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Emily Sprague, Alone

An interview with rising modular synth star and multi-instrumentalist Emily A. Sprague of Florist
By Tony "Tonx" Konecny|
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photographed by Kathryn Vetter Miller

 

Music editor Joshua Fisher and I caught up with multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and modular synth savant Emily A. Sprague on a perfect, tranquil Los Angeles afternoon in Griffith Park underneath the Hollywood sign. Joshua has long been a fan of her band Florist while I’m a recent convert to her masterful ambient electronic work. 

I first heard her modular synth work at a Leaving Records outdoor performance event alongside another favorite and frequent Sprague collaborator Sean Hellfritsch, who records as Cool Maritime. Ambient isn’t a genre that produces many stars, but as a new generation discovers and expands upon the universe of modular synths, Sprague is quietly emerging as one of the leading lights. Last year’s self-released Water Memory was easily one of my favorite records of 2018.

In July the third Florist LP Emily Alone was released on Double Double Whammy. It’s a melancholy-tinged record that manages to sound lush while being lo-fi, spare, and intimate—and like much of Florist’s catalogue, lends itself to repeat listening. We spoke to Sprague on making the move to L.A., recording at home, and her approach to making music.

Joshua: Did you spend much time in L.A. before moving here?

Really just through touring. Every time I ever came to L.A. I was checking it out, and a lot of my friends moved out here in the last three or four years from New York. This whole shift happened.

Joshua: The mass exodus.

I feel like that happens every ten years. I love New York, it’s such a heart home for me, but at the same time when I think about going back there to live, I’m just like, No, I can’t. Right now at least.

I lived both in the city and upstate. I lived in this old schoolhouse from the 1800s which is where we recorded the last Florist record, If Blue Could Be Happiness (2017), in this place I was renting. I love the Catskills, the mountains; it’s such a huge part of the fabric of me and it’s a miracle that I am the person that I am because of where I grew up, and what I grew up around. But I just need to be in a city pretty much.

Joshua: Listening to your music, your connection with nature is intense.

It’s a huge part of my life. I need both things definitely and that was also a realization that I just recently started having, which was—I have a lot of really intense Gemini duality things about me. One of the ways in which that manifests really strongly is my energy in a city and also wanting to be completely rural, in nature. For so long I just thought that it had to be one or the other. So it would be these extremes: living in New York, having to get out of New York, trying to live in the middle of nowhere, and being a young person who needs to be stimulated creatively by people and culture and diversity, which is really hard to do that in a rural place like that. But then I just was like, Well, I’m gonna move to L.A. and California is perfect.

Tonx: Are you set up with a full-on home studio here?

Yeah, right now. I’ve been thinking about having a separate studio space. My whole life I’ve only ever had studios in my house. That’s how I learned to be creative: being in my own space—whether it’s a bedroom or a little room in an apartment or whatever. Creativity happens at home, I think that’s probably from being self-taught. I never went to college or anything, so I never experienced what it was like to have separate spaces for different things. But I’m starting to become really interested in that—mostly through just working with other people and starting to do a little bit more collaborating, and feeling the feeling of waking up in the morning, getting a coffee and driving somewhere and then going, Okay! let’s talk about concepts! And wow, it is a totally different way that your brain can create things, and it is the complete opposite of the way that I know, so I’m interested in it. 

I joke that my house is a studio with a bed in it, that’s where I recorded this new Florist record that’s coming out. That’s where I’ve been recording instrumental stuff. 

Joshua: So on Emily Alone, is the band on this record?

No, Emily Alone is kind of like a solo record under the Florist moniker. I went back and forth about releasing it as Florist, because Florist really, truly is this friendship between me and Rick [Spataro] and Jonnie [Baker] and Felix [Walworth] and we’ve all been going through such different things in our lives. I moved out here, obviously, and they’re, you know, all still in New York.

Joshua: You guys grew up together, right?

Pretty much. We started playing music together and there was immediately a connection, and it’s never going to end in that way—Florist is always going to be that. But Florist has also become a documentary of my life and the lives of us all, when you read between the lines in the project. This chapter in my life and in our lives is actually a part of Florist. We’re making our next record in June, actually. I’m going to New York for a month, and we’re going to record in a house out there. It’s going to be this quick follow-up to Emily Alone that’s very much about collaboration and friendship.

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Tonx: What is the Emily Sprague musical origin story?

I took guitar lessons for a couple of years when I was twelve or thirteen. I learned how to play some Beatles songs and stuff like that; I was taught chords and things. I had a guitar and a piano at my house growing up, and I had a laptop.

I was really interested in not just learning how to play—I didn’t want to just play an instrument—but to create music and part of that in my brain was that I wasn’t really interested in performing. I was interested in the sculpting of sound and making recordings. The first song that I ever wrote, I recorded—and learned how to record and it was very much on the same lineage of learning.

And then, the more the more songs I would write, the more I would experiment with different ways to record. I got a little synth and would add soundscapes to that. I had this idea of the way that I wanted folk music to blend with very loosely formed, ambient sounds and synthesizers. I never have had a very rhythm or beat-driven intuition for making music, it’s always been very malleable and formless outside of the song itself. That I did on my own from when I was fourteen until I was eighteen and then I met Rick and Jonnie. 

There was a group of older musicians in the Woodstock scene and they saw me play and were interested in helping me record my music. I had this whole, very different, specific idea of how I wanted to make more new sounding, indie music with this idea of synths and things. I was recording in Woodstock with this guy who was like, I want to record your songs. I was really young, I was just like, okay, let’s just try it; I want to be a musician. During that time I met Rick and Jonnie, and we started playing music together and, I was like, Wow, this feels really good. We understand each other really well musically. And so I brought them these songs that I had been recording with this guy in Woodstock and they were just like, Uh nooo, and I was like, I know, it’s not right, it’s not good. So that just got completely scrapped. I basically said, I’m gonna go punk rock and not do it this way, and then we recorded the first Florist EP in my parents shed. 

There’s some photos of that space that I found recently. It was a storage space for a family, so there were those plastic bins completely piled to the ceiling, but then there’d be keyboards on top. You can just make out that there’s music equipment in there, and we would set up and be completely crammed in there. 

The recording thing has always gone along with it. I recorded an album before Florist, it was an Emily Sprague album of what basically just became the project Florist, before I played with Rick and Jonnie.

It was very much on that whole journey of learning to record sounds and getting inspired equally by both. And still I am totally obsessed with it—I think Emily Alone sounds really good sonically.

Tonx: I’m not a musician, but to me it feels like the natural thing that it should be the ambition of any band to have their own recording tools, but if you go to music school composing, recording and performance all become these different silos. 

My ultimate favorite music is probably the intersection of intentional intimacy and the essence of pure chance. I think you can hear when something sounds overproduced or where that was more of a priority than anything else with the music, and I think that there’s a really easy way to get lost in that and make something that sounds like it’s really good but also be unpleasant to listen to. Things can be sonically imperfect, or not up to some frequency range standard, and be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. One of my favorite artists ever is Grouper; those recordings are just perfect. They just sound like that, they sound like it, the thing, it’s just great.

I think there’s a balance between all that stuff. You have to use your ears above all else and not get something that sounds like what you think it should sound like, but that sounds like the feeling that you’re trying to communicate through the whole package of the music. It’s about the music itself and about the song and about the performance, but also about the recording. I mean, you could record a song in a hundred different ways and each one will sound totally different. 

Tonx: Has working with modular synths opened you up to that? Letting things land where they land?

I think that was part of what attracted me to it in the first place, was that philosophy. When you’re playing a guitar and using your voice and your hands it’s immediately human; every little thing that you change and do can give it that emotion and that personality, and at least for Florist, a lot of what those songs are about are these little moments of vulnerability.

I’m really interested in ambient music and in instrumental music, but every time I went to make it I was stuck at this place of it being soulless. It wasn’t so much the modular synth, though. More than anything, what that did was rework my brain so I could perform formless, unstructured instrumental music, hit record, and have a couple of things going at once and understand the basic technology of what I’m working with. Then I could have something that is entirely electronic, but which does share a similar effect as something that has life in it and isn’t just programmed. 

Discovering modular and working with that for a few years really solidified that in my brain. Now, I have been working with instruments that aren’t modular—sounds on the computer and stuff—and I’m still able to apply what I learned from that process and and make things that feel natural and correct. 

Emily Sprague of Florist in Griffith Park Los Angeles

Tonx: Are you a picky eater when it comes to music?

I love music. Music is my favorite thing in the world, but I don’t listen to a ton of it. I’m constantly searching for music that hits through every level of what I’m looking for. The last few years, when I really started going into the ambient project on my own music, I started this deep quest for ambient music that I that I really loved. I would say of the artists that have influenced me the most within that genre—J.D. Emmanuel is a huge influence, Pauline Anna Strom is another—both of these artists I feel have a very mystical quality to their ambient music. There’s a lot of corny ambient music, though.

Tonx: Some of it feels more like conceptual art than music.

I think it’s really easy to go too extreme in the genre and it just becomes unrelatable. I think that ambient music that has a darkness in its beauty is usually the stuff that really attracts me. Wizards (1982) is an album by J.D. Emanuel that is just perfect, a perfect ambient album. I love it. I was recently DJ-ing in Marfa—I have the vinyl of Wizards and there was this huge gust of wind while it was on the turntable and scratched scraped across the ground.

Hiroshi Yoshimura is also a deep influence. It’s more environmental music, my ambient tastes are pretty minimal. I definitely am influenced by that stuff more than the really lush, super drone-y stuff. I love meandering melodies and really pretty tones that do surprising melodic things.

Tonx: How do you develop a fan base? Do you feel like you know who the audience is for that stuff or how big that audience is?

I think the audience is growing. Ambient music is really becoming more of an accepted, mainstream thing. All of the vinyl reissue things that are happening now are reinforcing this. There’s more strange instrumental music, and ambient is definitely included in that. 

Tonx: Tell us about the new Florist record.

The thing that’s most important to me that’s understood about that record is that, when it’s removed from our personal identities, it’s about being forced into a time of stillness and isolation, after and during great growth and change, and how that’s a necessary part of life sometimes. The other thing about the record that I care a lot about being communicated—and I think it will for people who really are listening to it—there’s a duality in the record that is about both mundanity and the ways in which you can have this total beauty in a very still and uneventful section of your life, but also accompanied by this really deep relationship to basically all other dimensions and the way that the fabric of our reality is layered by a lot of a lot of other energies and interacting with those things.

There’s a little bit of this spiritual, supernatural, sci-fi message in-between the this is my Normal Reality thing. That’s an important part of it to me. 

The other thing that’s really important is that it’s about seeing darkness as healing, and seeing darkness as something that doesn’t have to be this negative thing. The album, I think, has this sort of “void” feeling that was really intentional and the album cover and everything is black and white and dark. I really wanted that to be very intentionally different from all Florist’s other stuff, which is pretty light-hearted and colorful. It’s about welcoming darkness, and it being a really necessary thing to have as well as beauty and peace and stuff like that.

 

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