Emly Reo is making the kind of multi-coloured, cinematic pop hidden with layers of meaning. Her tracks – like delicious, miniature homespun symphonies, coated in metallic bullet-proof material – caught the ear of Carpark records who released her recent album Only You Can See It which came out earlier this year. With it she’s produced her best work yet, melodies winding through the peaks and troughs of her life and tapping into a universal feeling of disconnection from the modern world. Oscillating somewhere between the hyperactive sound of Grimes, the bubble gum pop of early Katy Perry, the icy knowing of Ladytron and the yearning qualities of dream pop, Emily Reo has still managed to carve herself out as a distinctive artist in her own right.
Debut single, ‘Strawberry’ was the first sun-kissed, sickly sweet taste of Reo’s world. A kaledsiscope of Casio keyboard bleeps usher in a twinkling ensemble of bounding synths, beats and sea-sawing melodies that sketch out the struggles of being a female in music. It’s insanely catchy and absolutely brilliant pop music!
For Only You Can See It, Reo imagined a series of humans, alone in movie theatres, watching their lives unfold on the screens. “No one else could see what they saw, or interpret things in the same way,” she explains, reflecting largely on the concept of perception. On the almost mechanical sounding, hyper-reality of ‘Candy’, she delves deeper into the theme of the artificial versus reality. Literally inhabiting the narrative through robot sounds, she wonders about the confusion of feeling close to someone through a screen, sung from the perspective of someone falling in love with a machine.
The ace ‘Ghosting‘ begins with a brittleness before tumbling through a world of reverb-coated anxiety and loneliness, delicate synth motifs lace her haunting vocal performance, that switches from isolated to swaying, infectious refrains. It’s like a lone voice in the machine. Following the release of her acclaimed 2013 full-length Olive Juice, Reo spent five years writing, recording, arranging, producing and mixing these ten songs at her apartment in Brooklyn. We caught up with Emily to get to know her work a little better…
Hey Emily, how are you today?
Hey! I’m doing great, thank you!
What was the first song you ever wrote? What was it like?
The first song I ever wrote was ‘Wind Can’t Hear You’ which ended up becoming ‘Wind’ on my record Olive Juice. There’s an earlier demo-like version on Minha Gatinha, but when I wrote it it was originally just on mandolin. I think growing up around a lot of other musicians I felt like songwriting wasn’t something I was capable of, but writing ‘Wind’ felt surprisingly easy. I just played some chords and sang whatever came into my head over them and I realized I could write songs, then it wasn’t scary anymore. It was nice to learn that anyone can do it.
I read that you have a background in classical music, tell us more?
I started taking piano and voice lessons when I was 9 and a few years later in middle school I joined chorus. We had an amazing teacher that picked really interesting music and took great care training us so I became very passionate about singing around that time. I also really loved music theory, I was super interested in what made a chord change feel the way it does. The high school I went to had a performing arts magnet with a renowned music program, so I continued voice training and started taking music theory and electronic music classes. Growing up in Orlando our school did this thing where we performed at Epcot every Christmas season with other local choirs — at the time I hated this because I had developed some performance anxiety and it wasn’t the kind of music I was excited about, but looking back on it it’s a pretty cool thing to have gotten to experience. We did maybe 30 shows a year and got free tickets every time. My favorite conductor from these performances was the head of the music department at a small private college near Orlando and I ended up going there basically because I thought he was great. I have a major in classical voice from that college where I also took every music theory class I could enroll in. I was kind of scared to take composition courses because the student works that were performed at recitals were usually extremely atonal and academic and I felt like it was inaccessible or over my head, but I started playing banjo about halfway through college and joined this little folk ensemble which introduced me to a much less intimidating form of songwriting.
What’s the music scene like back home?
Florida is interesting because it’s so geographically separated from most of the country that it feels like an island in a way — lots of bands skip it when touring and it’s also more difficult to get to major cities unless you can afford to fly so there isn’t as much cross-contamination creatively. Obviously there’s the internet, but I think physically experiencing something or meeting people in a community is the most impactful way for art to travel and really have influence. Florida is super weird and brewing it’s own type of art unlike anything else in the country. Although the cities aren’t huge and you can hit a wall because of this rent is more affordable, it’s beautiful everywhere and you can be outside pretty much any day of the year, which makes things feel more cheerful and also slower and relaxed. I remember losing that feeling when I moved to New York and it felt really difficult to make music because there was so much going on and everything felt faster and stressful and my head felt cloudy. I’d really love to spend a few months in Florida writing later this year or in the winter because it’s such a great place to just experiment and try new things and make art with a lot of the pressures of a big city removed. I’ve never lived in Gainesville, but there are some incredible things growing and I’d like to spend some extended time there. I’m particularly blown away by Pulp Arts, which is a new 10000 sq ft creative wonderland with studios and workshops where you can basically make anything. A lot of my old friends are involved in it and it’s honestly mind-blowing to see what they’ve accomplished and how inviting and open to collaboration they are.
How would you describe your music in five words?
Dense, colorful, nostalgic, organic, sparkly
It’s five years since the release of your debut album, can you talk us through that period? Did it take that long to finish your new album ‘Only You Can See It’? Are you a perfectionist?
I am a perfectionist which didn’t help speed up the process, but I wasn’t constantly working on music during the entire 5 year period. I took some time away from making anything during a period of poor mental health, and beyond that I generally took my time creating these songs. It turns out when you’re constantly putting pressure on yourself to finish something it makes it nearly impossible, so I had to learn to reevaluate my expectations and timelines in order to be able to make what I was hoping to make. Some of the songs took years to unfold from their conception, some took less but even the fastest was still a couple months from start to finish — except Counterspell which I made pretty quickly, but only after I had spent an extremely long time deliberating about what the album needed in its place and mentally putting everything I was working on into the right places, so to speak.
How did you end up signing to Carpark?
My favorite album probably of all time is Devotion by Beach House, so I’ve been a fan of Carpark since before I started making music. I’ve consistently loved the music they’ve released, and also always felt like they take special care in building their roster. They’re also not run by one million people and it feels more like a close unit or family, and I think that’s reflected in the way they’ve stayed true to form over the years. In 2016 and 2017 I was a touring member of a band on their roster, and through that experience ended up meeting them. My band opened a few of those shows in 2016 and for whatever reason they seemed to see potential in my unfinished material and really care about what I was doing — we were invited to play their showcase at SXSW in 2017 and we kept in touch after that. They were really caring and interested in what I was doing both as a musician and a person and that made me feel sure I wanted to work with them. Once I felt like the record was taking it’s final form I “popped the question” and they said yes!
Which artists do you admire?
As I mentioned above I’m a huge Beach House fan and they were probably my #1 influence when I started making music, I admire them a great deal and it’s been amazing to see the ways in which they’ve stayed true to form while developing their sound over the last 12+ years. I admire Mariah Carey because not only is she the best singer of all time, she’s a brilliant songwriter and considers that to be her primary focus. I admire my friends that make music because as cathartic and magical as it can be it can also be extremely dehumanizing, exhausting and terrifying. It takes a lot of hard work and a level of bravery to dedicate a lot of time to an unpaid labor of love when you have no idea where it will take you but for me and a lot of my friends making music is necessary for us to be able to do, it’s a part of who we are.
You have written about the topic of digitally-facilitated relationships; what confusion and unreality do you think they can encourage?
We’re living in a time when we’re constantly meeting people digitally and it’s interesting to examine what benefits and limitations that can have when building any sort of relationship. I’ve gotten to know a lot of important people in my life from behind a screen and sometimes I think that can be really useful. As someone with social anxiety I feel much more comfortable opening up to people through the computer, not only because it gives you extra time and space to be intentional with what you’re saying but also because I assume I’m coming across as extremely weird whenever I meet or talk with someone in person. It’s nice to get to know someone better without considering what they look like or what you look like or what they’re thinking of you or really any of the distractions that arise from being self-conscious. It’s also nice to be connected with someone regardless of location or distance, which is sort of what Candy is about. On the other hand, you can’t experience the real energy of a person unless you can see or be around them — peoples’ mannerisms, their voices, their expressions are all integral parts of being able to know someone closely. It can start to feel like you’re growing attached to a screen if you don’t balance digital communication by spending time with the person on the other end of the line.
Strawberry is so catchy is it symptomatic of the entire album? Or just one flavour?
Strawberry to me is the most saccharine song on the record, probably the only one that feels extremely sweet. It would probably fall somewhere between starbursts and sour patch kids. Regardless of each songs individual flavor most of all I tried to make every song an ear worm. I hope they all have hooks that get stuck in your head while also providing a wide spectrum of flavors!
What kind of synths do you use and do you record at home or in a studio?
In the past I used a lot of casios, my favorite being the MT-100, as well as a Microkorg for live stuff since older keyboards can be fragile and break on the road. For this new record I used midi soft synths as general ideas during the writing process, then fleshed out or replaced a good amount of them with a Juno 60 and my live band after the writing was done. The Juno is all over OYCSI but there are a few moments where the MT-100 or my Omnichord makes an appearance. I used a Farfisa organ and piano to fill out some of the organ and piano — I really like layering real instruments with midi ones and I did a lot of that on here. I recorded a lot of the record in my room and at my collaborators houses, with the exception of vocals which I recorded alone in empty houses that a few friends graciously let me work in. We also recorded at Gravesend with Carlos and Julian who tracked drums, organ, auxiliary percussion and some of the bass and synth that made it onto the record. I have a friend from Florida who let me record piano in his house as well. It’s probably about 75% homes and 25% studio.
What would be your dream collaboration?
Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens, Ice T
I love the album artwork very Burton, who created it?
My best friend Jaclyn is an incredibly talented artist but she had stopped drawing for a number of years, I somehow convinced her to take on this pretty massive project though. I had an image in my head of what I wanted it to look like then sent her a terrible sketch and she was able to translate it into exactly what I was hoping for. Way better actually. She’s really great at making comics so I had the idea to lay out the lyrics in the inner gatefold to look like a comic book. This project sort of kept growing over the course of preparing the record and I ended up with hundreds of used and unused illustrations that she drew and I was able to repurpose for my website and posters. After all of the album work was done I kept coming back being like “can I get you to do ONE more thing?” and then she’d make me an amazing shirt design or poster. Thankfully she kept saying yes and letting me hire her, everything feels magically cohesive. I think her work pairs perfectly with the sound of this record, her style is incredibly detailed and full of hidden surprises and it’s really dreamy. It feels special that we’ve been able to collaborate extremely well and now we have something to be proud of that we made together.
Are you playing any shows/festivals this summer?
Yes! I’ve had butterflies in my stomach every day because we’re going on tour with Charly Bliss in June! I was blown away by their first record Guppy and I’ve been a huge fan and had so much respect for them — now they have a new record that’s so next level cool and I can’t wait to get to see them play it every night. They’re one of the best live bands I I’ve ever seen, their energy is unmatched and I can’t think of a more fun way to spend the summer. We also have one Brooklyn show for Rooftop Films on 5/31 before we head out with CB!