Emiko by Tom West
The voice is perhaps the most important tool a folk singer has. If it’s particularly beautiful, it can be the main attraction, as with Bon Iver’s gossamer falsetto or Vashti Bunyan’s break-of-dawn coo. An unusual voice can become part of the artist’s identity; Bob Dylan is an obvious example, but artists like Jeff Mangum and Joanna Newsom made their strange, imperfect voices integral to their sound. Sometimes the voice’s influence is felt in subtler ways; Nick Drake might not have had an instantly-iconic voice, but its woolly warmth made even his saddest songs feel sweet and generous. Of course, other folk singers have plain voices, mostly just a delivery system for melody and lyrics; that’s a valid choice, as well. The point is that the voice needs to be accounted for; it needs to have a clear purpose, or else the song it sings just sounds like Starbucks background music.
Tom West, the Australian singer-songwriter who released his new song “Emiko” on September 20th, understands this well. West’s voice is a robust tenor, endearingly nasal with just the right amount of soul, and one of the main pleasures of “Emiko” is hearing the way he stretches and plays with it throughout the song. “Shadows” becomes “sha-uh-aye-dows”; he extends words like “broken” and “springtime” into five syllables; he pronounces “tune” in the old-fashioned way, like “tyoon”. It could come across as affected and cutesy in the wrong hands, like a gender-flipped version of the indie-voice phenomenon parodied in the “welcome to my kitchen” Vine, but there’s a natural glide to West’s tone and phrasing that makes it go down easy.
The song itself is good, too. Directed to the eponymous Emiko, West sings about the kind of aimless angst that’s so common among twenty-somethings. “Am I living a lie? Am I starting again?” he asks, and it’s easy to relate; who hasn’t thought a bad idea was a new beginning, who hasn’t mistaken a momentary impulse for a grand epiphany? And when the chorus comes, with sunlit chords and chiming vibraphones, you’re right there with him and Emiko.
We’ll start off simple: what inspired “Emiko”? Is there a real Emiko, or does she represent something else?
The character of Emiko in the song is not someone I know, or have known, nor is the narrator of the song intended to be me. I think that it is fair to say that both characters in the song represent an amalgamation of many people and many experiences that I have stumbled across in my life all of whom I have endeavored to personify a little bit in this simple song. I think most people will have experienced, in one way or another, a feeling of wrangling with expectations, unrealistic preconceptions of right and wrong, duty versus desire & frustration despite best intentions when it comes to any idea of ‘love’. I think that all of this stuff is way more complicated than the prevailing mentality will often permit, I was hoping to explore those ideas a little in this song.
In “Emiko”’s first verse, the line “am I living a lie? Am I starting again?” really resonated with me. What prompted that line? Have you ever felt that sense of uncertainty?
Of course, I have felt uncertainty like that, I’m sure that most people have and I think that it is a feeling that we all will surely continue to experience for the duration of our lives. It seems natural and healthy for us to question how we are feeling and what is going on, even if society/family/religion etc etc might expect or anticipate us not to. So I guess that is the prompt or impetus behind that particular line – I was thinking about being in the position of the characters in the song and feeling that kind of conflict when you find yourself at an emotional fork in the road.
You describe walking through “neon towers, casting shadows so long”. Was this inspired by a real city? If so, which?
I am from a fairly out of the way part of the world; the hills outside Adelaide in South Australia, so I have always found big cities to be impressive and intoxicating. I find big things to look at really visually stimulating whether it’s a mountain, a panoramic view, huge buildings – some cities have all three mountains, big views and huge buildings, gotta love that. But yeah, my reference in the song isn’t about any city specifically. It is rather about a feeling of being in a new, overwhelming place or situation, being at simultaneously kind of awestruck and kind of in the shadows of what is going on around you – I traveled to a lot of unfamiliar cities over the last few years, so it could be any of those really.
Your website says that you play music that “traverses the rocky and undulating ground between simple, whimsical, folk tunes and grand and moody soundscapes.” How did you realize that there was common ground between simple folk music and abstract, atmospheric soundscapes? Were there any artists you listened to that do something similar?
While I was growing up and getting weaned onto all kinds of music by my family, friends, education I think I found that music with prominent melodies impacted me more so than other music. I think this is still the case for me nowadays, although maybe to a lesser degree. I often find music that is very lyrically dense but simpler in terms of musical composition to be amazingly clever, but not always super pleasing to my ear.
One of my favourite songs is Cortez the Killer from the album Zuma by Neil Young. I love imagery that song evokes and as it is coupled with the long and drawn out repeated guitar melody I find listening to it to be quite transportative. There are heaps of artists who I have found inspiring in this way, Fionn Regan’s ‘Black Water Child’ or ‘Snowy Atlas Mountains’ from ‘The End of History’ for example. That album combines amazingly clever lyricism combined with lo-fi soundscapes that elevate the listening experience (for me, anyway) equally his later work too but with cleaner sounds. More recently, the Phoebe Bridgers album with some really visceral writing that’s super catchy.
I guess, ultimately, I’m hoping to write songs that say things that people want to listen to while also making varying use of the sounds in and around the words to complete the visual or transportative experience.
Do you consider yourself primarily a singer or a songwriter? Or are both parts of the equation equally important?
I think of myself foremostly a songwriter, singing my own stuff seemed an obvious necessity when I first started playing around with songs. At that time where I was living there were no obvious pathways for me to develop my writing or singing so I guess I made it up as I went along.
I certainly don’t think that you have to be a great singer to be a great songwriter – I’m not sure that there even is such a thing as objectively great singing anyway. I am told that my singing voice is weird, and I’m very okay with that!
Who are your influences? Do you have different influences as a singer than you do as a songwriter?
I like listening to, and I’m influenced by, all kinds of music. I have never really listened to singers with the intention of trying to learn how to sing like that person – I’ve tended to, for better or worse, sing without thinking I guess. However, I would say that having performed as a singer (and guitarist) in a Neil Young tribute band for several years now, this probably has influenced my singing voice to some degree but I wouldn’t say that any similarity is exactly intentional.
So yeah, I’ve obviously been influenced by the music of Neil Young. There was a cohort of singer-songwriters who I listened a lot to when I was much younger, less so now, like Ben Harper, Tori Amos a bit, John Butler some Australian artists such as Tim Rogers, the early stuff from Missy Higgins, Jeff Lang. I grew to like a lot of world music from a pretty early age, I loved an album called Raoui by an artist called Souad Massi who I think is Algerian, Tinariwen, the Buena Vista Social Club record, in the last few years I was completely taken away by a record called Bird Under Water by a singer Arooj Aftab. I don’t think you’d find much in the way of direct stylistic comparisons from some of this music in my material, but I wonder if listening to these kinds of albums that aren’t sung in languages that I comprehend might have influenced my taste for music that can provoke an emotional response separately to, or in addition to, the meaning of the lyrics.
One line in “Emiko” goes “you say you don’t like country/but this one’s growing on you”. As an Australian, what is it that appeals to you about a genre as quintessentially American as country?
For that line of the song I was imagining the characters being in a cheeky argument about their respective taste in music with one fond of the genre and the other maybe not so convinced. They then walk past a shop or something and out of the window comes some Willie Nelson which actually doesn’t sound too bad to Emiko, perhaps to the chagrin of the other who prefers Vince Gill. I don’t think that my music can be considered to be county, I pointed it out specifically for this line because I thought it would be fun to do so.
Personally, I wouldn’t say that I like or dislike country more so than any other genre and I don’t consider myself to be very well versed at all in country music; it is such a massive genre that covers a lot of different ground – for the record I like both Vince Gill and Willie Nelson! I like music that sounds good and moves me, I think in that sense country does deliver plenty of heartache, which I love.
What’s your opinion on the state of modern country?
As I mentioned, I’m really not an expert in the genre whatsoever so feel pretty poorly qualified to answer. I understand that there is a range of modern, heavily produced stuff where singers are really into their trucks and things like that. I have heard a bit of that kind of stuff here and there and yep it doesn’t really do very much for me. But on the other hand, the writers of music like that have obviously tapped into something that people want to hear, so on a superficial level it’s kinda hard to argue with it. Country music and indeed most music seeks to speak to people who are going about their life generally doing the best they can. I feel like if people have big problems in relation to the content of music, whatever genre, and that music is still resonating with people then the problem probably isn’t with the music, rather it more likely is with any underlying societal or economic issues that are causing people to feel or behave in a particular way.
Then there’s people like Brandi Carlisle, Courtney Marie Andrews, Ruston Kelly, Colter Wall among many many more who have made music recently that could be said to be country, modern and really awesome.
What’s your creative process?
I’m always writing songs, demoing and recording, making lists and notes deleting them and re-working plans so the process is a bit chaotic. My manager just about died when she saw my computer – I save everything to the Desktop so I know where it is.
Practically, I usually write on a guitar because I always have one handy, rarely on keys but that is something I am trying to improve on. I take a lot of voice memos of lyrical ideas or melodies that pop into my head while I’m walking or traveling, or even sleeping. I’ve got a voice memo where I must have woken up one night from a dream, mumbled something into the phone and gone back to sleep, it’s pretty funny to listen to it.
Once I have a song finished or mostly finished, I’ll often jump into Logic and track a demo to click and mess around with ideas for parts on other instruments, sometimes those bits and bobs will make it into a finished track – as was the case in Emiko, sometimes not. I’m fairly happy these days in throwing out ideas and going back to the drawing board if something doesn’t feel quite right.
Do you know what the future holds for you?
I’ve just had a new work visa approved for the USA for three years so I’m excited to be able to stick around for a little bit longer. It sounds like lots and lots of touring will basically be my life for the near future. We have a few more songs to release over the coming months and an album for early next year.