Interview: Emily Whitehurst of Survival Guide Talks ‘deathdreams’

“How could this possibly be good, you know, dreaming about myself dying?” laughs vocalist Emily Whitehurst about the inspiration for her fourth and latest full-length album deathdreams, out now on Double Helix Records. “I’m gonna leave it alone. I wanted to write a song about it, instead of trying to analyze it.”

Recurring dreams of her death have plagued the vocalist for the past three years, all of which affecting her in a profound way. So, Whitehurst decided to turn to music—-much like she has always done. Growing up with a love of Green Day and all things counterculture, Emily Whitehurst found herself fronting punk group Tsunami Bomb as the charismatic “Agent M,” before eventually channeling her creative energies into her newest endeavor, Survival Guide, a synth-heavy electronic indie solo force to be reckoned with. The result is an unflinchingly honest musical journey that Whitehurst embarked on alone due to the departure of Jaycen McKissick (Tsunami Bomb) in 2015. Though Whitehurst considers her transition from working with a group to becoming a solo artist difficult, she believes that the change has also been freeing in many ways.

“I realized that in the past when writing lyrics, I’ve held back a little bit more on some things that are very personal, because I was representing a group, not just myself,” she says, “There are some lyrics I, for sure, would not have presented to a band whether it’s because they’re too personal or too outlandish.” Since going solo, Whitehurst hasn’t held back and is glad she took up the challenge, though she did have some reservations about releasing the songs that make up deathdreams due to just how personal they are, In fact, she says that she’s never felt so vulnerable in her entire life than when she decided to release these songs to the world. Doing so, though, has helped strengthen her nerves against negativity, allowing her to not are so much about what people think anymore. “I stayed true to myself the whole time while making this record,” she says, “Not everyone is going to love my music, so I’m just going to go with what I like,” which leads to another reason why she’s doing things on her own terms now.

Though she loves punk music—and always will—she began to feel held back by the genre, though she admits freely that it was self-imposed limitations that led to her feelings of stricture with punk. “There are plenty of punk bands who continue to branch out and do more with their sound. But we [Tsunami Bomb] just weren’t like that. We felt certain expectations like a weight towards the end, or at least I did.”

It goes without saying that Whitehurst has found her niche by creating her own unique soundscapes, thriving as she constantly evolves as a musician. The result is palpable when it comes to the distinct instrumentation of deathdreams, which features sounds from a typewriter and even a horror movie—chains rattling, things being drug across the floor and ominous footsteps. “Throughout my history of songwriting, I always have had a tendency to be the person in the studio who’s like, ‘Oh, let’s put a sound effect right there. Let’s put bird sounds,” she laughs.

It goes without saying that the music of Survival Guide is a bold departure from her punk roots and teenage obsession with Green Day. When asked what she believes her teenage self would think of her new record, she lets out a breath and laughs before saying, “Oh, she would think it’s not nearly punk enough at all. She would probably be like, ‘What is this?’ Whitehurst does say that there is a small possibility her younger self would’ve liked the record due to influences from a few bands like Cake and the Violent Femmes who sailed under the radar of her punk values.

That being said, she doesn’t consider the record to have any direct influences. When writing the record, Whitehurst took things as they came to her—a little piece of a piano melody here and various rhythm section ideas there. Since the release of her last record, Whitehurst says that she’s become a huge fan of Lana Del Ray’s discography, though she doesn’t think listeners can necessarily hear that on the record. “It’s more like some of these little pieces remind me of my favorite artists. The first track on the record, there’s this bridge, and as I was writing it, I was like, ‘This is kind of like Bjork,’” she says before adding “Like what if I were Bjork, what would I do with this little piece of the song?” Listening to the record with this in mind is a fun little challenge as subtle hints of Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor can also be heard in fleeting moments across the album.

Whitehurst also drew inspiration from classic horror films when it came to the composition of “Blood Perfume,” a single from deathdreams. Motivated Mind Group, an innovative creative agency, also picked up on the eerie atmosphere of the single, so much so that when they came to Whitehurst with the idea for a short horror film that would serve as the music video for her song, Whitehurst immediately got on board. “I love how bold their music video ideas are…It’s been a super fun experience for me to see what they hear in my songs.”

Though deathdreams has finally been released to the world, Whitehurst is still hard at work on a special project related to the album: a cocktail recipe book inspired by the record. For each of the eleven songs on the album, there’s a cocktail that corresponds with it. For “Blood Perfume,” Whitehurst decided that the drink should be blood red, but not in a party drink type of way, rather a “serious drink…[like] a bourbon.” When it came to other songs, she looked to the lyrics, like with “Don’t Feel Bad,” where she sings about a red wine with a cherry on top. Perhaps the best example of all is the cocktail that matches her single “Pie,” which tastes like a peach pie. Whitehurst hoped that this passion project would be finished by the time of year the record release but takes solace in the fact that she is able to perfect it, releasing the book on her own time.

Besides working on her recipe book, Whitehurst uses her creative energies to interact with fans on Patreon and Twitch. Recently, she implemented a tier perk on Patreon that allows fans to pick what song she should cover next. Not content to just cover the song exactly as it was originally recorded, Whitehurst analyzed each song, coming up with her own unique instrumentation that still honored the original while adding her own flair to it. Most strikingly, she covered the Distillers’ “For Tonight You’re Only Here to Know,” turning it into an orchestra-heavy piece, which she describes as one of the most challenging things she’s done. Fans weren’t content to submit singles and hits. Instead, she received requests for B-sides, deep cuts and lesser known songs, like David Bowie’s “The Prettiest Star.” Request Hotline, Vol. 1 and 2, the latter of which released earlier this year, are available to stream wherever you listen to music.

Patreon is kind of like my sounding board for a lot of ideas,” she says. When it came to picking the variants for the vinyl of deathdreams, Whitehurst took to Patreon to ask her patrons what colors the variants should be for the first pressing. Four of five variants were picked on Patreon. The last, however, Whitehurst left up to the record pressing plant, Burlington Record Plant, to decide, making it a surprise for her patrons and herself. The result was a splatter variant that Whitehurst describes as beautiful and her favorite of the five.

As for Twitch, Whitehurst considers her entire stream to be a “work in progress” of herself as a musician, practicing and learning as she goes. Authentically, she let fans and newcomers come along for the experience. “My Twitch is a lot different than most twitch musicians because I can’t read music. There are so many extremely talented musicians on Twitch who have a song list that is like 900 songs…I’m mainly a vocalist, so I have to teach myself the song on piano or on bass and then memorize it.”

As for what’s coming next year, Whitehurst hopes to get out there and play as many shows as she possibly can. “I’ll probably start writing the next record,” she teases with a sly smile.

You can order deathdreams here. Follow Survival Guide on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Twitch for future updates.

Photo courtesy of Survival Guide

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