Emily Jane Powers: Intentional, Fluid, & Dang Smart
On her most recent tour, Emily Jane Powers visited the DAAC at the Fed Galleries at KCAD and performed alongside Overly Polite Tornadoes and Fiona Dickinson. Much to my own misfortune, this performance was the first time I had heard of Emily Jane Powers. I have wasted so much time on this earth not knowing who Emily Jane Powers is.
This mistake is particularly notable given that Emily Jane Powers has been producing music consistently since 2002 and grew up in the East Michigan music scene. Part of Me, Powers’s most recent album, shows the range of skills the musician possesses. Her songwriting is catchy, intentional, and fluid. Not beholden to genre—but still clearly very musically informed—Powers has the ability to pen songs that deftly and precisely capture emotion. The breadth of her style is not detrimental to the singularity of her sound; Powers’s confidence and ingenuity ring clearly throughout every track. Powers plays with an assured, but gentle, force. And the songs on Part of Me are sprinkled with thoughtful and delightful details—from her audible smiling/laughing to herself in “Passage,” to the cute smooch at the end of “Dani.” A listen to this record will leave you thinking, “man, that was smart.”
I spoke with Powers about her work as a musician and Part of Me.
You’ve been publishing music since 2002. What got you into playing music, and then what made you decide to start recording?
I started writing and recording music in high school. I played violin through elementary school, but wasn’t serious about the guitar until I was 13 or so. In addition to doing solo music I fronted a few bands in high school, mainly Detergent, which also released a record in 2003.
Can you tell me about your coming up in the Michigan music scene? How has it shaped you as the musician you are today?
I feel so fortunate to have grown up around so many talented musicians in Michigan. I started writing music when I was young, and the artists I listened to and played with during my early years had a big impact on my sound and songwriting, then and now. Many of the musicians I played with in the early to mid-2000’s are still big role models and great friends; two of them are currently in my band.
During high school I also participated in a lot of programming at the Neutral Zone, a teen center that’s still active in Ann Arbor. I did some of my first recordings at their recording studio, was a founding member of their Youth Owned Records label and performed in the all-ages venue frequently. They provided me the opportunity to open for really talented musicians that came through town (Of Montreal, Andrew WK) and the support to do my first tour while I was still in high school. During this time I was part of a large youth music scene that felt really unique and exciting; being a part of this community helped me gain the confidence to share my music with others and the experience of how you do that from the start of a song idea to performing, recording, and touring. I’m still very close with my fellow Neutral Zone alumni, many of whom are touring musicians or work in the music industry.
What brought you to Chicago? What do you like about it there?
I came to Chicago for school and I’ve made it my home since. I like how there’s always something new to discover and learn about it.
You published your latest album, Part of Me, as a book rather than a record or a CD. Why did you choose to do this?
It’s important to me to self-release my music, and I wanted to do something that was different—within a reasonable budget (vinyl just wasn’t an option for me). Paper books are one of the few physical artifacts that I have emotional attachments to, similar to other physical recording of music, so it felt like a good fit for the album. It also gave me the space to lay out lyrics and artwork in a new way that was really exciting. At the end of the day, it’s still just a fancy way to download 10 tracks off the internet, but doing the book was really meaningful to me and it’s something I’d like to explore again.
Throughout the album, your style varies pretty significantly. Every song seems to really test the boundaries of genre. I’m thinking now of “Back Into The Light,” which is probably one of the most upbeat songs on the album and the one in which you play with your vocal style the most. When you write, how do you decide the genre/feel a song should have?
I’m still trying to figure that out! I used to get really hung up on what genre I was, or limit myself to only “quiet” or “loud” songs for an album or live show, and it got really confusing. I took a few years off of music in the early 2010’s, and when I picked things up again I wanted to stop putting myself in a box and just make the music I wanted to make without thinking about styles or genres too much. My main goal was to focus on editing and refining my sound instead of just making sonic piles buried in reverb.
The style of a song is usually dictated by what I want to sing about, as opposed to finding a cool riff and going with that first. If I’m writing about something that’s more somber or reflective, the music is usually more toned down; sometimes excitement, anxiety, and disappointment gets intertwined and comes out sounding like “Back Into The Light.” That song sonically is so different from the rest of the record because it was recorded in a few different places, but the vocals were done in a studio I’d never played in before. I had a surge of nervous energy before singing, which probably made the vocal performance sound super weird and strained.
I really love the tape manipulation in “People, People.” Can you tell me a little about why you employed that?
The cassette tape I’m manipulating is a recording a close friend did when they were a kid; they passed away in 2009 and this song is my attempt to say goodbye. I wanted to revisit the cassette tape since it’s the only recording I have of their voice and it’s something I sampled in a song back in 2003 when we became close. It’s sort of a strange thing to hang on to since I didn’t know them as a kid, so it’s not a voice I recognize instantly or have a deep emotional connection to. Regardless, writing and recording the song helped bring me closure and it was important to me to revisit the cassette tape.
Who are you listening to now?
I’ve been going through a strong Sade phase for the better part of three years now, so I’m still exploring her catalogue. I’ve also been revisiting The Weakerthans since they made their break-up official.
What do you do when you’re not writing or performing?
During my summers off I enjoy playing tabletop games and reading. I’ve also got two pretty cool cats that can be handful, so I spend a lot of time with them.
What’s your favorite color, and why?
I’m into gold right now, mostly the sparkly variety, for no particular reason other than I think it’s pretty.