THE MUSIC VIDEO for "Gun," the first single from Scout Niblett's new studio album, It's Up to Emma, follows Niblett—dressed as Snow White—around the Rose Festival. She eats an ice cream cone, poses for pictures with families, rides the ferris wheel, and mimes a solo on an inflatable air guitar. These images are accompanied by lines like, "I think I'm gonna buy me a gun/a nice little silver one/In a crowd someday/you won't see it coming anyway."
The jarring juxtaposition represents one of the most fascinating aspects of Niblett's oeuvre: explosive emotional chaos lurking just beneath the surface.
Aside from that bold, vaguely macabre opener, It's Up to Emma is teeming with fuck-you odes that only someone on the precipice of betrayal can really pen. It's Niblett's ability to camouflage her medicine with a spoonful of sugar that sets her minimalist compositions apart. Niblett—who lives in Portland and whose birth name is the titular Emma—also finds room to include a cover of TLC's "No Scrubs," which, oddly, totally fits within the emotional arc of the LP.
"There was a level in which I wanted there to be a quite different image going on emotionally, with the opposite coming out aesthetically in the music," she says via phone while on holiday in Norway. "It was important for me to have all of the different colors in there. I just couldn't really sing about anything else; I had to get that shit out."
Perhaps if it had really been up to Emma, her new album would have been completed in slightly under a week, just like her previous releases. As it stands, It's Up to Emma was labored on in the studio for months and months, an experience that confounded Niblett, but also endowed the record with an in-studio evolution missing from her other albums.
"I'm used to doing something in like five days and then it's done," Niblett says. "This just dragged on and on. That, emotionally, was quite hard to deal with. I just wanted it to be finished, and I wasn't used to working in that way, where you do a little bit here and then a few months later you do a little bit there. With this record, the incubation period of the songs went into the recording process. The songs evolved as time went on in the studio, which has never happened before with me. I think that was a good thing."
Niblett also broadened her typically quiet/loud minimalist grunge milieu to include string arrangements. Like This Fool Can Die Now—Niblett's 2007 LP that featured Will Oldham—It's Up to Emma burrows deeply into the vivid patinas of her work, exposing how beautiful, and beautifully simple, a lot of it is.
"I don't think I've let myself go really into things sounding kind of pretty," says Niblett of her past work. "I have flirted with it before, but this one I really let myself go and I wanted it to sound really easy. I want parts of it to sound really easy on the ear. I also wanted it to be really stripped down; quite aggressive songs like 'Gun' and 'All Night Long' still feel really beautiful and straightforward. That was a conscious decision; I wanted to keep that range of aesthetics in there."