IT'S NO ACCIDENT that it's difficult to pin down exactly what Emily Wells does from a musical standpoint. She injects that same coded rationale into the rest of her life. Take Wells' proximity during our phone chat to Northeast Portland's Revival Drum Shop, or her recent excursion to New Seasons to stock up following a three-week tour with the Portland Cello Project. That her coordinates literally zero her in as a Stumptown denizen does little to persuade her admission that she's lives here. In a literal sense, sure; but hardly an ethereal one. As nomadic in her physical address as she is in traversing the webbing of her highly textural soundscapes, Wells is reticent to cop to any place—or genre—to define her.
"I guess I could potentially qualify as being bicoastal," says Wells, who officially resides in Portland, but pays rent on a practice space in Brooklyn. "I cringe every time someone asks me, because then I have to go into this whole long thing about being from all these places and not claiming anywhere, and claiming everywhere."
Wells' home-is-where-the-heart-is ethos, unsurprisingly, finds its way into her music in healthy dollops. Her fourth official release (if you don't count numerous self-released tapes and records), Mama, was recorded on a horse ranch in Topanga Canyon, California, just northeast of Malibu—Wells lived in East LA at the time. That pastoral respite from Southern California's usual intensity heavily contributed to the album, exposing the softer underbelly of Wells' symphonic jigsaws and including new studies in melodic aberration.
"I had a one-take kind of approach," admits Wells. "I just wanted to think of it as though it was recording a moment in my life, a moment of history in time, as opposed to engineering an idea. On a conceptual level, I was allowing myself to be super honest as a lyricist... There's a lot of heartbreak on this record."
The somberness of Mama is clear on thinner tunes like "Let Your Guard Down," an ambling guitar number speckled with squiggly violin squeals, slow and supernatural. But on more ambitious tracks like "Passenger," Wells displays the breadth of her considerable musicianship as well as her deftness with a loop pedal. As a result, that soberness is buried beneath a thick loam of vulnerability, pronounced all the more by her wavering, sometimes childlike soprano. It presents a jarring listen, even when the symbiotic swell of hiphop, folk, and classical arrangements elbow their way in.
Since Wells' breakthrough 2008 LP The Symphonies: Dreams Memories and Parties, the multi-instrumentalist has garnered a lot of attention. Her growing dexterity during live performances—an exhibition that includes toy instruments, violin, live drums, guitar, and more—as a one-woman show has generated friendships with heavy-hitters like Kid Koala, and collaborations like the Pillowfight LP with Dan the Automator. She's also hard at work scoring a documentary about writer Richard Brautigan, and has a quiver of new songs awaiting her next release.
Still, she's wary of getting too prodigious in any one scene, or of resting on her proverbial laurels as a "loop-pedal" musician.
"I never want to have a sound that's going to define who I am," says Wells. "Once you have that, you're stuck with it. And I feel sometimes a little stuck with the symphonies. I want to keep exploring; that's the only way I'm going to stay engaged, I think."