Hometown: San Francisco
Album: Victorian America
For Fans Of: Feist, Nico, Marissa Nadler
The songs on Emily Jane White’s latest album, Victorian America (out now), are rife with all the drama of Romantic literature, and although they don’t tell specific stories, their construction feels almost novelesque: there’s exposition, conflict, climax, denouement. And her literary influences—Cormac McCarthy, Emily Brontë, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edgar Allan Poe—are clearly present throughout; there’s even a track called “The Ravens,” a haunting seven-minute tale of lost love that evokes Baltimore’s master of the macabre.
“I read stuff by people who grew up in different time periods than I,” White says. “And it’s obviously sort of very Gothic, dark fiction and poetry. It’s stuff I’ve been attracted to exploring and to reading for many years. It’s all made an impression.”
It seems fitting, then, that White and her band recorded their recent La Blogothéque Takeaway Show in a bookstore just outside Paris. Amid the swirling string arrangements of her “Requiem Waltz,” White’s voice, with its echoes of Feist and Nico, seems gentle but commands attention. In the video, a small crowd sits and and soaks up the song, seemingly lost in the performance—a tendency White has noticed among her French fans.
“I wonder if it’s because not everyone is fluent in English, so people can just experience the mood of the music more,” she wonders. “It’s not like, ‘People don’t understand your lyrics, so they’re not going to judge you.’ I don’t think it’s that at all. But people can allow themselves to have more of an emotional experience, where [in the States] I think there’s only certain people who would be open to that.”
So far, White has mainly focused her efforts on building her audience in Europe, where her label is based. But she’s starting to branch out in the U.S., particularly in her home state of California, which has had no small amount of influence on her music-making; she grew up in the small town of Fort Bragg, and its relative isolation offered her a lot of freedom from the mainstream. “When you’re not bombarded with a bunch of cultural media,” she says, “you have a lot more of your own creative space and psychic space to think about things and develop your concept of yourself.”
White recently returned to California on a small U.S. tour, including a night in the intimate, candlelit majesty of L.A.’s Hotel Café. In the spirit of Poe and Mary Shelley, she threw in a surprise twist for the occasion, swapping her usual string set and bringing along only one accompanist—her friend and pedal-steel guitarist Henry Nagle. “When you tour a lot, you end up playing the same songs all the time,” she says. “If you can change them a bit in terms of accompaniment, it can make things feel fresh and new.”