Interview: Emma Davis
London born, Sydney based Emma Davis released her second album Demons at the beginning of August. Her first album in almost eight years, the album sees Davis coming back from a crippling bout of writers block and self-doubt. Combining her trademark acoustic folk-pop with a subtle hint of synthpop, the album is a triumphant return for Davis and is evident her time away from music hasn't damaged her remarkable talent for turning out a beautiful tune. Women In Pop recently chatted to Davis about Demons, her time away from music and what she has planned for the rest of the year.
Hi Emma! Firstly, congratulations on your new album ‘Demons’, it is fantastic! This is your first album since your 2010 self-titled debut album and came after you suffered writers block for several years. How did writers block affect you and how did you pull yourself out of it?
Thank you so much and thanks for having me! My record in 2010 was made up of all the songs I’d been carrying with me for a long time. My first loves and heart-breaks, all those intense feelings you’re having for the first time in your 20s. When it came to writing the next album I expected to be able to sit down with my guitar and write in the same way but it just wasn’t happening. I got more and more frustrated and felt less and less like a songwriter. I became my harshest critic and would judge a song before I gave myself the chance to finish it. I honestly felt like I had nothing to write about. It wasn’t until I got a seperate space to work in that I truly cracked myself out of it. I started to worry less about writing complete songs and just started experimenting with sounds and layering arrangements. Once I freed myself from having to know what a song was going to be about I let the judgement fall away and allowed myself to just create. This made me feel good again and this then fed into motivation to keep writing. If I’m making things, then I’m motivated but I need to be motivated to make things.
You created Demons in a studio that you built in an old furniture joinery. How did this come about?
I was talking to a new friend I’d just met through music, Luke Wellington. We were both looking for somewhere to keep all our instruments and work on music outside of our bedrooms, so we decided to look for a shared space. There’s a lot of shared warehouses and creative spaces in Sydney but it was actually really tough to find somewhere where we could make noise (and not have to spend a fortune sound-proofing). Eventually we found this space in a furniture joinery in St Peters. The company, JP Finsbury, was started by a very beautiful couple called Kobe and Adam. They immediately took us into their creative fold. They built us walls and did some sound-proofing for us, they encouraged us to make as much noise as we wanted and even built us a stage at one point so we could put on a show in the warehouse. It was an incredible environment to be in, full of hard-work and beautiful craftsmanship. It was impossible not to feel inspired there.
How has it affected your creative process, working in your own studio space?
Just having a seperate space away from home made a huge difference. It made it feel like I was going to work. I would take myself to the studio for the day and be in another world for hours. Then I would leave my ideas there and go home. I think that was a really important change in my process because it meant I didn’t give myself time to judge the ideas too quickly. I would have space away from them and then come back with more perspective. Often I’d return to an idea that I hadn’t liked at the time and think, ‘wow, how did I come up with this weirdness? This is great!’
Do you have a process, or a favoured method, when you write music?
Now I just try to force myself to put down an idea before I have time to judge it. This might just be a guitar riff or a few lines of words but if I record it, it gets it out of my head and onto paper and I’m more likely to keep going with it. I also realised a few years ago that I’m the kind of person that needs a bit of a routine and structure in order to feel motivated about things. So I try and give myself windows of time to be creative. I work 9-5 most days so Friday is my music day and I try to be strict about this, although it is always tempting to just go surfing.
What were your inspirations when recording this album?
All the people around me inspired this record. Of course, there’s Luke. Sharing a space with him I couldn’t help but be inspired by his creativity and motivation. He has such a knack for understanding the technical side of music and production and picks things up so quickly. We could talk about gear and synths and nerdy things like that for hours. There’s my good friend Annie McKinnon whose beautiful voice features all over the record and whose creative energy and brilliant mind is amazing to be around. All the guys at the furniture joinery inspired me to work hard. There was always such a flurry of activity and machinery around me. And then of course there’s, Greg J. Walker who I co-produced the record with. When I started bringing together my demos for the album, I got in touch and asked if he’d be interested in producing it. He said he’d love to and we set a deadline for when I’d go down to Gippsland to work with him. Over that time I sent him all my ideas as I worked and he encouraged me to keep going. He gave me so much confidence in my own ability to record and produce and when it came to working with him we ended up using a lot of what I’d made in my studio for the finished album.
Was there a particular message you wanted to put out there with Demons?
I don’t think I was intending on a message but I think it’s definitely ended up having several themes that run through it. The name for the record came from something a friend said to me a while ago. I was in Berlin at the time taking some time out and struggling to write music (there’s a surprise!) I’d been worrying a lot about a friendship that had ended without me having a say and the fact that I might never be able to get any closure on this. He said to me, ‘we all have demons that we carry around. We often get hurt and sometimes don’t get closure and these are like scars that we learn to live with.’ I struggle a lot with anxiety which tends to lead me to fixate on things and try to find ways in which I’ve messed something up somehow.
It was such a relief to hear him say this and to know that it was alright for things not to always be tied up neatly. I loved the idea that we all carry these little demons with us and that we can still live our lives and find a way to cope.
What's your favourite track on Demons?
I think 'Hardest Thing' and 'Too Long'. Neither of them have been released as singles but they both carry something special for me. 'Too Long' marks a point where I started to write again and also has this piano solo in it that Greg played that I just absolutely love. The beat and percussion for 'Hardest Thing' is made of all these field recordings that I took with my friend Annie McKinnon while I was down in Gippsland making the album. We spent a morning recording anything we could find that made an interesting sound. We hit every single thing in the kitchen and foraged around like lunatics on the farm I was staying at, rustling leaves and playing with sticks. Annie then chopped it all up into samples and we just jammed on the song for a while and recorded our ideas. I just love how perfectly these organic sounds mesh with the piano and soft warm synth on the track. Greg has an incredible ear for mixing and an amazing way of being able to give every sound its own space, even when there’s a lot going on.
You released the beautiful and powerful track ‘Danger In Me’ last year at the height of the same sex marriage law postal survey. What were your feelings about the survey itself, and the final result?
I was pretty horrified that it happened. I was obviously relieved with the result but the morning of the announcement was horrible and the rest of the day I just felt very hurt that we’d had to go through that. It’s hard to explain. People kept saying to me what great news it was and although I know they meant that, I couldn’t help feeling slightly patronised. I suppose like any gay person I felt like so many people had just made a judgement on a part of me and something that wasn’t there’s to decide and that felt unfair.
What are your thoughts on gender equality in the music industry, and how female musicians are portrayed and perceived by the media and general public?
I think there’s still a long way to go but I’m glad that conversations are now happening in a more open and accepted way. I’ve never felt directly hindered by my gender, but I’ve definitely felt that people have put me in a certain bracket because of it. The fact that I’m a girl that happens to play the electric guitar has definitely been treated as a novelty in the past. I think over the last few years there have been a lot of electric-guitar-playing-women who have done really well and who radio stations and labels are choosing to get behind so I think that’s definitely helping with the fact it’s not such a surprise to people when a woman can play the guitar.
Generally, there are obviously still bad attitudes in the industry and irresponsible choices made by the key decision-makers. This isn’t limited to decisions behind who gets played on the radio or booked for a festival. A sexist or just unpleasant sound engineer can make a huge difference to how you feel going into a show. A venue manager that treats you badly when you get to the venue or a venue booker who never replies to your emails. It all has an effect and I think more care could be taken with the people that we surround ourselves with and involve in all aspects of the industry.
In your career have you experienced episodes of sexism, or where you felt you were disrespected because of your gender?
I’ve definitely felt disrespected many times by sound-engineers and venue bookers primarily. It’s hard to know how much of this is due to my gender though or how much of it is just because I’m not seen to be at a high enough level to gain this respect. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter. Whether someone identifies as male, female, non-binary or trans we just need to be working towards equality in all aspects of what we do and how we treat each other.
Which female musicians inspire you?
Oh my gosh so many. Tune-yards, St Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, Phoebe Bridgers, Rozi Plain, Florist, Flock of Dimes, Laura Veirs and then closer to home, Oh Pep, Tiny Ruins, Sally Seltmann (New Buffalo), Georgia Mulligan, Ainsley Farrell, Bonniesongs, Annie McKinnon.
What artists are you listening to at the moment?
This week I just found a band called the Beths from New Zealand. They’re amazing and endearing and have lyrics that just seem so effortlessly right.
You are touring in September – what can we expect from your shows?
I am very lucky to be playing with a beautiful band at the moment. They all have their own amazing projects and are great songwriters and I think because of this have always had a very careful and thoughtful approach to my music. I think we’ve got the tracks to a really nice place, where they carry the same energy as the recordings but don’t necessarily sound exactly the same. You can expect lots of warmth, lots of three part harmonies, some crazy percussion and fun samples, and then some really quiet delicate bits.
What’s next for Emma Davis?
Oh my gosh, I haven’t really thought past this point! I’ve spent the last few months gathering things together for the album release (so much admin) so I’d really love to just get back to playing music and writing and recording again. I’d also love to travel and tour more so if anyone needs a tour support let me know yeh?
You can read our review of Demons here