Emily Wells does classical violin and hip hop her way
More and more, old school strings are blazing in innovative ways; the trend of classical instrumentation in modern music is taking that which has long been and transferring it into what’s up next in unceremonious ways. For 27-year-old Emily Wells, a violinist since the age of 4 who procures experimental folk, what pulls her strings is hip hop. “I love rap music and Vivaldi,” her press bio begins. “Nina Simone and Biggie Smalls make my world go round.” Take a listen to any track off last year’s The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties, and your scrunching eyebrows will relax into a state of understanding: a filo dough layering of pulsing violin strings encase hip hop backbeats and punchy vocals that meander between operatic croons, rap attitude and folk sweetness.
Spending her formative teen years living in Indianapolis, where she split her time between being immersed in hip hop with high school friends during the day and sneaking into a hole-in-the-wall jazz club to watch local jazz veterans at night, Wells’ own music garners attention for her independent audacity.
Other than drums and bass, she plays all the instruments on her records, tackling organs, banjo, ukulele, glockenspiel and xylophone in addition to violin, and she transfers the orchestral vibe onstage through her looping pedals. Her vocal influences are just as varied, with the jazz phrasing of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, along with the heartfelt harmonies of Iron and Wine and Fleet Foxes, bearing presence in her personal playlist. Performing as a trio on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at The Crepe Place, Wells finds backup in drummer Sam Halterman and bassist Joey Reina, both from live hip hop ensemble Simple Citizens (who are opening the show).
Like most musicians, Wells is determined not to be confined by a genre. Unlike most musicians, she avoided a record label’s demands. At 19, she notoriously turned down a big label record contract and opted to go her own way to avoid being molded to fit the mainstream. “I had a lot of hubris and I was young, but I still knew that I didn’t want to put myself on the world stage at that time because I wasn’t there yet,” she recalls. “I thought about all the artists that I really loved and none of them were huge or on big labels when they were so young. I thought, ‘You know, I’m gonna just hold off on this. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m not ready.’”
Nearly a decade later, the choice proved worthwhile. Wells’ confidence and maturity is apparent in her self-released albums, and she’s just issued a follow-up EP to Symphonies on her own “label,” dubbed Creative Control. The EP, Dirty, as the name suggests, serves up the rawer side of her setlist, including standard crowd favorites: an almost unrecognizable cover of Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” that will surprise both rap and classical aficionados, and the seductive “Take It Easy San Francisco,” which was recorded on tape rather than digitally, and whose playful ukulele contrasts the singer’s soulful vocals.
Following up a new full-length with an EP isn’t exactly the normal protocol, and Wells acknowledges that in the title itself.
“You know when you need to apologize to somebody because you mess up and you bring them flowers,” she begins, “well, they’re not flowers for flowers’ sake, they’re dirty little flowers. The idea was that it was a dirty little record. It came after the fact. And what I was experiencing at that time of my life, everything was like a dirty little something. That’s personal, but it’s the truth. So the record kind of took on that nature as well.”
With up to 20 to 30 violin tracks overlapping on a song in the studio, and up to 20 loops going during a live show in which her vocal style unleashes unpredictably, Emily Wells brazenly bridges symphonic class with progressive, experimental edginess. And, whether dirty or clean, she manages to do it without missing a beat.
Emily Wells performs with Simple Citizens at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. For more information, call 429-6994.