“It is what it is”: a zen chat with Emerson Snowe at BIGSOUND

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 9. Grab your copy here.

In the whirl of BIGSOUND 2018 we had the opportunity to speak to several of the showcasing artists, and Emerson Snowe was a high priority – and not just because he looks like a Let Love In-era Nick Cave.

Though Emerson Snowe has been a part of Jarrod Mahon’s life since he was 17, the project has blossomed with recent singles Sunlight and Could You Love Me?. By the time we met, he was in high spirits – at peace with the world, you could say.

We sat down on a Wednesday afternoon in Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre to chat about tattoos, playing with a full band for the first time, and just letting things be. Two days later, he would win the highly sought-after Levi’s Music Prize.

Emerson Snowe interview bigsound 2018
Photo: Mikaela Grob

When you clock into an Emerson Snowe gig, you never know what you’ll see. His secret? He doesn’t know what’s going to happen either.

HAPPY: You played with a full band last night, for a couple of songs. Was it your first time with the whole band?

EMERSON: Yeah, that was my first time with the full band. So I just got back from Paris and I did a couple of live shows in the UK with a live band that I pieced together through the internet.

HAPPY: Is it harder in the UK?

EMERSON: No, it was honestly easier than it was in Brisbane. In Brisbane, depending on friends and stuff, everyone other than me seems to have a full time job. But it happened! Originally it was meant to be four songs, but then we had a keyboard player that kind of dropped out on the day.

HAPPY: Alright.

EMERSON: But it’s all good, it happens.

HAPPY: So you think it went down well?

EMERSON: I think so, it felt good. I have a really strong, idealistic view where I’d rather the people involved to just be stoked doing it rather than it being my own thing and telling them what to do. You know, it’s like if I’ve asked a bunch of guys to be in a live band I like what they do and I don’t want to be like ‘play this because it’s how I play it’. That just wouldn’t make sense to me, it doesn’t have the right feel.

HAPPY: I like that.

EMERSON: I’d much rather have people stoked to be involved and have the right vibe all around, rather than pushing something to happen. Felt good! Got really heavy near the end there…

HAPPY: Play to the room! Have you been wanting to play with a band for a while?

EMERSON: Kind of. When Emerson Snowe started, when I was like 17, I had a band together but as I’ve grown I’ve changed styles and everything. I didn’t really have the want to put a full band together, especially for this, but there was another side of me like… it’s just worth it to see if I could do it. What the project is, it’s open to a lot of different options. I can be just myself with a guitar, or a backing tape, I like that it’s all very open so I can be a chameleon on a different tour or something, you know? I really love that idea.

Further photos: Dani Hansen

HAPPY: That’s interesting… I had only seen you once [before BIGSOUND] when you supported GUM in Sydney. I was thinking, maybe he didn’t do the band thing because he likes to move around so much onstage. But it’s cool that you’re just trying out different stuff.

EMERSON: Well I think today’s show is just going to be acoustic.

HAPPY: Right.

EMERSON: I like making a set. It’s so I’m kind of nervous and interested in it being an experience for me as well, so I’m kind of learning on the spot. It’s not something you can do with a band, when everything is concrete. With how the project is, it’s just myself and depending on how I’m feeling it could change. It’s cool not having that pressure, but there’s also so much pressure that you could easily put on yourself.

HAPPY: That’s cool… you say it’s for yourself but I think it’s interesting for an audience too, if you don’t know what kind of show you’re going to get.

EMERSON: Totally. I think last night was cool because it was full band, but when people were rocking up they didn’t know if they were getting the full band thing. I like that it has a story to it; a bit of just myself with some tracks, and then a band will come up. It’s all totally new as well, I don’t know. I just really like things to be genuine, when it is what it is. We had a rehearsal before we went onstage, and that was the only rehearsal we did.

HAPPY: Fantastic.

EMERSON: But it’s stuff like that. It is what it is, if it feels good then it feels good. I knew it was going to be fine anyway, you know? Luckily it’s not something that’s too intense, it is… I just keep saying the same thing over and over again. “It is what it is”.

HAPPY: Now I can’t remember because I was a little drunk by the time you played….

EMERSON: Fair enough.

HAPPY: …but at GUM did you play with the tape or a regular backing track?

EMERSON: GUM was just a backing track, just myself with the microphone.

HAPPY: Cool, ’cause I really liked the tape. It seemed like a really nice middle ground for performing to a track.

EMERSON: Totally.

HAPPY: Because some people are really funny about backing tracks… it was a little more real.

EMERSON: Yeah, it’s a strange thing as well because from an audience perspective, it’s a bit strange to see because it’s just one person onstage. It’s not as if I’m hiding it by pretending to play instruments, which some bands do, but it’s literally just me onstage. There’s a thing with using a cassette as well, that if one thing fucks up or goes a bit awry, it’s a bit more forgivable. But if someone has a laptop that…

HAPPY: Blows up?

EMERSON: That blows up… if you had it on a laptop, it should have just worked, you know what I mean? There’s something just awkward and confronting about purely just myself onstage. It really splits the crowd up, if you enjoy the show you really enjoy it, but the other half, if it’s not for you, you’ll know it’s not for you. Like I’m very aware it’s ridiculous, I’m very aware that the way I’m performing is strange, but that’s because it’s interesting to me and it’s fun. I’d rather do that than…

HAPPY: Than play to expectations?

EMERSON: Exactly, and I did that with Creases stuff. Creases were a thing for ages… now I’m not going to go out of my way to do another band thing. I don’t want to put too much thought into this stuff.

HAPPY: Has the tape ever backfired?

EMERSON: In London it backfired, but I think it just added to the show. I think I was doing Sunlight and right at the big build-up the tape just, went out. At that point I could have stopped or something, or I could just keep going… and I just kept going. That’s the thing with the show as well, there’s no hiding anything, it just adds to it. It’s been an amazing experience doing this Snowe stuff, because it is just myself but it is also just learning myself onstage. Sometimes you can be really self-deprecating, sometimes I’ll come off stage and be like… I was in a weird state of mind up there. Because it’s on a fine line of being kind of a joke but not, like if I took it too far into one aspect it could come across as not being serious. But all the songs are serious because they all exist and they all come from somewhere, but then it has this live element that is kind of being aware of it… it’s just trying to make it enjoyable and genuine, without too much expectation on myself. And if it goes awry, there’s nothing I can do about it.

HAPPY: You have a very refreshing attitude towards performing.

EMERSON: I feel like I had to get that attitude. If I took everything too personally it’s like, you know I’d just be in a hole, a mental hole. But I know everything will come around, and there’s just that bit of self-confidence you have to have in your work anyway, like a belief in what you do. If not you’ll be way too hard on yourself. I feel like I’ve already done that stuff, I’ve already been too hard on myself in the past, this is like… it is what it is. That’s the catchphrase.

HAPPY: Sounds like that’s going to be the title of this article.

EMERSON: Sounds good to me.

HAPPY: Do you record to tape?

EMERSON: No I don’t record to tape, but my recording process is… so I’ll sit down at my desk with my nylon and I’ll just play, I’ll just hit record, the first thing that comes to my head I’ll stick to it. So then I have a whole track kind of written and recorded at the exact same time within 10 minutes., and that’s the end of it. So it’s more like a diary entry, you know, it’s just how I was feeling like that day when I wrote than song. I like the idea that nothing would have existed if you didn’t just sit down and start it.

HAPPY: It’s kind of like you’re emulating the feeling of tape running away anyway.

EMERSON: Yeah! I record on Ableton, just with iPod headphones.

HAPPY: You’re not the first person to tell me that! So you have a tattoo, I originally thought it was the guy who holds his eyes in Real Monsters

EMERSON: A lot of people have said that to me, and I’ve been like… that’s a good tattoo idea. But that show kind of wigged me out a little bit.

HAPPY: It is a bit freaky.

EMERSON: It is close to it, it does look a lot like it.

HAPPY: But yours is Daniel Johnson’s Hi, How Are You artwork, when did you get it?

EMERSON: I got it when Creases were doing South By (Southwest), and I knew that Daniel Johnston still lives there with his folks. I knew that it would be a good memento for remembering South By, but also my adoration of Daniel’s stuff. So it all kind of worked out really well, ’cause I feel like it would have been weird if I had done it anywhere else now. It was in Austin, I knew he lived there.

HAPPY: Everything came together.

EMERSON: That’s the thing! Thing’s coming together, that’s all there is to it.

HAPPY: I was going to ask if there were any other album tattoos in the running, but it sounds like you’d need that perfect storm again.

EMERSON: There’s something about that image, that’s not even my favourite album of his, but that was my first impression of him, that little alien. I mean that album itself, I’m not even that big of a fan of it, but I love the ideas behind his songs, that everything stems from… I don’t know, it’s all good. It’s all good.

HAPPY: Onto more of the usual stuff, you’ve released two singles this year – is there something in the works?

EMERSON: There is. There is a debut EP coming later this year, and those tracks are actually the second half of the set that I played. It’s been done for a while, but I’ve done the songs live for over a year so I’m going to re-record the vocals and step it up a bit. I think the process of recording an EP or an album, it takes a while for things to actually come out. You don’t really have anything to lose… I might even add another two or three tracks to it. I’ve been constantly writing as well, so it’s not like I wrote those four songs and sat down for two years, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. I’ve just got a whole catalogue of these tracks now, I’ve got over 200 of these tracks or something. But now I have a label, I kind of send them stuff like ‘you guys can just choose your favourite tracks’. That’s another thing you can’t do with a band, as well, because there’s no one to question your stuff, which I think in some ways is good but in some ways gets pretty lonely. That’s what I was saying before… if I wanted to, I could definitely freak myself out about stuff that’s happening but I have to have a self-confidence, or something like ‘it’s going to be alright’. Because I could self-destruct at any moment. I’ll self-destruct right now in front of you.

HAPPY: I didn’t have this written down but I’ve talked to other people about it, how important it is to give away some sort of control in your writing, or your recording process, or I guess your onstage stuff as well. At what point did you think you realised that?

EMERSON: Well luckily how the songs and how the project is, that’s very easy. More so recently, working with a manager and working with a label, there’s another part of you that needs you to open up and have faith in the people around you. Like I was saying before, that comes back to having a good feeling about everyone, everyone being psyched about it, and everyone feeling good about it. You know? I’d much rather be close with people on a more personal level, which is probably something I shouldn’t do but it’s something that comes very naturally, I’d rather people be stoked on it than feeling like it’s something they have to do.

HAPPY: That’s really nice. Sounds like you can’t imagine doing it any other way now.


HAPPY: Last thing then. I’ve seen you mention that Emerson Snowe is your true self, but being attached to another name it’s kind of a persona as well. Is it that Emerson and Jarrod are becoming more of the same person?

EMERSON: Yeah, it’s definitely very much the same thing now. It started out me thinking too much about what I wanted it to be, if I wanted to create this character, but over time I grew into who I am now and it’s just… this can just be what it is. Which is really strange. Maybe a few years ago I wasn’t comfortable with myself.

HAPPY: So you created something you could put that on?

EMERSON: Yeah, well if people don’t like it then ‘it’s not really me!’ But now I’m very happy to just be like that’s… what it is.

HAPPY: We gotta end it there.


This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 9. Grab your copy here.