Breaking Out: Emily Wells
Classically trained violinist adds gangsta flavor to her pocket symphonies.
There’s long been a tradition of ironic hip-hop covers, from Nina Gordon’s lilting, folk version of N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” to Ben Folds’ melancholy take on Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” But violinist Emily Wells’ dreamlike rendering of Notorious B.I.G.’s anthem “Juicy” is no joke. Layering eerie strings, bleeping synths, and electronic beats under Biggie’s rags-to-riches lyrics, she sings and raps like a feral, streetwise Nina Simone. “I know not everyone is going to feel it because that song has such a place in a lot of people’s history,” says Wells, 26, the classically trained daughter of a French horn teacher. “But it has a place in my history too.”
Wells began studying violin when she was four, and samples and beats became part of her musical language in junior high. “Everybody was into hip-hop,” she says of her Indianapolis adolescence, when she also began writing “angsty” songs. “All everybody did was go around, smoke blunts, and bump OutKast.” Record labels started calling when she was 17, but they were just interested in molding the next Norah Jones (albeit with some street cred), so she decided to go out on her own, self-releasing her debut, Beautiful Sleepyhead and the Laughing Yaks, in 2007.
Wells now lives in Los Angeles, recording her wistful tunes in a converted garage studio with bassist Joey Reina and drummer Sam Halterman. In May she released Dirty (Creative Control), an EP of hip-hop-minded pocket symphonies fashioned from a dazzling storm of violin, cello, synths, music boxes, banjo, and toy piano. The urgent “Symphony 6: Fair Thee Well and the Requiem Mix” is kind of like her very own “Juicy” — a song of swirling emotion “about where I came from and all the things I left to be here now.”
While Wells is currently content performing as part of a trio or alone with her mad scientist’s array of gadgets, she also dreams of writing for a fullorchestra. “Sometimes I hear French horn, bassoon, and oboe parts in my head, and I don’t know how to play any of those instruments,” she says. “But, God, it would be amazing.”
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