Band To Watch: Avalon Emerson & The Charm

Tonje Thilesen

Band To Watch: Avalon Emerson & The Charm

Tonje Thilesen

After a half century of rock musicians questioning what do DJs actually do, it’s only fair that Avalon Emerson returns the favor. “I’m sure you’ve talked to a bunch of artists who’ve said, ‘oh, it was crazy, this muse came down and took control of my hands and we wrote the song in 30 minutes and that’s just how it is!'” she jokes. “I always thought that was pretty bullshit, I still kinda think it largely is for some people. It’s too good of a mythology to be totally true.”

Emerson tested this theory by picking up a copy of Jeff Tweedy’s How To Write One Song as her beginner’s manual, a book that both demystifies the artistic process without completely debunking said mythology. The Wilco frontman gently pleads to set your ego and perfectionism to the side, put in the grunt work every day and, hey, maybe you can also write “Can’t Stand It” in a few hours while stuck on an airplane. And when Emerson indeed managed to write her first song, it turned out that both sides had a point.

She recalls an afternoon in Los Angeles “goofing around” on a synth while her wife Hunter Lombard strummed guitar, eventually adding “bimpy little drums” to round out the project. She was concerned that the composition was “too small to be a song” when she shared it with her co-producer Bullion, “but really, within a day I was proven wrong.” Her friend Keivon Hobeheidar laid down cello, Emerson and Bullion fleshed out the production and all of a sudden, she had “Sandrail Silhouette,” the opener from her fantastic debut Avalon Emerson & The Charm.

Actually, to describe & The Charm as a debut is sorta misleading. This is indeed the first collection of original songs that the 34-year old has put her voice to and the first collaborative project she’s ever started; even when her parents were allowing her to host garage bands in her backyard, she never joined in. But & The Charm isn’t the work of a late bloomer savant plucked out of obscurity from Bandcamp. Readers versed in electronic music might already wonder why we haven’t already brought up Emerson’s past decade as a highly acclaimed DJ and producer. After relocating from the Bay Area to Berlin in 2014, she became a fixture at scene-defining clubs like Berghain and Panorama Bar. She’s also performed at Coachella and Glastonbury and after we finish our conversation, she’ll be boarding a flight to Mexico City for the Axe Ceremonia festival, where her set comes right before Honey Dijon and Fred Again.. If you’ve got an hour to play catch up, I’d highly recommend her 2020 DJ-Kicks compilation, which set & The Charm in motion with its opening cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Long-Forgotten Fairytale.”

Emerson also made her name with remixes for Robyn, Slowdive and Four Tet and, in fact, & The Charm pretty much sounds like a combination of those artists — the warm and fuzzies of dream pop clarified by the rigorous sound design of techno, Emerson exploring the passage of time and astrology in her inviting, tranquil voice. Think DJ Koze in a pure pop mood, a “California-pilled” Cocteau Twins, to use a lyric from “Astrology Poisoning.”

Though Emerson hasn’t lived in California for nearly a decade, she allows that there’s an underlying longing for the West Coast throughout & The Charm — not just for Los Angeles or San Francisco, but the vast stretches of the Arizona desert. She admits that home is wherever Lombard and their dog Elmo happen to be, and that’s currently in the Catskills. Like most artists who’ve fled to upstate New York, Emerson both appreciates the solitude while also feeling self-conscious about wanting it in the first place. “Where we are is not ‘within commutable distance to the city’ or one of these places that is where people go and have these big floppy hats and are LARPing their upstate life from Brooklyn,” she explains. But she also feels a bit weird needing it in the first place, describing her status as “the most atomized version of fame” and “Z-list” celebrity; though it’s worth asking who’s on the U or P-list by this metric.

The personal cover provided by & The Charm is a bit of a paradox — it’s suited for crowds far, far smaller than the ones Emerson sees as a DJ while also exposing herself like never before, an autobiographical project where she’s joined by a live band for the first time ever. In explaining her technique to Resident Advisor in 2019, Emerson shrugged, “I’m not a vibeman,” at least compared to the DJs who “preside over ecstatic dance floors, sweating and grimacing while they blend the old-fashioned way.” After years of granular tech talk, she’s happy to get into the “softy vibes and emotions and metaphors” of singer-songwriting. Emerson is one week removed from playing her first show in front of strangers; before then, she’d only done private gigs for her friends and management team. After Axe Ceremonia, she’s plotting out “the craziness of this summer” and her first ever tour. “Trying to figure out how to sing on stage is hard but it’s also incredibly fun,” she says. “But being on a stage like that gives you an adrenaline high that I haven’t experienced DJing in a really long time.”

After performing solo as a DJ for the past decade, how did you begin to conceptualize what it takes to put a live touring band together?

AVALON EMERSON: The way that I learned to DJ was really DIY, now there’s such an institutionalized structure around the DJ pyramid scheme where you can get CDJ lessons. Not to get right into the “back in my day” talk at the jump of the interview, but my first old man comment is that I learned to DJ at this bar in Oakland where they had the rackmount “wedding DJ” style thing — push the button and the trays come out for the CDJ’s and each thing had a little jog wheel on it, incredibly unprofessional. Doing this band is crazy because I have somewhat of a profile in a different sphere and I’m starting at something of a higher pressure level to have the show be working out really well.

Putting together this live thing has definitely been one of the hardest things I’ve done in a really long time. I’ve hit up some people who’ve been helpful with advice — I was talking to Dan [Snaith] from Caribou about what’s necessary for this kind of stuff. Sometimes you talk to people [for whom] this is their job, my manager will be like, “oh, he’s somebody who built the playback rig for…” some whatever big, “fill in the blank” successful artist. They’ll come back and say, “we have this and we’ll set you up with this and it’s very expensive and you’ll have two techs with you at all times.” I don’t know if I need all of that. It’s hard enough to make money in the live sphere anyway and I don’t want to burn myself out spiritually that instantly.

I often hear how people who were previously DJs or even instrumentalists switch to singing on stage and can’t figure out what to do with their hands or shoulders at the beginning. How have you been handling that question?

EMERSON: We just started practicing together for the first time ever, even in our living room. Keivon came and lived with us upstate for a month, and that was February. We had done a few practices at a place in Brooklyn, a small studio, not even a rehearsal space, for a little bit in January. We didn’t start out by doing covers and we’ve been trying to work out some to add to the show. We are doing “Long-Forgotten Fairytale,” which I started my DJ-Kicks with. I was really not into doing that for a while because when I was making it, that was peak COVID and it’s just like, I’m not trying to visit that energy again. But … if you have any suggestions!

The guitars on “Sandrail Silhouette” instantly reminded me of “Cherry Coloured Funk,” so the Cocteau Twins seem like an obvious choice.

EMERSON: It’s hard to cover something by Liz Fraser!

I remember learning the chords to “Cherry Coloured Funk” on an acoustic guitar and it sounded like complete shit.

EMERSON: Why don’t I sound like Robin Guthrie? What am I missing? Twenty thousand dollars worth of gear and 10,000 hours of [pantomimes tweaking recording gear].

What’s the decision-making process in determining what songs to remix or cover — are there ever songs that you like but they’re too “sacred” to rework?

EMERSON: I remix things where I have a vision for what it could be, and I don’t really touch stuff that can’t be improved upon, or applied a special veneer that allows it to clunk into a different hole. When Robyn asked me to do her remix … okay, I’m hearing it and I feel like I can do something with this song. But I turn down tons of remixes all the time, when I don’t really have a vision of what this song could be.

With covers, I’m new to this game, but choosing a cover does multiple things. You’re sharing your associations and context of the original song with an audience. And you’re connecting as a music fan and participating in the song as a musician. The crowd is participating as a listener, and I’m normally in your position, but now, I’m gonna bring it on stage and we’re gonna enjoy this together. You can’t always change clothes on a song like that. We were playing around with doing a cover of “I Won’t Hurt You” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. It’s a weird old song, where it’s really intimate and small and lo-fi. It’s one of my favorite songs of all time. But when we were playing it, even with a little bit of the additions, it was more high gloss than usual. And some of the magic of it is lost. There’s others in the can, the art of finding a good cover to do is still something I’m experimenting with. At the end of our set, we need a big crowd pleaser thing.

Well, you can always turn the eight-minute closer (“A Dam Will Always Divide”) into an extended jam, I’ve seen a lot of bands do something similar.

EMERSON: I like how you’re thinking, don’t cut the eight minute song, double it!

I know for some people, having their spouse involved in a creative process can provide a lot of security, but for others, it requires a vulnerability that really tests each other’s boundaries. Did you feel either type of way working with Hunter on your first group project?

EMERSON: This is the first thing I’m working on in collaboration with anybody. Most of my electronic stuff, other than the mastering process or a remix, that’s also an asynchronous collaboration. This is the first time where it’s really a collaboration and we’re starting in a similar place and we’re getting to another place together. I love working with Hunter, she is very in tune with certain emotional colors and signals that I’ll miss on stuff and just a sick guitarist too.

Throughout How To Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy stresses the importance of writing something every day, even if it’s not satisfying at the end. Did you also end up with a lot of outtakes during the process of making the album?

EMERSON: I don’t have another album’s worth of songs waiting in the wings. This is what I wrote and worked on with Nathan [Jenkins, aka Bullion] and this is what we’ve got. I could continue to work on these or I could want to have a 13-song album. I did feel a little self-conscious for a while of only having nine songs — is that too short?

Nine-song albums are actually quite normal these days, welcome to indie rock.

EMERSON: If you look at other albums that have nine songs, a few of Cocteau Twins’ have eight or nine, but it’s incredibly dense music. Or Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. I better make sure they’re really fucking good, but I love the confidence of that and I also love these songs. I’m trying not to think too much about the platforms that they’re gonna live on and the reason other people have 40 song quote-unquote albums.

We’re about at the 10-year anniversary of your move to Berlin and I’ve already started to notice a lot of nostalgia or at least reappraisal of that era of electronic music. What was your experience of this time?

EMERSON: As a DJ, there’s talk all the time of how it is naff to play a certain song that’s old and rinsed. but then when does it become a classic? Usually the agreed upon bedtime is 10 years and then you can start playing stuff in a throwback-y way, that’s when the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia apply. I can only speak to my experience of being a DJ for the last 10 years but I think it’s always been like that for other DJs I’ve talked to who’ve been doing it since the 90s and shit, the territorial-ness of being in certain record promo pools and getting the promos before anyone else, and by the time it comes out, it’s rinsed. This has always been a thing to deal with as a DJ, peddling newness and imparting my taste or whatever, being a professional consumer. That’s what a DJ is, being a professional music enjoyer. I’m filtering all the shit and showing you a little bit of what I think is good. But it is funny where I’ll play some stuff that people don’t really know, even though I imagine it being just this fucking huge hit. Like, “how could you not know this song?” But people got the Shazams out in the air.

I said this recently to a friend and got the vibe that this was … the idea of the stuck flywheel of culture where it’s like things aren’t really moving forward and the half-life of retro-ness is getting shorter and shorter. Again, it’s hard for me to really speak on whether it’s true. In the mid-2000s, they were also referential to things 20 years earlier, a very ’80s kind of vibe. That’s kind of the same numerical time jump, we just think we’re special because the internet. When I first went out to Berghain, San Francisco was quite different from Berlin; when I was living there, San Francisco was really retro, like old retro. There were a lot of dogmatic 60s parties, girls had the dresses that were super on-point vintage and the boys did too. And the DJs would drive Lambrettas and only play the 45s. There were disco parties like that too, vinyl with the lollipop headphones. That was my experience, but at the same time you would talk to someone from London and that was Night Slugs and this futuristic, “future for the sake of future” vibe happening there. That didn’t really feel like it was happening as much in San Francisco.

There were parties that would bring those people over, but it wasn’t a flat ecosystem across all markets which it feels like now. Seemingly huge DJs would come to San Francisco and play small rooms and I think this was before this underground electronic music thing really popped off in a global sense. It also felt like a non-genre thing that is not happening now. There seemed to be Big Tunes and that doesn’t seem like it happens much now, like “Never Grow Old” by Floorplan, you’d go to Berghain and hear it multiple times upstairs, multiple times downstairs throughout the course of a day there. Or “MDMA” by Paul Woolford, you’d hear it every single time, every single DJ would play it and it’s not really a thing now. I don’t know if that’s because of the firehose of music out right now that there isn’t the focus, there’s also not really as cohesive of a music press or music criticism.

With that experience in the rearview, was there a point where you started to notice certain challenges or expectations emerging that made DJing less enjoyable?

EMERSON: I try not to be too anti-this kind of stuff even though it’s easy to be fatigued by the feeling that if you’re not constantly posting and creating content, then you’re falling behind. That feeling sucks and I don’t think it’s beneficial to making good art.

Do you think it’s more pronounced for DJs compared to more traditional “indie” artists?

EMERSON: I think it’s exactly the same, I’m not even gonna narrow it down to people in creative industries. If you’re a lawyer, they’re all of a sudden worried about their job being taken by a robot.

While this album often presents itself as having a quite breezy, head-in-the-clouds sound, some of the lines from “Entombed In Ice” and “Astrology Poisoning” strike me as cultural critique; as far as lyric writing goes, were there points where you felt the need to practice self-censorship in that regard, or was it more important to just let it all hang out?

EMERSON: The process of learning how to write lyrics is something I feel like a novice in but there’s a lot of excitement in feeling like there’s a new field that I have access to now. A lot of it is autobiographical and even when I’m talking about friends and family, it’s through the lens of myself. It wasn’t necessarily, “I’m preparing this narrative and I want to communicate it as clearly and succinctly as possible.” That’s not how I came across it. It’s a lot of trying to clarify these feelings that I’m having inside and wrap them up in a meter that works with these songs.

A lot of them started out as collections of words and thoughts and phrases and little turns that were cool and poetic and working them out together. Like, these few thoughts are connected in this one way and I have a framework of this world or feeling that I want to describe. Sometimes, it lends the songs to being a little more abstract than other lyricists. I listen to Joni Mitchell or Phoebe Bridgers or these people who are very good at describing this specific vignette and I feel like I’m there and I see it. I love these kinds of lyricists too but I don’t feel like that’s the kind of writer that I am, I’m a little more vibe and funny turns of phrases. Like, “astrology poisoning,” that sounds good together and it came out of a discussion that a friend and I were having about the slippery scale — how do you introduce woo woo into your life while managing it?

You mentioned earlier that you feel a “higher pressure” with this project, how did you manage the internal expectations?

EMERSON: When I talk about pressure, honestly it’s the live show and it’s feeling like a beginner in a way that’s scary. It’s fun and exciting and especially after playing a single show and having it go pretty well, it’s used as gasoline to go down the path of like … I want to get really fucking good and I want to sound really good and have a great light show and I wanna do this thing like when I see a good concert, it touches me. I’ve been approaching it like that, I want to connect with people as a DJ and I want to condense the steam in this one area and then blow it out in this other moment and work with the energy over the course of a set whether it’s at a big festival or a set at Panorama Bar. It’s been really cool and fun to refine that craft as a [DJ], but as a live performer, these different sets of variables and contexts and the format is decently different enough that I feel like a novice. But that’s good, that’s a place of growth, that’s fun.

Making the record actually, whether it was by myself or with Bullion or working with Nick or the other people, that was honestly almost 100% fun. Especially compared to staring at a routing matrix and … “Why am I not hearing this fucking thing?” That’s not very fun! Writing music is fun and massaging lyrics was great and beautiful. I don’t think I’m one of these people who’s a self-flagellating perfectionist, the very last 5% or 1% of completeness is subjective anyway. The important thing is to be at once connected to the song on a micro, close up, zoomed-in level but also be connected with a bird’s eye, big picture view. So you can ask, “Am I letting the zoomed-in point of view add too much bullshit or stall the entire project to where it’s putting the greater thing in a negative sense?” There’s definitely things in nearly every song where I’m like, “could this be better in this way?” Possibly. Ask one of the people who’ve been sitting on finished songs and albums for years and years and years and I’m like … couldn’t be me.


Avalon Emerson & The Charm is out 4/28 via Another Dave. Pre-order it here.

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