Guitarist and singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle has composed a wide range of diverse music with rich guitar textures and a powerful voice. Some Heavy Ocean is a rock record with elements of folk.
On Dark Horses features hard rock with calming, atmospheric sounds. Emma Ruth Rundle also collaborated with Thou on May Our Chambers Be Full. Her newest album, Engine of Hell, is a stripped-down record. On Engine of Hell, out through Sargent House, Rundle focuses on the piano and vocals to create powerful immediacy.
“I think that I’ve been more well-known for electric guitar and lots of effects and bigger, kind of lush sounds, and reverbs,” Rundle says. “I had for a long time wanted to do a record like this, that was just stripped away, all of the effects. At its core, just songs delivered in a very visceral, close way, where there’s like literally nothing to hide behind.”
Rundle credits working extensively with guitar and on collaborative endeavors with inspiring her to go in a creative different direction on Engine of Hell.
“Things sort of lined up for me to make Engine of Hell now,” says Rundle. “I had come off the back of doing the full band record On Dark Horses, where I toured with a band for several years. And then I did the Thou ‘collab,’ and that was a huge sounding album. Four guitars, guitar extravaganza, and abrasive, and had that metal crossover there. It just seemed like the perfect time to swing in the opposite direction and just strip it all away.”
On Engine of Hell, Rundle reunites with the piano.
“Getting to reconnect with the piano, it’s just what I’ve wanted to do for so long,” Rundle says. “With guitar, I reached a point, especially after those last albums and tours, that I had explored all realms of guitar. I’ve done ambient work on guitar; I’ve done rock stuff, metal stuff, and some folk stuff on earlier records like Some Heavy Ocean. I was really yearning to reconnect with piano.”
The piano was an early instrument for Rundle.
“One of my very first instruments was Celtic harp,” says Rundle. “My dad is a pianist, and piano became my main instrument at a young age after we ditched the Celtic harp, and I played that up through my teenage years. I actually had a scholarship to go to a music school in LA for a little while for piano, and it was the main focus before guitar sort of took center stage.”
Rundle ended up focusing on the guitar in part out of necessity.
“When I was a teenager, and I started playing in bands and wanting to jam with other people, keyboards sounded terrible. They sounded very bad. They did not have a sound that could do a real piano any justice, not to mention the fact that carrying around an 88-key, humongous, over 100 pounds, for me it was physically challenging, and just not worth the effort. So that’s when I decided, I’m just gonna go with guitar.”
Playing the piano again reconnected her with her history.
“The piano with the songwriting really reconnected me to my youth and to the music that I was listening to at that time, to my life experiences from that time, and emotional weight of that era, and it just opened up a portal. It was a time machine for me.”
Paring down the instrumentation also emphasizes her vocals.
“I sing a lot different on this record,” says Rundle. “On my other albums, and up until this point, I think that there was this pressure coming from within myself trying to, I don’t know if it was to like get a point across or this intense energy or like even an angst-y quality to it. I don’t know if that comes from possibly opening as solo act for metal bands. I guess the way I would describe it as a sense of stating my feelings in that intense way, in almost a strained voice, and on this record, I think there was this, I don’t know if you’d want to call it acceptance or defeat, but there’s a quiet quality.
“I sing in falsetto a lot, and I haven’t done that on any other album. It also, I would describe it as close music. I want it to sound very close to you, and almost in a whisper in some part. I think that kind of singing was what was coming out of me, and felt like I didn’t have that life energy to be belting out feelings anymore. I felt a little unhinged and kind of teetering into the realm of madness. That was the voice that came out of me.”
Shifting focus to piano and vocals also underscores the album’s poetic lyricism.
“I wanted the lyrics to take more center stage on this record,” says Rundle. “I wrote them in a very intentional way, not that my other work was less intentional. I spent a lot of time writing lyrics on this album, and I do feel that it is more of a poetic exploration, with the focus on that aspect of it, maybe more so than the other ones. By stripping away all of the instrumentation, we were able to put the vocals very forward, and taking away the effects. I really hope the listener can hear the lyrics and hear what I’m saying.”
On process, Rundle says:
“I’m surprised at how different the paths are, but my process tends to work in a way that, the music comes first. I’ll connect to, for instance, let’s just take ‘Dancing Man,’ that song is a specific, nostalgic memory, and I was thinking about the experience that I’m singing and writing about, and thinking about that and holding that in my mind, started to play the piano, and the piano aspect evolved more and more, and then the lyrics came. I don’t typically write lyrics; I actually never write lyrics before I write the song. It all kind of comes together and reveals itself in stages concurrently, if you will, music and lyrics. And then it’s a process of refining.”
Rundle recorded Engine of Hell live in the studio.
“Typically, when we record records, the way it works is, you get a basic track; then you do overdubs,” she says. “You can replace your main guitars; then vocals come later, and you do these things in stages over the period of whatever your time is, three days, two weeks. So, it’s all these separate stages, and the songs evolve that way.”
For Engine of Hell, instead of recording parts, Rundle would play the whole song.
“It was a matter of choosing the takes that had the most emotional and [were] correct in that sense delivery,” says Rundle. “That’s why I kind of qualified it as a punk element because it’s, I think, throwing away a lot of the perfections [that] maybe I’ve strived for in the past.”
Making an album using live takes was intense.
“It was stressful. I cried a lot with those guitar takes, and I wondered halfway through if it was overly ambitious to do what I was doing, especially not having practiced any of the songs on a tour where you have years of songs that you get to know. This was really the first time anyone was hearing it was when I was playing it for [engineer/co-producer] Sonny [DiPerri] live in studio as we were tracking.”
The recording process itself was relatively solitary. Rundle says:
“It was intense, and it was also very quiet and isolated. Sonny was downstairs in a basement where the control room is, and I’m upstairs in the studio tracking area. There was no one else there. We were at this place in coastal California. It was just silent. I actually got spooked a couple times recording, just thinking someone was standing behind me. I was so used to being around bands and other people. This was just different.”
In addition to music, Rundle loves movies.
“I really love films,” says Rundle. “I watch a film almost every day, sometimes two. Particularly with ‘Return,’ the influences for that video were [from] Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. It’s a beautiful film, and the poetic quality to it also I felt just really struck a chord with me. Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, that was heavily referenced, the way death is portrayed, and the idea of a mirror as a portal. I really have been visually influenced on this album cycle by surrealism and older films.”
When it comes to releasing this album, Rundle frees herself of expectations.
“You have to release your expectations of other people,” she says. “I think what I set out to do was deliver something that was a representation of a specific mental state and a very honest and clear picture of what that feels like. I guess I would hope that it could touch someone, but, you know, it’s out of my hands.”
Watch the video for “Blooms of Oblivion” here:
Photo courtesy of Emma Ruth Rundle and Mason Rose