Emily Wells Trio
When you think hip-hop you don't usually think violin. But then, Emily Wells doesn't fit any of the usual musical categories. The 27-year-old, Los Angeles-based singer-composer-producer counts among her biggest influences Vivaldi, Nina Simone and Biggie Smalls.
"I love to meld ideas," she says in a telephone interview.
Wells' new CD, "Dirty," came out May 26 on her own Creative Control label, closely following her 2008 album "The Symphonies: Dreams, Memories and Parties," which got play on the likes of Los Angeles' KCRW and New York City's WFUB. She says she had label offers but wanted to keep complete creative freedom.
Wells plans a June 5 stop at Northwest Pizza in Ashland in the middle of a tour with gigs in L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. What's a small-town pizza place doing in there?
"You'll have to ask my agent," Wells says with a laugh.
Wells was born into a musical family ("singing, french horn playing, and symphony listening, plus youth orchestras, church choirs and xylophones") and began studying the violin at age 4 via the Suzuki method, which emphasizes nurtured learning in a supportive environment.
"I learned theory later," she says. "I studied about 12 years and got all angsty and stuff as a teenager and took up guitar and whatever."
In junior high and high school in Indianapolis, Ind., she fell in love with hip hop, especially East Coast stuff like Wu Tang Clan and Biggie, aka The Notorious B.I.G. She arranged to get high school credit for the college classes she was taking at night in order to leave her days free to explore music. Lured by the classic work of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, she began sneaking into a hole-in-the-wall jazz club called The Chatterbox.
"The waitress would ask if she could get me something and I'd drink coffee," she says. "Watching jazz is so different. It changed my life."
She got a four-track recording machine at age 16 and a loop pedal that allowed her to lay down grooves and perform live solos over them. Soon she was incorporating the violin in her experimental recordings. She says the recording studio might be her favorite place in the world.
"I'm not gonna go play solo violin music," she says. "But it's a great way to play violin parts and use it in an orchestral way and build all these layers."
She wrote the symphonies to be played live, and most begin with a violin theme, and with the sampling pedal very much in mind. Many of the pieces on "The Symphonies" are in fact quite symphonic, with some extra bump courtesy of bassist Joey Reina and drummer Sam Halterman. The sound is intensely layered, with three or four violin parts in places and Wells' layered vocals adding an ethereal quality.
"Dirty" features a softly nuanced, emotional cover of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" and a loping, almost reggae-like tune Wells and her trio have played live for a long time called "Take it Easy San Francisco."
Wells is an avid collector of little musical oddities. Extra-musical samples on the "Symphonies" include birds, grasshoppers, whales and children. In addition to violin and piano, she plays toy piano, thumb piano, analog synths, baritone ukulele, xylophones, metallmetalophonesophones, glockenspiels, melodica, banjo, music boxes, finger cymbals and music boxes.
"To find unique sounds is a huge passion," she says.
Wells just returned from Israel, where she performed solo in an arts and music festival.
"It was amazing because I fell right in with this community of artists and musicians instead of going as a tourist," she says. "People welcome you into their lives."
She says she wants to spend every day of her life making music. Some day she'd like to write a film score, and a symphony, too.
"For now," she says. "I'm tooling around the West Coast."