In addition to an impressive natural talent as a singer, musician and song writer, Emily Mae Winters is so steeped in the worlds of literature and music, it’s hard to imagine anyone could be more suited to a career in the arts. That career, to date, has featured a number of art forms. The most recent manifestation of Emily’s talent is the release this month of her debut EP – Foreign Waters, a collection of four self-penned songs inhabiting the gentle seas between folk and country, and that make the most of not only Emily’s strong ties to the music scene, but her associations with the world of literature.
The EP opens with a single note, like a searching beam of light, finding its way to the delicate guitar introduction of Anchor. Emily’s soft, sweet vocal builds from the gently picked guitar, the intensity growing as a violin accompaniment begins to seek out elegant harmonies. Her voice, clear and expressive, has a level of maturity and confidence that comes as a surprise initially. A simple, placid song on the surface, but Emily packs a lot into those first three minutes. Which is probably one of the reasons Anchor emerged as winner in the folk category of the Guardian Music song writing contest.
My curiosity peaked by such a strong opening, I contacted Emily to ask if she’d be willing to share more information about her music and influences – luckily, she was happy to oblige.
Born in England, Emily Mae Winters grew up Clonakilty, Co. Cork, where a love of acoustic music was nurtured by the local scene, and Emily developed a taste for live performance at local festivals. A return to London to study History saw her begin to flourish as a song writer, and in 2012 she was offered a place to study music and theatre at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD). From an early age, Emily also harboured a love of poetry.
“I was just fascinated by this precise and beautiful way of thinking and writing…the sounds and rhythms the words made when you read them”. After completing her studies, that connection led to Emily working at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, and at Keats House Museum, Hampstead Heath. “I started running ‘Playing Poetry’ nights in the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden and loved collaborating with actors, musicians and poets to bring poems to life through music and drama… I did a research masters on the links between poetry and music, running lyric writing workshops there with poets”. That would help explain why Foreign Waters has such appeal, lyrically.
Following on from Anchor, Miles to Go reaches out, encourages us to take brave steps, to explore the possibilities…
Like a moth to flame
I still stay close to you
and I will wait for you across the water
but you’ve got miles to go
The possibilities explored by the song itself stretch all the way to Nashville, in an arrangement Alison Krauss would be proud of. I wondered what approach to writing could result in such a welcome contrast. Emily admitted to having a reliable methodology.
“Normally, I’ll have a thought which translates into a particular melody or picking pattern on a guitar which suits that mood. My next step is to ascertain what the song is going to be about… then the ‘hook’ is often a metaphor for a larger idea”. The process isn’t always plain sailing, though. “I can never write the second verse straight away! Sometimes it can be another couple of months before I feel ready, particularly if the song is about something sensitive that needs time to heal”.
There’s nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, especially when the results are so enjoyable.
That brave reach across the Atlantic to Nashville in Miles To Go is aided by steel guitar from the EP’s producer, Ben Walker (2015 BBC Folk Award Winner for Best Duo with Josienne Clark). His careful structuring of Emily’s vocal harmonies, and the textures added by Matthew Atkins on violin and Maya McCourt‘s cello, have helped endow Foreign Waters with a stamp of musical authority. Emily explained how they came to work together…
“I really wanted to work with someone who specialised in Folk. I’ve recorded lots of vocal demos with sound engineers but what made Ben Walker distinctive is that he is a highly talented musician and artist in his own right… Luckily, Ben really liked the songs and agreed to work on them with me. It was invaluable to have his support and advice on the project, for which I’m truly grateful”.
The layers of sound Ben and Emily have conspired to create find their greatest depth in the title track, Foreign Waters. In a rich colourful tapestry of sound, layers of Emily’s vocal are haunted by a single, vivid note from Matthew’s violin. That renegade note, though, resolves itself into a light, harmonious accompaniment; as deep resonant percussion keeps a mournful cello on track all the way to the song’s calming conclusion.
Emily’s songs are clearly about more than lyric, melody and harmony; they’re about emotion and, as such, have to involve a degree of performance. Following her training at RCSSD, she performed in a number of theatre productions across the UK. This has clearly helped Emily inject her vocal performance with an element of drama, and no doubt has an influence on live performance too?
“Definitely. I can’t do a performance now without thinking about audience reception, staging, engagement and simple things like microphone technique and posture too. I love writing and telling stories and I see all songs as stories to be told…I’ve played everything from Ophelia in Hamlet to a dancing elephant, it’s helped me to have confidence on stage, forget about my insecurities and just try to put on an engaging performance for the audience”.
Being a complete slave to the power of the human voice, it’s Emily’s vocal performance that I find most engaging of all. Until The Light closes the EP with a song that proves just how accomplished that vocal is. Opening with Emily’s soothing piano, there’s a soft tremble of vibrato in her voice that finds growing intensity as the song progresses from night, to dawn, to daylight.
I shouldn’t walk alone at night
I drag my heels because the morning’s now in sight
I shouldn’t wait upon the skies
Dark colours captivate these eyes
until the light.
I was surprised to hear that Emily’s vocal training didn’t begin at a very early age…
“I’d actually never had singing lessons before being lucky enough to train at the RCSSD in London. I was just winging it and developing a singing style learned from listening to other artists. It was so useful to learn all about breathing techniques, tone and how to look after your voice too”!
In addition to working on the development of her musical talent, Emily also teaches English literature and works with young children teaching poetry and creative writing. It’s clear the two complement each other perfectly.
Considering her ability as a teacher, a writer, an actor; folk and acoustic music enthusiasts are lucky Emily chose this particular branch of the arts in which to flourish. With song content that references not only the poetry she grew to love in her early life, but also the work of Nancy Kerr, The Unthanks and Sarah Jarosz; arrangements that seem to stretch effortlessly from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and a voice that so perfectly combines the intensity and softness, Emily Mae Winter has produced an arresting, enthralling tantalising introduction to her work that leaves us hungry for more.