that I’m gonna hear symphonies,” she croons, gliding tenderly and vigorously through the chords, in much the same fashion as Garland and Cline before her. Her delivery is as refreshing as it is eerily familiar. “I’ve been compared in having Patsy’s tone and Judy’s ’emotion.’ My goal for this EP was to bring back the etiquette of space and drama. Doing this meant that I’d have to refrain from being too big vocally,” she explains ⎯⎯ stressing her commitment to remembering the past. “I love Julie London, Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra and old Disney music. It’s all very cinematic and soundtrack-y. It’s more of a vibe than a voice.”
She then expressed to producer Daniel Tashian (Trent Dabbs, A Girl Named Eddie) that “I’d like to have people throw dinner parties with it in the background and then have sex when the guests leave. That’s the emotion I was trying to embark on when creating this EP,” she says. From the wild violence of “Heaven and Back” (glued together with the hard pressing of percussion and ghostly chants) to the breathy “Ghost of Mulholland,” West accomplishes her most engaging collection of songs to-date. She keeps things clean and tightly-folded, and that makes for one of the most timeless undertakings of the whole year.
Below, West meditates on the EP’s significance, vocal choices, evolution of the production and how the songs transform for her live show. Dig into our exclusive Q&A.
What specific things about singing or how to approach a lyric did Patsy and Annie (from the iconic musical) teach you?
Well, lyrically, I just like when people cut the fat off. I like simple lines. Hurtful ones told beautiful and purely. When Annie sings “Dumb Dog” and “Maybe,” I believe her. Tom Waits has a great quote that speaks to me. He says: “I like beautiful melodies telling me horrible things.” Me too, Tom.
The album almost reads as a dirtier, grander version of Lana Del Rey. Is that something that was ever on your mind?
Man, that’s a large compliment, and I will take it. Lana is doing everything right with her art. I believe her. I love that. I’m a big journal writer, and I try to literally read from my journal anytime I have music in the background. I think she does, too. That’s very kind.
“Pirate Ships” has one of your more immediate melodies. The images and use of stormy production heap on the texture. How did that song come together from start to finish?
I wrote this with Daniel who pretty much played everything on the record. He had this track laying around, and we wrote “Pirate Ships.” It reminded me of Annie Lennox, meets Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out” with a touch of the ‘Rocky Theme.’ When I was singing it, Daniel told me to pretend that I was a sexy girl pirate with a knife in my teeth.
“Symphonies” has such a legendary feel to it, akin to “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Did this vocal approach come easy to you?
“Symphonies” was such an epic song to write. I wrote it with Rosi Golan and Daniel. The chorus makes me feel like I’m Petula Clark singing by a pastel train with Daisy’s in my hand. Richard Hawley is a big influence on “Symphonies.” His approach is very romantic and melancholy. My two favorite things.
Why did it make sense as the title song to the project?
When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. When CeeCee Bloom sings “Glory of Love” at the end of ‘Beaches’ with a full orchestra, I just knew that one day I was going to sing with a symphony. I never thought it would happen, but right now, it is. A dream is a wish your heart makes, I guess. So, that’s what we named it.
On songs like “Stop Messing with My Heart,” you sing with such anguish in your heart. What was it like reliving through those darker emotions?
If I get to sing a song that I believe, in, it’s not hard for me to sing it with emotion. I think that’s what’s missing these days for me in the department of real singers. Either everyone is over-feeling or under-feeling or letting a computer feel for you. I sang a lot of these songs right after they were written so I guess the feeling was fresh. This song has a very Quentin Tarantino meets/Nancy Sinatra/Patsy Cline feel. All the songs we released are the “work-tapes” and the brilliant thing about Daniel is that he knows when to leave the vocal alone. The first take is usually the money take. A lot of producers don’t do this. They like to beat a dead horse and make you sing it over and over. It kills the the magic every time I’ve done it that way.
How did “Stop Messing with My Heart” come together?
Daniel and I wrote this with Madi Diaz. We just kind of went there, I guess. Madi picked up the guitar and started playing this lonely desert-ish thing, I started singing and then we all brought out the dark-Nancy Sinatra that day.
When did you know the EP was complete?
When I ran out of money. [laughs] I just think we live in a world where people are getting shorter attention spans and to produce a full length album is in the past. Every song on the EP is very different, but somehow, it all just made sense.
How have rehearsals gone for your Aug. 6 show at City Winery?
We’ve been doing a lot pre-production. We do a piano vocal and then there’s a wizard named Charlie Judge that arranges these magical orchestral scores over the song. Two days later, I’m Julie Andrews and he is Hans Zimmer.
How do these songs feel live? Are the arrangements fairly the same?
In my opinion, I think Charlie’s arrangements are more complex. I sing to tracks most of my shows with no musicians so this night is going to be the creme de le creme of shows. Seeing a song you wrote have an actual score written for it will make you cry. I’m just saying; it’s the most spectacular thing in the world. It makes me think, hmmm, maybe this singing thing might have legs after all…
Photo credit: Kate Underwood