DIAL EM FOR MELANVCHOLY: The UCSC-educated Laurie King's latest novel features a medieval literary archetype along with the headstrong Mary Russell and her partner Sherlock Holmes.
The White Space
For up-and-coming indie songstress and UCSC grad Emily Jane White, less is almost always more
By Paul M. Davis
THERE'S A UNIQUE confidence to Emily Jane White's songwriting: it's at once sympathetic and tough-minded, reflective and unsentimental. Her work has been described as folk, which is reductive considering how orchestrated her full-band arrangements are. While the music creates a contemplative space reminiscent of folk music, White's subject matter and musical touchstones transcend the woman-with-acoustic-guitar label that is inevitably applied to women with acoustic guitars, whether or not it fits.
White has received much attention in the indie press for her second solo release, Victorian America. To date, she's enjoyed most of her success in Europe, but this is changing for White with this album as stateside tastemakers such as Pitchfork and NPR begin to pay attention.
White now calls Santa Rosa home, but she got her start in Santa Cruz during the early '90s fronting the ethereal acoustic trio Diamond Star Halos. Her sound has come a long way since then. While the Diamond Star Halos specialized in intimate song sketches spare in their arrangements, the songs on Victorian America and her solo debut, Dark Undercoat, feature more realized scores fleshed out with subtle washes of electric guitar and lush strings—and, of course, White's dusky alto with its signature catch. Many critics have compared her voice to that of Cat Power's Chan Marshall, but there's a grit and lived-in quality to White's tone that's more raw than Marshall's ice-princess timbre.
Her years at UCSC are well behind her, but White remembers the town fondly. "Santa Cruz is a very fertile place for a lot of people," she says, "and it was very formative place for my music." Her background as a UCSC American studies student with a focus on gender studies continues to inform her songwriting, at least obliquely. White strays far from the traditional model of the political singer/songwriter: there are no didactic political declarations in her work. All the same, a social conscience guides her impressionistic tales.
"A lot of people don't want to talk about politics," White says. "People want politics to be a category that exists [separately], but all life experience is political. There is nothing you do that is not political." She cites "Gothic-feminist writing" as a primary influence. Her literary approach explores the forgotten lives of generations of women, drawing inspiration from the work of the Brontė sisters and Beloved-era Toni Morrison. Ghosts, murders and suicides haunt these songs from the periphery, referenced in sidelong fashion but rarely given center stage. White tends to avoid the direct or the obvious. "There's not a lot of literal narrative," she says. "I strive to create scenes in my writing that allow for abstract rather than literal interpretation."
The album's title song, "Victorian America," is perhaps the best distillation of White's approach, finding common threads of social injustice in the American South. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, White found herself fascinated by the Victorian legacy of 19th-century Louisiana, and the ways in which the racism and sexism of the era continue to resonate. "I was reading a book at the time about women in the Victorian period, and Louisiana was one of the main American Victorian areas during the era. There was profound racism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while the Victorian culture was lily-white and colonialist." White deftly connects these elements through effectively clear language. "A giant flood took Louisiana but it took more than the city of New Orleans," she sings, "she lost her home in Victorian America. It was the biggest thing she'd ever known."
Like any nuanced songwriter, White is aware that music allows for intuitive logic. She prefers to give the listener space for "interpretation and discovery. While there is rich subtext to her work, in execution it is clear, simple, and transporting. As she demonstrates, "a simple melody with words can be impressionistic and suggestive."
EMILY JANE WHITE performs Wednesday, May 26, at 8pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8. (831.429.6994)
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