I met Emily Wells years ago and we immediately hit it off, talking about gear and careers. She's released a number of albums of her unique compositions and excellent musicianship (her violin playing is top-notch) in addition to her background in recording. While she was in Portland for a series of shows, we hung out one afternoon to catch up.
Were you recording yourself when you were young?
When I was 13 or 14, a friend gave me a 4-track and it blew my mind. I realized, "Oh, this is magic! I can do multiple tracks." As any producer/engineer does, you slowly build out the pieces over the course of your life.
What happened after your 4-track cassette?
I had a brief period when I was 17 or 18 where I was courted by Epic Records. It's a part of my history that I forget about, but it is integral to my history of recording. I was going to all these incredible studios in 2001. The recording industry was changing, but also the structure of how people recorded records was changing. I asked a million questions, and I feel like I learned a lot from being in these studios and working with experienced producers. I was coming of age in a moment of flux. I was working with these producers at the beginning of the home studio thing, and now it's so prevalent. So, ultimately, few of my records are made from start to finish in a proper studio.
Were you recording songs back then?
I don't think anything good came out of it, musically speaking. It was like, "Let's try cowriting!" I thought, "What does this dude in his 30s or 40s have to do conceptually with what I'm trying to get across as a 19-year old girl?" I decided that I wanted to learn how to record myself in order to have more power and control over my work. Eventually I did move on to recording in Pro Tools. Then I got the Tascam 388 8-track that I recorded Mama and the Mama Acoustic [Recordings] on. It's such a behemoth.
What was it about the 388 that captured you?
I loved how easy it was to use. I loved the way that drums sounded, in particular. Mama did eventually get put out into Pro Tools – there weren't enough tracks. There's a lot of string layering. But all the drums, vocals, and bass are recorded to the tape. I limited myself on the acoustic record. I recorded it here in Portland, actually; the vocals and the guitar at the same time.
Did it remind you of the 4-track?
The process of it, yeah. I liked having to rewind and get to a spot in the overdubbing process. Also, I love Pro Tools. That's how I recorded the last couple of albums.
I assume you were starting tracks at home and building them up, working on composition?
On my own, yeah. I do a lot of the recording myself. I have a separate studio space, which is a bit of a luxury in the city [New York]. I can play drums in this place. My only neighbor is 97 years old, so we have this symbiotic thing. I don't mind that I can hear her television blasting sometimes. She doesn't mind that I play drums. This World Is Too _____ For You  was a little different. I made all these tracks that were demo-ish, but I knew they were going to be foundational. Then we recorded all the strings live.
You told me it was a day of recording to get all the string sections.
Yes! One day for all ten songs, which was highly ambitious.
You wrote out scores, and then people were playing them in the studio?
Yeah. I worked with an incredible arranger named Michi Wiancko. She's a virtuosic violinist and also an arranger and composer. It was great to work with another violinist, because we were speaking the same language. The scores were impeccable, thanks to Michi.
Did you get to listen to mock-ups first and make suggestions?
Oh, yeah. We would go back and forth. I gave her the demos, then she would send MIDI plus her performing a bunch of the parts. It started out actually as a project that was for live performance. There's this brilliant music series called Liquid Music. It's the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra – people from the orchestra will play at these concerts. The curator is Kate Nordstrum – a genius about thinking who could match together. She's who introduced me to Michi. We did a performance in St. Paul in November 2017, and then the Metropolis Ensemble continued the project. The director of Metropolis is also a great visionary; Andrew Cyr. At one point, he asked, "What do you want to do with this?" I said, "I want to write a few more songs and make it a record." He commissioned the second half from Michi, and Metropolis also performs on the album. I got it to a point where the structures were all in place, and there was enough sonic material for the ensemble to play to. We went into a beautiful new studio in Williamsburg called Electric Garden. It couldn't have been done without incredible players. It was five players, plus a French horn, which was isolated. There are a lot of lines that I sing, and the horn also plays. I thought of the horn as a vocal duet. A lot of the arrangements come from synth parts that I sent to Michi, so they're reinterpreted. She drew from that and figured out a way to make the string players give this pulse, or this arpeggio, or the horn to do this gliding line that I might bend on a synth.
Like pitch wheel?
Yeah! Of all the tracks I effected after, the horn was the one I did the most treatment to. That sound is so specific, and I sometimes wanted to smooth it out. I used a lot of Soundtoys [plug-ins], like PrimalTap. I always put their Decapitator on the sub-bass to give a little grit.
I assume there was bleed between the mics?
Exactly. We had a stereo pair for the room – Chris [Botta, engineer] brought his Neumann KM 84s – and then each person had at least one mic on them. We had a little isolation on the upright. That was helpful, because that was another instrument that I knew I might need to extract. It gave me a little bit more control. I hadn't added any live drums at the time we recorded the strings, so it was all drum machines. The rhythm was very clear, and we gave them a click whenever they needed it. I feel the record allowed me to step back as a violinist. I brought the knowledge of a violinist, but I don't play that much violin on the album. I wanted to be a producer, in that way. I wanted to stand outside of the room and listen instead of worrying about my performance.
Who picked the players?
Andrew from Metropolis chose the players. Afterwards, I had to sort through all of the tracks and takes and make sense of it. That was where the producer side of myself was challenged in a new way. I'm used to producing myself and cutting or hacking away at whatever I've laid down. But with this, all these characters were inhabiting my studio with me. Even though I was alone, I built such a relationship with each of the players through the process of post-production after we got out of that studio and I was back into mine, doing the pre-mix. "What do we keep? What's essential?" I find those decisions to be the most challenging in some ways, once you've put all your ideas out. Ultimately you have to serve the song. I guess that you can see from my discography that I'm not static. You can record a song a different way and let people in on the process of that, if you wish. A record is, "This is where the song is right now."
That's also about finding the letting go point.
Absolutely. If you're not careful, you can work the song to death. That's absolutely how I learned. For [2016's] Promise I spent a lot of time making that record, and I tried so many different approaches. At one point, I tore away all of the rhythm completely and started again.
The whole album?
The whole album. I thought I was basically done. I thought I was ready to mix, and then it took me another six months. I was sampling constantly, finding samples, and trying to understand how to support the rest of what I'd built. But the process was astounding, as though I had taken away the scaffolding – the drum machines I'd built the songs around – and here the structure, to my surprise and delight, was still standing.
Do you feel you know the process better now?
I do. Use your ears. Don't be sentimental about past choices. Those [ideologies] definitely help. I have to set a deadline. I think it's almost a level of practicality. "The mix session starts soon."
Have most of your records been mixed with other people?
Yeah. This World... was a little different. I mixed with Christopher Botta. We had an incredible time mixing. I sort of mixed in two phases, first with Jacob Plasse, who is a producer/composer and a dear friend at this point, who I'd mixed Promise with. We have this interesting relationship that we're building. I'd liken it to an editor for a writer – a person who you totally trust, who you're willing to argue with, and who you know is coming from a place that serves the song. But that relationship takes time to build. Jacob and I worked together for a few days before I went to the final mix session with Chris. By the time I get to the mix session, there are choices which are no longer up for discussion, which simplifies how endless mixing can be. There's a lot of muting that goes on in my sessions with Jacob!
Do you think that collaboration brings more to the final project?
Absolutely. I've worked within my limitations. That's part of being an artist, and I respect those limitations, but I am so grateful for the chance to have a bigger vision whenever I can. Usually it comes down to money. This World... was definitely the most collaborative record I've ever made, and I love that. It was about two years, from the beginning of the writing process to the release date. There were periods of having to wait on other people that were challenging, but I didn't over-listen to the record. I let it rest. When I came back to it, I had fresh ears. I can be a bit obsessive. This was a practice in patience.
What is your home recording space like?
My space is outside of my apartment, about a mile away. It's probably 400 square feet with a few windows and a sound booth big enough that I can record drums in there. It's approximately 5 ft by 5 ft and floating. Somebody built it for me. I can take it apart and move it, but it's so heavy and cumbersome that I've only done it once with the help of three movers! I recorded everything for This World... but the strings in my studio, including the drums.
Are you playing the drums?
Mostly no. There are a few songs I played on, like "Eulogy for the Lucky." There's an incredible drummer named Shayna Dunkelman; she's a composer herself. We had three days that we spent in my studio. I used an Elektron Analog Rytm MKII [drum computer]. There's a lot of that on the record. Shayna brought in a lot of the live parts, like cymbals, on top of these drum machine parts. Sometimes, if Shayna was playing a tom part, we would break it down.
Only playing the toms?
What mics are you using?
I had this beautiful old Neumann U 87 that Jacob loaned me. I recorded all my vocals on that. I have a [Neumann] TLM , some other little condensers, and [Shure] SM57s. Telefunken mics usually suit my voice best. For instance, I recorded the vocals for Promise on an ELA M 251 and I tour with the M80. I don't use it in the studio, but I use it live. But for this record my motto was, "Throw the U 87 on there." For my string parts, I have this trusty old RØDE NT10 mic. I've had that forever, and I've used it to layer so many string parts over the years. I find it to be good, especially before I had the booth. It's very directional. I wish I had more mics! Lately I've been using the Ridge Farm "Gas Cooker." It's an English boutique preamp that I've used forever. I didn't know that it would become a signature sound when I first bought it, but now here we are! I had the RME Fireface, but now I've switched over to a Universal Audio Apollo x6 system. Ah, the plug-ins! For the string session at Electric Garden, we had a lot of different condensers. Their mic collection was gorgeous; a Narnia closet. Chris Botta, the guy I mixed the record with, also engineered the session. That meant when we went into our mix, he understood the architecture of all the chamber parts.
I'll bet that helped with mixing.
This was my first experience mixing with Chris. We did it at Chris's studio in Bushwick, a place called Fer Sound. It's oriented toward mixing. It's a small room with a white leather couch, two chairs, wood, and lots of choice outboard gear. He has some beautiful Barefoot [Sound MicroMain27] monitors; I recently got a pair of their Footprint monitors myself. Once I got to the process with Chris, it was about bringing out the sounds. He had this incredible Neve  compressor that we would run some of the drum tracks through – amping that fidelity a little more or giving it a different character. We used a Chandler [TG1] compressor on some of my vocals. We didn't want the strings to be too wet. To have that character be very clear, but also not harsh. We wanted it to feel pleasant, and for the ears to take it in. I could go all day with strings and reverb, but I wanted to make a conscious choice not to. Another piece of signature gear in my recordings is a Fostex  spring reverb unit, for both my voice and strings. I've used it since recording The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties . It's become a thread throughout all the records. I naively thought mixing would take us three days or something. I think we ended up mixing for 12 days; the two of us sitting next to the computer screens, making jokes and occasionally crying, with the monitors and all the beautiful outboard gear surrounding us.
What synths do you use?
I have this trusty synth that I love; a Roland JD-Xi. It's small, with little keys. I need that for touring, because I have "my way" of going on the road. It essentially has four sequenced tracks. There's an analog synth inside of it, and then there're two digital sides, so you can get an arpeggio going and hold out a note. There's a cool, rudimentary drum machine built in. I actually found it to be a fun writing tool; I don't have to have any recording gear set up in order to get something going. On This World..., even though they are quite large arrangements, I had a rule as I was writing where I had to be able to play a song on this Casio keyboard I found in the basement of my apartment building. If I can play it on that and sing, that was my test to see if a song deserves to be arranged and recorded.
Were you building tracks with MIDI at all?
I am so MIDI ignorant. I don't even use it live. Everything is by hand. The same is true for my recording process. Sure, I have a grid, and I get it to the grid.
Do you record the Elektron drum tracks in and then build the grid around it?
Exactly. The arpeggiator can be tricky, but you can make it work! I wanted there to be room to slow down and to breathe. That's important to me. If I'm having all these live players I don't want them to behave like machines. I wanted to leave space for that.
Have you produced other artists?
No. I would love to. I'll play on sessions for friends, but generally being a session player has never been my bag. Not a strength... For the right project, I would love to produce. I feel like I'm at a bit of an artistic crossroads. Not in a bad way. I think I'm going to push to not insulate myself, and to try and think bigger than what I could do alone. My work also contains a visual element with projections, so I have this video art practice that's developing. I've been writing these essays that tie all the work together, so I'm thinking about continuing that. I've given a lecture at the National Gallery [of Art], and I'm interested in giving talks.
On the music you're creating?
On music, my life, climate crisis, the AIDS crisis, art, and purpose. I've also given talks about technology and how it has influenced my process. There's always a performance element to the talks. I can reference something and then show it.
Does your music get used in film and video?
Yeah, mostly film and TV. That's been a totally sustaining force for my work. I work with a company called Terrorbird [Media]; they're wonderful. I'm actually scoring a documentary film right now as well. For the right projects, scoring is super interesting. I love getting to step outside of my own point of view. When I did a song for this movie Stoker a few years ago, it was as though I was inhabiting a character. That song's not written from my perspective. It's for the protagonist. I liked that.
Words of encouragement for the rest of the world?
My biggest piece of advice, which I gave to my best friend years ago. She's a musician and writer, and she was mixing record. I said, "You have ears. Use them!"