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No Hard Feelings

http://www.reviewermagazine.com/emily-wells

Emily Wells

and the folly of indy street cred

8/12/08

Above: Emily Wells, from her Myspace

I’m Still Not Jaded

by Reviewer Rob

So many bands come out with CDs that take a while to grow on you. Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads was one for me. In 1996 I had to listen to “The Curse of Millhaven” at least two dozen times before I found myself singing along, eventually realizing Cave was singing in the persona of a young girl.

Emily Wells’ new CD, The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties, is not one of those, as it had me from hello, from the first violin strains, the first bass notes. This music is haunting, ethereal, evocative of strange forest creatures playing music and abruptly halting when a human wanders down the trail within earshot. You get the feeling that what you’re hearing is a kind of musical love-note at times, then in other tracks, while taking a darker turn, the beauty of the piece is such that you overlook the tone of threat that is existing in the lyrics. This is music that you can listen to over and over for ages.

After having worked in this music-and-entertainment publishing gig for twelve years I know from weary experience that there is so much talent out there, so many really good bands, that it’s easy to shrug and ignore a new talent when one arrives on the scene. I don’t think that can be easily done with Emily Wells.

From her Myspace:

“Emily Wells is an anomaly among musicians most of whom spend their careers striving for a major label deal. Before she was old enough to vote, a major label was courting Wells, two music-publishing companies were competing for the rights to her songs and she was recording with award winning producers. By the time she was legally buying her first drink, however, Emily had chosen a different path. With true indy ethos, she moved from New York, leaving in her wake a lucrative deal from a major label, the renowned producers, recording studios, and a manager. During that period of her life, Emily had been offered everything that most musicians want. Everything except what she, as an artist, needed most: creative control. Attaining the ever-elusive artist’s dream of creative control, as Wells would soon learn, comes only at a price. Wells’ cost was the thousands of miles logged, traipsing across country, playing in and outside of bars, pubs, and juke joints. She traveled in a tiny car, dragging along guitars, a tiny bass, a giant old Linn 9000 drum machine, and a four track. When flush, Emily would spend the occasional night in a seedy motel room where she would tirelessly record with her archaic four-track and dirty old instruments. Emily didn’t look back to her swank days as a would-be priority artist on a major label and regret any of her choices; she saw each obstacle in her path as a challenge.”

The Self-Propelled Career Path

Now, I don’t really want to trot out the old “indy-cred” mare again (any talk about true indy legitimacy from a writer in a newspaper that is run on paid advertising can appear hollow), but this lady’s independent commitment is only surpassed by her musical talent. Read her myspace bio and her poignant story of how she left New York to seek a musical life, shunning big label deals that didn’t give her complete creative control, and you’ll find yourself cheering her on her way as she showcases places like the Hotel Café in LA in between busking sessions on Main Street USA. In a perfect world some music-biz angel with a heart o’gold and a million dollars to invest in aural genuineness would call her up early one morning to tell her all her dreams are about to come true – and he’d MEAN it.

But this is the real world, not a perfect world. Awesome talent goes unrewarded and unrecognized all the time. In real life Richard Gere isn’t going to pull up in his limo and whisk Julia Roberts off to a lifetime in a penthouse suite. This isn’t an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent where Detective Robert Goren roots out the killer who’s charged with murder in under 45 minutes. The music business is just that, a business, where money isn’t the most important thing – it’s the only thing. As editor here I see so many great bands that churn out such great music on these well-produced CDs that never go anywhere.

So between 18 and 21 she Chose A Different Path; really? Or maybe reality simply sank in. The various cruelties of the industry include the enticements of yeah-dudes that get an 18-year-old girl’s hopes up and leave her a 21-year old bitter war veteran of the music biz that has seen it all. Hell, Britany Spears was washed up by that age, her best years behind her. That doesn’t mean she’s without talent.

On Symphonies Wells plays violin, toy piano, and several other instruments in layers on tracks that even have samples of hip-hop (that seemed a bit out-of-place when compared to the rest of the CD) to give listeners an unprecedented glimpse into her complex musical soul. But will she make it? Hard to tell. I hope so. It would validate my core belief that goodness should not go unrewarded.

Pay For Play

One night some time back in the mid-to-late-1990’s I was standing out in front of the old SOMA in its original location downtown, south of Market Street. Proprietor Len Paul was sitting on a stool by the door and was being questioned by some kid in a band who was saying he didn’t understand why some bars require “pay-for-play?”

“Yeah,” I added in, “what’s that all about? What’s ‘pay for play?'”

“Oh I understand it,” said Len. He began to calmly explain that it had to do with the amount of “friends” a band had who will come to their show. He was talking about paying customers of course. If you don’t have enough friends that come to your show and pay the door, then you have to compensate the club for the cost of its overhead to stay open that night and give you a place to rehearse. That’s not how Len said it but that was basically its meaning. It must get annoying to own a club to have these rockstar wannabes calling you every day to take up your time slots if you know they can’t get enough people in there to cover the light bill and the bartender’s hourly rate. It sort of reinforces the idea lots of people have that these indy musicians are spoiled rich kids.

I get asked all the time to review CDs from these bands too. Only thing is this isn’t a nightclub and there’s no cover charge at the door. The way we pay the light bill around here is by selling ads not drinks. I know it might be better for appearances if we didn’t accept ads from bands we’re reviewing but hey if we did that it would entail more work and we’d have to leave the office more. Besides, market research tells us that bands who advertise get noticed more, so it’s like we’re doing them a favor. Attempts are made of course to make it so writers don’t know that a certain CD they have to review is also from a band that’s advertising but sometimes it’s not that easy to hide… A few years back when labels had more money and were advertising consistently there was a couple of local musicians writing reviews for us that would always write up bad reviews when they got CDs from a certain major indy/punk band. I could see it was an automatic, knee jerk reaction, meant to slam a big-name “sellout” and improve the writer’s street ethics profile, and not an evaluation of the band’s musical merits. Hell – this band had more talent on an off day of hangovers than these guys normally showed in any of their best night’s shows. No mater, anything they did sucked, they sucked, they were fake punkers, poseurs backed by big money.

Whatever. Then there’s the other side of the coin where bands will call up saying that they were sending in a CD and they wanted to advertise, except they didn’t have money fo
r it now and they’d have to wait until after the review came out and they read it first. That’s not exactly what Emily’s associate Tracy, who identified herself as Emily Well’s manager, did. But it was close. She called up asking about review coverage for the CD and so on and then asked if they could get an ad too. I said sure, gave her a discounted price on an ad and she said payment would be sent over in a day or two. Weeks later there was nothing. Normally if a manager or even an artist pulls a yeah-dude move like that I’d shelve the CD and it might never get reviewed. Fuck ’em. With Emily Wells though her musical merits are stronger than her manager’s bad form. But if she ever makes it big it’ll be because it was her fine talent that won out, in spite of her choices to stay all “indy,” and in spite of the obnoxious management practices of those around her.

~RR

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