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Emily Jane White evokes melancholy nostalgia 

Wednesday, Apr 28 2010
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Emily Jane White has a sorrowful singing voice that evokes feelings of long-forgotten, foggy memories. She offers a sense of nostalgia through those somber vocals. The acoustic-guitar strummer, who occasionally lives in San Francisco, crashes in Santa Rosa when not on tour. As of late, she's been performing nearly nonstop in support of her newest album, Victorian America, out this week on Milan Records.

White penned Victorian America's lush compositions from her apartments in San Francisco and Oakland and at the Apple Farm in Philo, where she once worked for a few months. Her lyrics touch on government corruption, personal relationships, and obscure artistic references. "A Shot Rang Out," a soft, finger-plucked tune, refers to the death of a close friend, the first person who convinced her to start writing music. The album's dreamy standout, "Ghost of a Horse," based on a failed relationship, opens delicately with bare piano and the slightest hint of tinkling chimes. Another highlight, the heartbreaking and unconventionally structured "Stairs," is about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who died after falling down a set of stairs. The song repeats the refrain "Mama don't leave, mama don't stay, we don't know what game to play" above a thumping bass drum quickly silenced as White tells the story of the poet's death.

Despite White's heavy lyrics, her music remains subtle, with folk guitar lines backed by lilting cello and violin. The juxtaposition of coolly sweet melodies and darker stories was unintentional. "I think those components are naturally there," she says. "I was just trying to express everything in my own voice."

Her sophomore effort, a follow-up to the well-received 2007 album Dark Undercoat, is actually more of a debut album for all intents and purposes, White says. "That first record was really basic. I never had any intention of doing anything with it, so it sounds like demos. It had timing problems, and my voice was out of tune ... which I actually kind of like." She adds, "I worked on [Victorian America] with my band. It was a year of recording." While White is the main songwriter behind her music, the members of her band — Ross Harris on drums, Henry Nagle on guitar, Jen Grady on cello, Carey Lamprecht on violin, and Jake Mann on bass — collaborate on some of the more complex arrangements.

Growing up in the blue-collar Northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg, White began playing music at age 5, though she found the piano lessons instigated by her parents a bit of a struggle. "I detested reading music because it was a boring exercise, so I stopped, then picked up improv piano at 12," she says.

White's father, a merchant mariner for 30 years who also studied classical guitar, taught her guitar chords. She wrote her first song at 16 on piano, but can't remember what it sounded like. It may have been influenced by her musical interests at the time, which were mainly those of her parents: Patsy Cline, Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin. "I grew up in a rural, isolated area, and had no access to music," she explains.

These days, White listens to a lot of iconic singer-songwriters, people like Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. Her own music has a Cat Power and Charlotte Gainsbourg quality — she also resembles these women somewhat, with her doe eyes and long, hippie hair — though she's loath to recognize any particular influence on her songs. Instead, White focuses on highly personalized lyrics that drag raw emotions to the forefront of her music, forcing listeners to confront their own forgotten ghosts, by osmosis.

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Emily Savage

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