Emmaline: Place and Time

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Emmaline Campbell is an old soul.

Growing up, 1940s film, fashion and music shaped the 21-year-old jazz singer and songwriter known simply as Emmaline, who would obsessively watch old black and white movies — usually recorded by her father on old VHS tapes.

“My parents always instilled in me and my siblings that just because the film and fashion and music of another time or era is old doesn’t mean it’s not cool,” Emmaline tells American Songwriter. “In so many of these movies, there was jazz, lots of dancing, and people finding a community around this music really inspired me to make my own music, which is reminiscent of that.”

This big band era shaped the Cincinnati-based artist, who recently put together her own jazz ensemble for her debut EP, All My Sweetest Dreams.

A graduate of Cincinnati’s prestigious Conservatory of Music, Emmaline considers herself a jazz singer, first and foremost. Initially studying violin — which she started playing at the age of 4 and was considered a child prodigy — she eventually narrowed her focus to jazz.

Originally from Anderson, Indiana, Emmaline grew up in a musical family. In addition to her musical siblings, her father, Russ, was a jazz pianist; her mother, Julie, was a singer. Emmaline says living in the country really helped her concentrate on her craft from an early age, with the family frequently playing music together or having listening parties around artists like Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Erykah Badu and Lalah Hathaway.

On her own, Emmaline is a natural.Her sultry vocals float through each All My Sweetest Dreams track — autobiographical reflections from the time she was 18 through 20 — even tapping into more contemporary R&B and soul, as well as hip hop.

To retain its jazz framework, Emmaline pulled together her own big band for the album, featuring seasoned jazz musicians like trumpeter Maurice Brown, saxophonist Jacques Schwartz-Bart, keyboardist Bobby Sparks II, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Jason “JT” Thomas, and a string quartet — live, Emmaline’s violin is the central string section — in addition to guitarist Ryan Mondak.

A first for the singer, who had recorded in her bedroom up until this point, she went headfirst into the studio with only two days to record all six tracks. Recorded at Strange Weather studios in Brooklyn, New York, the EP was co-produced by Emmaline along with Grammy-winning producer Jason Olaine (Roy Hargrove, Esperanza Spalding, Dave Brubeck), who also serves as creative director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center program, as well as Mondak and jazz producer Seth Abramson, who also is Emmaline’s manager.

When writing, Emmaline thinks in melodies and stories and says it was a process to figure out her songwriting process, specifically when she started performing her own songs just two years ago. “I never realized that singing songs and writing songs kind of goes hand in hand,” she says.

Journaling was one element the singer used, pulling out short phrases or words and then creating a song around it. “In songwriting, you sometimes feel like you have to be inspired all the time,” Emmaline says. “It can be stressful because you think, ‘maybe I’m not a songwriter because I don’t feel inspired all the time. I just don’t have songs in my mind all the time. So I had to figure out my creative process and what helps spark these ideas.”

“Effortless,” the first single off All My Sweetest Dreams, was an arrangement Emmaline admits she trashed when it was halfway done and went back and forth on for months before locking it in. “One day I realized I needed to go back to the very first idea that came to me when I heard the song, because if that’s what I felt in the moment and that’s what felt right to me, then that was it,” she says. “So I sat down, and I literally finished the song in five minutes. Sometimes your initial idea is the best idea. In the moment, you can get caught in your emotions or writer’s block, but not everything needs to be trashed just because you hit a wall.”

Title track “All Sweetest Dreams” sounds like a love song, but is actually about a relationship that came to an end. “When I was writing the song, I realized that just because my relationship had ended, it didn’t mean that I had to feel hatred or anger towards the person who I was with at the time,” she says. “I could almost honor him, could still love him and our time together, and it was OK.”

Now, songs come more fluidly to Emmaline, and with All My Sweetest Dreams under her belt, she’s focused on releasing more singles and a possible full-length album down the line. Her recent tour included a sold-out show at New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center where she opened up for Chaka Khan, an experience the singer says gave her a much-needed boost of confidence.

“As soon as I got on stage, my nerves just disappeared,” Emmaline says. “I felt completely comfortable, which was validating for me. It helped me realize that you know what? I can do this.”

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