Emily Cross creates some pretty intense music, considering she takes a minimalist approach.
As Cross Record, she creates sparse sweeps of angular electro-rock, where the eerie yet enticing guitar tones, tenderly clanging synthesizer clasps and muted percussive mustering are compelling framings for her voice. That voice is a fragile and fierce thing, a bewitching whisper sounding like the garbled recollection of dictated dreams or at other times like a far-off summer storm slowly darkening the horizon, its thunder muffled by distance. Some would call this contemplative, cathartic or maybe even consider it avant-folk, frayed with a pensive darkness.
Cross, a lifelong visual artist who first started writing and producing her own music in college, admitted to being severely nervous to bring this subtly brutal and hauntingly beautiful batch of songs onto a stage for a live audience. They’re not exactly engineered to get the fist-pumping exuberance or headbanging ballyhoo you get from power pop or garage-rock …
“Yeah, you never know exactly what those certain facial expressions are meaning when you look out there into the audience,” Cross said, recalling her first set of shows. “I still get nervous, but definitely nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Lately, I’ve been tapping into this exercise of thinking of myself as someone else that’s on the stage. I’ll get into a different mindset: ‘This isn’t me…it’s someone other than me, someone more confident who doesn’t even care if she fucks up at all …’ But, it’s still me. I’m tapping into that energy, though. I think eventually I’ll become that person.”
The person she is now is one who draws heavily on minimalist composers and visual artists as inspiration. Cross is the person who, after graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago back in 2013, decided to move, with her husband and closest collaborator Dan Duszynski, to a remote Texas ranch (complete with her own chicken coop) in Dripping Springs. We should also underline that Cross is one who, whether whimsically or bravely, opts to move around often, having spent time in Ireland studying at the Burren College of Art (where she formally began her current musical journey) and also, for a time, residing in Maine. Meanwhile, she hails from Florida.
“(Dripping Springs) does feel like home, in a way,” said Cross. “But I definitely don’t feel like ‘a Texan.’ But, I also don’t feel like a Chicagoan or a Floridian. I do love it here, though. We definitely feel comfortable, here, even if I miss my friends in Chicago. I definitely don’t miss the weather there, though, or the crime …”
Wabi Sabi, which comes out in January on Ba Da Bing, is hauntingly decorated with lyrical ruminations on the ways we all interact with and adapt to different and strange environments. “I’m pretty sure the darker songs (on Wabi Sabi) were written in Chicago, when I was not happy at all. I mean, I write darker songs when I’m in a darker place, that makes sense, I guess. But, living in Texas, I just feel a lot of freedom and I have a lot of space here, and that affected other songs as well.”
Her and her husband, Duszynski have access to their own 18 acres worth of land. Inspired by the roughly hewn, yet no less majestic milieu of their new home, Cross chose the title of Wabi Sabi because it came from an art form that celebrated a natural or authentic beauty wrought from imperfections and an embrace of nature’s transience.
The lead single, in fact, doesn’t actually refer to the steady waves of a tide or river (though, it’s still effective for your mind to drift that way), but instead invokes a more cosmic idea of energy waves and the imperceptible vibrations they can stir in us, propelling us; it’s a song that muses upon our existence as mere vessels, riding these whimsical waves.
“I’ve always been interested in death, and just existence,” Cross says, answering a direct question of what draws her to the darker sides when it comes to music. “You know, just the same funny questions like: ‘Why are we here?’ And, never having a religion growing up or anything like that, it just led to my having this endless fascination with just, life… itself, and I’ve had that for as long as I can remember. So, I guess darkness is inherently a part of that and … death is a dark subject for most people to explore. I’m a Scorpio too, so maybe that’s why I’m attracted to slightly moodier music. Scorpios are pretty moody.”
As we said, Cross isn’t your typical songwriter; it’s not like she gets a riff in her head or dreams up a catchy melody and then builds a song around it. It’s something more visual, or a vision, so to speak, like a still frame from your dreams, wrought into aural existence, trying to find a sound for an optic specter.
“Yeah, I don’t sit down and search for any specific guitar tone or try to mimic something that someone else I’ve listened to has done. I like minimalist art, like the work of Agnes Martin or (Joan) Miró and, just, tons of other artists I could mention, because of their simplicity. I like people doing just enough so that you can get the point across, yet still not giving any more than that. I like that mode.”
A skeletal structure laced with a dissonance that could attain aesthetic beauty. That’s the minimalist tradition that Cross is carrying on with Wabi Sabi.
After name-checking Steve Reich and Terry Riley, she goes on to elaborate: “…I’m drawn to the idea of music just being something that is an experience and being hypnotized by a piece of music and drawn into it…” (Toward the end of our interview, we nerd-out on the hypnotic qualities of movies like Enter The Void and the attempts to achieve those sorts of transcendent detachments through measured amounts of dissonance and drone on side two of Wabi Sabi).
Their forthcoming album was produced with help from L.A.-based engineer/songwriter Theo Karon, but Cross and Duszynski produced the bulk of it from their home studio in Dripping Springs. The married musical duo work so well, Cross said, because they are both completely open, communication-wise, when it comes to collaboration and sonic exploration.
Duszynski performed on the record to fill out Cross’ songs and tours with her for live presentations. “He’s great at just honoring what I want but also not just being in the background. He’s helped me realize these visions. He throws out ideas, too, but also doesn’t get offended if I say ‘No.’ And I can say ‘No’ quite a bit. So, we just get past our own egos. But, then, he also is just a brilliant musician.”
I ask about the churning guitar riffs of a song like “Wasp In A Jar” or the cathartic screams that open up a song like “Basket,” and imply that maybe it can be therapeutic to dig deep into these darker sonic reservoirs and really exorcise some discordant wails. But that’s not how Cross sees it. “Process-wise…? Songwriting is not therapeutic for me. It’s actually very gut-wrenching, in a way. I feel incredibly relieved when (a song) is done.”
From here … Cross intends to keep working on her next batch of songs during an upcoming stay with her father in Thailand. Chicago to Texas is already an exercise in varying environmental trajectory, in terms of influencing one’s songwriting. But imagine going from Texas to Thailand? If these are the sublime and spooky songs she can make while on a ranch in Texas, then we can’t wait for what’s next.