If things were normal I wouldn’t have to include the caveat “if things were normal,” and things are not, so there are clear reasons why you can’t see Emily Blue perform tonight, but there may be other reasons as well. Just as it seems like everyone and their sibling released their take on “Blue Christmas” in 2020, it feels like Emily Blue may have had another reason to be blue on Christmas.
Blue was born Emily Caroline Otnes in Urbana and grew up there; she leads Champaign-popped band Tara Terra (whose beautiful, countrified latest single, “T-Shirt” dropped on November 13), now calls Chicago home and “if things were normal” you’d see her perform at Chop Shop tonight. That show’s been cancelled, attributable to COVID-19 restrictions—it’s way too early to risk being within six feet of other people. Blue herself had the virus last March but has recovered, according to her social media.
Aside from understanding current restrictions, she may welcome the time away from performing to recover from a recent loss. Around one in the morning on Thanksgiving 2020, her songwriting partner and producer Max Perenchio died in a car crash in Los Angeles. Perenchio was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Atlantic Records marketing vice president and musician Ryan Brady, who was also killed—the two had released a collaboration in September, an album called “Tropical Purgatory” under the name Uncle Salsa (Brady) and the Pelican Boy (Perenchio).
According to his obituary, Perenchio was originally from Arlington Heights, attended John Hersey High School and then Illinois State University and led many bands, including ToastFace, Real Lunch, Powerspace, Bad City, The Gold Web, and opened for Smashing Pumpkins, KISS and Slash in addition to his work as a music producer and songwriter.
Emily Blue had worked with Perenchio since 2017, and while her debut—2016’s “Another Angry Woman” (all profits from which went to Rape Advocacy Counseling and Education Services in Champaign)—hinted at her future direction, it was a piano-based singer-songwriter exercise. Perenchio and Blue conceived and developed her electro-pop approach together, so it’s not a big stretch to imagine that with his loss she’s “all torn up inside,” to borrow a phrase from “Microscope,” on 2018’s “*69” EP. The eerily prescient lyrics also include the line, “When somebody dies they never let you breathe,” so perhaps this show’s cancellation is the breathing and grieving room Blue needs.
She tweeted in December, “Since my very good friend passed away recently I’ve gained so much more appreciation for the present moment. I finally am able just to love those in my life without thinking about what’s next. Miss you Max, thank you for all you’ve taught me”—and on January 2, she posted on her Facebook account that “i have nothing to say about 2020. there is just too much to process. i love you & i’m ok,” followed by “news soonish.’
Rather than dwelling on the death and loss of 2020, and until that “news soonish” materializes (possibly alluding to an EP promised last August that has yet to appear), let’s resolve to embrace the beat and the hooks of great music, and even if we can’t see Emily Blue perform live tonight, we can listen to her recordings. In contrast with the organic folk-pop of Tara Terra, Blue’s solo purview for the past three years has been all synthetic electro-pop, danceable at its core, with clever lyrics that perfectly exhibit her sense of humor, sensuality and intelligence.
She’s mining the vein of richness positioned at the nexus of Robyn, St. Vincent, FKA Twigs, Metric, Chvrches and Solange—that is to say, arched-eyebrow pop perched on a grid of electric synth sounds and electroclash beats (influences cited in her bio include “hair metal, glitch pop, industrial sound design”), and the production and guitar work from Perenchio never threatens to bury her vocals. With her unaffected yet breathy, robotic yet simultaneously sarcastic soprano singing the lyrics, listeners never run the risk of missing a word, and that’s a good thing, as what Blue has to say is often as important as the music.
This glitch-pop provocateur’s songs are fearlessly autobiographical, alluding to her sexual orientation (she identifies as bisexual) and experiences. She’s feminist to a fault and, given her single from last summer, clearly not a fan of our chief executive. The “Trump” single features a close-up of a golf ball on the cover and her signature beautiful singing voice on the verses interspersed with a death-metal chorus assuming the guise of Herr Cheetolini and screaming, “Everybody on the ground / When I wear the crown, you bow down.”
Blue’s deconstruction of Blondie’s “Call Me,” released in March 2019, is truly illuminating, rendering it almost unrecognizable, and more recently her cover of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me,” featuring vocals from Chicago singer Thair (a self-described “dynamic musical intersection of Black, queer culture and pop”) takes a similarly stripped-down approach to spotlight the melodies and beautiful vocal parts, never letting up on the danceability.
For her “17” single, Blue cited inspirations Lana Del Rey and Heart, and the anthemic rock approach and nostalgic theme definitely echo the former’s “Video Games” and the latter’s “Alone.” That autobiographical tilt definitely is on heavy rotation in terms of another 2019 single, “Bad Decisions,” the cover art of which generated some viral traction, given it showed her mooning in front of a McDonald’s.
“Aperture,” a 2020 single, slowed down the tempo quite a bit and embraced a hazy atmosphere, rippling with beats that babbled rather than crashing tsunamic tremors. Just the same, it’s indubitably Emily Blue, and given the richness and sheer joy inherent in what she’s released thus far, more music from this chanteuse for the twenty-first century is eagerly awaited.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.