Interview with Indie Rocker Emily Danger
by Sophia Harvey
It’s one of the first truly miserable nights of fall. Rain washes the streets with the swamp-like odor of Manhattan’s Chinatown, pedestrians assert their umbrellas and tighten their peacoats, and the only happy people in sight are those in line for The Slipper Room. Eager CMJ concertgoers pour, wet and shivering, into the modest venue entrance on Orchard Street. Upstairs awaits a lush burlesque hall with floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains and gold-painted mahogany woodwork. We huddle together and clutch our drinks as the lights go down. A drum-beat kicks, a synthesizer swells, and a woman stands center stage wearing an animal-print muumuu of pink silk and a necklace made of bones; into the microphone she shouts, “We’re Emily Danger and it’s my goddamn birthday!”
The band dives into a raucous performance of “Going Down,” a defiant song off of their latest album, Peace Arch, that bemoans the idiocy of homophobia in the South. Front-woman Emily Nicholas’ powerful vocals roar while Cameron Orr shreds on the violin and brand-new drummer Ricky Watts beats time in a goosebump-inspiring, country-infused political rock anthem. They’ve gripped the room with energy and they won’t let go until the very end of their set. Their sound is singular and rebellious, complex and haunting. Emily Danger’s self-proclaimed “dark cabaret rock” is like nothing I’ve heard before, incorporating hints of Radiohead and Björk, to name some of many influences. As they gear up for one of their slower songs, “Easy (Remix),” Nicholas asks the audience if we’re ready “to go to sexytown.” We are. Orr raises his bow but suddenly the violin cuts out. While technical difficulties are common, they are nonetheless nerve-racking for any performer. But a word from longtime producer and bassist, Devon C. Johnson, and something magical happens. Nicholas abandons the microphone and stands alone in the spotlight. The words come from somewhere deep within her and the room shrinks to her a cappella. She lingers on each word of the wrenching opening. “I fell before I think you did, and now disaster has taken place.” An already emotional song comes into stark relief, given depth by this raw voice that can fill an entire venue on its own.
A few days later, I sit in Nicholas’ living room in South Slope, Brooklyn. Light streams in from the window and the room is small and filled with vibrance. The space we are in doubles as a studio and paintings compete for room with books and records (Pavoratti to Portishead) and all the other materials of her constantly churning life. I can’t help but notice that Nicholas’ eyes are always huge. She habitually sweeps bangs aside and looks at you expectantly, optimistically.
We are discussing the a cappella moment from earlier in the week. It’s fun, she says, to remember that she can do that. She explains the feeling as something more personal, vulnerable, and freeing. “It comes from the place where you would hold a child, so it feels very womanly.” Of course, what she’s talking about is singing from the diaphragm, something Nicholas was trained for at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, where she acquired her master’s degree in opera. But she describes this schooling as more of an obligation than a passion. In fact, she hated opera. (She looks at me intensely and enunciates “hat-ed”). And no sooner did she finish her degree, did she leave it behind forever.
Nicholas describes a night in school, waiting backstage, where she was paralyzed with stage fright. “People were like, ‘it’s your time now, you have to go on. Other people are waiting for you to sing your line.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think today I’m gonna do it.’” She laughs so easily at the story that it’s hard to imagine this woman ever being afraid of anything. Soon after that night came her graduation recital where, after a full lineup of classical pieces, Nicholas closed the performance with James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.”
“Everybody was on their feet and afterwards they said it was the best part…and even though it was still somebody else’s song, I had more fun doing it and I feel like I revealed more artistry because it’s the style of music that I love. So to hear that [support] from my peers, and people I respect, and then to feel so emotionally attached, that’s when I was like, enough’s enough. So I just stopped.” Stopped opera, that is. That was three years ago and Nicholas has been writing and performing her own rock music ever since. And it’s moments like those, when the violin cuts out, that make room for the artistic spontaneity that Nicholas loves. There is no perfection in rock and roll, she reflects to me, you are allowed to mess up. It seems as if that realization, that diffusion of pressure, is what started Nicholas down the path to her present, arm-waving, muumuu-wearing self.
She is instantly warm. As soon as I walked in the door to her apartment, Nicholas met me with a large hug and a cup of coffee, wearing yet another memorable get-up; this time a hand-painted, neon yellow and white XXXXL t-shirt with black and white striped leggings. She introduced me to her husband and collaborator, John Patrick Wells, and joked about how she has to write herself reminders to Instagram and finish her coffee.
And there are indeed notes everywhere. Wells sits by their shared desk; it is littered with paints and notebooks and half-finished mugs of coffee. Above the desk is a bookcase with more notes tacked on. (Nicholas’ to-do list has no coffee reminder, but it is indeed extremely detailed.)
It’s difficult to reconcile these stories of the stage-frightened opera student with the larger-than-life, wild rocker on stage or the easy-going person in front of me. But it’s exactly that discrepancy that’s so interesting. Emily Nicholas the singer/songwriter and Emily Danger the band (formally together for less than two years), have matured at a rapid pace, as if Nicholas had spent her whole life preparing for the moment that she would excite an audience of stiff-collared professors with a little soul.
The show at The Slipper Room marked Nicholas’ 30th birthday and she brought down the house in just the same way. They closed the show with two songs: their new single, “War Torn,” and a blood-pumping cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” that ended with Nicholas giving a riled-up audience the finger while belting, “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” into the microphone. No stage-fright remained.
“Is this you?” I ask. “Absolutely,” she nods vigorously, setting her coffee down on a Ziggy Stardust coaster. “It used to feel like a persona because of the fear I had when I first started out.” She speaks freely of the pressures of living up to the likes of classical singers, and the expectations of professors and peers, and the immense anxiety that that can bring to a performance. “This new album has grown me up, and working with a band and collaborating and feeling like my voice is heard in the room– that show in particular, being on my birthday, was just like a big ol’ “F— it,” let’s go. It’s me, it’s totally me. I can’t really be as large in my daily life but that’s how I feel inside.”
Nicholas grew up in Bakersfield, California, a town to which she attributes the band’s occasional honky-tonk twang. She and her parents differ on religion and politics, she explains; “My mom directs the church choir, that kind of thing.” But contrary to what one might imagine, Nicholas was always encouraged to continue banging on pots and pans. And that encouragement carried through to grad school. Nicholas is mid-sip when I open my line of familial questioning with, “Are they mad—” she nearly spits her coffee all over the couch and Wells laughs from across the room. “Don’t continue, stop there, that’s perfect,” he says.
“I think they saw it coming when I started picking up instruments…and staying out late…” she answers, gathering herself after the near-Marx Brothers incident. Nicholas paints an amusing picture of the time her father came to a show at Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick, which she describes as “not really a dad-in-his-sixties type of venue.”
“There was stuff hanging from the ceilings, there were people smoking outside, there was a guy doing coke outside.” Nicholas has a well of pride in her eyes when she tells me that he loved it. “All he said to me about it was, ‘this is what you should be doing.’”
It’s a rare experience talking to someone who has, essentially, stumbled upon her bliss—especially in New York City, a place where dreams often come to work tirelessly and shape shift or disintegrate. Nicholas describes the progression from the band’s first EP, Paintings, to Peace Arch, to the currently in-production War Torn, as all uphill, particularly given how how quickly it happened.
In between the two published albums, Emily Danger introduced synthesizers, much more drum, and many other sometimes-instruments, which allowed them to explore a soundscape that is as far-reaching as Nicholas’ four-octave vocal range and Orr’s violin virtuosity. In current shows they load as many instruments, keyboards and pedals on the stage as possible. And just as Nicholas always wears JoJo Americo clothing, Orr never wears shoes. “He adjusts knobs with his toes,” Emily whispers like he’s in the room.
Lyrics-wise, the band has grown up as well. As is the case with most new writers, Nicholas’ words on Paintings come mostly from a personal place. And although that still exists in the band’s current work, she describes Peace Arch as more progressive. It wrestles with personal issues, this time, through an esoteric, world-conscious lens, oftentimes tackling the political as well.
But as Emily Danger has come into focus, the band has triggered some upset, something Emily considers to be, in part, a result of her sex. “I’m going to be pretty frank,” she leans in, as if to tell me a dirty secret, “I think it pisses people off that a woman is saying these things. A lot.” I think back to her on stage at The Slipper Room, channeling all the strong, angry women who came before her as she stood, holding up the middle finger in firm alliance with her politics. Nicholas has a history of choosing unexpected covers. In fact, that’s how she got the nickname “Danger” in grad school. But apparently, “Killing in the Name” is not a hit with everyone. She says that when they unveiled their version of the song earlier this year, even her closest friends questioned it. “I think specifically because I’m a female, saying those words, being that pissed on stage, making such an obvious political solidarity statement—that scares people and when people are scared their initial reaction is ‘no.’ They just shut it off.”
It’s astonishing that in this day and age, with a history of performers including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday before them, that this should still be an issue. How many angry women will have to flip the bird, literally or metaphorically, on stage before people start listening? Emily Danger uses their collective experience, and sometimes their collective anger, to add another voice to the protest. In some ways, however, the shock value attached to a woman donning some stereotypically masculine protest-pants may work in the band’s favor. They’re definitely booking gigs. And maybe that’s all that matters, as long as people keep hearing what they have to say.
And Nicholas has a lot to say, none of which she’s going to change to please an audience. “I would rather not cater to everybody than be fluffy, cotton-candy-likable. I would rather be a little aloof, a little left of center. And there’s a lot of sacrifice in that. I’m never going to be rich, I’m never gonna have my own plane, I’m never gonna be Beyoncé (and I love Beyoncé). But that’s just not who I am, I don’t think I could put on that kind of show anymore. I spent the majority of my life stifling who I am and I had a birthday last week and I’m ready to not do that anymore.”
Peace Arch is definitely far from cotton candy. It is raw in its approach to topics personal as well as political. Nicholas’ husband has been sitting with us while we talk, and at some point we get to the topic of their relationship. She admits, “we fight all the time, and I write about it.” Wells nods from his desk. “I have a no-holds-barred thing with my lyrics. If it’s obviously about him it’s going on record, sorry, that’s just what it’s gonna be. And the same thing with his visual art, he can use me and has used me.” She gestures to several large paintings that adorn the apartment walls, one of which is a canvas dripping with the same pink wax used in Emily Danger’s “Shed My Skin” music video. She sees their interactions, positive or difficult, as “fuel for our artistic fire.”
They are each other’s muses and collaborators and, like most artists in New York City, they live and work together in tight quarters, all the time. Fighting is inevitable. But it is clear that Wells is a constant support to Nicholas and her work (he has also directed all of the band’s excellent music videos). Next to her to-do list on their bookshelf is his list, which is made up of penciled-in social media figures: “Shed” 1204 1132 1507, “Peace” 1567 1344, and so on. These are daily hits for the band’s music videos. He explains to me how important it is to have as much knowledge as possible about whatever you’re doing in order to have creative autonomy. So together they work and together they play.
Part of the ingenuity of Emily Danger is that they see the intrinsic relationships between the personal and the universal. This understanding is something that has lifted many great artists from the fray. When I ask Nicholas about her dream-line up, her headliner does not come as a surprise. David Bowie is an artist known for, among other things, reinventing himself almost as frequently as Madonna. It’s never clear whether this kind of persona-hopping is due to malcontent or a keen business sense, or both. But what is clear is that the self-awareness and openness to keep pushing, keep exploring, is what made Bowie a superstar. And throughout each stage of his career, he had the emotional intelligence to write songs that transcended the gap between his intimacies and our desires. This kind of forging-ahead is evident in Emily Danger’s path so far, and although they may not be glam-rocking any time soon, I am sure we can expect the many incarnations of Emily to remain on the scene for quite a while.
Emily Nicholas’ Dream Line-Up (in order of appearance):
Antony and the Johnstons
Headliner: David Bowie
See original post at CRETUSmag.com