Emma Ruth Rundle has spent the last decade quietly redefining the meaning of heaviness. The Los Angeles raised, Louisville based vocalist, guitarist and visual artist came to prominence with the bands Red Sparrowes and Marriages, but in latter years has grown into a truly genre defying solo artist, having developed a reputation for soul baring and emotionally crushing performances. Her expansive, dense guitar style and use of baritone guitars lays a powerful framework for the restrained fury of her singing voice, delivering her deeply personal lyrics in an esoteric way.
To understand just how wide ranging Emma's influences are, one only needs to take a quick look at her audience and her peers. She is just as comfortable touring alongside the blissful Japanese post-rock quartet MONO as she is with the punishingly heavy Cult of Luna.
Her eclectic taste was catalogued in full during her career defining stint as curator of the legendary Roadburn Festival in The Netherlands and while the global pandemic may have prevented that vision from being seen in full, 2020 has still been a year of creative productivity for Emma. She's used the downtime to begin writing her fourth solo record, recording an improvised vocal only project, as well as gearing up to release a collaborative album that may very well be the heaviest thing she has ever been a part of.
We are speaking with Emma to discuss this collaboration - a joint effort between her and Louisiana's sludge metal titans Thou, titled May Our Chambers Be Full – as well as to talk in detail about ten important albums that changed her life and informed her musical journey.
While the idea of Emma working with Thou may sound quite disparate on paper, both artists have a deep respect and understanding for one another's output, and it is that respect which allowed them to tap into a line of creativity usually only channeled between the closest of collaborators.
“I would say it is like entering a new relationship”, Emma tells us. “Everyone is super polite and reserved at the beginning, but at this point I consider them really close friends. This was a true collaboration, and we spent the better part of a year writing the album together.
“I think we share a lot of musical influences, especially Andy (Gibbs, Thou Guitarist) and I – and there is a common ground between us as far as our influences go, and we were able to tap into that.”
Emma is used to working with other musicians and needing to satiate several creative appetites, but this is the first time she has collaborated with another band as a solo artist, especially one that has a style as unique as Thou.
“I did collaborate with Dylan Carson, but that was more listening to his vision and trying to support it. This was the first time I had done anything like this, and by the end of the collaboration with Thou it really did feel like it had become a band because of how much time we had spent working together.
"We'd made multiple trips back and forth, we went to Europe together, all of this stuff made it quite an undertaking. It wasn't just a case of meeting up and going to the studio for a week, it was much more involved than that.”
“As a solo artist, I really felt that I had been trained to work in that setting because of my years playing in Red Sparrowes and to some degree Marriages, but ultimately there is seven people in the collaboration with Thou. The more people there are, the more you need to learn when it is appropriate to listen. There's also something about getting older which means your ego isn't as important, and all you really just want to do is to serve the song. Everyone was on board with that, too.“
Thou are a fiercely independent band with a strong ethical and political worldview that shapes the way they work and how they perform, and this was something Emma had to adapt to – something she did enthusiastically.
“Touring with Thou, there's a humbling aspect to doing that. Their schedule on tour and the way that they work in general is very intense. They will often play two shows a day - a matinee show and an evening show. It is important to them to be inclusive and play shows that are all-ages.
"There were occasions where we would play a matinee show in a record store in one city, and then drive to another city and play an evening show in a club. We'd do this after having slept on someone's floor the night before.”
“There's just this feeling of inclusivity with them. They have tried to cultivate a culture of ensuring that anyone can come to their shows and be welcomed and that it is a safe space, and they're not going to be discriminated against.”
“Certain members just have a different way of approaching playing live shows too. I have really bad stage fright and it is always very difficult for me to go onstage. I have struggled with alcoholism in the past, and watching some of the people in the band who are straight edge, or just don't drink alcohol, seeing them play a show in a manner that was more lighthearted and fun – that was a totally new experience for me. A lot of the bands I have worked with and things I have done have been very serious, and there is an element of levity that is happening with them. ”
Despite such levity, the album itself is a dense, pressurising and often bleak listen. Emma's ethereal voice is layered alongside the visceral screams of Thou's Bryan Funck, and a literal tsunami of guitars pummels the listener as though they were a cliff in a storm being battered by bigger and bigger waves - with the smallest of respites coming during the album's more serene moments.
Nine-minute closer The Valley initially feels like something you'd expect to hear on one of Emma's own solo albums, but eventually explodes into a near apocalyptic wall of sound in the final minutes, complete with layered, pounding guitars and caustic screamed vocals.
So, with all this said, does Emma feel this is the heaviest thing she has been a part of?
“I guess so, and I am so glad that I got a chance to do something like this in my lifetime. I have been such a big fan of the band for a long time and couldn't even imagine getting to meet them - and now we've become friends and have made a collaborative album together.”
“One of the things that makes Thou so heavy is that they have three guitarists playing the same downtuned riffs at once. I remember seeing them at Northwest Terror Fest when we both played in 2017, which is where we first connected face to face. They just sounded so heavy because of that.
"We've also hit the emotionally heavy moments on certain parts of the album. I was able to bring some of that kind of emotional despair to the record, so there are moments where it is sort of shreddy-heavy and moments where it is emotionally heavy also.“
Here Emma picks through her own choice of impactful albums, and it's a selection she's taken some time to consider with regards to how they've inspired her…
“There's albums that are objectively great," she tells us. "A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, or Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd – albums that are widely recognised as being some of the greatest of all time. But then there are these albums which are special in a more personal way.
"They're tied with a moment that informed my musical journey, or to an event in my life that left an impression, rather than albums that necessarily affected my songwriting. I've done a few of these lists over the years, so I thought for this one I would focus on those kinds of albums.”
1. Pictures At An Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky (1922)
"The first CD I ever bought with my own money was by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. I wanted to buy this collection as it contained 'Night on Bald Mountain' and I was really into Fantasia when I was little. I went down to the CD store and bought this album, Pictures at an Exhibition which was a recording of that series of pieces.
"My dad is a pianist and he largely does improvisational Jazz informed pieces, just really out there stuff. The reason this was so significant for me is because I recall my Dad explaining to me how the music been written by the composer as a way of sonically describing visual images. More specifically, he was referencing the paintings of the artist Viktor Hartmann. To hear that described to you at 11 years old is mind-blowing.
"You're growing up with MTV or whatever, and then you hear something like this which makes you think. 'Wow, these insane sounds are a result the composer trying to describe something which is visual', and so it was something of a soundtrack before such a thing even existed. That concept blew my little mind.
2. Siamese Dream – Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
"Smashing Pumpkins came into my world when I was around 12 years old, and I became obsessed with that band. Listening to Siamese Dream really inspired me and made me want to play the guitar.
"The guitar solos, the guitar tones, everything about that record remains so classic, and it is hard for me to divorce it from the time and place when I first heard it. When you're young, you are so impressionable, and music is new and exciting, and you're going through puberty, and there's these soaring guitar solos... That will forever be one of my favourite records. I always talk about it, but that one just has to go on the list."
3. Rid Of Me – PJ Harvey (1993)
"Hearing PJ Harvey was a revelation. She was singing about these raw, intense, angry and sexual things. From a songwriting perspective it was very rock and roll, but very raw and in a way that was very '90s.
"Rid of Me was a huge album for me for a very long time. Sonically, I don't think it is even mastered because a lot of my early days spent listening to music involved listening to albums in the car. This record immediately draws your attention, but I'd always find myself constantly changing the volume as I listened because it doesn't feel like it has been mastered.
"It also introduced me to that Steve Albini sound that I later would learn how much I loved – especially that drum sound, particularly.
"She looks very beautiful on the album cover, but it is stark. She isn't looking stereotypically polished in the way female figures were often presented at that time, she has this Patti Smith vibe that just screams 'that whole thing can fuck right off!'".
"I love her. I've followed her career and love every single one of the albums she has made."
4. Dead Man - Neil Young (19996) / Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method – Earth (2005)
"These two albums have a complimentary energy, and both have informed my guitar playing a lot, so I am including them together.
"I did a lot of painting to Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack when it came out. I would listen to it on repeat over and over, and in a way that album was actually a gateway towards listening to Earth – because Earth's album Hex sort of lives in that same universe. It feels like a deserty dusty plane of epic sprawling spacious guitar moments that, again, are also very filmic. It has a continuation of that same vibe, which I really latched on to.
"I really took a lot from the space in between the notes. I learned that it is okay to have a theme, a repeating theme, and allowing there to be space. Not every moment has to be filled with a hundred million notes, and allowing that space can be so evocative of an energy and a visual element that music has the ability to conjure up – landscapes in your mind.
"You're not just singing along and rocking out or whatever, it can be this more profound thing going inside your mind that takes you to another place.
"Those two records go hand in hand for me, and did a lot of the informing of my first solo record (Electric Guitar One), which definitely would not have existed without either Dead Man or Hex."
5. And Their Refinement of the Decline – Stars Of The Lid (2007)
"This is an album that is not only instrumental, it is devoid of percussive elements and is full of long, sweeping pieces that are just emotionally crushing. I remember a good friend of mine came in one night late at night while I was listening to that record, because for years I would fall asleep to that album – and she would just say “What are you listening to?” because it is just so sad.
"To me, though, it is beautiful. It is one of those records which uses traditional instruments in an unconventional way. Some of that sounds like orchestral instrumentation, particularly stringed instruments run through a lot of effects, utilising a lot of volume swells.
"I connected with Jeremy [Galindo] from the band This Will Destroy You over this record, he loves that record too – and for me that's just a classic album and a must listen for anyone that does like instrumental music or post-rock, for example. I think what bands like Stars Of The Lid have done informs a lot of bands that are more well known for post-rock."
6. Vol. 4 – Black Sabbath (1972)
"This album embodies everything that is just fucking badass about rock and early heavy metal. I mean, it doesn't really need a lot of explanation, right? It's Black Sabbath, a band that is very much woven into the fabric of heavy music. You cannot try to trace the history of metal without coming to Black Sabbath. They introduced a darkness and a dark theatrical vibe to that - But let's just talk about the riffs on this album.
"I don't know why exactly it was that Vol. 4 is the album of theirs that hooked me, but my relationship with music seems to work in that way. I'll find an album and it will become an obsession. That is true of all of the albums I have talked about so far. I've been listening to them for years, sometimes even daily. Probably for the entire duration of 2018 and 2019. I might have done some drugs regularly, got really wasted and put Vol. 4 on repeat for hours!"
7. Colour Green – Sibylle Baier (2006)
"This album was released in 2006, but was actually recorded in the 1970s. I remember hearing the story about how this record was rediscovered after being locked away for so long, and whoever discovered it said that it needs to be given a release because it is so beautiful.
"I love how it is just a woman singing and playing classical guitar. For me, it really touches on that same vibe as Pink Moon by Nick Drake. It is a very sparse recording, and it has this ability to just grab you.
"She sings in a very unusual way. There is something deadpan about her delivery, but then she hits these little inflections that just bring me to tears. There's a song called Forget About that will make me cry - hands down, every time, even though I have heard the song perhaps thousands of times.
"I'm always looking for albums like this which are very sparse and bare, performed with just a vocal and a guitar, but with a dark energy running through them. There is a real darkness to this album - This woman was clearly depressed and there is an imperfection to it.
"At points you can tell that the guitar is out of tune, and you can hear a warble to the tape. It has this character to it. Human imperfection is a thing that I think the pop world really does not welcome, yet it is something in music and art that I find so incredibly touching. It is a gateway to connect the listener with the artist. There's something vulnerable in that, and especially in that album.
"If anyone ever has any recommendations for albums like that, please send them to me – because there aren't enough of them."
8. At Temple Gate – Kenney/Kang/Park (2015)
"I was given this album by my friend Michael who is the owner of a Belgian label called Weyrd Son Records. He gave me a sack of albums and this album, it's just... Whoa. Magical. It transports you to another world. In recent years it has become very important to me.
"I am just finishing an improvised, entirely vocal album that is a follow up to Electric Guitar One, which will be released on Sargent House early next year. It is something I have wanted to do for a while, but finding this collaboration has empowered me and made me feel more comfortable with exploring my own voice – even though Jessica Kenney is extremely trained vocalist, and I am not!
"There is a lot of really intense concepts that are behind this album which are a lot to take in, and if you want to go deep in exploring that then you definitely can – but you can also just appreciate it as a listener."
9. Monotony Fields – Shape Of Despair (2015)
"I like music that creates an atmosphere. This album is just crushingly sad, it is just so fucking sad. I sometimes feel very disconnected from my emotions, and just to survive I have to pack them away and it can become difficult to cut through that and open back up, especially when it becomes time to be creative. You have to become vulnerable in yourself. For me, this record is another one that is just a key to something within my being that just speaks to me. It's another record that makes me cry.
"I can never find this record on vinyl. I don't really want to own a lot of albums, but I've listened to this record so much – Hundreds and hundreds of times – in recent years. I actually started listening to it around the time that the Thou collaboration began.
"For me, this album has a lot of the elements of heavy that we were talking about earlier. It has heavy guitars, it is super slow, there are some funeral doom elements to it. It is very much in the world of metal and has screamed vocals, but there's also synthesisers, there's melodic singing with intertwined male and female voices with an atmosphere to them that makes them sound almost like a synth pad.
"They were one of the bands that I wanted to come and play at Roadburn this year as part of my curation, but it didn't work out."
10. So – Peter Gabriel (1986)
This is one of the albums that I can go back to a lot as I get older, and will always appreciate the phenomenal production. It is dated in its sound without question, but in other ways it was truly ahead of its time.
"It is creative, it is wonderful, it is full of incredible musicianship and also has guest appearances from two incredible groundbreaking women – Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson – who were very important artists. Laurie was ahead of the field in experimental and electronic music.
"The song In Your Eyes... man. Call me hokey, but that song is just fucking beautiful and timeless. I will forever be obsessed with that album and that song."
The Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou album May Our Chambers Be Full is released on 30 October. For preorders visit Bandcamp.com