THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN BICOASTAL HIP-HOP BFFS SPARKS A COOL PITY DANCE PARTY
Words and Interview by Laura Studarus.
It should come as no surprise that genre-bending violinist Emily Wells and hip-hop producer Dan the Automator (Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gorillaz) were fast friends. Introduced a few years ago by mutual pal Kid Koala, and having since worked together on their collaborative project Pillowfight, the two have forged the kind of bond that allows them to seemingly read each other’s minds—despite calling New York and San Francisco their home bases, respectively.
That closeness is reflected in their music. The duo’s slick debut as Pillowfight (which also features Kid Koala and Oakland, CA-based rapper Lateef the Truthspeaker), plays like a talk between pals—the kind of friends who can hopscotch between topics without ever losing the conversational thread. Sultry beats and record scratches sit side-by-side with speakeasy-style horns. Lyrics about love and nostalgia are given equal weight to those about all manner of crappy relationship. The result is perhaps one of the year’s coolest pity dance parties.
We got the two musicians on the phone to discuss the common links in their childhoods, learning to collaborate, and why they’ll never sound (exactly) like Lady Gaga.
Pillowfight’s self-titled debut is out now via Bulk Recordings.
Who would win in a pillow fight, you or Dan?
Emily: Dan’s pretty strong, and he’s a lot taller than me. But I am pretty scrappy.
Dan: You are scrappy! I’d say we’re undefeated as a group, but we’ve never really fought each other.
Emily: That’s true.
How did you guys meet?
Dan: Teen chat line.
Emily: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly! I was in Canada at a festival with Kid Koala. We had to do an impromptu show/workshop thing together. We immediately hit it off. I love his work already. He said, “You know, you should meet a friend of mine. You know this guy, Dan the Automator?” I’m like, “Yeah, I know who that is!” [Laughs] I guess he told Dan the same thing. Dan American Idol-auditioned me. No, just joking. But I did go up to San Francisco without having ever met Dan. I think we wrote three songs in two days together, and we were like, “Let’s do this.”
So it was pretty obvious from the beginning that there was some musical chemistry there.
Emily: It took me a couple of days to know if Dan liked me or not! Once I was in, I was pretty sure we were all right.
So Dan, did you like Emily at first, or did it take you a few days to decide?
Dan: No, no, no. I liked Emily from the beginning. I think people confuse my aloof demeanor.
Emily: I enjoyed the aloof demeanor. It’s good. I think it’ll keep us mysterious. I’ll be all smiles and Dan will be moping in the back.
Dan: It’s just, you know, I’ve made records in my life, and I think what ended up happening with me is that I’m not a cheerleader. I just want to make sure stuff goes well.
I imagine it’s a pretty big commitment to sign on to a collaborative project.
Dan: Ultimately, records, if you want to make them, it doesn’t matter how hard it is to make it. I’m not saying this record was hard, because it wasn’t.
Dan, what attracted you to using a female voice like Emily’s on this project?
Dan: I think ultimately, I like female voices a lot. I think I like female voices more than male voices in a lot of ways. I just felt like this is the record I wanted to make. So I had to make it that way.
How did this project end up with the name Pillowfight?
Dan and Emily: [Laughter]
Emily: Gosh. We haven’t really gotten our story together on this. I think we should make it a different story each time. But we can tell you the truth since we haven’t gotten to come up with a million lies. I was staying with some friends that first fated time when I hadn’t met Dan yet.
Dan: Some girls.
Emily: They were all women, and they were having some party, sleepover type thing. Of course Dan and the other people at the studio weren’t going to let me live that down. He came up with it as a way to tease me. We did have the working title “Trolling for Goth Girls” for most of the time we were making the record.
Dan: That would have been a good album title, wouldn’t you say?
Emily: Yeah, Trolling for Goth Girls. I think we really missed out there. I think we should have stuck with that. So there you have it! [Laughs]
I’m honored, I got the truth.
Emily: [Laughs] True.
I hate quoting Wikipeda in interviews with a passion—so rest assured I’m sinking deep into self-loathing. But from Dan’s entry I learned that he was a violinist.
Dan: Yeah, I am. I’m not an active violinist. I started out playing the violin since I was three-years-old. I don’t practice a lot.
Emily: I will say though, I have witnessed Dan playing the violin. While he is not exactly in practice, he has an incredible memory and played a concerto. Just picked it up. It was pretty impressive. I will say.
Dan: That is true. My problem is universally being out of tune. My fingers know where to go in relation to each other. But I don’t practice. I’m really sharp. Or flat, actually.
Emily: But still, you remembered a pretty difficult piece. I’ll give you that.
Dan: I did play for a long time. Violin is a big part of my music now, even though it’s not a big part of my music. I’m really drawn to interweaving single melodies—which is more of a violin thing than if I was a piano player.
Somehow none of this surprises me. Were you both orchestra geeks growing up?
Emily and Dan: Yeah I was.
Emily: We were both orchestra reject kids, at the orchestra practice, getting into trouble. I know I was getting into trouble in orchestra rehearsals.
Dan: Yeah, I did too.
I feel like we could rebrand the band. Orchestra rejects. Orchestra geeks gone bad. You could really create a whole image around this.
Emily: [Laughs] Yes!
Emily, being that you’ve made your reputation on being a badass violinist, was there any hesitation going into this project; know that you’d only have your voice to work with?
Emily: No. I love the experience. My solo live show, I’m incredibly busy. I’m moving around and playing all these instruments. It’s so much. This allows me to really focus on the voice. I think Dan definitely taught me a lot about myself as a vocalist, and valuing that part of myself in a way that I—being my own producer—never could. I think it’s kind of fun to just be a singer. To just be focused on the lyrics. That kind of stuff.
Dan: I think it’s awesome that way. You get shine. I think when you play everything at once, people don’t even know what to focus on at times. Like how great the voice is and everything.
Emily: I had been a fan of Dan’s work as well. So I was up for the challenge, whatever it was going to be.
Are you both naturally the kind of people who are willing to go out on a limb like that and try something new? Or is that a trait you had to learn?
Emily: I love the idea of being willing to fail. I think that’s a huge strength. I’m willing to fail as long as it’s worth it. Worth the risk. I wouldn’t take on any project, but in this case this was a chance to do something with someone that I trusted artistically from the beginning.
Dan: For me it’s a little different. I do what I feel like doing. What I mean by that isn’t that I’ll do anything, but things will end up where they’ll end up. I’ll think it would be cool to make this kind of record, so I’ll try to make it happen.
After the initial three songs that you wrote, did you write together in the same room after that?
Dan: We were always in the same building. I brought the tracks to Emily pretty much completed. I changed things a little bit to match what was going on. But she wrote the vast majority of lyrics, and then I’d come chime in and do some lyrics when something needed an adjustment or felt good.
Emily: In that way too it was so different for me, having such an incredibly lush bed to hop on. He had done so much before I had even heard anything. It was an interesting way to write as well.
Did you go into this at any point with an agenda, saying, “Hey, this is going to be our big love song,” or a “dramatic breakup song” or whatever?
Emily: Yeah, there is a theme going through a lot of it! I was personally in a period ripe with a lot of change and looking at recent events in my life. This is a really personal record, for sure, lyrically, for me. But Dan’s got some nicknames for some of the songs that we keep off the record.
Dan: [Laughs] So off the record. When we went to make this record, it wasn’t like, this is shit, Ok. Computer is shit. Let’s show them how to make a record.
Emily: Wow. Yeah. [Laughs] I wouldn’t say that!
Dan: You make a record to make a record. There’s no goal posts. We ultimately can’t determine what will happen to a record. It will be made, and it comes out. We just do the best we can do. I don’t have any expectations for records, otherwise I’d always be disappointed. I’m not here to promote records. I don’t go out and pound the pavement trying to promote the record. I can’t dictate who’s going to hear it. I do as much as a I can, obviously. I’ll push it along. We’re from the creative side. It doesn’t mix so well with calculation unless you’re trying to make a record based on some formula as opposed to the artistic aspect.
Emily: Yeah. I totally agree. It was never like Dan said, “I’d like you to write a song about this!” There was just honesty, I think. From both of us.
Dan: Our demographic really needs us to talk about this!
You’re an envoy to the people!
Dan: It’s true! Who’s hot right now? Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. So I want you to write something that sounds exactly like that. But totally different.
Now I want to hear Emily do her Lady Gaga impression.
Emily: [Laughs] If I was to do one, I’d have to do “Alejandro.” I think we should cover that one Dan, what do you think?
Dan: Okay, sure.
I’ll be waiting patiently.
Dan: I’ll tell you something. And this is actually pretty much 100% true for both of us. I’ve done lots of albums in my life, and every album I make I want to make sound like a DMX record.
Emily: [Laughs] I never knew that! Okay. I think the next Pillowfight record should be all DMX covers. That’s what I think.
Dan: Perfect. But for me, if I tried to make something that sounded like that, it wouldn’t sound like that anyway. I don’t have that particular knack.
Emily: Yeah. I don’t have that either.
Do you see yourselves working together again?
Dan: Oh yeah.
Emily: Yeah, definitely! The awesome thing about this is Dan and I got to become really good friends. Unfortunately, I’m living a bit farther away from where I had been before. But I think, if anything, we need an excuse to hang out.
Dan: Exactly. Emily is one of my favorite people.
Emily: It’s totally mutual. Yeah. I think we have to make more music together.
Well, we’ll be looking for to album number two.
Emily: Yeah, the DMX cover record! We’ve got a concept. It’ll be out before you know it. [Laughs]
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