Right now, Emmy Wildwood is sitting in her living room in Tucson, Arizona around a makeshift music studio / “love altar” where she just wrapped her second album as a producer. She’s with her husband. They call this area of their living room the “quarantine corner.”
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Initially Wildwood was going to spend this weekend celebrating the release of her debut self-produced album–Heavy Petals–in New York City, where she had lived for ten years before returning to her hometown of Tucson. But due to an auto-immune disease (not to mention the forced closure of all New York City venues), she had to scrap that plan.
“I had my album scheduled during the worst week of all time,” Wildwood told American Songwriter in an exclusive interview, the full text of which is featured below. “I was about to travel to New York to play at Mercury Lounge with my band Guns N’ Hoses and do support for Heavy Petals, [but] everything was cancelled.”
Despite all of this, Wildwood still chose to release Heavy Petals today. A purposefully amateur production (Wildwood taught herself how to use basic production tools online), Heavy Petals’ nine tracks are heartbreaking and angsty, raw and immediate. The collection represents the alt-pop artist’s most ambitious project to date, delivering Wildwood’s snarled vocals with lush, lo-fi flourishes.
“‘Volcano’ felt like the first song that I had stepped into a new place emotionally,” says Wildwood of the album’s most tender and tenderizing cut (the music video says it all). “As a teenager I learned blues and standards from rock and roll guys in Tucson. They always had me sit in and do sessions at pubs and ‘Volcano’ sort of feels like something I would have sung then. [On] a song like that I would have normally tried to sing my prettiest chops, but that was the opposite of the point of the song. It’s about all the ugly stuff you show the people close to you when you feel safe. I felt really raw during that time because I was [sharing] everything I was doing on Instagram and I’m not immune to the social media downward spiral. But that just made me want [my music] to have the most impact it possibly could. Maybe I’m rebelling a bit in that one, holding back anger in the delivery until I can’t anymore. It’s sort of embarrassing to think about people listening to it closely. That’s how much that one means to me.”
Wildwood recently spoke to American Songwriter over email about her experience writing and recording Heavy Petals, as well as her DIY production style. Check out the full interview and listen to the album below.
Heavy Petals is out now.
AS: You spent a decade in New York City before moving back to your hometown of Tucson, Arizona. What prompted the move, and how have the two places shaped your music?
Emmy Wildwood: New York was very hard to leave. But the truth is I hit a wall. I was working two jobs, playing in three bands, and releasing no music. Living there started to feel pointless. When I stop creating I get depressed so I knew it wasn’t sustainable. Playing in [New York’s] live music scene whips you into shape like no other. It’s competitive and indulgent and the best place I could have ever learned how to be on stage because the audiences are ruthless.
Coming to Tucson sounded like reprieve. [At first] I slept and watched television and worked from home, writing songs for about a year and a half before I had the energy to start meeting people again. But when I did start wanting to go out and see live music, I remembered why it’s special here. The scene here is much more rock n’ roll. Things are more DIY. I’m obsessed with this recording studio Midtown Island where there is no ProTools, no computers, just straight to tape. I cut demos with Matt [Rendon] all the time. His band the Resonars is the best.
Heavy Petals is your debut full-length album, but your debut EP arrived in 2013. What’ve you been up to since then?
I also released an EP in January 2020, All My Blood, which was recorded at Mission Sound in Brooklyn, New York. The rest of my releases were singles, including one called “scream” which was used on the promos for FOX’s Scream Queens. Otherwise I was taking a break from releasing music because of an overall health collapse which resulted in a loss of direction.
How does the fare on Heavy Petals compare to previous releases?
Heavy Petals is not a $15,000 record. It cost me a ProTools membership and a lot of used gear which I bought on trade from Bookman’s. So most of the equipment I pieced together or played live into one really good mic I have. It was never going to be a slick studio delivery. But because so many elements are live or macgyvered in, I had to play everything really well. I didn’t punch anything until the end. It’s sort of a use-what-you-got vibe and maybe that’s what I’m most proud of: this is what I sound like with $0 behind me.
When did you write and record the record? What was that experience like?
In a sudden revelation, I committed to learning how to record my own record and committed to releasing it as best I could in five weeks in front of my Instagram audience. It was kind of a nightmare to be honest. I was really stressed out. I had a lot of sleepless nights and at first I worried a lot about looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, but the beauty was that I was announcing that to everyone and it wasn’t going to be a surprise if I hit roadblocks. I started writing the songs in September, and recording it in October. Everything was done by Christmas.
I didn’t really think past getting the work done, my instincts, and what felt delicious to dig into. I went for every high note, letting them land where they may. I didn’t undercare, but I didn’t overthink. There was a lot less punctuation in the entire process. Past records always relied on money and schedules and decision-making–that’s the worst for someone [like myself] with ADHD. I just wanted to do it now. This was like being offered a ticket to freedom for the rest of your life. It literally made me fall in love with being a musician again.
Had you produced any of your own music prior to this?
I hadn’t ever officially produced anything, but I’ve been making demos since I could work a tape recorder. You know the old two-finger tape deck trick? I totally did that: sing into one tape, and record harmonies to it on a separate tape recorder along with yourself. It’s not much different from what we do now on TikTok.
Then after that, I got a four-track in high school. I was really into Ani DiFranco and I would create layered harmonies before the tracks. I have all of the tapes still in my parents garage. I can’t really stand them but my mom hangs on to them.
Overall it was important for me to not feel like [this record] had to be perfect. I knew it wouldn’t be because I play most instruments at a beginner level. But I wasn’t afraid to do the work. Finishing it [was] the best feeling I’ve ever felt–it changed my confidence level. I put everything into [this]. I seem to do more when I think less and act quickly. And I usually come out the other end with great results because I’m serious and practical and care a lot.
What do you hope listeners take away from Heavy Petals? What are the tracks you’re most excited to share?
The absolute No. 1 thing I want people to take from the experience I’ve had over the last six months is that you can literally learn anything that you want to learn on the internet. You don’t have to wait until everything is perfect. You just have to care and be as good as you can possibly be.
“Volcano” felt like the first song that I had stepped into a new place emotionally. As a teenager I learned blues and standards from rock and roll guys in Tucson. They always had me sit in and do sessions at pubs and “Volcano” sort of feels like something I would have sung then. [On] a song like that I would have normally tried to sing my prettiest chops, but that was the opposite of the point of the song. It’s about all the ugly stuff you show the people close to you when you feel safe. I felt really raw during that time because I was [sharing] everything I was doing on Instagram and I’m not immune to the social media downward spiral. But that just made me want [my music] to have the most impact it possibly could. Maybe I’m rebelling a bit in that one, holding back anger in the delivery until I can’t anymore. It’s sort of embarrassing to think about people listening to it closely. That’s how much that one means to me.
“Bad Thing” was pure fun. I wanted it to be like a song that my boyfriends in college would have played me. It felt like the bands they listened to: Lifetime, Jawbreaker, Rainer Maria, Pixies. I wanted it to have a kind of male attitude but still speak my feminine truth. There’s a scolding undertone, but really it’s the voice of a woman convincing herself that she would not die if her partner left.
“Electric Dreaming” is definitely the runt of the litter to me, which makes it entirely the most lovable. That was the only one I mixed in person. I brought ten tracks and the engineer Nathan Sabatino convinced me it didn’t need to be more than five, that the energy was in the hum. We finished it standing there in Joshua Tree and we played it for my husband and he said it was magic.
How has everything surrounding coronavirus impacted you as an artist?
I had my album scheduled during the worst week of all time for the coronavirus scare. I was about to travel to New York to play at Mercury Lounge with my band Guns N’ Hoses and do support for Heavy Petals, [but] everything was cancelled. So it feels crazy, but that’s what this entire year has far has been for me and the last two to be honest.
I’ve gotten into this habit of disappearing into art, as cliche as it sounds, because it keeps your hands and your brain busy. When I played music as a teenager my parents would always say, “It’s so good you can put your feelings into music.” That felt weak to me. I didn’t like when people talked about [my music] like that. I knew practically that’s what I was doing, but I looked at it [in terms of] skill, not [in terms of] therapy.
I have come to terms with the fact that I fall apart when I’m not [making music]. It’s exercise for my brain, it’s confession for my conscious, and it’s [a] strategy for healing. I do it on autopilot. I have an auto-immune disease (see song No. 2 “Case Without Warning”), so as soon as my husband and I were on lockdown we set up ‘quarantine corner’ in our living room–a love altar with all of our recording gear and we produced his record start to finish. Now I’ll have a second producer record under my belt. I was immediately aware that this was going to be a working time for me.