An interview with
Emily Bezar (2008)

By Beppe Colli
Sept. 16, 2008

Four years after Angels' Abacus - to me, her "commercial album", the one I hoped would turn her into a superstar (shows you what I know) - Emily Bezar has finally released a new album. Titled Exchange, it's a rich, and surprisingly accessible, work. Those who already know her previous albums will have many reasons to enjoy this one. Newcomers are invited to give it a few spins, with some of their quality time added to the equation.

Since I thought that the new album deserved to be discussed in some detail, I asked her for an interview. Luckily, she agreed. I hope readers will find our conversation (which was conducted by e-mail, last week) as stimulating and interesting as I do.

So you've released a new album, at last! Just four years after Angels' Abacus... Why all the wait?

Simple question, complex answer! Well, without boring your readers with the mundane details of my life as an artist out here in the margins, I can say that I do consider it an unlikely triumph that I'm actually still doing this after so many years. Especially in this post-music industry landscape where even the biggest rock stars don't have the budgets to make albums every year or two. I suppose I have set up a pattern where what I make public of my music will be more than just archival... meaning that it's a production that lives in the speakers and is not just a document of a performance or particular moment in my musical life. So that production effort is complicated, expensive and requires lots of planning, stamina and assembling a team who are all busy, working musicians. And that I wrote much of this music during a time of personal upheaval meant that I needed to let it sit for quite awhile and marinate. The truth is that my marriage broke down irretrievably the year after I released Angels' Abacus and I spent some long months bouncing off walls, zigzagging forward and trying to become articulate about what I wanted for the rest of my life even though all I could see ahead of me was a thick fog. I had to wait until I knew which songs might be universal and which were just the cries from the bottom of the trench that might be cringeworthy bathos in 6 months time. It's both exhilarating and dangerous to try and mold overwhelming chaos and uncertainty into something permanent that evokes chaos but is safely reproduceable. I've never believed that the most immediate expression is necessarily the best art, and that aesthetic bias probably accounts for much of the categorization difficulties that my music has encountered out there. I guess for me what is most interesting is watching the process of self-renewal take place in an artist through their work... to observe the artist mopping up the mess. So yeah, I needed to wait until the recovery was underway so I could make an album that was less like a diary and more like a drama.

I have to admit that the first time I listened to the first track on Exchange I thought: "So she's gone back to Four Walls Bending's 'Prog darkness'", and though it's obviously too facile a comparison, I'd like you to talk about the way you see the new album - in terms of musical intention - when compared to such dissimilar works as Four Walls Bending and Angels' Abacus.

No, I didn't drape these songs in black capes (though I found a great one for my photos!) but I did explicitly set out to make an album that was less tidy than Angels' Abacus in every way. And it would have been, during this period, impossible and dishonest for me to clean the edges any more than I did. From the moment the first group of songs emerged in late 2005 and early 2006 I knew I had something unwieldy and more raw than I had written since Moon In Grenadine, which seems now in retrospect, of all my albums, to be the most direct precursor to this one. The songs emerged with angular and aggressive musical ideas and a huge dynamic shape that I knew I couldn't capture in the computer with programmed drums or with keyboard arrangements that had a computer-sequenced digital vibe. So that led me quickly towards the goal of making an album that was more live-sounding. Which by no means contradicts what I just told you about my producer's determination to work inside the loudspeakers. I think the very hardest thing to do is to make a complex sonic production sound spontaneous and absolutely live. You have to work straight down the middle of the electroacoustic domain and reconcile the different challenges of both electronic music and capturing acoustic instruments in their natural space, like on this album, the strings and horns.

So I won't deny that this album sounds heavier and darker than Angels' which was lyrically quite dark at times but sonically pretty effervescent I think. In fact, at one point during the mixing sessions Justin, who recorded Exchange, forced me to come up with only three adjectives to describe what I was going for as producer... not necessarily as performer - a somewhat different set of criteria had applied to my singing sessions. So I told him "heavy, desperate and surreal" and we pasted those words on the mixing console! Now any description is absolutely subjective of course, but what makes a record 'dark'? If the mood is dark here, then it's agitated, anxious depression. Even at my lowest, I don't really mope around so neither does my music I suppose. No, this is not a splattered free-for-all explosion but I allowed moments in every song where something remained out of control, and maybe that gives it its dark edge because it's not harmonically or melodically gloomy or particularly dissonant. Above all, for this album I placed total faith in my impulses. There were no preconceived musical questions that I wanted to answer and it was all about letting the sound emerge organically around the song's emotional space and most importantly, inviting the musicians into that space to inhabit it.

Listening to the new album, I thought I could perceive a "story", a "tale", of sorts, with the last track acting almost like a "commentary" to what came before. Would you mind talking about this (structural) side of the work?

You know, what you said about structure in your review of Exchange really hit me and confirmed that I may have done something here that I haven't been able to achieve until now. Yes I've always been very concerned with form within each song, with making sure that every successive moment feels inevitable. As a composer, I really have very simple objectives: it has always been about managing tension and release and directing the transitions to those plateaus in between. And that command and control over linear shape can't really be taught and I rely completely on my emotional reaction to the shifting ideas to tell me if I'm right. If I get better at it, it's only because I get more obstinately sure that my intuition would never lie to me!

But I may finally be having success with larger-scale form and maybe this album will be my jumping off point to try something much bigger as I've been threatening to do for years now. If there's an emotional arc here I guess it begins in anger and turmoil (Saturn/Anything) passes through deep sadness (Lament) and then I think the end of That Dynamite is the first dramatic peak of the album. It's about capitulation and bravery... like when I used to swim out in the big surf as a kid in Southern California, if I saw the 15-foot blue wall heading towards me and if I was too far out to get back to shore in time, I knew I just had to swim right through it. And back to the precise imagery of the song, that fearless ride down the avalanche is liberating. There's a critical point in any transformative experience where all you have to go on is faith that the next step into the fog won't be over the cliff and then miraculously it gets easier, and with some combination of luck and grace, you can hold on to your faith for the rest of the ordeal. Glory or Crazy might be hope and resilience and Climb, self-retrieval and confidence? And Winter Moon hmmmm... that one I still haven't exactly figured out. Maybe Winter Moon is about accepting that something may always be dark and sad and that's OK. I get very defeated when I try to turn my bad memories into good ones - to try and find the silver linings. Sometimes things are just really really horrible and you need to remember them at their most painful so you can appreciate having moved on. One more thing, and I've not realized this until you made me think about structure here, but I now know that Strange Man is the structural oddball. It's in the very middle of the album because it breaks the action as a lateral musing, a fantasy of release or something like that. I wrote it during my second real writing blast for the album, when I sequestered myself up the coast in Anchor Bay California for a week and took walks out daily to look over the Pacific and watch the winter waves.

And yes, the song Exchange is the album's reflective coda... absolutely. I know that this is probably my most theatrical, my most operatic album, and certainly the curtain closes as Winter Moon fades out and then me the writer, not the producer/arranger, not the tragic wronged-heroine, me the writer is left on stage alone reflecting on the drama. And I think this is more of a literary device than an operatic one... however, you know I did see a production last year of one of my favorite operas, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and maybe Isolde's closing soliloquy, the incredible Liebestod, inspired my choice to close with Exchange? They say Wagner himself called that aria Verklärung (Transfiguration). It's an aria and an opera that has inspired many before me, for sure. I'm always surprised by how often it's not until months or years later that I can recognize my various influences. A mysterious process indeed.

Reading the liner notes I saw that the album was recorded in quite a few different locations. I'd like to know more about the logistical aspects of this, and the way the places where you recorded completed/contributed to/helped you redefine your goals.

Well compared to my last recording odyssey in France and England, it sure seemed like I stuck close to home for this one! Finding Justin Phelps again (he recorded and mixed Four Walls Bending) was really the catalyst that jump-started the recording process in 2007. We had been out of touch since before I left for France in 2001, but I knew he had started up his own studio in SF while I was out of the country. Out of the blue one night I had this bizarre dream in which I was observing him record a heavy metal album in some industrial Mad Max recording studio set on a low rocky cliff over the ocean. The waves were actually crashing up against the studio walls, which were windows facing onto the churning sea. Well, a number of weird synchronicities followed throughout the course of recording the album and I understood why I had felt compelled to call him the day after the dream and see if he was available to work with me again.

His real life studio, as it turned out, was Hyde St. Studio C in San Francisco which he had resuscitated after a period of dormancy. Studio C in the late 60s and 70s had been the home of Wally Heider Recording, and The Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Creedence Clearwater etc. etc. had all made seminal albums there. It was one of the studios that had defined the San Francisco sound and as we got going it started to dawn on me that I was making a west-coast edge of the continent record that referenced so much of the fusion and 70s music I grew up with in California. The vibe in that room was quite palpable and I needed to honor the history and bring out the latent psychedelia in my music so I just went with it. And certainly I summoned my inner Grace Slick for some of the vocals! We also did a bunch of trio recording basics at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studios, which is ground zero for the most interesting independent music being made in San Francisco. It's a studio devoted to great vintage gear and creative production. Some really great records are being made there. And then for some of the more soloistic piano parts, I traveled about an hour north of SF to Prarie Sun Studios, which as you may know is famous for having been Tom Waits' preferred studio for many years. There I found this beautiful 9 ft. 1964 Baldwin Grand which was lovingly maintained by a wonderful man who had tuned pianos for the Dead back in the day. Everything was starting to make sense and it felt like a very cohesive group of locations actually. Not disparate at all.

To me the new album sounds very clear, but also "warm", in a way I still call "analogue". I know that in the past you've worked in both mediums, and I'd like to know more about the process of recording & mixing the new album.

Because sonics have improved so so much in digital recording in the past 5 years or so, the basic tape vs. digital debate is much less relevant these days. It all comes down to how you manipulate the sound with effects after you record it. Justin's got a great collection of microphones and he trusts them and doesn't over-EQ anything as it goes down so we started with pretty true sound sources. With a few exceptions I think the effects processing we did in the mix on the vocals and on the instruments was fairly limited and classic. We stuck with a variety of software plug-in echoes and delays and poured on just enough sauce to enhance the mood of the track but not overtake it. The music was so dynamic that it didn't need much extra help to jump out of the speakers. There's so much you can do now digitally to exploit and amplify digital glitch and filter artifacts and I really love those sounds but they weren't going to work for this album if we wanted to stay somewhere towards the organic end of the electroacoustic spectrum.

Though these arrangements were not nearly as dense as on Angels' Abacus, it was a much harder album to mix and halfway through the process I realized that I needed to find out why I was struggling a bit to get it right. I came to the conclusion that my singing on this record was far different in general from ever before. The big directive I had given myself as Producer to Singer in the recording process was "Do NOT think about how this vocal sound will translate to tape. Do NOT sing to the mic. Just sing as if you are on stage and recreate the moment that you are singing about." And it was definitely a harder, louder, less airy and intimate sound that came out but it was really emotionally free and the only sound that really fit the songs. In the mix we finally had to radically scrape away certain midrange frequencies to tame the operatic 2800 KHZ bump and I think we really made it work. Part of being a modern singer is understanding how to manipulate your sound and breath so that the microphone loves it. Just like a model pouts for a camera, you can seduce a microphone with subtle timbral inflections. But for me at least, it's wickedly hard to blend theatrical, dramatic singing with the naked naturalism that being very soft and close to the mic can capture. I think I pull it off somehow, but usually I'm favoring one mode or the other. The obvious analogy for an actor would be acting on stage versus acting for film. Fusing those attitudes is very difficult and not always successful.

I don't think that the expression "all over the map" would be appropriate when describing the new album, but it's true that it features quite a few "forms" (or "genres"). Not a wise move, at a time when "changing channels" in the course of one record equals commercial suicide...

I've so often been asked to define my music or describe my style and I'm finally coming to the conclusion that I'm pretty much an impulsive Expressionist. I paint with whatever color I can grab the quickest to portray the fleeting thought or feeling. It really is sometimes a matter of where my hands land first on the keyboard or where my mouse hits the waveform.

You know, I have no clue at all how my music will be perceived within the context of conventional genres. So many times I have been sure I have written a jazzy song, or a very classical song or a pop song and invariably there is a consensus that it sounds different and I've missed the mark but they 'can't explain why exactly.' Take for example the rather big-band style song Climb: it just demanded the swing feel because of the somewhat flippant lyric... it needed to be as bouncy as possible which I hope gives it a haughty, retro Dorothy Parker vibe. Swing was the right color to use. But I know there are very poppy chord voicings in the chorus, and that jazz singers (unless you are Sarah Vaughan of course) are not allowed to sing above the staff so you know, it's not real jazz. If I have access to lots of styles, well, that's my curse. I finally want to stop apologizing for having a big vocabulary, for being non-reductive, for being maximal... there are many forces in the music world that make us feel like we have to defend our breadth. Yes, there may be more acceptance of 'eclecticism' than ever before but 'eclectic' has become a genre in itself and if you are not blending the approved combo of flavors for a particular listener, then you can be heard as hodge-podge at best or unfashionably quirky at worst rather than as an interesting fusionist. Don't we all want our music to be appreciated for its own particular subversion of expectations? For what it IS rather than what is is NOT? That's the hazard of originality. How it's perceived depends on the way the light hits it in every different room.

But what I think is finally happening now in modern music, especially in what used to be called "contemporary classical" is that the fusion is so deeply embedded in the musical language that any attempt to dissect the hybrid will fail and you must accept the music on its own terms as reflecting a new generational imprint. I think that best describes what I'm doing. What is definitely true is that I can push things closer to genre with my arranging choices... horns for example, or an analog synth sound that sounds like a Moog from 1972 or whatever. And yeah there might be nothing more exciting than trying to do an album of all bigband swing tunes or pure electronica, but if I'm financing my own albums, I'm going to keep my box stylistically boundless because that's what thrills me as a writer and feels the most natural and that is where I do my best work. That's the privilege of not having to answer to anybody. I guess I do whatever I think I can get away with. At this point, after working outside of the musical establishment for so long, I don't feel any pressure to change my course unless it will satisfy my artistic curiosity.

I'd like to know more about the musicians who contributed to the album.

I can tell you that they are all amazing people and all of them have become friends of mine during this past year while we made the album together. You know my son, who is now 10, is a budding electric bass player and he was taking this great rockband class in town called "Bandworks" and I was very intrigued by their incredible teacher Mark Bernfield, whom I had heard play drums several years ago but I had never worked with him. Well, all my instincts said he's the one for this album... he had the range and flexibility and when I found out that he had studied classical singing and also directs a choir - the deal was sealed. Finding a drummer who has sung Winterreise... what are the chances of that? I met bassist Dan Feiszli through Mark and again, saw him perform and was especially blown away by his acoustic bass playing and knew I needed to finally approach the acoustic bass for my songs and I think it's really a highlight on the album, especially on Winter Moon. He has some hilarious stories to tell about touring with Julio Iglesias! The horn players are all luminaries in the SF Bay Area. Chris Grady on trumpet had played so beautifully on Moon in Grenadine and I only regret it took me so long to find him again. Phillip Greenlief is for me the most richly expressive sax player around here and he has been a leader and a supportive force in the creative music scene here for years. I'm honored to have him on this album as I feel pretty humbled by the scope of his musical experience and his intellectual depth. And Jen Baker is a fellow Oberlin grad and she has a solo trombone album with some amazing multiphonics on it that will come out this fall. I borrowed cellist Beth Vandervennet from Amy X Neuburg's Cello Chixtet, who are currently recording Amy's latest masterpiece The Secret Language of Subways which should be out early next year. Beth is a luminous musical person and plays in many local symphonies and also has a chamber-rock group called Rosin Coven. Violinist Alan Lin is a kindred spirit, whom I have known and admired for years through his work with the stunning songwriter Noe Venable, who's now in Boston. He is a totally empathic player and I don't think I've ever played with anyone who so rapidly 'gets' the heart of a piece of music and can contribute so much so immediately. And one of my oldest and dearest colleagues, Michael Ross, plays guitar here but he has been such a deep source of wisdom and advice for me since the days of my first SF band, the Potato Eaters in the early 90s. He's composing some beautiful electronic music now too and is the first person I turn to when I have an artistic crisis and need to find some perspective and a bunch of great new books to read or albums to hear.

I imagine you financed the album yourself. Last time we talked, we discussed the whole downloading phenomenon, and its impact on independent artists. I'm quite curious about your point of view about this, four years later.

Yes, self-financed as usual, as is the case now for most of the musicians I know who are still recording music here in the SF Bay Area. These days I have to say that I see this issue framed in a much more serious and urgent economic reality. It's not at all surprising to me that a society addicted to living beyond its means, indebted up to its eyeballs, should not want to pay up front for the music it now equates with water coming out of the tap. The most obvious outcome is that labor and rehearsal-intensive music will get recorded much less frequently. So, less performed music, more laptop voyagers in their bedrooms. I can't make any judgements about quality here - some of the greatest art in history has emerged to adapt to a big technological or social shift. It comes down to economics, no matter what we lofty artsy types want to idealize. If recorded music is free it has to be cheap to produce or it won't get made. Or there will be much less of it because the musicians will only have 2 hours a day to work on it if they are lucky. For me, nothing is more relevant to this discussion than how can we as artists make work that people will value enough to pay for? I suspect that eventually there will be a very fractured new commerce model and it is already emerging. You will have small communities of listeners who are dedicated to preserving the output of an artist or a music scene because they understand that it is their NEED rather than their WANT. There will be localized patronage and that little micro-economy of artists and consumers will sustain itself well but it might be a very insular group that investigates ideas from other groups but has little economic relationship with them. They'll take their wants for free and pay for their needs. The period from maybe 1965-2000 when fortunes were made from rock 'n roll was a total historical anomaly throughout all of music history, wasn't it? It seems more and more like the last babylonian blowout of the empire.

Maybe it's time here to answer that question you asked in your email to me last week! You said something like "what is going on over there in America? looks like sci-fi to me... Palin the barracuda lady!" You know that I don't get political or topical in my music very often, at least not obviously so, but I'll tell you what it looks like from inside the house of cards here. No, it's not news that America is in deep decline, but now the bricks are really falling off the edifice fast and anyone who is paying attention should be freaked-out and outraged. I've been following the manipulations of this credit collapse closely for the past year... it actually has been a mini-obsession of mine to understand the insane geopolitics of our times and it has helped me get some perspective on my own struggles. If you want to talk about the word Exchange and very very dark things: the high rollers are calling the action and the Wall Street casinos are now being bailed out by our nearly bankrupt US Treasury. Plutocracy is making a loud gear-shift into kleptocracy and the country is distracted by an ex beauty-queen who wants to drill and savage the Alaskan wilderness and believes global warming can't possibly be our fault?! Yes, it feels cinematically absurd, sci-fi indeed. I can't yet imagine a near-term solution where there is any money left to improve education or healthcare in this country, either from private or public sources, let alone support the arts. If Obama wins (pray pray pray) he will have his hands full trying to stay current on the monthly interest payments to China and Dubai and trying to keep our ghettos from exploding. Sorry for the doom and gloom but I think it's not relevant or appropriate right now for me to worry too much about how I expect to make any money from copyrights or whether musicians should expect some kind of renewed State support in the age of free digital music. That may be the only patriotic outburst you'll get from me so I hope that made some sense.

Anyway what do we do as musicians do about it? I guess the most powerful statement I can make is to just keep on making my music. I'll keep trying to add a bit of beauty to the world and hope that whatever small impact it has will soften the blow for someone. Not that I see my music as a palliative, but if I am to be political it has to be on a personal level, inspiring personal courage. I'll leave it to the Radioheads the U2s and the Ragers against Machines to be the activists and the organizers. I don't have that platform.

As we speak, the new album is barely out. How's the feedback, up to this point?

Not too much feedback yet outside of the progressive rock community who seem to be embracing it warmly and this really makes me happy. I have found the most open-eared listeners in and around the fringes of the art-rock scene and I think it's because they demand to be both intellectually entertained and hit with a sonic pleasure-bomb at the same time, you know? And they also welcome the drama and theatricality of my music. It's a community of musicians and fans who have really endured a lot of insults and derision from the mainstream music world since the late 70s, and I think there's a warrior spirit there that has helped to keep the genre and all its varieties alive. I've heard some comments that this seems to be a more complex album than my previous ones and I'm not sure yet if I agree. I have never intended to be difficult to understand, but if someone is thrilled by the challenge of decoding my music I consider that a great success as a composer. It's an honor that someone would be willing to invest their time in my music beyond their first, possibly perplexing, exposure to it. No matter what, I always try to remember that acceptance or disapproval is usually a matter of taste.

Having caught you live two years ago, I'm curious about any chances of any live work. Do you plan touring this album?

One thing I know for sure is that this album is performable in a way that Angels' Abacus was not. I can get close to the recorded sound with a small group and there is more freedom and openness in the songs and they are only going to get richer and more dynamic and interactive the more we play this live. So that's encouraging to me and yes of course I would love to tour, I would love to be in demand as a performer and have some nice opportunities. You saw us at the Malta jazz festival! What a spectacular venue there next to the ancient ramparts - that was a dream gig for me and I would really hope to get back to Europe next summer and finally play in France and Italy, where I know there might be an audience for my music...Verdi, Debussy, Bellini, Puccini, Ravel, Messiaen... it’s in the water!

The hard reality is that a combination of economics, the massive competition for even small gigs in places like NYC, and the fact that without some big leap "onto the musical map" I won't be able to get a booking agent to help me organize anything... all those things make it extremely costly and difficult for me to tour. It may soon come down to a decision about whether I want to spend the next year banging on doors to tour, or do I want to write and record more music soon, releasing it perhaps at a faster pace, in smaller and shorter bursts. The music scene here in the San Francisco Bay Area is stronger and more exciting than it has been in a while and I'm optimistic that there will be more venues emerging that are suitable for what I do. We are, and have always been, a bit of a provincial satellite, in the best sense of that metaphor. We don't have the same pressures to be internationally relevant here as one may have in NYC or London and that ensures creative freedom for many of us. Anything really does Go here and artists who are in it for the love and beauty of it will find a way to keep doing it and we'll somehow be found by the small communities that encourage us to keep creating and challenging ourselves.

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Sept. 16, 2008