Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and her fragile alto, San Francisco folk singer/songwriter Emily Jane White offers complex tales of melancholy and isolation. While comparisons to contemporaries like Cat Power and Hope Sandoval are frequent, Emily’s music owes a clear debt to classic female jazz and blues singers such as Billie Holiday.
Emily Jane White was raised in Fort Bragg, California, a seaside town nestled in the misty, secluded woodland of the Mendocino Coast where old men tell stories about logging and young girls dream of San Francisco. Time moves slowly in Fort Bragg, where in place of big-city sharp shocks of excitement there stretches one drawn-out, stable truth, quiet and unflinching. You will live, Fort Bragg says, and then you will also assuredly die.
Though Emily Jane White’s newest album, “Victorian America”, was written largely in San Francisco and Oakland, the atmosphere of her upbringing permeates her songs. White has no patience with light fare. “I don’t write happy music. I’m drawn to writing sad songs”, she says. “Reflective, contemplative songs. I truly believe that that’s my job. It’s not my job to create happy music. I’m okay with that.”
This pensive feeling was established with White’s first album, “Dark Undercoat”, which critics and fans alike called a masterpiece; White herself is more inclined to call it a bare set of sketches. Conversely, “Victorian America” fills in the blank lines from “Dark Undercoat” with color, dynamics, orchestrations and a richer sense of poetics, the product of the three years’ work. “I pushed myself a little bit further in terms of songwriting”, White notes, “and the arrangements were more of a collaboration between everyone involved in the band. Fortunately this group of people allowed for a lot of experimentation. It was an incredibly organic and enjoyable process.”
That easy majesty from some of the Bay Area’s best players is evident from the first track, “Never Dead”, on the intro the unconventional song structure of “Stairs”. White’s ethereal conjuring glides the listener through bright lights and high waters of the little track, a lament for lost hopes backed by a sublime string arrangement, and White holds poetically to the Poe tradition with the seven-minute opus “The Ravens”.
Lyrically, White’s themes act like a devil on both shoulders who long ago killed off the angel. “There’s a lot of references in the record to political issues, death and dying”, she explains, “there’s not a lot of literal narrative. I strive to create scenes in my writing that allow for abstract rather than literal interpretation”.
With positive coverage in Spin and Rolling Stone and with a large European fan base – the reward of near-constant touring – Emily Jane White is the newcomer to watch this year. “Victorian America”, like the country it is banned for, is not an album that rests easy, nor does it exist for the sake of existing.
From beginning to end, this is new mystic American songwriting at it finest.
Emily Jane White – VIctorian America (Faits divers acoustic session)
Emily Jane White – “Wild Tigers I Have Known”
Emily Jane White playing a private show for a few happy listeners in a bookstore near Paris.