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...