Back in October, Philly guitarist Emily Robb peeled back a few more layers of the psyche on her latest solo record If I Am Misery Then Give Me Affection, a fractured record that veers between brain-rattling mutated guitars, trance-inducing amp hums, and an idiosyncratic blast of improv noise. Ahead of her first live appearance of the year in Rochester, New York on January 13th with local noisemakers Nod and Pengo, I caught up with Robb to discuss the explorations across the new solo outing and how its skeletal brevity espouses fearlessness.
Hi Emily! First tell me what you've been up to lately? What have you been listening to, reading, or spending a lot of time doing? Did you have any favorite releases from this year that you'd like to share?
Emily Robb: We just celebrated Christmas and New Year's which was real busy and I feel very lucky we got to see friends and family. Now it's back to "regular" life," if that means getting up earlier and eating less gluttonously. Been listening to lots of music as usual. For the sake of brevity and levity, I'll just say a few of my favorite albums from 2023 — I have a lot of favorites so this is by no means comprehensive: Los Llamarada's Space and Time (C/Site Recordings), the Bayard Lancaster rerelease, It's Not Up To Us (Superior Viaduct), C.R. Odette's cassette Millett Sway which contains two beautiful and haunting tracks (Ginkgo Records), and I really enjoy listening to Prends Le Temps D'Ecouter, Musique d'expression libre dans les classes Freinet / Tape Music, Sound Experiments and free folk songs from Freinet Classes - 1962/1982, (Born Bad Records).
Tell our readers a little about your background. Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like and what type of music really got you into playing guitar?
To sum up my childhood in a few words: I was born on an island in Maine in what turned out to be my bedroom. My sisters and I attended our public elementary school which had an incredible music program. I had lessons in recorder and violin by the time I was seven (pretty usual), but then started playing trumpet in the school band at age eight (pretty unusual). I was kicking ass playing the trumpet because I was naturally quite musical but then my parents split and I was moved to Connecticut where there was no music program at all at my school. So that's when things turned south, as they say. Nevertheless, I'm OK and I found my way to the guitar via rock 'n' roll, of course.
You've played in a number of Philly bands before venturing solo including Lantern, Louie Louie, Storks, and Astute Palate. What have been some of your favorite memories of these groups over the last few years and what was the Philly scene like during the 2010s?
Some great memories from my previous bands include playing with my very talented bandmates in Lantern and experimenting in the studio together with our friend and engineer Peter Woodford. (He and his partner Caitlin ran a studio in their basement in Montreal called The Bottle Garden which was truly a gem). We recorded and mixed our last album entirely to tape...I learned a lot during those sessions and had a great time. We also spent a lot of time on the road. I saw most of the United States and quite a few National Parks thanks to our tours. We got around via an atlas or we printed out MapQuest directions. I am amazed we're still alive, the things we did on tour...and lot's of sleeping on strangers' floors. After Lantern, I also had a blast playing drums with Storks. Some of my favorite buddies were in that band-Jacy Webster, Ken Brenninger and my sweetheart Richie Charles. It was nice to be relieved of the pressure of coming up with songs...I could just zone in, put my head down and play the beat. Philly in the 2010's was pretty good I guess? I was on the road with Lantern a lot in the earlier half of that decade and was a little antisocial otherwise. A lot of the DIY spots had shut down which was something we all lamented. But we powered on and some heroes (like Chris Forsyth) opened spots (like Jerry's On Front) and we survived.
One of my favorite early projects of yours was the extremely limited Dirty Beaches / Omon Ra II split tape that was released in 2010. That was the first thing I visited after hearing the Astute Palate self-titled record in 2020. Can you share some insight about how that came together and what's it like looking back more than a decade later?
Wow...that Dirty Beaches/Omon Ra II tape...even I barely remember that. I was so young and so green. I just looked it up on Discogs and there it says I played bass on it so we'll take that as truth because I don't remember! I do remember singing a little on it and deciding to never show it to my mom. I'm nearly positive Zach Fairbrother (who was my long-time boyfriend) wrote all the songs. We were buds with Alex Hungtai and later made a live release playing as his band along with our friend and Lantern bandmate Sophie White.
Will there ever be another Astute Palate release down the line?
A lotta people have asked what the chances are there'll be another Astute Palate album. The truth is, yes and no are both likely answers. Three of us live in Philly, but Dave Nance lives in Omaha and now has a baby (quickly becoming a kid), so it might take years if it does ever happen. We'll just have to see where the wind blows us.
What was it like putting together your first solo release in 2021 with How to Moonwalk? I felt it was long overdue, but very much worth the wait! I especially love the twisted closer "Deeper Than Dust."
Leading up to How To Moonwalk, I knew I wanted to make a solo guitar record but wasn't quite sure how to approach it. I had built up a little studio so I had the gear to do it. I tried making an album-even got as far as sequencing it and titling it-and then threw it out. So I had a lot of the "songs" (or riffs) written, I just needed help getting the right vibe. So my good friend Bill Nace spent two days in the studio with me and cheered me on and lent me some of his pedals and we got something that I was much happier with.
What was it like recording that one in the summer of 2020 at Suddenly Studio with Body/Head's Bill Nace? Also did these sessions lead to a stronger bond between you and Bill especially given the year after you toured the Midwest together and released a tour split tape.
We shared a jam space for a few years (during which we recorded How To Moonwalk as well as a bunch of Bill's music). I had been an engineer for him a bunch of times before we recorded my first solo record together so we were used to collaborating in the studio, just doing opposite jobs. We had also been roommates so we were very close. And we still are very close...we still work in the studio together very often — he'll be over next week to mix a record with me. We have a special language with each other at this point in the studio and have learned to trust each other...it's amazing how relationships develop over time. It would be interesting to watch our younger selves working shyly in the studio together. Anyway, I'm very very grateful to have this special relationship with Bill. He'll be a friend until we're 6 feet under. And beyond.
Now talk to me about your latest album you released last fall called If I Am Misery Then Give Me Affection. What's the story behind it and when/where did you start putting it all together?
If I Am Misery Then Give Me Affection was sort of a challenge to myself to make an album purely by myself and see what really comes out of me. To get to know myself. Now I realize that's really stupid. No one does anything devoid of influence, so where's the line between Chuck Berry's influence and Bill Nace's influence anyway? Anyway, it's way more fun when others are around some of the time. All this said, I had Richie's ever-loving support while I was making the album and he spent countless hours encouraging me and giving his opinion about the music when asked. The biggest challenge was letting myself free and not judging as I was recording which I'm better at when someone else is in the room. But, I do things the hard way, so mostly it was me in my basement with the remote control to my tape machine stretching as far down the stairs as possible (which is not all the way) so I could hit record and stop. I recorded a lot and threw out a lot. It was lonely but I'm glad I did it.
From this new album, do you have any songs in particular that you're most proud of?
Song I'm most proud of....I think that changes over time. I really dug the sound I got to work with for "Slowing Singing Bathing Shaving." I got my guitar sounding great with a slide and hit play and improvised. There's something about the quality of the feedback I really dig on that track. And "Solo in A" might also be a favorite for reasons a therapist could probably put into words.
What were the inspirations behind the Alina Josan cover art?
I chose to ask Alina Josan to make the artwork for my album because she's incredibly cool. I knew she'd really get into it. She made everything by hand. She painstakingly cut out each and every letter of every single word on the cover. She had been painting woodcuts and showed me some of those and I really connected with one in particular so she ran with that idea. It's abstract but you can see a lot in it...and it can really morph with your mood. I just love Alina-she's incredibly talented and willing to explore. She's very smart, well-read, is a deep music listener, DJ's on our local college radio, works in the art department at our public library. I'm lucky to be her friend.
What goes into a Emily Robb solo live set? What can fans expect at these forthcoming shows?
An Emily Robb live set so far has always involved a guitar. It's the instrument I'm most fluent on though I do love playing others. Once I get some sound going I get turned on and go where it takes me. It feels like I'm in a very detailed movie each time I play and if I listen back to a recording I remember vividly each part. Richie will be accompanying me, possibly on organ. I'll play electric guitar, at least in Rochester. People have said my live playing feels like going to church and hopefully they don't mean hard pews, boredom or styrofoam crackers. And don't think I'm trying to teach you any morals. I'm just up there wonderin'.
Aside from this coming show in Rochester to begin the new year, what else is on the horizon for you in 2024?
The new year will bring a West Coast tour — stay tuned for details and more music of course.
If I Am Misery Then Give Me Affection is out now on Petty Bunco.