Miss Emily Brown – Era to Era, Coast to Coast

By Jenny Henkelman
Flowered wallpaper, little-known Catholic observances and wartime longing—things and feelings pretty far removed from most young musicians, including Emily Millard. But Millard, who performs under the name Miss Emily Brown, explores them all on her new album, In Technicolor. It’s a gorgeous album, with warm acoustic and electronic sounds, with Millard’s effortless soprano colouring in her clever but heartful folk songs. Stylus exchanged electronic letters with Millard during her current tour, which stops in Winnipeg on April 19 at Mondragon.

Stylus: You used your grandmother’s wartime diary as inspiration for the songs on this album. What drew you to choosing an artifact and using it for inspiration in this way? Is your songwriting process different when you do it this way?
Miss Emily Brown:
I first discovered my grandmother’s journal when I was about fourteen. It was on the bookshelf in a zippered leather case with my grandfather’s Second World War medals and Air Force papers. For years I had thought of researching the details of her journal and writing songs about it, mostly as a way of getting to know the grandmother I never met. Last year I was finally ready to do that. My songwriting process wasn’t so different for the songs on In Technicolor. I really like to write about other peoples’ life experiences. It helps me understand them better. I find that when I write about the lives of others, the songs last longer because I don’t out-grow them like I do with songs based on my own feelings. I love finding pieces of writing or hearing stories and then boiling them down to a few verses of song.

Stylus: I feel like there are many young women who are now having their imaginations captured by Second World War-era stories. I’d count myself as one; also take Newfoundland singer Amelia Curran who had an album called War Brides. What do you think it is about this era that fascinates us?
For me, it is about wanting to understand my family history to better understand myself and my place in the world. I have so much freedom to make choices in my life and I can’t help but think of my grandmothers before me who were limited in their options. The Second World War saw all sorts of social constructs start to break down. The diamond-frame bicycle was invented so women could cycle to work. The women drove the big delivery trucks and worked the dangerous machinery in factories. On and on. It couldn’t be the same after that. We need to know that. We all need to know where we came from to realize what to cherish and protect.
Stylus: How has your family reacted to the album, given its inspiration?
I think they love that I care about our story and am recording it for future generations. I never met my grandmother Leanora who wrote the journal, and when my dad heard the album he said, “I think you really captured her personality.” That was the ultimate thumbs up.

Stylus: The sound you’ve created on this album is very forward-looking, very current, with electronic loops blended with warm acoustic sounds like piano, autoharp and your voice. Can you talk about how you go about creating this sound? Was it hard to marry historical subject matter with modern sounds?
It wasn’t hard at all. Technology has been historically developed for war—radio, recording devices, computers. These inventions eventually make their way into the hands of artists who experiment with the buttons and dials. Mixing vintage instruments with newer sounds just creates an auditory landscape of exactly what is going on—I’m thinking and writing about the past, but I’m here in the present and you can hear that in the influences and sonic textures.
Stylus: You seem to have a desire to collaborate. For instance, I first met you when you came to Winnipeg to begin a train tour with our Ingrid Gatin. How was that tour?
That tour was a very important one for me. It seemed like a strange idea at first, to play shows on the train, but my brother Michael dug up this Tom Robbins quote: “Strange travel opportunities are like dance steps from God.” So I went, and had an amazing experience. Since then I’ve done five more train trips and it’s worked perfectly with my traveling lifestyle. The war songs have been especially interesting on the train as I am reaching a different audience than I normally do. I get approached by so many folks after my set that want to tell me about their own family history. I hear some amazing stories on the train—more fuel for the fire.
Stylus: Further to your collaborations, you’ve got the Morlove project with producer Corwin Fox. What is Morlove about, and what can we expect from it next?
Morlove is a very special project that was born around a campfire at a B.C. music festival out of our mutual desire to create music in an unhurried fashion without giving any thought to its commercial value. Corwin and I started playing together and immediately heard a sound that we recognized as being uniquely beautiful. Making our album was a work of painstaking care as we were really going for that specific esthetic—mellow, somewhat dark, hushed, layered folk music just heavy with heart. We could not be more pleased with the album and can’t wait to release it in April so it can start taking on a life of its own.

Stylus: You’re rather itinerant—you move around a lot. Last year you were in Montreal, and you’ve lived on the West Coast, too. I know you’ve been in your hometown of Iroqouis, Ontario lately. Is that where we should say you’re from?
Someone told me a few years back that you have to “go where the music takes you.” It is not an easy style, living out of a suitcase and ping-ponging coast to coast, but at the same time I am able to pop in on all my far-flung friends and relatives on a somewhat regular basis. I say I am from Iroquois, because that is where I get that old feeling, when you smell the grass in spring and you remember standing right there in your rubber boots when you were six years old. My motto right now is “home is where my pile is.”
Stylus: Do you think your next album will have a concept behind it like In Technicolor does? (If you’re thinking that far, that is)
Nope. As rewarding as it has been to focus on something specific, it was very challenging at times to be limited to one subject. Right now I am writing songs about whatever I want and I love being surprised by the things I end up writing about. I just did a ten day songwriting retreat in Almonte, Ont. and I wrote six new songs that are all completely different styles and themes, and that are going to require very different sonic treatment. Birds, body parts, barns…

Stylus: Do you keep a journal? What kind of songs do you think might be written from it 60 years from now?
I am trying to keep a tour journal for this crazy tour I just started. You see too many beautiful places and meet too many unbelievably interesting people on tour to just keep moving and not write it down. I am a few days behind in my journal writing at the moment, but I’m going to catch up on the ferry ride to Newfoundland! Maybe when I’ve kicked the bucket somebody will find my touring journal and be blown over by the idea of ferries and house shows and homemade oyster curry. Or maybe my great-granddaughter will read it and understand that in my own way I was clearing the path for her own generation of wide-eyed dreamers to give and receive pure love. Or maybe it will fly off the boat and sink to the bottom of the sea.