By Tom Lynch
Emma Louise Niblett—or, Scout—has always found a fascinating way to unleash her demons, even through sparse instrumentation that’s often only included a single instrument and her voice. The English songwriter—who resides in Portland—has crafted a bundle of records in the last five years, including her kind-of breakout, 2005’s “Kidnapped by Neptune,” and, most recently, last year’s “This Fool Can Die Now,” a daring-by-Niblett-standards album, romantic in nature, awash with arrangements and featuring a handful of duets with Will Oldham. Niblett, whose work has often been compared to the more minimalist output from PJ Harvey or Cat Power, is no rip-off artist—her sincerity and, lately, sweetness comes purely from a songwriter on some sort of path to discovery, even if it’s a path that leads directly to her own heart.
That’s not to say it can’t be loud. Scout ain’t no Jewel, and engineer Steve Albini makes sure her sound stays that way, as he’s put her last few records to tape. Niblett’s said in past interviews that she was originally strongly influenced by Kurt Cobain and other grunge luminaries, and while that was evident in her earlier records, it’s been slightly sidestepped here, molded into something better than probably even she ever expected. Her beaten-down protagonists—or antagonists, whichever—female and, now, male as well, are fools, but only in relation to each other. They can’t find the answers because they aren’t asking the right questions. The surreal atmosphere created by the sonic spreading of strings and other, less-used instruments (there should have been more piano) only adds to the confusion.
“Usually I start mainly on guitar by myself, and kind of come up with chord progressions, and the vocals come over that, like, the melody evolves with that, sometimes simultaneously,” she says of her process. “At some point words just pop up, and I start to get the feel of what the song is about—it’s something of a surprise to me when it comes out… But then at some point it just gets more elaborate, and I get to this stage where I end up with a million instruments on it.”
Fragile as that method might seem, the songwriter’s captivated by it. “[It’s] something that’s a mystery to me, and it’s the most amazing thing about it to me,” she says. “To me it’s a weird thing that happens, I almost just get some sort of strong feeling that something needs to come out, basically. I just kind of put myself in a space where whatever I need to find out [I can]. A lot of the time I feel like my songs are really a part of myself I’m not conscious of, like I’m giving myself advice, always kind of pointing out who I am to myself.”
Niblett says the duets—her aching voice matched with the wobbling scratchiness of Oldham—helped her emphasize the songs’ subject matter. “I think I felt like I wanted to experiment with a dialogue,” she says. “It’s definitely more in keeping with bringing out or emphasizing the nature of a relationship. I can kind of sing those by myself, but to have someone else there having their side of the story as a character is much more interesting. It was amazing to actually write with that in the back of my head. It felt a lot more freeing in some way, to think ‘What would that person say?’ ‘What would I say?’ That was actually really kind of inspiring.”
She says she keeps coming to back to Albini to capture the live-room sound. “I kind of got really stuck on this idea of working live and just capturing what you sound like naturally as you’re playing a song,” she says. “To me there’s a purity in that that I really admire, because I know, [when] I worked with someone else, or by myself, layering things track by track… I think some music like that is amazing, and I imagine doing that myself at some point, but I’m just in love with the process of capturing [the live sound]. I guess for me playing live is the most important. That’s the biggest thing. I want to hear that on a record, I want to hear that roar.”
Scout Niblett plays April 21 at Subterranean, 2011 West North, (773)278-6600, at 8:30pm. $8.