Oakland Gothic Folk Singer Emily Jane White on the Quiet Joys of Melancholy
The heartbreaking songs Emily Jane White sings on her new album, Ode to Sentience, are quietly addictive. Her celebrations of life's darker moments are delivered in a quiet, confessional style that's immediately captivating. White's stark, almost whispered vocals have an intimate quality that's intensified by subtle washes of cello, pedal steel, and sinuous acoustic guitar lines. The songs have a dreamlike quality that makes them oddly familiar, the echo of a dream you can't quite remember after you've jerked awake to face another uncertain day.
White briefly played in a couple of punk and metal bands in high school, but she was always drawn to songs of sadness. "My main influence during my teens was Patsy Cline," White recalls, speaking from the back seat of a car, slowly driving down a Vermont highway on the way to another one night stand. "One day, I was strolling through the hall of my high school and I heard 'Walking After Midnight.' I knew I'd heard it before, but its slow, lazy tempo and lyrical melancholy drew me in stronger the second time. I learned how to sing it. It ended up being the first song I ever performed in front of an audience."
White's father taught her a few guitar chords when she was 12, but she didn't pursue guitar until she was in college. Piano was her first instrument. "I began playing when I was five years old. I took a group class in preschool and moved on to regular piano lessons, but was turned off by the linear method of learning to read music from an exercise book. I had a good ear and was able to pick up melodies and chord progressions quite easily. I simply wanted to play things I liked. I quit playing until I was about 15, then started up with my expressive arts therapy teacher Marilyn Hagar. She was open to working with me on anything I was interested in learning, whether it was playing a piece by sight reading, or by ear."
White grew up in Ft. Bragg, a small town in Northern California. She didn't have Internet access, and the family owned no television. This isolation allowed her to develop her own singular style when she started writing lyrics. "I read a lot of books and poetry growing up: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Jane Bronte, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Toni Morrison. Lyrically, I'm not influenced by songwriters and musicians, but by poets and authors. I was writing my own piano songs in high school, but I was very shy. I didn't perform any of my own songs, even for my friends, until I was in college.
"One day, I picked up the Gibson J45 guitar my father had passed down to me and wrote a song. I'd been playing punk stuff, but I'd also been listening to a lot of quiet, highly emotional indie music and found it inspiring too. The song I wrote was well received by my friends. They encouraged me to continue writing, but I never thought I'd be a songwriter/performer. Sometimes I still can't believe it."
With an acoustic guitar, her calm, but riveting stage presence, and songs that delve deeply into the pains and sorrows of everyday life, White built an audience of like-minded souls. Her minor key music is an eclectic blend of '50s rock, '60s country, ancient folk ballads, pop, and old-time music.
"I have a difficult time defining my music," she says. "I guess gothic folk comes close. Lyrically and poetically it resembles the blues, but musically, it's folk in a minor key. My songs are melancholy, but at the epicenter of the darkness lies a spark of hope. That's part of the reason I write and make records. We all need hope. I know I need it on a daily basis in order to wade through the pains of living. The only way to move through sadness is to believe there can be a change, whether it comes from within yourself or the world around you. I want to create music that helps people move through sadness."