Photography by Abi Reimold
Fairbanks, Alaska looks lovely on Google images. Snow-dusted mountains billow out of the green earth—nature’s answer to the mighty skyscrapers that, 4,256 miles away, give or take, line Manhattan’s horizon.
The former city is where Emily Yacina recorded her newest album, Heart Sky, this summer while on break from The New School, where she is studying environmental science. The latter is where she and I meet to talk about it.
“I was working for a non-profit in Fairbanks that does environmental activism work, so, in terms of visuals, I was just surrounded by nature and obsessed with that when I was there,” Yacina said. “I miss that when I’m here and felt like I was just able to be in nature and really reflect on everything that had happened the past year.”
Emily never offers an exegesis of what that everything is, because she doesn’t need to.
“It’s a really intimate album,” she says of Heart Sky. “I definitely put a lot out there. Usually, in the past, I’d keep things pretty vague in terms of lyrics or my songwriting, but I felt so safe writing the songs that they definitely feel more personal—all of the songs are of course personal, but these ones feel more literal.”
On “Vision,” she sings, “All the pieces/ of the past year/ are so sharp and clear.” Previously, Yacina would dole out clues on her albums, but this one feels like the first one where say lays every piece of the puzzle on the table.
Heart Sky’s opening line—“Wanted to find out where it went wrong”—is ultimately its raison d'être. Over the record’s 11 tracks, Yacina addresses her former partner and attempts to pinpoint the elusive moment when the relationship came undone. On penultimate track "Clue," Yacina sings, "Something you said/ struck me like a clue," her hazy, layered vocals belying the hurt. Poring over the past might not illuminate the present, but Yacina’s music rewards the listener with the knowledge that anguish, while mostly ugly, can be turned into a thing of beauty.
“I just hope that people can use [the songs] to apply to their own lives and whatever that means for them,” Yacina said.
What follows is an edited transcript of a recording that picked up both Emily’s words and an entire Björk album that played in the coffee shop as we spoke, shortly after Heart Sky’s release. Emily plays with Soccer Mommy and Yohuna at Baby's All Right on 11/14.
AdHoc: For the video for your 2015 single “Soft Stuff,” you made a list of textures, images and feelings you associated with that EP. What comes to mind for Heart Sky?
Emily Yacina: The album’s called Heart Sky because I was surrounded by nature and no high buildings, and it just felt like everything I was feeling was being reflected back to me. That’s the biggest thing that comes to mind when I think of textures or visuals with Heart Sky.
I think of temperature a lot when I think about sound. Something can sound really cold—[like] super sharp or tinny, almost—but something can also sound really warm, fuller.
Was it hard for you to put out music this vulnerable?
Definitely, yeah, but I think at a certain point, I was like, Fuck it. This is just my music that I’ve worked on and who cares.
I listened to the Musicians Talk podcast you did, and you mentioned how music is more of a hobby for you than it is a career. Do you still feel that way?
For a while when I first got into college I thought that I wanted to be a touring musician and was on that track; I had a manager and was interested in doing it in a professional way, because I love it. I love making songs and performing them, and there was a certain point, my second year of school, where I had been exposed to the music industry in a way that made me not want to do it full-time. I was at a good place to have that realization because I was still in school, so I had that as my other plan. I’m grateful for that and also lucky because what I do study at school, I’m really passionate about. Now I can keep doing music, but keep it really sacred. To have all of my control over it is really important to me, and I’m happy that I’m at a place where I can do that and no one else can affect my decision-making.
So you were looking at it in a professional way and got turned off by the experience?
Yeah. Part of was having a foot in and seeing how it worked and and feeling like I wasn’t compatible with it—it’s a really intense industry. Another part of it was my relationship with my music—thinking, “Woah, if I actually really tried to pursue it in this way I might not have the same special relationship I do with music now.” And I just decided that it wasn’t worth it.
It seems like music, for you, is a way to process your feelings. What inspires you to write a song?
Sometimes, I’ll have nothing to do and [be] like, “Oh, I should write something and I’ll see what happens.” Other times I’ll be feeling a lot and not know what to do with it. In terms of processing things, it’s the best tool, because it feels really good to write out words and write out music and listen back and be like, “Woah, I did something with these feelings”—especially when I was a lot younger.
What was your first experience writing songs?
I was probably 14 when I started making my own songs, but I had taken guitar lessons throughout middle school. I made friends in high school who were super, super encouraging and supportive and fostered this space that was like, “Oh you’re working on a song, show it to me, I want to hear it, I want to learn more about you.” Because I felt so encouraged, I used that as fuel to keep doing it. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and there were a ton of shows happening all the time, so those same friends were people who were like, ‘You should put together a live set and play it at my friends’ show this weekend.’ I think that was very unique to being near Philly and being that young.
How does collaboration play into your process?
I’m so bad at collaborating [laughs]. It’s hard for me to sit with someone and try to articulate what I think something should sound like, and it’s also hard for me to understand what the other person thinks it should sound like. But this past record, I had a few friends play drums on the songs; that was a new thing, but they were super patient and attentive to what I wanted them to sound like. Also, they’re really good friends, so it felt safe.
Is control an important aspect of your music?
Totally, yeah, kind of in a way where it has prevented me from doing cool projects. I actually want to work on that, ‘cause I feel like I finally got it to a place where it’s 100 percent me, and that feels like such a victory to me. At the same time, I want to get to a place where I’m a little bit more open and relaxed with songwriting and music in general. It was a really good experience having other people mix some of the songs on this last record, and having other people play some instruments, and I want to do more of that. It’s a tricky balance.
What was the recording process like?
I was living in a cabin near my place of work this summer and didn’t have Internet, so I honestly didn’t have anything to do besides hike. I didn’t have a car, so I would either come home from work and go out in the woods or record something. I’m so grateful for that time, because where else can you just have nothing else to do except be in nature and write? It was perfect.
Did you purposefully choose not to have Internet? When you moved out there, did you think, “I’m gonna write an album and do my Bon Iver-kinda thing?
I was subletting this cabin. The deal was that I would take care of the corgi of the person who lived in the cabin, and I got to stay there for free. So it was me and this corgi and my roommate. It’s crazy talking about it now, because it feels just like a weird dream—but they just didn’t have Internet at the cabin. I didn’t go into it thinking, “Ok, this summer’s about me making an album.” I just did it for the job experience, and that in itself was amazing. The people I was working with are the most incredible people. But I just had extra time that I didn’t think about and I brought my guitar with me just in case.
What was the collaboration process like?
I recorded with an interface with one input and did guitar and recorded my vocals with a little USB mic and had a tiny MIDI-keyboard. I would send some of the songs to different drummers I knew and would ask them to try out different things on them. My friend Jonnie Baker, who plays in the band Florist, is an incredible audio engineer. I sent the different project files to him and he added all this really cool stuff to maybe four songs on the record.
I guess for each one it was a little bit different. Some of them, like that song “Clue,”—that felt really good to include because that is a song that I would have made years ago based on the way that I recorded it. Really simple, really fast. I didn’t show it to anyone, did it in a day, and I’m really glad I had one of those on the album.
What did Jonnie add to the songs?
[Jonnie] added different sounds. Honestly, I think a part of why I was so into was because I love him so much as a friend. So it felt like, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool, my friend that I love so much is adding this stuff and I actually like the way it sounds.” He was patient with it and took his time and made it nice and it was like, “My friend’s really taking care of this song,” instead of sending it to someone I don’t know. It was just intimate.
You also collaborate with musicians on the other side of the fence, where you’re adding to their music. What’s that like?
I like doing that because it’s cool to practice music without coming up with the ideas. Sometimes I’ll collaborate with someone and they’ll be like, “I really want your voice to be on this song, but I want it to sound like this,” and it’s just fun because I get to sing but I don’t have to come up with anything. I’m always flattered when someone wants to have me sing on something or add something to their music.
Who are you listening to these days?
Cende—that band is so good. I’ve been listening to that Lomelda record (Thx) all the time, and I was really obsessed with that Big Thief record (Capacity), and still am. It’s phenomenal.
Do you feel like you’re part of the DIY scene or do you just dip in and dip out?
I like to think that I just dip in and dip out, but I think because people associate me so much with Alex G, I often get wrapped up into being a part of it. That’s totally OK, but I definitely have another life, too, with school.
How do you feel about being associated with Alex G?
Sometimes it sucks, because people will say things like, “You’re just the girl Alex G,” which is like a crazy thing to say. I feel like our music’s really different. I get that it’s people putting the pieces together in a way that makes sense for them, but it undermines what I do on my own. Not to be like, “Wah, wah, wah,” but I try hard to make my music unique.
How does songwriting help you process your emotions?
It helps to write big feelings down and put them into sentences in the simplest way. That’s how it helps.
So do you feel that it offers you catharsis to write music?
Yeah, definitely. It also feels validating to listen to a song after you record it and you’re like, “Yeah, this is what happened and this is how I feel about it.” It’s just grounding.
Before we finish, is there anything else you want to say?
One thing that would be cool to say is that for a while, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do or be, when I was interested in pursuing music full-time, a lot of people were telling me that I had to choose to do one thing or the other. There are so many ways to do music and also do something else and be as multifaceted as you want to be, and that should be talked about more. You can make music and study science. You can do whatever you want.