An interview with
Emily Bezar (2004)

By Beppe Colli
Nov. 24, 2004

It was with great pleasure that I heard about a soon-to-be-released album by Emily Bezar - her last one, Four Walls Bending, having been released in 1999. Of course, quality has never been an issue with her, but this time I can say that the recently released Angels' Abacus proved to be quite a surprise - as I've argued in my review, it could (half-jokingly) be called "Bezar's Commercial Album".

Surely the perfect occasion to have a nice chat. So I sent her my questions by e-mail, and though she was quite busy, and just about to leave, she kindly agreed to answer them.

Last time we spoke, your third album, Four Walls Bending, had just been released. In retrospect, are you happy with the way it came out?

Of course time gives you a fresh perspective and the blemishes that you hear immediately after you complete something fade and seem less significant. But I can still now say that of all my albums, Four Walls may be my most successful "recording" as it came out just about exactly the way I heard it in my head as I was writing and producing it. In that I mean it was a very sculpted, pre-meditated sound and I directed the band very precisely to achieve the sonic palette I wanted. I think I achieved the grandeur, the kind of monolithic scope and sturdiness that the song structures needed in order to be dynamically compelling on tape. I know that it would have been a very different album, perhaps a jazz record, not a rock one, had I allowed more freedom in the playing and more open, exploratory space instead of the consistent density of texture that it has. I had a great time creating the keyboard sounds for that album and am proud of the fact that I don't think they will ever sound "dated" or of their era... I think they never become just ear-candy and are always musically necessary in the arrangements.

In the past, three years had passed between albums. This time it was five. I was quite curious about your silence - and about the possible reasons for it: too busy? writer's block? logistics? no burning desire for self-expression?

Well, mostly logistical I suppose. In early 2001 I moved from California to France and of course the upheaval of an international move, not to mention transporting and re-setting up my small production studio, kept me occupied for quite a few months. When I arrived in France I had half an album's worth of material already written, stuff I had done soon after Four Walls came out, but it languished for a while and lost it's relevance for me as I settled into a new life, new rhythms. (Actually only one song from that first batch I wrote, Metronome, finally made it onto the album!) But then new songs started coming pretty rapidly and I went through several scenarios for the production of an album. At one point I was certain it was going to be a fast and cheap piano-trio-voice recording and was making plans to do it quickly in a local studio in France but the songs kept coming and arrangements filled my head and my ambitions grew and grew. Even though I knew I couldn't really afford to make another "big" sounding album!! And yes, money did have quite a bit to do with the delay... having to refill the coffers several times to manage to afford the best studios and players that I could. If anything, I was too prolific during that period and dithered about a lot trying to decide which songs to actually record... making demos and trying out arrangement ideas in the computer for songs that never made the final cut. Maybe they will reappear in a new guise some day! And then, as you can imagine, I leisurely explored what I like to call France's "holy trinity" - the wine, cheese and bread - I probably lost a lot of productive time on our terrace at sunset!!

Though it was recorded in two different occasions/locations, Angels' Abacus sounds quite unified to me. Which I imagine has a lot to do with the compositional process. Wrong?

No, you're absolutely right. In contrast to Four Walls, for which I jumped back and forth between the band, the piano and the computer in composing it, this album really originated on the piano, and my harmonic, melodic vocabulary was pretty consistent and in many ways, limited to what felt good in my fingers. Though I think the songs vary in complexity, they still share a lot of sonorities that I tend to gravitate to. And because many of them began as piano improvisations, I think they came from a very intuitive, elemental place - there was not a lot of forethought. In fact, strangely, many of these songs came to me early in the morning after a night of bad sleep! I'm sure my subconscious was churning away, waiting to explode when the sun came up! Mostly, I think there may be less "genre" confusion in this album - I mean that there is no "almost jazz" song or "almost folk" song poking out of the fabric. Maybe this is what happens when you refine and distill your personal language, develop your own idiom? You start to sound more like yourself and less like a cook trying out a new ingredient that hasn't quite blended yet.

As far as the "sound" of the album being unified despite the recording locations, I was pretty careful to be consistent with microphones, especially for the vocals, and of course much is due to the world-class players using great instruments that sound good in whatever country they're recorded in!! The dominant sound though is in the keyboard arrangements, which were all done in my small home studio. As I broke the original piano ideas out into full electronic orchestration around the band, I often found myself re-using sounds, or modifying them somewhat for a new song, so that there is really quite a good continuity throughout the album. Yet I think each song has its own sonic character and mood.

Though in many ways it reminds me a lot of your first album, Grandmother's Tea Leaves, I consider Angels' Abacus to be your most accessible - maybe I should say accessible-sounding? - album so far. Of course, you produced it, so the way it sounds was a conscious goal on your part. But I wonder whether the other personalities involved - Tim Pettit and Jon Evans - put their own two extra cents when it came to sounds (for instance, the reverbs on background vocals)?

Certainly the mixing and recording style you choose has so much to do with the "accessibility" of the sound, beyond just the songs' construction and arrangement. Jon and Tim were amazing editors and an invaluable "reality-check" for me that I had not really had before. But in no sense do I feel like I compromised my ideas or diluted the essence of the songs by going for a more commercial sound. Tim came in early in the process of producing and I loved being able to say "is this arrangement working for the song, or should I take it more over here...?" and being able to look ahead to the mix and start really scraping out things that were just clutter. He has a spot-on pop instinct, having come from that background, and he really opened my eyes to the way that most people listen to music... what they often hear and don't hear. Jon, besides being an awesome and tasteful bass player, has monster ears and was able to weed out extraneous and disruptive frequencies in the arrangements during mixing that I didn't even know were there. And the whole setup in mixing is so fluid, we all just worked together, experimenting with reverbs, effects until it just sounded true and "right" to everyone in the room.

I'm always certain that the rhythmic element has much to do with accessibility. If there's anything on this album that leans more mainstream perhaps, it's that I used the computer for some of the drums and percussion. I'm not saying that I find the grooves more rigid, it's just that they may sound more contemporary, given the software that I used to create them. And melodically? I don't know that I'd say the tunes are more accessible... I certainly find these melodies a bit difficult to perform live! I think I am using the full range of my voice operatically in a way that I hadn't since Grandmother's Tea Leaves. I think I've finally stopped trying to be a pop singer!

Your last album was recorded on analogue, this one on...? (I imagine on a digital platform such as Pro Tools?) I'd really like to know more about the different technical challenges, problems and advantages of this new situation, as related to your artistic ends.

Well, analogue was an exhilarating challenge and well worth some of the headaches, but I'll never go back!! Yes, this new album was recorded onto the computer, using a number of programs, and we mixed in Pro Tools. I guess the primary advantage was the portability of the work-in-progress. It saved me tons of money and allowed me to record wherever I wanted. Going from home to studio, from France to London and back with just some discs and a hard-drive was amazing! I even had my guitarist in New York record his parts in his own living room studio and mail them to me. But apart from the logistical advantages, the computer is like a huge, infinitely malleable sketchpad. The process of exploring a musical idea is so immediate - you take it from conception through multiple variations and create this feedback loop of doing/listening that can become the engine of the compositional process... or at least for me on this album, of the process of orchestrating a song. I suppose the challenge is in managing to focus on perfecting an idea, given the limitless options for experimentation at your disposal. I am a big believer in beautiful and fortuitous mistakes, but I also think that the power of the computer is most awesome when you can harness it to create the world you already hear in your head. However much I've benefited from the digital domain though, I still don't think I have yet made an "idiomatically" digital piece of music. I guess I'm still a pretty conservative songwriter, working in a mostly linear fashion, building from the small to the big vertically. There is so much interesting music out there now, mostly in dance-music and its sub-genres, that could be conceived nowhere else but the computer. Music that has the gorgeous randomness and split-second variation of timbre that you can only do in the box.

In some way, the track Walk That Blade reminded me of Bacharach: am I allucinating?

I actually think Heaven to Pay has a bit more of a Bacharachian vibe!! But yes, I can see what you're saying about Walk that Blade. Maybe the trumpet is what does it, but I suspect it has something to do with the interlocking parts of the vocals in the chorus. Of course it has a jazzy-pop feel that is somewhat retro. I've always been a big Bacharach fan but I have to admit I don't know his stuff very intimately, so I can't count him among my major influences. I love the intricacies of the arrangements in 60's and 70's pop. I can't wait to get my hands on Brian Wilson's Smile!

You are an independent artist. Last time we spoke, Napster was yet to come, as was the whole downloading phenomenon. I know it's a very complicated - and quite heated - issue, but: What's your opinion about the kind of impact this has for independent artists?

It's having a huge impact, but for independent artists who want greater exposure for their music they still have to compete with the music industry machine on-line, which now has its fingers in many of the legitimate, and underground, downloading sites. It's still slow and difficult for independent artists without a label to make their music available on many of the big download retail sites like Itunes and Musicmatch... the pipeline is rather clogged. As for free downloads, yes it is exciting to have my songs circulating out there for people to hear, as I have no real distribution channel apart from the internet and certainly most radio these days is off-limits for anything out of the margins. However, at some point if I, or other independent artists like me, want to afford to make another record, we have to have some sales and assert the ownership of our work, and thus I'm conflicted about the whole file-sharing thing. I'm most excited about this upcoming organization/website to be started by Peter Gabriel (, which proposes a whole new conception of music delivery via the internet. He wants to deconstruct the whole aesthetic of the "album", for artists to be able to show their process, to think of the internet as an evolving "open studio" where work is revealed in-progress and without the marketing constraints of a record label or the limitations of a physical delivery method. We'll see if he can get it going!! As I might have said last time we spoke about this issue, I don't believe that "copyright" has become archaic, that the age of idea-ownership is over, as has been suggested in some corners. Yes, "copyright" may evolve, but I still hold the romantic and maybe too naive notion that history is propelled by the commerce that erupts in the wake of great ideas from great thinkers.

A more general question: What future for excellence? I mean, once artists were mostly the kind of people that made you think "I could never do this, not in a million years", so you really strove to reach those peaks. While nowadays I think the most common reaction is "Of course I could do this!". Which on the surface looks as more egalitarian, but it just makes me wonder...

Let's sit down in front of a LONG French meal (or Italian, of course!) some day and discuss this one! I know there will always be a future for excellence and an audience for it... it's just that it seems to be smaller and smaller, and the advertising media have now perfected the magic of disguising banality as Great Art. Yes, I think it has to do with the dominance of a populist esthetic in the modern world. We still feel guilty about the class schisms of the last centuries and reject all residue of the monarchies, the upper classes that are so closely associated with opulence and advanced education and the western cultural canon of art and ideas. And I think there is still a general distrust of history (of course there are a lot of horrors to remember!), a belief that contemporary ideas are always the most progressive and relevant, no matter how well-reasoned. If you define "excellence" in art as the power to move mass consciousness, to influence and bring together many people for some social good, then perhaps it's not necessary for an artist to have exclusive abilities, or to be inimitable, but just to be understandable. The striving for "excellence" in a more abstract sense, the one that I think you are implying, compels artists to seek the perfectability of the human spirit through self-expression, regardless of its effect on society. As for what I strive for? I don't know... just to make my music as beautiful as I can, as I can't possibly think of spending so much time on something that didn't move me.

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Nov. 24, 2004