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Shedding the Many Skins of Emily Danger

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

It would be easy to say that a band’s music is an extension of the members’ personalities. Obviously this can’t be true in all cases. This was certainly not true for the members of Emily Danger. The band calls their music “dark cabaret rock,” and it definitely has an almost Victorian feeling of doom to it. Listening to their music is like looking at a series of Caravaggio portraits in a museum: it’s elegant, it’s dark, it’s creepy as hell, but you’re not going to look away anytime soon. On one of the finer days in February, I walked across the filthy Gowanus canal to meet the warm and kind (i.e. not creepy) members of Emily Danger. Lead singer Emily Nicholas and her merry gang of multi-instrumentalists: drummer Ryan Nearhoff, violinist Cameron Orr, and bassist Coyote Anderson make for a hilarious vaudevillian crew altogether. It is clear from last year’s Paintings EP that they reserve their theatrical dark side for their music; a welcome breath of fresh air in a Brooklyn scene flooded with an omnipresent, at times generic indie rock sound.

Where are you originally from?

Ryan: [Points to Emily] We’re both California people. I’m from Glendora.

Emily: I’m from Bakersfield. Yeah, it’s … you know [laughs].

I’ve been to Bakersfield, it’s not that bad.

Emily: Did you get gas there?

Yeah.

Emily: It’s where everybody gets gas in California! The music scene in Bakersfield is great, the current scene in Bakersfield is kind of meth-y.

Ryan: The currency in Bakersfield?

The currency is probably meth-y!

Coyote: If you want some gas, you have to give us some meth.

[laughs]

So where are you and Cameron from?

Coyote: I’m from upstate New York.

Cameron: I’m from Sussex County in New Jersey, which is like, New Jersey’s version of cows.

 

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

How did you all come together to be Emily Danger?

Emily: Ryan and I met doing an indie film together––

Ryan: Never released.

Emily: We’ve never seen it! That’s how bad it was. We got along pretty well, and like a year later I was doing cabaret at The Duplex, and he randomly reached out to me on Facebook and was like, “Do you need a guitar player?” We hit it off again musically, and we just started writing together and arranging. After the first show, we figured, “let’s start a band!” I met Cameron through an ex-boyfriend of mine. I reached out to him asking if he knew any violin players. He gave me this list of people and then he was like, “Cameron is super great, and I bet if you buy him a falafel, he will come play with you.” I was like, I want that guy!

Cameron: You’ve never bought me a falafel!

Emily: I know! But that was appealing to me, I was like, “I want the falafel guy.” The three of us started writing together, and then we met Coyote through Cameron because they know each other through school. It worked out well.

Coyote: Who’s the ex-boyfriend?

Emily: He’s in Nashville; he’s like a country guy. The best thing he gave me: Cameron.

Ryan: What’s the worst thing he gave you?

Cameron: Syphilis!

Emily: A broken heart, and many diseases. Nah!

[laughs]

Emily, you’re classically trained in opera. How did you get your start there?

Emily: My mom is a musical theater singer––she has a really beautiful voice. My whole family was kind of in theater. When I went into high school, I started taking voice lessons, and the teacher was like, “your voice has an operatic quality, so it might be nice to explore some of these older pieces.” So I started singing just classical art music. I did a recital and that went well, and then I got a scholarship to study classically for college. I just fell into it and didn’t really question it. I was just going through the motions of graduating and trying to get that over with.

I went to Manhattan School of Music for my master’s in opera, and I hated it. I didn’t really like the community of classical music, but we would go to jazz shows a lot, and I liked that community––just like rock shows. Opera just felt really stilted for me as a performer. I was horrible on stage singing opera! My voice would be okay, but I just wouldn’t move, I was so stiff. That’s not how I am in real life. My husband actually encouraged me to start writing music. He was like, “I think it’ll really get you out of your head,” and it did. It clicked, and I quit opera once I finished my degree because I was like, might as well. Once I got out, we met and started writing.

So are you all classically trained?

Ryan: Yeah, we all sing opera. We have a side project called Operacadabra. That’s actually an act, I know the guy who does it!

Cameron: Is there magic involved, or does he just feel like opera is magic? But to answer your question, yes and no. I’m classically trained, and I met [Coyote] through jazz school.

Ryan: I’m a self-taught musician, and I trained in musical theater. I have a BFA in musical theater. That’s what I moved out here for and got more interested in music.

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

What’s your writing process? Do you all work on lyrics together?

Emily: I write most of the —

Coyote: She tells us all what to do, actually.

Emily: I boss everyone around.

Coyote: Like Cameron’s wardrobe…

Emily: I was like if you don’t wear purple––

Cameron: I was late, and then I was really late because she made me go back and change my socks!

[laughs]

Emily: Like three times. I’m a tyrant! I write the lyrics most of the time. We have a new song that Cameron wrote the lyrics for. So we’re briefly introducing more lyrics in. I write most of the lyrics and come up with the melody and then everyone arranges their own parts. Everyone has their own kind of input so as a result we all have an equal voice with the music.

Cameron: Some are more equal than others.

Emily: We split everything four ways.

Ryan: I have noticed though that mostly every song we have played or used has come organically pretty quickly. The things that usually work happen pretty fast.

Coyote: When we get together [to practice] and just play it through [over and over], it just comes together.

Cameron: It’s been a very different experience. In other bands I’ve been in, it’s like, “play this note for five minutes.” It’s been a lot of fun because I can compose.

Emily: It’s great to have different voices too. A lot of times I’ll bring in a lyric or a melody, and it just won’t work. They’ll make the slightest suggestion, and if you’re open to it, it’ll help. I think we’re all open to each other’s suggestions which helps a lot.

Coyote: We all come from such different places so I think we all have a solution for every problem. There are a lot of problems! [laughs] But there is ten times as many solutions.

Emily: That is true.

Ryan: I just make every song sound like Rogers and Hammerstein.

Emily: Yeah.

Ryan: [starts singing “Shed My Skin” theatrically]

[laughs]

 

Speaking of “Shed My Skin”, your husband (Emily) directed the video. Did he come up with the idea or was it another collaborative effort?

Emily: It was a crazy thing. My husband, his best friend Doug, and I out of this video started a production company, with one client, which is us! We’re all basically starting this production company and funneling our own funds into helping our own art and our friends’ art, essentially. A modern day Gertrude Stein is the idea.

One night we were all sitting around talking about the song and what it really means; it means a lot of things to different people. We decided we wanted to make a video that wasn’t literal but had a literal story to it. The video went through different kinds of incarnations. It was going to be this little girl who is supposed to do a talent show, and she ended up killing everyone at the end [laughs]. Then we were like, “that’s DARK,” and then we came up with this dunce idea, which ended up probably even darker than this little wolf girl. It just came out of the lyrics, the idea of using people, using resources––you know, being in a constant cycle of feeling you’re being taken for granted but still being in that group that takes you for granted. We wanted that to be really apparent in the video. We also wanted to use it as an introduction to all of us, so going back and forth between the band and the story.

It’s cool because the music is pretty theatrical and from listening to the song on the EP, it stood out as being about a non-conformist and how people look at you versus how you actually are. The rest of the EP seemed more focused on relationships. Was “Shed My Skin” written as a group or did you write it (Emily)?

Emily: I wrote that song in five minutes on the subway.

So it just depends on when and what kind of inspiration hits you?

Emily: Yeah I can never––I’m a horrible writer, actually. I can never sit down for five minutes and be like, “now I’m writing.” I’ll be in the shower, and I’ll literally run out and be like, “I have to write this down now!” It’s phrases that I really fall in love with that get engrained in my brain, and I’ll write it down.

Coyote: Most of the sheets she brings into rehearsal actually have shampoo on them.

[laughs]

Emily: They’re wet. Indecipherable! But interestingly, Cameron lives not that far and we’ve been hanging out outside of music. It’s been lovely. He’ll have an idea for something, and I’ll have an idea too, and it’ll be lyrically combined. If someone goes, “I’ve always had an idea for a song about ‘blah blah blah’”, I can usually think of some words that go along with that kind of scenario, which are the lyrics I like. I really like Radiohead lyrics. Or Portishead. Any band that ends in head!

[laughs]

Ryan: We were going to name our band Emily Head!

[laughs]

Emily: I defy you to name a band that ends in head that isn’t good.

A band with head at the end of it sounds like it’d be a metal band. 

Coyote: It exists! Motorhead!

[laughs]

Dark cabaret is such a unique genre for Brooklyn––or anywhere for that matter. But in Brooklyn there is an overwhelming amount of indie rock and music trends that seem to come and go so quickly. You can easily detect what inspirations those type of bands have. For you guys, it might be all over the place. What bands do you look up to or listen to?

Emily: I think the reason that the genre we usually get funneled into, which is indie or alternative is because of that. There are so many influencing bands for us that we don’t really want to be pinned to just one. I personally draw a lot of inspiration from Radiohead, Portishead, and Fiona Apple. Those are my top three that I listen to every day. I listen to old stuff a lot. I listen to Debussy and Cole Porter a lot. I like combining all of those.

Ryan: I think it’s kind of hard for us to sometimes play live shows because we don’t have feel-good music. It’s not stuff that you go and jam out to. That’s hard as a live band because people go out to have fun. Until I met Emily, I didn’t listen to Radiohead at all. It was until I moved to New York because I was a happy California boy; I didn’t want to go into a dark place. To me, it was like, “Ugh that’s depressing! I don’t want to listen to that.” But now it’s like one of my favorite bands of all time. I think you have to sit and listen to that, and it takes you somewhere maybe you don’t want to go at the time. I think the whole cabaret thing, you’re going to sit there and watch and take in as much as you can. Even though we have a little more rock sound and there is some kind of jammy feel good stuff that we’re doing now, you do have to come sit and expect to listen to it. I think that’s why dark cabaret works, at least for us. I didn’t say any bands I listen to did I?

Emily: Nope.

Ryan: I listen to everything! I’m definitely the poppy-est guy in the group. I listen to a lot of pop stuff. Not current stuff, I don’t listen to the radio at all. A lot of Radiohead. I love Ray Charles––he’s one of my favorite singers of all time. I listen to a lot of old stuff too. I actually don’t listen to musical theater ever.

Cameron: Yeah, ‘cause it’s constantly coming out of your mouth!

[laughs]

Cameron: My favorite song? Gotta say “Gangnam Style.”

[laughs]

Ryan: You do listen to a lot of hip hop though!

Cameron: I used to teach in the public schools, so a lot of kids would listen to it. I would learn some of the songs so I could teach it to them. Like, get them interested. It didn’t really … work that well.

[laughs]

Coyote: I saw him at a school he was working at––

Cameron: We don’t need to talk about that.

[laughs]

Ryan: We were actually discussing today how you don’t really listen to music.

Cameron: Yeah, well, part of it is I feel like if I’m going to listen to music, I’m going to [focus on it]. I don’t really put it in the background so much. I have to make time to listen to music. I’ll find one band that I really like a lot and just listen to them, and then I’ll get tired of them and listen to something else. I like Andrew Bird, Broken Social Scene, and Fleetwood Mac, older 80s stuff like Echo & the Bunnymen. I like Phantogram. I love Radiohead obviously.

But what hip hop do you listen to?

Cameron: Older 90s stuff I guess. I like some contemporary guys. I like Macklemore, that Tiny Desk concert he does is pretty cool. I listen to jazz a lot sometimes. I haven’t listened to classical music in a long time. I kind of go all over the map.

What do you listen to, Coyote?

Coyote: Let me start off by saying I hate Radiohead.

[laughs]

Coyote: No, I like Radiohead. I’m like the complete opposite of Cameron as far as listening to music. I’m the guy who likes to have a radio on in every room. I go through these phases and the length of these phases can be six months to two hours. Like the White Stripes were a major influence for me growing up, and the Beatles, classic rock like that. I grew up playing blues at the same time I got into jazz, and now I’ve been doing a lot of classical listening because I’ve been taking this composition course. I have musical ADHD. I’m either listening to an album or listening to [my library] on shuffle. My major thing would be blues music. Everything from John Lee Hooker to Sunny Boy Williamson, Blind Willie Johnson, and everything that came from them: Jimi Hendrix and Jack White. So that very guttural thing to the complete opposite which is Stravinsky, chamber music sounding shit and rap. Actually one of my favorite albums lately is the Grey Album. I’ve been listening to that non-stop. I can’t answer this question!

[laughs]

Emily: But it really does… I feel like it provides you with an accurate answer of why our music sounds the way it does––because you get a million different answers!

Cameron: Oh country! I like that. Also, I feel like my random access memory is really poor. I can’t remember the things that I like.

[laughs]

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

Photo by Nasa Hadizadeh

What’s next for you guys? What are you working on right now?

Emily: We’re in the middle of us working on a single that we’re recording this week. We’re actually re-releasing “Easy” which is on our EP. We’ve totally revamped it––we’ve made it kind of sexy to make it sound like the sound we’re going for now. It’s darker now. I like the way “Easy” was on the EP––we all do. But it was kind of folk rock-ish, so we’re trying to take our old stuff and really fit it into who we are [now]. So we are doing that this week. We’re working on a full-length album for the summer. We’re playing everywhere! We’re playing in Philly, DC, the Berkshires, all over New York! We’re playing a lot, working on recording. We’re going to have a new music video out in May for “Easy.” We have a concept for it––it’s darker than the first one. No happy dance videos anytime soon!

 

Download Emily Danger’s Paintings EP over at their Bandcamp.

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Story by Alex Martinez
Photos by Nasa Hadizadeh

 



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