An Energy Healer Gave Emma Louise A New Voice
How a spontaneous trip to Mexico and an encounter with the Greek god Zeus led to 'Lilac Everything', the Australian singer-songwriter's weird, wonderful new album.
Emma Louise sees something in the shadows that I don’t. “Like, see over there?” She sticks her hand out and points to a patch of concrete across the road. “It takes a while, but like”—she breaks off, looking down onto the road adjacent to the terrace balcony we’re sitting on—“the shadows are purple, if you look for long enough.” All I see is concrete, so she tries to explain further. “I was painting a lot, and I learned that you can paint shadows purple. If you’re painting somebody’s face, you can use purple for the shading. And then I started seeing lilac everywhere. One day I was driving, and I just saw lilac everything.”
The 27-year-old musician is trying to talk me through the title of her new album Lilac Everything; A Project by Emma Louise, her third (and best) record to date. We’re sitting on the balcony of the North Melbourne terrace where Emma was shot for this feature, which overlooks the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital. Halfway through the shoot, Emma spied the balcony and decided that it was the perfect place for an interview, so we’re sitting chain-smoking menthols as the sun goes down. We are sunken into the old, dank couch, and Emma’s outfit—a peach suit with matching tailored shorts that she searched for everywhere (“I thought about getting one made in Bali”) before finding it at, of all places, Myer, a high street department store—is crumpling. Her eyes are bright as she explains to me the strange and messy path that led to Lilac Everything—which includes anecdotes about spontaneous trips to Mexico and the prophetic energy healer she met there, as well as the dream about a giant Zeus statue that drew her to producer Tobias Jesso Jr—and the emotional clarity she’s found because of it.
Born in Cairns, Queensland, Emma has been playing music since she was 12, and released her first EP—the now out-of-print Autumn Leaves—in 2008. But she first broke out in 2011, when she was 20, with the release of the single “Jungle.” Most Australians in their mid-twenties or early-thirties will be very familiar with the track, a pulsating, cleanly-produced synth-pop song that went on to become a hit in her home country (and abroad when it was remixed by Wankelmut and re-titled “My Head Is A Jungle”.) The song has a kind of casual ubiquity; you might not be able to recall it, but you’d definitely be able to remember it if you heard it on the radio. It is a perfect storm of a debut single: technically astounding falsetto vocals, inoffensive-but-memorable production, a rousing chorus.
The track set the tone for Emma’s first two albums, Vs Head Vs Heart and Supercry, both experiments in deepening the musician’s sound and songwriting. Emma’s first two records sound similar enough—for the most part, that means softly-textured synth ballads––that you’d be forgiven for assuming that she would continue in that vein for record three. But Lilac Everything bares no resemblance to Vs Head Vs Heart or Supercry whatsoever; rather than looking to electronics or alt-pop, Lilac Everything trades in wide, earthy soul and spare, romantic folk music, not entirely dissimilar in colour to Feist’s Let It Die. From start to finish, Emma’s vocals are pitched down, evoking the smooth, rounded vocals of Rhye or Sade. (The pitch-shifting is a striking change to Emma’s sound, but one that’s perhaps not entirely adored, if the YouTube comments saying things like “I miss your beautiful voice ” and “this voice, I hate it” are anything to go by.) The phrase ‘radical departure’ is overused and meaningless, so to put it plainly: Lilac Everything sounds nothing like Emma Louise.
Maybe because, for the last couple of years, Emma has felt like a different Emma Louise. After the release of Supercry, which chronicled an intense, emotionally debilitating breakup after a four-year relationship, Emma found herself in what she describes as a “masculine period” of her life, during which she wrote the entirety of Lilac Everything. “I didn’t have a male counterpart to balance myself,” she explains. “I filled in the male and became the masculine. I had no feminine mothering and softness, and I was very harsh on myself.”
During this time Emma would wear men’s clothing and cut her own hair, denying herself “kindness,” as she puts it, and “scrubb[ing] dirt on [her] face.” This masculine energy trickled into the songs she was writing, too: Emma’s vocal melodies on Lilac Everything rarely slip into the falsetto range that she utilised so often early on in her career, and the album’s lyrics are punctuated with “woah-ohs” and quiet moments of speak-singing, as on album opener “Wish You Well” or the warm, pattering “Gentleman”.
This “masculine” songwriting is at odds with the overt femininity presented in the record’s visuals. On Lilac Everything’s cover and in press shots, Emma appears surrounded by flowers; the record’s title is Lilac Everything; and in shoots and onstage, she prefers now to only wear what she describes as “feminine colours”—pinks, peaches, lilacs. Her hair, sitting at shoulder length, is the longest it’s ever been. This newfound sense of femininity, though, arrived more because of vaguely divine intervention in Mexico than any active choices. As she was writing the song that would eventually become “Mexico,” Emma impulsively booked a flight to the country, and flew there three days later. When she got there, she met an energy healer who gave her some strangely life-changing advice.
“I know it sounds weird,” she begins, “but he put his hands here”—she places a palm on her lower abdomen—”and said ‘You’ve got to get in touch with your feminine side. It’s causing you a lot of pain, you’re way out of balance.’”
"I was afraid of falling in love, and then this softness came through ... My energy just changed, and it was so healing." — Emma Louise
The energy healer taught Emma a series of exercises to regain her femininity, and instructed her to wear dresses and become more feminine. Slowly, she regained contact with a part of her personality she had cut off, and in the process, fell in love. “For some reason, I think I was afraid of falling in love,” she says. “And then this like softness came through in like an energy. My energy just changed completely and it was so healing. I think it was this pink energy or something. Like a gentle kindness.”
While she talks frequently and energetically about her partner—also a songwriter, with whom she lives in Rosebank, NSW half the year and LA the other half—Emma is reticent to discuss her personal life in anything more than the vaguest of terms; some things, she says, are too sacred to be in the public domain. Still, though, the songs speak for themselves. Emma writes lyrics with a warm candor, songs that are forceful in their emotionality. A song like “Falling Apart,” Lilac Everything’s bombastic, manic early highlight, tells you all you need to know through Emma’s aching lyricism: “Tell me how can I build myself up for love if I just keep on crumbling down?” she asks on the song’s desperate, painfully mortal bridge.
“Falling Apart” was one of the last songs Emma wrote for Lilac Everything, written as she was teetering on the edge of the relationship she’s in currently. It’s about fear, a subject that she keeps circling back to in our conversation. “That song is about thinking [everything’s] gonna be like a total disaster, like I'm going to like fall apart at any moment,” she explains. But she doesn’t feel that way much anymore—not about love, at least. In past relationships, Emma had a tendency to flee whenever things got too serious. “Falling Apart” represents her commitment to work on pushing back on that tendency, on committing to love for once, rather than fear. “This time, I was like, ‘I can't run away from this one because this is the real shit.’” she says. “I had to be like, ‘If I'm going to choose love, fear is the thing that I've got to work out.’”
The melodies of “Falling Apart” and a handful of other songs on Lilac Everything bear uncanny resemblance to the songwriting of Tobias Jesso Jr, the Canadian songwriter who would eventually end up producing Lilac Everything. Considering that the songs were written without Jesso’s involvement, their resemblance to her music is either coincidental, or due to some kind of psychic connection Emma has with Jesso. That isn’t altogether unlikely; it is, after all, how they met.
“I heard his album, and then I had a pretty crazy dream about him,” she tells me. “Then I sent him a song and I sent him Wish You Well, and he told me to come over to LA.” In the dream, which Emma had during a period living in LA, Emma stood beneath a towering statue of Zeus, “taller than any building or mountain.” She felts immense fear looking at the figure, and ran down a series of steps below her. At the bottom of the stairs, she felt hands on her shoulders, and knew, instinctively, that it was Jesso, standing behind her with a hat on—”and then in real life, my front door flew open at 4:00 AM, in the morning, in real life!” she exclaims. “It was crazy. I had these crazy goosebumps.”
Emma draws a lot of major life moments back to things like this—dreams and healers, strange coincidences and impulsive decisions. It feels strange, almost at odds with how grounded and clear-eyed Lilac Everything is. I guess it’s hard to be clear-eyed all the time, though; sometimes hard questions need strange, serendipitous catalysts to be answered. “When you make an album, you have to look at yourself and ask like, who am I?” she explains. “It's stressful realizing all of that. I'm still working on it.”
Elliott Lauren is a photographer from Melbourne. Follow her on Instagram.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australia & New Zealand editor. Follow him on Twitter.