“Descent to Heart” is the first single and video from Silver Godling’s upcoming full-length LP, Witness, Unweave.
Silver Godling is the solo project of New Orleans pianist and vocalist Emily McWilliams. McWilliams has been exploring the piano for 30 years as a player, composer, teacher, and technician. In 2014, she founded Silver Godling for a festival performance and has since developed the project into its own vibrant entity.
Witness, Unweave, began as a poetic and musical exploration of the body’s storage of emotions and trauma and their effect on mental health. The result of that exploration is the seven symphonic meditations that comprise this gorgeous, introspective album. Produced in the spring of 2020, right at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, McWilliams was forced to record Witness, Unweave at home rather than at the studio where she is accustomed to working.
An arresting visual collaboration with photographer Craig Mulcahy accompanies Witness, Unweave: a photobook that serves to further explore the themes therein. Together, McWilliams and Mulcahy examine the body as a landscape, revealing the emotional softness that emerges from the rigid edges of years of projected strength.
“Working on this project with Emily was great. From a photographic point of view I really enjoyed finding the details, playing with the light and thinking about a visual narrative. Emily had a strong vision for the record from the beginning so that always helps, ”Mulcahy explains. “We wanted to keep the pallet quite monotone and I think that added a lot to the overall feel of the images. I’m very much drawn to the tighter shots, I like the way they conceal and invoke a curiosity. I think the cover image is my favourite from the shoot.”
The idea behind the video for “Descent to Heart,” directed by Thou’s Mitch Wells, is one rooted in the expression of movement and self-assurance—that of the camera slowly panning around a group of modern humans lounging and feeling confident where they are in their lives and with one another.
“As a collaborator with Thou for so long that I can claim to be a ‘pro’ collaborator with Thou, Mitch and I have had many opportunities to be creative together for over a decade,” McWilliams says. “Other than being a part of the Thou video for ‘The Changeling Prince’ that Mitch shot, this was our first chance to work on my project together. Mitch brings an ease and joy to collaborating, and whereas he is full of his own great ideas, he has been incredibly supportive in helping me bring my own ideas and vision to life. Of course, his skills as a co-director and camera operator are exceptional, and are main reasons why I wanted to work with him on this video.”
This contrasts the song, which is an exploration of the evasive and ghostly presence of relief and release from physical, mental, and emotional pain, a constant grasping for a thing just out of reach, causing uncertainty and all kinds of difficult emotions—when a tool that used to work no longer does.
“It was such a pleasure to collaborate with Emily on this video,” Wells says. “She knew what she wanted for it, but was always open to any new ideas that came up. It’s really fun for me to try and bring someone’s ideas to life, especially when they’re good, like Emily’s always are. I’m glad she let me be a small part of this beautiful album.”
All photos by Craig Mulcahy
Read the interview with Emily McWilliams below:
Witness, Unweave. It sounds even more personal than Ravel, if this is even possible. What did you want to explore with Witness, Unweave, what is this album about?
In a way, it is more personal than Ravel. Ravel, whereas personal and introspective, concerns external situations and people other than myself much of the time. Witness, Unweave focuses almost solely on myself and my own mental health, difficult emotions, journey through a lifetime of trauma in all its large and small forms. It is a study and reflection of all the parts of myself that I have considered hindrances much of my life, such as living with an anxiety disorder and a depressive disorder. It is also a moment in time, and this process continues.
Ravel sprung out of a time in my life where I was starting to realize that I was able to change my course, and it just so happens that many of the songs – whereas personal and introspective—focused more on my own realization that I could change certain presumed external things such as who I want to surround me, who I want to create alongside, who I want to give my time, how I want to spend my time working both for money and not for money.
There are personal themes on Ravel such as probing the ideas of death and mortality and perhaps even futility and how we want to affect ourselves and those around us, but there is still this external nature with Ravel that is mostly absent on Witness, Unweave. With Witness, Unweave, which really is a reflection of my own life journey just like Ravel was at the time, my focus turned completely inward. It is a study of myself at this moment in time where all of my immediate female relatives are facing cancer, I have seen and acknowledged (and continue to find, see, and acknowledge) my own role in where I am in life for good and bad and everywhere in between, and in order to be proud of myself and my work, which includes my music perhaps as the most important thing for me, self study is not just important, but necessary.
Noticing patterns and the whys behind them, learning, trying to do and be better while also accepting where I am. And yes, this moment in time also includes a worldwide pandemic. I think it is remiss to not acknowledge the pandemic’s role in all our lives, including our creative ones.
I like the title Witness, Unweave. It could have many different meanings and I think that somehow it represents a state of mind that many of us have been facing in the past two years, witnessing what’s happening in this world and trying to unweave all our personal situations. Why did you specifically go with this title? What are you witnessing and unweaving?
Yes, it does very much reflect a collective state of mind, I think! And as I mentioned in the previous question, I think it is a bit negligent to not acknowledge the pandemic’s role in how we are able to cope, process, and make decisions right now! There is definitely a witnessing of everything going on around us, but there is also a witnessing of what is going on inside us. That’s where the unweaving comes in.
The meaning behind the words “Witness” and “Unweave” revolves around self study, and the very nature of study is to attempt to remove one’s own ego and narrative (nearly impossible but worth a try!). “Witness” refers to a thing, an entity, studying the crevices within myself; whereas deeply personal, the idea of a witness makes it more like research in a lab. To study oneself without judgment. In yoga and pranayama/breathwork, many teachers present the idea of a “witness” like a friend who is there to study you and help you along. It’s not cold and threatening. It’s helpful, but ego-less.
This is the state of observation, which some could argue is an actionable thing, but observing in itself is just observing, taking in. It’s the difference between saying “my right foot doesn’t step as far as my left” and “what the hell is wrong with my right foot? Why can’t I move it as far?” “Unweave” refers to the doing, the doing that is sometimes a damaging ritual that occurs prematurely before the witnessing and observing that then leads to more action and change, but in much of this song cycle, it refers to the doing that comes after the observation. The ego-less, non-judgmental self-study leads to awareness and a call for action to change, and then comes the changing/the doing. This is somewhat in line with Ravel, which was more about external situations that cause problems in one’s life. But this goes deeper into the self – unweaving those ravels/knots inside to be a better human. I integrated the whole concept of witness as noun/entity and unweave as action into alternate song titles, which only appear in the photographic booklet. Each song has an alternate title that is a noun/a state of being/a thing followed by an action.
Thematically, there is also an element of tying together the body’s way of letting me know when something is wrong, which can literally be a knotted muscle! Or it can affect organs. Or mood. It’s all one and the same. This element is what Craig Mulcahy and I focused on with the collaborative photo book.
You wrote this record when the world was facing a lot of changes. How do you personally feel about what’s going on right now?
The changes are ongoing, some not new although they might seem new to us right now. I don’t guess that the changes will stop anytime soon or ever. I think for anyone who is paying attention, things like the pandemic, the extremity of the American right in these last years, social turmoil – none are a surprise. In the U.S. specifically, the country has been unavoidably running down this path for forever, and it’s somewhat easy to see unfold (although I guess it is human nature to deflect or hide – I do, too, just maybe in different ways). Worldwide, the pandemic is a huge one, of course, and there are so many ongoing important socio-political issues connected to it: access to healthcare, access to the vaccine, distribution, etc…
A long time ago, I had a therapist who told me I had trouble with ambiguity, and if these past couple of years have not been ambiguous for everyone all at once, I’m not sure what ambiguous is! Through lots of time spent in therapy and doing breathwork and yoga and learning myself better and what I need to recharge (like being in nature), I find that I personally can handle things a bit better. I guess I’m getting better at handling the ambiguity or uncertainty, or at least I hope so.
Things are unquestionably difficult and continually unjust in so many ways, and it’s not good to not pay attention to those things. However, there can be a balance between recharging and paying attention; it seems overly simple to state this, but I am only just now learning how to do it, I think. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I try to find that balance every day. Some days I find it, and others, I check out and feel incapable and numb. Focusing on the positivity and fairness certain people are putting in the world is helpful in coming back to the balance.
Do you think having the chance to express yourself through this project somehow can help you to channel what doesn’t feel good through music?
Definitely! Whereas I’ve always known music is incredibly important to me, I don’t think I fully realized its magnitude in my life until very recently. My newest therapist pointed out “music saved your life.” Not long before that, my partner asked, “Don’t you feel compelled to write music?”
The answer is “yes.” Those simple statements/questions were like revelations. Up until a few years ago, I had boxed in my own creativity and music, probably mostly out of fear. My mother is a music teacher, so I grew up seeing a lot of artists-turned-teachers who did not care about teaching and sort of settled for teaching when they couldn’t make a go of their desired career in the arts. I carried a lot of fear that my music would sour for me if I ended up in the same situation. I chose to keep my music as my own secret, therapeutic pastime, just for myself, protecting myself from souring.
Funny enough, I now do it all by choice, after years of resisting it—write, perform, and teach—and they all enrich my life enormously in different but overlapping ways. I love teaching piano – it is a highlight to each of my days to share the joy of music with my students. And I find writing music an emotional outlet and tool for emotional processing and regulation as well as an intellectual challenge. Always but especially during difficult times. In fact, I find it very challenging to write happy songs. Most of them come out of sadness or anger. I’m working on balancing this better for my own musical (and emotional) evolution.
I read that this record is a musical exploration of the body’s storage of emotions and trauma and their effect on mental health. Where does this idea of focusing on the body come from? What do you feel about the relationship between body and soul?
It would be very cool if I could claim this as my own super advanced idea, but it’s an idea that is gaining a lot of momentum but has been around for a very long time in different practices. I am extremely fortunate that I have had access to therapy and a therapist much of my life. Probably as a late teenager, my therapist at the time suggested I do yoga to help with my anxiety. In New Orleans then, there weren’t a lot of studios, so I ended up finding one of the few teachers in the area who I still consider a guide and mentor. I’ve practiced yoga for almost twenty years at this point, and as much as I can appreciate the feel-good version of Americanized yoga, my practice has mostly been a stricter, no-frills, classical yoga study. A main goal of this type of yoga is to prime the body for pranayama/breathwork/energy flow.
It hasn’t been until the past few years, though, probably because I was finally ready, that I’ve started being able to see where I’ve hoarded emotions in my body. This idea first came to my attention in the mid-2010s when I was training for competitive kettlebell sport competitions and had monthly sports massages. My massage therapist told me I had muscle armoring, and I had no idea what they meant then. I was training hard every single day, and I thought they just meant I had tight muscles! Additionally, I’ve lived with a lot of pain from growing up with lumbar scoliosis and injuries including muscle impingements and old whiplash that caused almost total loss of neck mobility not that long ago. In reality, they were referring to a psych term that I think is used in trauma work – the body’s storage of unprocessed emotions and/or trauma results in a physical rigidity that can be rather dangerous. There’s a song on Witness, Unweave about this specifically, “Surrendering Safety.”
The word “trauma” has been thrown around a lot on social media lately, although I think it’s mostly a good thing, because research has shown and is showing more than ever that any trauma – whether it’s a single, huge, life-changing, horrible event or a combination of seemingly little things like our parents’ behavior or an environment around us while growing up – is stored in the body. Newer research is suggesting that CBT/talk therapy doesn’t necessarily unlock that trauma. Trauma is like a stuck record, or it’s like being haunted. It happens to all of us, a thing being more fully understood now, whereas decades ago, it was believed to only apply to someone who went through the horrors of war.
A lot of less traditional therapies are becoming available, such as EMDR or spinoffs of that such as brainspotting, and also, things like music or art or dance therapy are also extremely helpful. It’s all connected, and the body stores it. There’s this book “The Body Keeps the Score” I’ve been reading, and because it’s a thing I’ve been interested in for a while due to my own life course, I’m delighted to see it popping up all over Instagram lately! Related, my friend Ann Glaviano recently shared on Instagram (@annglaviano) about this sort of thing, and she mentioned that the point of some of these less-traditional therapies is to “disrupt” or to get out of the “rut”—to break the cycle, literally. It’s not typically a thing we can stubbornly think our way out of. My friend also mentioned that despite many years of talk therapy, she felt “doomed.”
I relate to that initial thought of something being terribly wrong with me, then the realization that this thing I’ve been doing for so long is no longer working for me. “Descent to Heart” off of Witness, Unweaveand the first single/video is exactly about this – seeking a thing that used to work, whether it’s a simple thing like taking a deep breath or something more complex, being able to see its ghostly imprint, but not being able to find it.
My personal views on body and soul is that I do think we all have an energy. I don’t think I name it really. I grew up in a very strict Southern Baptist church, so I rejected anything that sounds even remotely spiritual for most of my life. I consider the energy, though, to be like the thing inside us that is always present. The thing that makes us who we are at our core. I think this is present when we are born, and so many things in our lives shape things around this core – but the core is always there. It’s a thing to come back to.
The collaboration with photographer Craig Mulcahy beautifully explores the themes of the album with images. What was the inspiration behind these photos?
Craig and I wanted to explore the same themes of the album – the body as the representation of our own emotional journeys, or in this case, of my own emotional journey. Each song has a photograph or series of photographs of my own body in a pose or posture that is representative of the song’s thematic content: some poses are very closed or stunted, some are very open and expansive, some are in between.
When I first started working on this material, before the pandemic started, I wanted to have a bunch of different bodies and people interpreting the music and themes. I wanted to give them very little guidance and have that representation; however, the pandemic happened, and for safety reasons, Craig and I decided that just my own body would have to serve as the model. It turns out that it was the right decision even without a pandemic, because only I can accurately portray the content about myself! I generally work behind the scenes, however, so being so visible with this album is an element that has challenged me and thrust me far outside my comfort zone. But, it’s also the way it needs to be.
How was the process of creation of Witness, Unweave?
Many meltdowns, much excitement, frantically trying to record something in between the dog barks so I don’t forget it! This is the first time I have recorded myself, another huge learning curve with this album. The recording process became part of my writing process. It was inspiring to be able to go back and listen to something other than a voice memo on my phone – I can notate on staff paper for everything, but hearing my own voice or my own piano make the sound it will make in the finished product is a whole other realm.
I found myself listening after I thought I was finished with something, and weeks or even months later starting to hum that high piano part, or another vocal harmony, or hear damper or hammer noise in that spot. In the studio, the only way to achieve this, I guess, would be to record demos then sit with them for a few months. Maybe a lot of people do this; I never have! I write before then go in and knock it out. So, this opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It was very emotional for me in a lot of ways – going into the studio is always sort of like performing.
I always record with James Whitten at HighTower in New Orleans, and he’s the absolute best human and engineer. But, there’s still a performance element even though we have fun: there is limited time and budget in a studio for me. At home, in my own space, I was completely uninhibited (and probably a little unhinged at times); out of that freedom came a kind of trust of myself I don’t think I have had before. And whereas I lost myself to the process many times, I also had a load of fun.
What do you think has changed in your way of writing since 2014 when you started Silver Godling?
In some ways, not much! In other ways, everything! At the top is that my first album, S/T, which featured the electronic magic of Andy Gibbs and our friend Michael Moises on bass was more or less a collection of songs. There are probably themes because I wrote them around the same time, but it’s a collection.
With Ravel, I started to tie together the songs thematically; it wasn’t just a collection anymore, but an album, a project. With Witness, Unweave, I went into it with the theme set. It reflects my life during the time (and still), but it is very focused. At least, that is my intent, and I hope it translates to whoever listens. This applies not only to the poetry and lyrics and imagery but also to the music. Almost half of the music between the preceding companion EP Unwanted, Yet Familiar // May I and Witness, Unweave is written in compound meter, to evoke a rolling flow to the music.
I also used many sound samples from my own piano to create a sort of complexity to the sound texture. Probably underlying all this, though, are some pretty simple facts: I’ve listened to a lot more music since 2014, I started teaching piano since then and that changes the way I listen to and experience music, I started my own piano tuning business since then which changes the way I approach the piano and its thousands of parts, and I started learning how to trust my own self and voice and decisions, listening to myself and trying to only look to myself for validation. Everything is an eternal process, which can seem daunting, but it’s really just life: always learning, always changing, always finding new ways to both accept and challenge myself.
There are seven songs in Ravel and seven songs in Witness, Unweave. Is that a coincidence or is there a meaning behind this choice?
It is a coincidence! Although, there might be a subconscious part behind it. I do like asymmetry; I appreciate it. That might seem funny since I was talking about balance earlier, and asymmetry is not balance. But, in this case, there are a few things I can mention. When I sequenced Ravel and now Witness, Unweave, I always sequenced with the thought of side a and side b for vinyl. I love vinyl, and anyone who loves vinyl knows there is a limited amount of time per side.
The preceding songs to Witness, Unweave are “Unwanted, Yet Familiar” and “May I” which I released on cassette; if I would have had even one more song as part of this project, I would have fought for a double LP, but the way everything fell into place, it made more sense to have a little companion prelude release to the full-length album since the two long songs on the tape didn’t fit the flow of the LP. So, I guess to answer your question – it was a coincidence, and it could have easily been a 9-song album if the flow and sequencing would have been right!
What do you hope listeners and can get from Witness, Unweave?
When I was a teenager, my friend’s older brother asked me what a short story I wrote meant, and I said “whatever you want it to mean,” and he said “that’s a cop-out.” Was it a cop-out? Yes and no. I want Witness, Unweave to mean whatever someone needs it to mean. I want it to affect them. I think one of the worst things is someone saying someone’s deeply personal project is “nice” or any version of lukewarm.
I also hope that anyone who has dealt with anxiety, depression, or trauma, finds something in there to help them feel less stunted—that’s the “yes” to the cop-out question above. My own personal, probably egocentric wish is that—it’s refreshing when someone understands what you’ve done in the way you yourself understand it. However, having an effect on someone and being with them by way of my music is a gift to me, just like I hope my music is a gift to someone who needs it.