Tuesday 27 September 2016

Interview: LINDA EM


Linda Em is an enchanting genre-spanning chanteuse. 
Her debut album ‘Shadow Lands’ is well worth seeking out 
 (2015, Talking Elephant Records www.lindaem.co.uk
This is the full version of an interview done for 
the excellent ‘R2: Rock ‘n’ Reel’ magazine, subsequently 
edited down for publication due to space restrictions

An ‘em’ is a unit used in typography, equal to the currently specified point size, therefore one ‘em’ in a sixteen-point typeface is sixteen points. Linda Em’s name has nothing to do with typography. ‘No it’s a name my friend Sonja put on me. I wanted to abbreviate my surname and she said why not just Em. It also works because I use a lot of E minor chords.’

Minor chords. Major talent. Now auburn-haired Linda’s talking about her debut album, ‘Shadow Lands’ (2015). There’s a kind of literary-connection with CS Lewis about that title. ‘Yes I’m aware of that, it crops up a lot… even in ‘Game Of Thrones’, which is also my kind of thing, pretty addictive, epic and mythological with strong female warriors.’ Although there isn’t a song called ‘Shadow Lands’ ‘it is a word used in one of my lyrics. “Run Higher” is a strange song, inspired by an American man who threw himself off the JPMorgan building in Canary Wharf (‘he couldn’t stand the pressure in his head, so he flew’). I pass the building a lot, its very sad that people are pushed to such actions.’

The video for “Run Higher” shows Linda pensively adrift in the city-commuter flood beneath the Shard skyline. She’s lived in London since the 1980s, making sense of its contradictions with a voice that betrays the edge of Eire in its country-huskiness, yet quietly urgent as she moves from corner to corner, melding Celtic roots with influences ranging from the smoky blues end of the folk spectrum informed by literate classic singer-songwriters. Think Kirsty MacColl, then think again.

At first it seems maybe such songs have matured over a considerable period of time, literate yet Pop-melodic, from slightly nasal Blues to slow sin, accented by Folk-violin. There are lots of frail clear-voiced girl singers in the quasi-Folkie thing, who have perfect voices but little character. Linda’s USP is that her voice is not like that, there’s more breath of experience there. That’s what makes it stand out. There’s even a weird claim on her website that she’s an ‘aged soul honed by a life lived…’ ‘Yes, and no’ she parries. ‘I’m not sure how accurate that is, maybe it’s more a little insight into my person? I am an aged soul, I guess. I’m thirty-four but have a hankering and a taste for all things that came before me. While my peers were reaching for Prodigy I was listening to Janice Joplin and Carole King. As a child it was Fifties, Sixties and Seventies vinyl compilations that my mother had, I would play them on our radiogram. My Dad was a big Hank Williams fan. I also adore old movies, I find them very comforting especially on a rainy day, the comedy pairing of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn used to make me laugh hard!’

“Muse” opens with Matthew Mason’s resonant drums and Chris Wyatt’s guitar shimmering like steely knives, leading into fifties Pop-catchy harmonies, while never less than lyrically enchanting. Amplified with stridently echoey Spector-pacing on the CD, there’s a plaintive quality to the unplugged “The Busker” video-clip found on her Facebook page, done live at the Limehouse Queens Head with only Terence O’Flaherty guitar – revealing its interpretive layers, her fingers illustrating the lyric, weaving shapes in the air. It proves the strength of the song in that it can be interpreted in such different ways. ‘Thank you for that, I mean if a song can work completely stripped back we know we’ve achieved something. That’s what’s interesting about narrative in song, and that chanson idea of a song being lyric-driven. Listeners want to know what happens to the protagonist. I was brought up listening to my grandmother singing trad Irish and I’d find myself drawn into the journey of the people she was singing about, as in “Spancil Hill”. Another good example is the folk song “Tom Dooley” – a bit morbid, but it certainly had me visualising Tom Dooley’s demise.’

Linda’s “The Brig Hannah” follows the same narrative troubadour Folk-tradition as that Kingston Trio hit, Jane Miller’s violin adding trad-depth to the exile’s storytelling. A style that’s currently eclipsed by the more personal confessional style of songwriting. ‘Oh eclipsed I like that’ she laughs. Although Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs did a lot of early story-telling songs. ‘Yes well I’m a big fan of Dylan’s writing and Leonard Cohen… but then hey, who isn’t?’ “The Brig Hannah” is about an actual event that took place in 1849. The ship was traveling from Newry to Quebec when it sank off the gulf of St Lawrence, and Captain Shaw really did desert them (‘I see you steal away’). It struck me as very sad and I was inspired to write.’

The other half of her ‘we’, is Chris Wyatt, who founded and runs the Redbridge Music Lounge community resource, and plays in a Traveling Wilburys tribute-act – the Traveling Tilburys! ‘We’ve been working together for some time, Chris and I. We’ve developed a sound that brings our wide influences together, and it’s still maturing. I develop the narrative in the song and melody, then I’ll go to Chris and we’ll build around it. I do input on production, I most certainly have strong ideas, but Chris is like a musical architect, he’s somehow able to see my vision and bring it to life. He has a vast understanding of music, I feel we’ve come together at just the right time.’

‘The songs themselves? I get inspired by many different things especially the ‘real world’, “The Dockers Tavern” is about an actual ‘beer-stained’ public house I used to work and occasionally sing in, it was frequented by aged seamen and colourful characters. While “Monday Night” isn’t actually my song, it was written by Chris and his then-band just after John Lennon died, in response to his death, and if you listen closely you can understand that from the lyrics.’

We work pretty quickly together, it was more a case of deciding what to leave off the album. I have an increasing amount of material. I have words written everywhere (‘keep spinning those words out’). I’ve certainly lived a little, my writing comes from genuine experience, and a good dose of hindsight. At a certain age you kinda realise that life happens and you just gotta get on with it. I feel “Blue Girl” echoes my philosophy on life…’

Around this point, the conversation gets to be less a formal interview, and more a two-way dialogue. I point out that – personally, I have a passion for old SF and strange off-trails writers, odd poets and Literary weirdos. I’m assuming Linda is fairly literate too, from her articulate and well-crafted lyrics…? ‘Yes I am fairly. I took a strange left at the traffic lights, into dark humour, it all appeals! I’m kinda word hungry, always open to literary weirdos and defo odd poets. I topic-jump a lot. I’m actually trying to re-read a selection of Ted Hughes poems, and reading about ‘Granuaile’ – Ireland’s pirate queen Gráinne O’Malley (circa 1530 to 1603). I’ve also been digging around the Harry Smith ‘Anthology Of American Folk Music’ (Folkways 1952, CD set 1997) and the connection he had with Allen Ginsburg.’

Owning up… Allen Ginsberg was a great influence on me when I was starting out, freeing up line-lengths and loosening up form. The only Ted Hughes I could really get into was the ‘Crow’ sequence, but that is brilliant. For a lyric-writer I guess all this stuff feeds in and informs the way Linda expresses words in song… all these things interact and feed off each other... ‘I’ve always found – with writing poetry, that I lack the discipline, so lyric writing frees that up. I noted Ginsburg’s connection with mental health, which is something that interests me, how crises spawns a certain kind of creatives, like Sylvia Plath – who I do really enjoy! As a teenager I was completely fascinated with the Hughes-Plath dynamic. ‘Birthday Letters’ (Faber, 1998) was like Pandora’s box to me. I was at a folk art exhibition at the Tate and I saw an old tapestry of a fox, which triggered the memory of the poem, the thought-fox so for the past few months I’ve been revisiting Plath and Hughes intermittently. Yes, ‘Crow’ is a masterpiece, but then I’m intrigued by the crow in mythology anyway especially Celtic.’

Linda has taken time learning her craft, and it tells across the album’s ten diversely engaging tracks. It’s a debut album to return to. ‘I kissed the blues’ says “Blue Girl”, so ‘if you’re gonna rock me, Baby, make it good.’ Minor chords. Major talent.

Published (in abbreviated form) in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ Vol.2 no.53 September-October
(UK – September 2015)
CD review in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.52’
 (UK – July/August 2015)

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