Emma Ruth Rundle’s Return To Hell
On new album Engine Of Hell, a musician long defined by guitar finds a different kind of heaviness, facing down her childhood trauma through haunting piano ballads
There’s an instinct among some music listeners today, it seems, to memeify pain; to make it diminutive, consumable, palatable. When faced with an artist’s misery or abjection, we tend to turn it into something glib, describing it as something like “sad girl music” or “sad boy music.” But to listen to Emma Ruth Rundle is to face not only total openhearted honesty but unwincing, unsolvable, unmemeable anguish. It’s a rare and life-savingly relatable perspective for anyone simply trying to survive their own pain, for anyone too ground down to be able to turn their pain into a punchline.
A prolific musician and visual artist best known for her solo work, as well as her collaboration last year with sludge metallers Thou, Rundle’s developed a reputation for her textural and atmospheric guitar work. Her songs, particularly on Marked For Death and On Dark Horses — her previous two albums as a solo artist — were oriented around a kind of central emergency. Filled with propulsive tension and a haunted persistence, she sang as though trying to stay afloat on a sinking ship, guitars and drums rushing alongside her in a rumbling stampede.
On Rundle’s fifth solo album Engine Of Hell, however, that central emergency has been rescinded. Recorded live and acoustically — without any of the electricity and effects Rundle’s known for—the album is, to put it plainly, one of this year’s most emotionally intense. With the piano — an instrument that’s been absent from Rundle’s previous albums — providing a portal back to her childhood memories, Engine Of Hell finds the artist whittled down to a little nub of sorrow and sanity, floating around in a fugue-like state, forced to watch her worst memories played back to her in an unending cycle.
Over a Zoom call, I spoke to Rundle on the day of Engine Of Hell‘s announcement about her childhood, Tori Amos, and whether her fifth album is a way of saying goodbye. Below, watch the video for new single “Blooms Of Oblivion” and read our conversation.
This must be a wild day for you, announcement day.
EMMA RUTH RUNDLE: It’s exciting, it seems like the response so far is positive. We’ve been sitting on the album. It was finished in January so it’s been a long time waiting to share this music. It’s so different. I had some nervous feelings about it, so it’s good that the process has started and we’re moving it out into the world. Because it’s out of my hands, it’s already done.
It feels like you’re in your Boys For Pele era.
RUNDLE: Oh yeah, for sure. And that’s probably one of my top five favorite albums.
What were you nervous about for this release?
RUNDLE: I had wanted to do a stripped-down album for many years, and it just never felt like the right time. On On Dark Horses, I had been playing with the idea of doing a stripped-down album then, but it didn’t feel right. I had this band, and I had to really follow that path. And then the Thou collaboration came, and that was such a huge, maximal-sounding record, that this just seemed like the right time to release something completely stripped-down.
A lot of the songs on the record are live performance takes. I’d do several takes of the song, and we had to decide whether to pick the one where all the lyrics were correct and the pitch of my singing was better or to pick the one where the vibe and emotion were correct but there might be a guitar flub or something. We would always choose the latter. So I guess that was nerve-wracking, because while it was what I set out to do, there are a lot of imperfections in the music. There was no going back and fixing things. It’s just so personal and so exposed, and it’s a little strange to come out with that.
I feel like I’ve been known for the electric guitar and for textural work with guitar especially, and there’s not a single note of electric guitar on the album. There’s not one single effects pedal at all. There was no pedal board. There’s no reverb on the album. There are no effects on it whatsoever. So it’s just a complete departure from what I feel like I’ve been known for. And also playing piano on an album for the first time, I’ve not shared that part of myself publicly so I think there’s just a lot of departures from things in a way that I was a little nervous about. But at the same time I back it, I feel confident about my choice. What I do in my music is try to speak honestly from the heart, and I think that’s a thread that connects my work. Engine Of Hell showcases that very clearly without all of the elaborate instrumentation and atmosphere. In that way I feel successful about it.
How do you feel on this release day for the lead single? Do you want to be amongst it all or do you feel yourself wanting to hide?
RUNDLE: Well I’m definitely still in bed, I don’t usually do that. I usually get up and go straight to making tea and getting on with the day, but I’m hiding I think. I have all the blinds down in the house, and I’ve been texting with my best friend Blake who works with me on so much and we’re celebrating. We put so much work into the video [for “Return”].
I loved the video, it’s so beautiful. Have you seen the film Meshes Of The Afternoon?
RUNDLE: Yeah, that was a huge influence for me. When I was writing the treatment for the video it was like, Wings Of Desire by Wim Wenders, Orpheus by Jean Cocteau. Surrealism was such a huge piece of how I wanted to present the visual world of Engine Of Hell. And Meshes Of The Afternoon, I love Maya Deren, how her mirrors represent portals.
What was the significance of having your sister involved in the video? Listening to this album I presume some of the songs are based on your shared memories, and I imagine that could be quite validating, to have someone who has shared the same childhood experiences as you.
RUNDLE: I was a little nervous about her hearing the album. Some of the shared experiences are pretty traumatic, and I didn’t want to trigger her in that way. I try to keep her out of things to protect her and her personal life, but the treatment required there to be two of me, two characters, and so having my sister involved made the most sense. I’ve always wanted her to be in videos with me, actually she was in a Headless Prince Of Zolpidem [Rundle’s former art-rock project] video where we both wore the exact same thing and look like twins, and so this was just like a continuation of that. I’m always wanting to pull her into my world. I’m so glad that she was in the video, even though you don’t ever see her face, which works perfectly because we protect her but we also get to have her in it. It’s very meaningful to me.
What was the timeline of this record? You said you wrapped up in January; when did that moment of “OK, I’m going to start working on my next record now” come?
RUNDLE: I can say with confidence that I really took time away and decided that the beginning of my committed writing time for this album was in January 2020. I went to Wales for a month by myself. I was in Pembrokeshire on the coast.
RUNDLE: I had wanted to be in the UK and in a coastal, less travelled area. I took a month there by myself just to get away from everything. I made a whole other record while I was there that was just improv stuff that’ll come out next year, it’s really kind of out-there experimental stuff. And then the next big piece of it was when I went back to Louisville. I was living in a house there and I hadn’t been living in one place for so long, because I’d been on tour for so much of my adult life, especially in the last six years. So I got a piano in May of 2020 and I wrote all the piano songs there because my year was cancelled, and I finished writing the record in Louisville.
You’ve developed all of these associations with the guitar. What associations did you have coming back to the piano?
RUNDLE: Piano was my first real instrument. I took Celtic harp lessons when I was really little, that was technically my first instrument, but my dad is a pianist, he still plays all the time. So I grew up with the piano, I actually pursued it, I had a little scholarship at MI in LA for piano. And then as I started playing in bands and doing more with other people and trying to play shows, piano wasn’t working. Keyboards didn’t sound great at the time, and it was impractical. Guitar was just easier to play and take around, and I connected with it in a different way.
So going back now to piano and playing with it, there was this sort of bridge to a time in my life when I was younger, and I think that kind of opened up this portal to some of the experiences of my youth and what some of the songs are about. They all come from a time when I was playing piano. Like the song “Body,” my grandmother got me my first piano when I was living with her when I was a teenager, and I lived with her through to the end of her life. She supported my music and was really my person that took care of me and protected me and raised me. It was like a time machine; being with the piano took me back to that time when I was playing piano with her and what it was like to be with her at the end of her life.
Was there a certain moment for you that unlocked all these childhood memories?
RUNDLE: I’m not sure. Since we’re just talking about it now, I hadn’t really thought about how that piano was like a time machine, like a portal. You know those associations, like a scent can bring back memories, a feeling, a sound, and I guess for me the piano kind of did that, it opened up a lot of experiences. I’m not sure what did it, but this album was a reckoning with some of that past. I just had to deal with it I guess.
Is music the one conduit for unlocking those memories, or is there anything besides music that can help you access that?
RUNDLE: I’m not sure. The visual art stuff does to some degree, but I think music just has more of a connection there. And maybe because when I was younger, and especially the very young ages I had these experiences, at that time in my life music was so important, it was everything to me. In the writing of the record there are some purposeful nods to things that I was loving at that time. We talked about Boys For Pele. When I started playing the piano I was obsessed with Tori Amos. There’s kind of a meta quality to it where the songs are talking about an experience I had at that time and I’m using the instrument I played at that time with the influences of the music I liked at that time to sort of capture that for me.
Did having to stay in one place during lockdown force you to confront all of these childhood memories?
RUNDLE: I’m not really sure. I’m in therapy, we’re trying to figure it out. I think I did have a couple experiences in 2019 and 2020 where I was on a lot of psychedelic drugs and had some pretty intense breakdowns about some of the things that I saw or was around when I was growing up, but I’m not doing drugs anymore and I’ve put away the drinking again. There is also an element of moving around and touring and always being in motion that enables you to not have to deal with stuff and there’s something to be said I think at some point for just putting down the story. For me I think after this I don’t really need to dig through it anymore, I don’t know that it’s helpful or healthy for me to constantly be trauma mining. But it is what it is.
It’s not as though you haven’t confronted these themes on your music before but it does feel on this album that you are really, really facing up to it. Even in your vocals, it sounds like your voice is being born. What felt different this time?
RUNDLE: I think there was this utter surrender to the feeling. On some of the other albums my approach was to be more forceful and to have a warrior energy to some degree. And with this one, it’s not necessarily defeat, but I don’t have it in me to fight anymore. And I’m not doing that in my vocal, I’m not trying to project over something. I think there’s a sense that I’ve succumbed in a way, and I think in the vocal I sing a lot differently. I sing in a lot of falsetto, and it’s more delicate, and it’s not as yell-y I guess. I don’t have that energy in me anymore, there’s more subtlety to it. I’ve just been dealing with being very at the edge of sanity, especially towards the end of writing the album and the madness I think kind of comes through. I was in the mental hospital in Sept. 2020 and went into recording the album in December, so I think that you can kind of hear that in the music and the recording that it’s just coming from such a precarious place.
I feel like there is a pressure on female artists in particular to overcome their pain rather than exhibit it. Do you feel that pressure?
RUNDLE: I think there is a pressure to overcome, even though I don’t think you can ever overcome stuff. I’m trying to live in a healthier way, I’m trying to step away from drugs and alcohol again, I’ve struggled with that my whole life. And I think people that grew up with trauma or abuse, I don’t think you can overcome that stuff because it is what it is. I think that you can only accept. I’m searching for me and I’m looking, I’m trying.
You can’t stop looking for a way to be at peace, but I also think there’s something about transmuting the feelings into art that can be empowering. In “Return,” for example, that song for me was really emotional, but in getting to make the video for it I got to re-examine the feelings and experiences of it and make it into something that I feel is beautiful and I feel positively about. I don’t like the idea of victimhood I guess. I don’t walk around considering myself a victim everyday, I think that I’m an artist and I draw on my personal experience and some of my pain to try to express what I think is just a pain that a lot of people feel in general. I think whether they’ve endured trauma or not, I think that there’s a shared sense of human suffering that is kind of relatable to everybody, whether we want to talk about it or not.
Did you write these songs in a hurry? Did you feel a sense of urgency at all?
RUNDLE: Not at all. The songs took a long time to write, actually. Except for “In My Afterlife,” that song came really quickly, and it’s the last song I wrote. It’s about being at the edge of space, viewing life from this weird disconnected perspective, reliving things over and over again. That’s kind of what the idea of Engine Of Hell is, it’s this mechanism through which you’re forced to rewatch and relive memories over and over again.
How was it coming back to sanity?
RUNDLE: I’m not sure that I’ve made it back. But we’re trying, some days are good days mentally. I don’t know.
What does a good day look like to you?
RUNDLE: I guess a good day is when I feel like I have a foot in reality and I’m able to go out into the world and do things for myself in a way where things look solid and normal. Like, I can walk to the grocery store and it doesn’t look like the road is gonna sink into a black hole. I’ve had a lot of problems with migraines in the last year and a half that I never had before, that has a lot of weird neurological effects that can sometimes make things seem like a bad trip. So I guess a good day for me is a day where there’s very little physical pain and it doesn’t look nightmarish in the world. I think a good day is a day you can wake up and be grateful for the things you have and just be able to take in things in a balanced way, does that make sense?
Is work and discipline important to you?
RUNDLE: My work is everything to me, it’s really what I live for. I guess that’s another way I judge a good day. If I’ve been able to be productive in my creative practice, that makes me feel very fulfilled. I’m working on several art projects. I guess it’s probably not the healthiest thing, but I put a lot of weight and pressure on myself to be productive and to work, and that’s what makes me feel good now. Being raised in capitalism probably, that’s the result of that, but also, when I’m immersed in a creative moment my gnarly bullshit isn’t able to drain me because I’m not available to it.
Engine Of Hell is out 11/5 on Sargent House.