In the infinitely compartmentalised world of popular music Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett has never been afraid of brazenly straddling multiple genres with finesse and apparent ease. 2005’s Kidnapped By Neptune – brought to popular attention by a Stella McCartney ad – managed to blend soul, pop, disco, blues and Detroit-y garage rock within three minutes and with only vocals, primal drums and minimal guitar. Other career highlights Wet Road and her collaborations with Will Oldham introduced a welcome lusty edge to the New Weird America fad.
For her latest release, It’s Up To Emma, Ms Niblett has settled into a more consistent groove. That’s not to say that she’s stuck in a rut. Far from it. The material on the new record is all about departure, about cutting free – sometimes violently – and starting again, albeit with a bitter residue. And that’s where the unswerving, single-minded grunginess comes in. The songs demand it, and the musicians deliver. As an example of a break-up album, it’s honest, it’s up-front and it’s sometimes downright scary. And it’s got a cover of a TLC song on it.
Much impressed by this balance of sonic raucousness and structural maturity, Folk Radio UK backed Scout into a corner for a chat.
There seems to be more thematic cohesion to It’s Up To Emma compared with your previous output. It appears that each song gives a different viewpoint on the same event, or chain of events. At what point did you realise this was going to be the case?
Yeh, that was quite noticeable from when the songs were taking form… they seemed focused and had a single vision. To be honest, I was a little self-conscious about that at first, but I had to trust the process really. And in the end I saw how it made sense, as together they showed a journey. Almost like the different stages of grief in a way. It became a document of how I evolved through the issues through a period of time.
Did you sit down one day and consciously write a bunch of songs that were all linked by events?
No, not at all. I can never be really conscious when I’m writing. It’s more like I enter a space or an arena where things just spill out of my subconscious. And I never know what they will be until they come out. The songs just kept coming out one by one about the same theme. I guess that theme was just something my subconscious needed me to have a serious look at.
So you didn’t have a whole load of other material that failed to make it on to the album because it didn’t fit in with the piece as a whole?
There were two other tracks that didn’t make it, but not because they didn’t fit in to the theme; they just seemed unnecessary.
You – or rather your songs – sound pretty angry, if we may say so! We feel as if we don’t have to ask what influenced you, as it’s all right there in the lyrics. Would you say that a certain amount of emotional honesty is integral to your song writing, or is there a degree of distance between subject matter and real life?
I think songs are a way I make sense of my own life, it’s a process that helps me check in with myself, so they are ultimately real reflections or reactions to what is going on in my own life.
The title makes reference to your real name, and this seems closer than anything else to an ‘Emma Niblett’ album (rather than a ‘Scout Niblett’ album). Some great songwriters have played with persona and identity – Dylan, Bill Callahan, Will Oldham – in various ways. Why do you think artists do this? Is it a useful way of freshening up songwriting? With some artists there seems to be a lot of playfulness in it, a lot of teasing. Can you see yourself doing more of this in the future? Will there ever be an Emma Niblett album?
I can’t speak for why other people play with identity, but I myself have always been pretty fascinated by it. I’ve been drawn my whole life to seeing myself outside of the identity I was born into in a very playful way.
I actually have a personal belief that I am not just Emma Niblett. I believe the REAL me that I feel is ‘me’ is actually my soul. And my soul has had and will have thousands of lives. So to me, Emma Niblett isn’t the real me anyway. It’s just a part of the bigger picture. And I think playing with identity is a very subconscious but ultimately fun way of expressing that for myself.
There’s a cathartic feel to the album – not just the lyrics, but the whole sound. Was it cathartic to write, or to perform?
Yeh, song writing is completely cathartic experience for me always. And performing too but in a different way. The songs are born when I am by myself, so that is a very intimate experience for me. Usually by the time they get performed they are one or two years old, so it sometimes feels like you’re showing your little toddlers to the world at that point.
No Scrubs is an interesting choice of cover. Have you been listening to a lot of TLC, or is there another reason you chose the song (other than the fact that the subject matter fits in well with the rest of the songs)?
I just loved that song so much when it came out, and then a few years ago I heard it as the background song that came on when I clicked onto my friend’s MySpace page… and I fell in love with it all over again. So I decided to cover it when I played live. I actually used to just play it in the middle of one of my older songs called Good to Me so it took the form of a bridge. And yeh, I think with this set of songs, it seemed to sit well thematically and so it made sense to finally record a version.
While we’re on the subject, what else were you listening to when you recorded the album, and what are you listening to now?
I actually wasn’t listening to any music while I was writing these songs. Sometimes I feel like listening to other music while I’m trying to create a space for my own songs to come out can be a bit distracting. But when I was mixing the record I started going back to The End of Silence album by the Rollins Band. It’s a pretty life-affirming album. It helped me dispel any feelings of doubt that happened to creep in when I knew it was down to me to finish mixing it by myself.
You’ve said before that you’ve been influenced fairly heavily by Courtney Love and Hole, and we can definitely hear that on It’s Up To Emma. There also seems to be some early PJ Harvey in there. Are you a fan of hers?
Yes I thought her To Bring You My Love album was stunning.
She is similar to you in that she is an English singer and guitarist whose songs seem to be influenced mainly by an American sound. Do you think your own songs would be very different if you had stayed in England? Does America offer more for young, up-and-coming musicians?
I think my early musical influences informed my aesthetic way more than where I live. But I think America does offer more in terms of having an atmosphere or space/opportunity/community to do what you want musically without feeling marginalised or defeated.
Percussion is often an important part of your records, and the new album is no different. In the past you’ve done a lot of the drumming yourself. Is that the case here?
I wrote some of the drum parts, but I didn’t play them myself. There were three different drummers on this record.
Many of your previous recordings have been influenced one way or another by astrology. Is this something that still helps to guide the recording process for you?
Astrology is really a study or a way seeing how planets affect our experience of life from both a personal and cultural perspective. And once you understand the archetypes and cycles of the planets, you’re own life and the world at large becomes an experiential game or play that you see through an astrological lens. So it never goes away. In fact the more time you have on this earth to see things with an astrological perspective, the more it all makes sense.
It’s Up To Emma by Scout Niblett is out now on Drag City
Interview by: Thomas Blake