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Emily Merrell on “Closer to You,” Taking a Different Songwriting Approach, and Something Worse than the Friendzone

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There are two things about Emily Merrell’s music that usually remain constant from song to song. The Arizona-born singer-songwriter’s music features lush, jazzy musicianship, with sumptuous piano chords and breezy melodies: most of her songs sound like music for a hotel bar in Heaven. But her music also features dense, wordy lyrics, fitting a lot of syllables into each line and breaking out words like “Panglossian.” Occasionally her lyrics are hard to parse, but that doesn’t matter when she takes such clear pleasure in singing them, savoring the taste and texture of each syllable. What her lyrics mean is sometimes less important than how they sound; sometimes, but not always.

The lyrics of “Closer to You,” Merrell’s most recent song, are surprisingly straightforward. Merrell addresses a person she clearly had feelings for; in fact, based on the song’s sultry, intimate sound, she may still have feelings for them. But in any case, she’s at her wit’s end due to their failure to communicate: “how could I know how it was gonna go?/Why would I guess, why would I know?/That you were gonna let it all go?” It’s a classic story of one lover wanting more than what the other is prepared to give.

But if Merrell has any internal torment, she does a great job of hiding it. “Closer to You” is a gorgeous, lush pop song, written and performed with confidence and poise. Merrell’s voice is light on its feet, and she exhibits great control as her vocals dance in and out of the hazy, twilit production. Although Merrell admits that she may feel “closer to you than I have any right to,” as an artist, she knows exactly where she stands and what she’s capable of.

What was the inspiration behind “Closer to You?”

If your readers REALLY want a deep dive, I recorded a podcast episode all about this, but the inspiration for the song really comes from two places rooted in the same overall feeling. The first main inspiration is the notorious idea of the friendzone. I heard another woman describe the reverse as “the fuckzone,” and how hurtful it is to realize that someone you thought was a friend has ulterior motives. There’s a certain heartbreak in losing a friend this way, in losing a valued relationship this way. Similarly, I find a lot of my adult “co-ed” friendships feel really limited by the idea that if there’s any chemistry or closeness of any kind, the friendship can’t continue (assuming one or both members of the friendship is married/partnered). I just find these kinds of grey areas frustrating and largely unnecessary. If The Hallowed Wide (the album) is an exploration of what keeps humans from experiencing closeness, it seems to me that our cultural hang-ups around closeness, intimacy, and even desire (and the ways we limit and police these areas) are a crucial part of the discussion.

You’re well-known for very wordy, complex lyrics, but “Closer to You” is a little more restrained in that regard. Was that a deliberate choice?

Yeah! I think so. I really wanted this whole record to explore subtlety in new ways, so I tried to keep my signature wordiness at bay for at least some of the songs. “Closer to You” felt tricky to write. It’s such a complicated concept (in my opinion), but the feelings are ultimately very simple—rejection, longing, grief—I wanted the song to feel like these emotions, more than to describe them. I wanted the narrative voice to feel a little unsure, as well. The POV of the song is confused, questioning, maybe even embarrassed. So confident verbosity seems out of character. What do we say when we don’t know quite what to say?

Speaking of, how do you balance getting a melody’s “flow” right while still fitting the meter of the lyrics?

Oooh! This is a great question. Well, I guess the answer is that sometimes I prioritize the lyrics, and sometimes I prioritize the melody. I really wanted this to feel sort of “stream of consciousness.” The verse phrases are often all different lengths, and the rhyme scheme is somewhat disguised. It sounds like a person who’s rambling, and that’s exactly how I wanted it! The verse melodies are all sort of hinged around one note, which also helps to capture a feeling of “real time” thinking-out-loud. The pre-chorus was definitely a “lyrics first” endeavor, and I constructed the melodies to mimic the inflection I would imagine for these lyrics as spoken words. And the chorus melody is more soaring and confident, but also punctuated by these jagged intervals and sweeping scales that, again, mimic the kind of speech inflection I’d imagine for someone who’s speaking more emotionally, than logically. It sounds a bit like desperation, a bit like giving up or giving in, a bit unsure but still impassioned. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it feels weighty. That was my goal there.

Your music has such dreamy, elegant musical textures. What draws you to that sort of tone?

Ah! I love this question. First of all, thank you! That is such a wonderful compliment. I’ve loved these kinds of aesthetics and textures since I was a little kid. I think I just love feeling transported to somewhere with heightened beauty. It’s fantasy, you know? It’s Neverland, Wonderland, Middle-earth. I think I was just a dreamy kid growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix in a very conservative household, and I was absolutely aching for greenery, for that kind of romantic gauziness you’d never see in 115° heat, for philosophical parlor talks and lavender cocktails. Dreamy and elegant are just the unequivocal best textures. I stand by it.

Who is your number one vocal influence?

If I’m being really honest, it’s probably an odd combination of Don Henley and Lea Salonga. They’re both such dreamboat vocalists.

What are your plans going forward?

Well, The Hallowed Wide is rolling out as singles, one-per-month. I’m so proud of this record. It’s the kind of concept record I always dreamed of writing. The narrative through-line is whimsical and deep at the same time. It’s a project with lore, and with a moral. And I’m really pleased to be releasing it at this particular time when human closeness and understanding feels at an all time low. The Hallowed Wide is 12 total songs. “Closer To You” is Chapter 4. “Split” (out on May 20) is Chapter 6, and brings us to the halfway point in our journey. The next portion of the record is my favorite. It’s full dreamy, full magic, full wonder. And once the songs are all out (in October), I’m hoping to do a little tour! I’m working hard now on an EPIC live show. I just want to bring this music to people—to share these dreamy feelings in real time and space together.

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