‘Your heart plays the strings of the Universe’– such is the way one artist sees, writes, and presents her music. Within the ongoing adventures of a remarkable singer/songwriter, Ainjel graciously stopped by to have a chat with us. Ainjel, an award winning artist, has worked at her craft her whole life and it shows in the music. Ainjel’ s music is an adventure we are able to share in – heartfelt, personal, beautifully constructed, and mesmerizing. Every song artfully wrought with clarity; emotions, observations, relationships, and places all wrapped up in a shared musical experience. She is currently in Los Angeles, gearing up for a tour of select US cities to promote her new album, ‘Everyone Is Beautiful’, later this fall. Here is Ainjel Emme.
Ainjel, Dave and I are thrilled to have discovered you and your music, we could not find much on you personally. It seems you are a digitally private person, but having said that you are certainly accessible through your music, and a great deal of listening fun for me. Tell us a little about your upbringing and of your journey to be who you are now.
I was raised making music. My mom is also a singer-songwriter, music teacher, and single parent of two. I started teaching myself to play piano in preschool and it escalated from there. I mostly kept to myself, because we moved around a lot. When you live like that, you prefer to make friends with the things you can take with you. Music was that for me… and my recordable cassette player.
I was into some weird stuff for a small girl that hailed from the glamorous urban outskirts of Oakland—Les Paul & Mary Ford, the American Songbook, gospel… I love early recorded music. There’s a 1920s record of Sylvester Weaver and Walter Beasley doing a guitar duet of “St. Louis Blues” that never fails to put me into rapture. Just a simple, perfect recording that doesn’t need a single other thing. Even the tape hiss is perfection.
So yeah, I was that kid. Ha ha.
We moved to New York City when I was still a child. I got my first Casio keyboard, to replace the piano we had to leave in California. I spent most of my time jamming along with new wave videos on MTV. My mom was part of a vocal group at that time, and I liked to stay up late, with my ear pressed against the door, when they’d come over, and listen to them practice. When they couldn’t figure out a harmony, I’d sing it out under the door. Then I’d get in trouble for being up, and get sent back to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat.
From New York, we moved to Los Angeles. We got an apartment right on the boardwalk of Venice Beach. Venice was the first place that really felt like home. Prince put out “Sign O’ The Times”, and I got the idea that I wanted to make my own record, where I wrote all the songs, and played all the instruments. To that effect, I started learning how to create multi-track recordings, by bouncing between my handheld and the home stereo. I also started begging for my own guitar.
During a tour with mom’s folk trio, she fell in love with Texas. Soon after, we packed up and headed to Austin. I wasn’t pleased about it, but once we got there I fell in love, too. I also started to go a bit feral. I became your classic problem child. I dropped out of school. I dyed my hair every shade of Manic Panic, and hung out on the drag, smoking cigarettes, writing poetry, and drinking coffee.
Then I discovered the music scene. I got my education in the all-ages clubs. I played bass in garage bands, and started learning how to play the electric guitar. I made friends with some local musicians, who took me under their wing. At sixteen, I was living in a band house, and making plenty of questionable choices. I was determined to live the rock and roll lifestyle, so I did. Of course, the reality of being a teenage girl came into play more often than I would’ve preferred, but I was determined to establish myself as a peer, not a groupie. I would play in the streets, because they wouldn’t let me play in the clubs. I actually made my first demos that way; the guys that own Sweatbox Studio in Austin were taking a break from recording and saw me playing in front of a closed jewelry store next to the old Black Cat on 6th street. They invited me to record four songs at their studio that night. That was awesome.
When I first moved back to Los Angeles to pursue a career, I was seventeen, impossibly idealistic, and struggling with substance abuse issues. I quickly became disenchanted with going around to Hollywood parties doing drugs and trying to make connections instead of being in the studio, where I wanted to be. I played around with a band for a few years, but it didn’t really lead to any major career opportunities. I finally decided that I’d produce and release my own records, and thus began my process. I put out my first full-length album in 2003, with no publicity and no staff. I didn’t sell a ton of records, but I did score a few indie awards, some good press, and opportunities to tour and do session work. I did guitar and vocals on cut with Maynard James Keenan [Tool, A Perfect Circle] in 2007, for his side project, Puscifer, called “Momma Sed”. I also was a semifinalist in a SPIN Magazine competition that same year. I put some effort into getting signed, but I also saw how much the Internet was changing the business. I already knew that I wasn’t the most likely commercial artist, so what point would it be investing all of my hard work into getting shelved? I knew I had to suck it up and keep plowing ahead, even if it meant months—or years—of radio silence. The years between my first, and most recent record, were agonizing, but they were necessary. I was born a musician, but those years made me an artist.
So up to speed, I put out my second indie record earlier this year. I finally quit my day job, as a waitress, and am trying to come up with a way to raise money to tour. I’m thinking about Kickstarter, or maybe some web shows through StageIt.com, if my old computer can handle it. I’m just hitting the point where I can start to look at things from a more strategic angle. Sometimes I forget that I’m still a new artist and have a long way to go, cause I’ve already been at it a while. I still have a lot of things to look forward to.
More and more we are coming upon some very gifted and unique songwriter/ artists, gifted and unique certainly fits you. Your voice and arrangements are amazing and tend to defy genre identification, although you call yourself ‘Alternative’. Is that true for you? Do you write to be genre specific? Is it important these days?
I don’t know if it’s as important to be genre specific these days, unless you’re appealing to a niche market. Today, there’s a lot more crossover. I personally like having the freedom to move between genres. It keeps things interesting. I don’t think I could be happy playing just one style of music.
‘In The Clear’ has, to my old ears, an old timey feel with charmingly macabre lyrics. What inspired this song?
‘In The Clear’ is loosely based on the story of La Llorona—a Mexican folktale about a woman who drowned her children for the love of a man, then died of grief after he rejected her.
When she approached the gates of heaven, St. Peter asked La Llorona where her children were. She lied and said she didn’t know, and was told she wouldn’t be allowed to enter heaven until they were found. She was cursed to wander the Earth as a ghost, weeping and calling out for her babies. Parents have been known to use the legend to warn young children about playing outside after dark, or too near a body of water—the “Weeping Woman” might snatch them up, hoping to pass them off as her own so she can gain entrance to heaven.
La Llorona is considered by some to be a misogynistic archetype, to demonize women who would place their personal happiness over the importance of being a dutiful wife and mother. With that in mind, I modernized the context: portraying her as a woman grieving after terminating an unplanned pregnancy. I didn’t set out to be morbid or controversial, but I’m not afraid of going there if the muses require it of me.
‘These Things Happen’ is a bit more Pop-ish, much different in feel and production. Tell us about how that decision to write and record this song was made.
This song features one of my favorite songwriting devices; the bait and switch—where you’re saying one thing but you mean another. The words profess resolution and acceptance, but they clearly betray denial and suffering.
I wanted to generate sonic tension by creating something wide and cinematic, but instrumentally minimal. The piano is stark and dramatic without being overplayed. The bass doesn’t appear until there aren’t any words to weigh it down. A simple drum loop helps to suggest a sort of mechanical resignation. The 808 drop is my favorite part! What a great way to illustrate the feeling of being let down.
My favorite is ‘The Down Song’ – fantastic acoustic arrangement, a heartfelt ‘road’ song. This one seemed to me right down the lane for you –authentic and honest. Is there something of your story in this one?
I wrote and recorded “The Down Song” in the same day. I picture it as one of those little storms you get caught in when you’re driving across the desert. You see it coming, turn on your headlights, white-knuckle the wheel and power through it as fast as you can.
Another absolute winner for me is ‘Long As It’s Sweet’. I was honestly taken by the choices made in instrumentation and arrangement. I hear acoustic guitars playing a riff where I would have thought a crunchy electric guitar riff would go. The Bridge, with those laid in the bushes back voices was a treat. I had to shake the cobwebs out and have a good chuckle at the lyric ‘Take you places you probably shouldn’t go’ I did go and it was wonderful. You produce your own work – how do you come to make the production and arrangement choices you make?
I played all of the instruments on that song. I was still very inexperienced in the studio when I did “Sweet”. I think that’s part of its charm.
Production-wise, I don’t typically approach my own stuff with a strategy unless the song openly begs for it. I like capturing things in the moment of discovery. The process is usually dictated by whatever instruments and equipment are available at the time. I lived like a gypsy for years so I never really had my own equipment, but I’m blessed to have angels in my life that have donated instruments or let me borrow theirs. The challenge of being limited to just a few pieces of gear has forced me to be both more creative and to approach things more simply.
Arrangements are typically complete by the time I head into the studio. The way I operate is starting to change now that I’m gaining access to bigger and better tools. I’m excited to see how things evolve from here.
Your lyrics are beautiful, inventive, at times poetic, and always remarkably accessible. What inspires you to write a song?
I’m inspired by humanity, so when I write whenever I’m having a particularly human moment. Which is all the time, of course. There’s something so simultaneously beautiful and utterly ridiculous about everything that we are. I can’t think of a better muse than People.
Do you write to communicate with the listener in the form of a conversation, or are you creating a poetic picture that allows for interpretation? Or both?
Where the thorns grow
Where the lost go
I’m going down
Oh there’s trouble on my mind…
Take me calmer waters
And hold me under
I’m going down
(From The Down Song)
I’d say both. I aim to keep things conversational, but I tend to speak in metaphor.
How do you know when you have written a good song?
I can’t say my songs are good or bad, that’s not really up to me to decide. I like ‘em. Well, most of the time. Some days I wake up and absolutely hate everything I’ve ever done! But I treasure those days. They keep me humble. They keep me writing!
The Songwriting site asks that old clichéd question – what comes first, when you sit down to write, music or lyrics?
I usually have some sense of a chord structure or melody before I start writing words, unless I’m so struck by a particular idea that the words come first. It’s been a customarily unconscious process. I’ve only recently started to approach my songwriting with specific intentions.
Thanks for tolerating that. The reason I asked is that you have an eclectic mix of tunes. And I wondered – do you start to write with a particular musical style in mind?
No. I try to stay out of my own way and let the songs show me how they’d like to be realized. I have a natural sense of style, I suppose, but I’m open to whatever. I guess it depends on what instrument I’m playing. “Easier” started with a bass line, and “Undone” began with drums.
So many of us songwriting folks have little quirks around our writing. Do you have some little ritual you go through before sitting down to write?
I tend to be a more ritualistic in the recording process than in the songwriting process. For example, I like amber colored light when I’m tracking vocals and red or magenta when I’m recording guitars. I have a particular shirt that I wear when I’m doing vocals. And I don’t like to have shoes on my feet when I’m singing. When I’m writing, all I really need is a sense of privacy, my gear, and a warm cup.
I watched your video ‘Brutal Truth’ and thought ‘How courageous is this’ – strong solo voice and solo hard electric guitar. Done so very very well – where musical disaster may have fallen on a lesser talent. Is taking musical risks a part of your M.O.?
It’s important to be pushed out of your comfort zone, but the mere act of being on stage puts me out of my comfort zone. I have pretty intense anxiety. I suffered from full-blown agoraphobia at one point, and to this day have to be mindful that I don’t shut myself in. It can work for you when you are in the studio, but you have to get out of the studio eventually. It becomes a wormhole.
I’m taking more risks lately; like playing guitar solos even though I have no idea what I’m doing, going for vocal notes I know I might miss… I love it when the audience sings along. That is the best thing in the world! I think there should be a morning sing-a-long and at least five minutes of mandatory citywide dancing, every day.
You are a talented musician and a powerful, engaging, and vocally rich singer – what’s more important to you- performing or songwriting?
Thank you. My first impulse is to say songwriting, but I’m not so sure about that. Ray Davies said something in his book, X-Ray, which stuck with me. It was something about the importance of being willing to humiliate yourself for another person’s moment of pleasure. I wish I could remember the exact quote, it’s brilliant! But performing is like that; you have to get up there and lose your shame. I thrive on that energy.
What about Producing – where does that sit in your plans?
Production is one of my passions. I’d love to produce records for other artists. I’m working towards that. I’ve been studying at a recording studio. I can do some basic stuff in ProTools now, which is huge because I was scared to even click on the ProTools icon before we made my second record.
You write, arrange, play, and record all the tracks to your CD – Bass, guitars, keyboards and sing? How do you put together live shows?
I perform solo most of the time, with an acoustic guitar or piano. Playing alone is great because you have more room for spontaneity and improvisation, but I prefer to play with other musicians whenever I can. No man is an island. I’m aiming to put a kick ass band together, but I want to be able to pay them properly. That’s important. You have to take care of your musicians! We’re all just trying to feed our families, you know?
I’m also learning how to use loop pedals and harmonizers to make my solo shows more adventurous, but I’m not ready to go live with that just yet. I can be obnoxiously perfectionistic. But so far, things are coming together nicely.
I loved, in one of your videos, the artistic ‘Tracks’ map tape on the mix board – how did that come to be created?
I am a compulsive doodler. Look at my website! I doodle like crazy in the studio. It eases my anxiety.
Tell us something we don’t know, and should know, about Ainjel Emme.
I’m left-handed, but I play right-handed, and I cannot use a can opener with either hand. God help me should the day ever come where I’ve gotta live out of my earthquake kit, cause I’ve got a lot of canned food in there.
What’s on the horizon?
I want to go on tour! I’m hoping that ball will start to roll soon. I’m working on my next record in the meantime. If it’s possible for a person to make a bazillion records, I want to make a bazillion records. I want to travel the world, sing for my supper, find the John to my Yoko, make peace, love and a bazillion records.
Thank you Ainjel. This has been wonderful! We look forward to hearing great things about you!
Thank you very kindly!
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