Elegantly blending a background in folk and education in jazz with a perhaps newfound passion for neo-soul, Emily C Browning is another surprisingly little known local artist who has found herself a steadily growing niche with international audiences, in her case north America. With US touring right out of the question for much of 2020 she’s spent the year back in Christchurch, released a couple of singles to back up her 2019 EP titled ‘WTF’, and more recently taking the punt on local touring. Margaret Gordon caught up with Emily to find out more about her undercover overseas success.
Weird pop, soft jazz, neo-soul, lounge – whatever you do call it, don’t underestimate how serious Christchurch-based Emily C Browning is about her music.
“If people want to call me, I don’t know, like the indie Taylor Swift or whatever, I don’t care. They can do it, even though that’s like miles away from what I’m trying to do.”
She’s been full-time as a musician for eight years now, including three years at the jazz-based Ara Institute in Christchurch. Describing the course as very hard, she nonetheless thrived.
“I feel like my theory chops are just way better than they ever were. And it’s good for songwriting. It’s been great, no regrets whatsoever.”
While she mostly lives and works in Aotearoa, Browning’s following is largely US-based, and discovered via Instagram.
“I was in my final year of music school, and I started just posting these little videos of me just kind of really holding myself accountable to learning like little bits of tunes on the guitar and stuff. And then I got featured on this Instagram page called Pickup Jazz, now they’re Pickup Music.”
That Instagram page (which also has a website) is run by US-based Christchurch ex-pat Sam Blakelock and has 490k followers, the exposure putting her squarely in front of a vast US audience.
“From there it was like, oh man, like I got 1000 followers! I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ And so from there, I just started posting regularly, and really kind of digging into – or leaning into that audience and kind of finding what I thought that they might enjoy.”
So what does her particular American audience (LA, Chicago, NYC and Sydney stand out on her Spotify plays) enjoy?
“They love anything weird. They’re into it. I’m a little bit more like just weird pop. Just weird, soulful, weird stuff.”
By now she has toured the States a number of times, including shows at SXSW, and currently has 113k followers on her Emily C. Browning Instagram page alone. Her touring highlight to date was playing at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.
“It was just this beautiful, big stage, this beautiful venue. And it was just one of those moments where you go like, ‘How did I make it here? What, what just happened? And how, why am I standing here right now?’ It just kind of burnt into my head of like, ‘Wow, I did that.’ And I’m really proud of how I got there.”
Of course like all travelling musicians the Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to her international touring, so along with musician Jack Page, Emily is in the middle of a Kiwi-style tour, i.e. travelling to different centres over three consecutive weekends. To her, it was like the right time to connect with local audiences. A double headline bill also made things a bit easier.
“That way we could split the cost of the band, we can split the cost of the flats, I don’t have to pay him, he doesn’t have to pay me. We could both be in each other’s bands, we work out really nicely, we can all learn the songs and sing each other’s harmonies, it just worked out well”
Playing more at home Browning has discovered audiences here respond to a different kind of music than in the States.
No matter, she uses her considerable technical chops to woo audiences at her live shows.
“I try to just really focus on the technical aspect of what I’m good at inside music. So like trying to really focus on like lyrics that people might connect to, or playing the chords the right way, or just playing it with a really nuanced tone or nuanced feel that I think might catch a couple of people’s attention.
“I feel like you should lean into the things that you’re naturally better at and I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not a Robbie Williams of the stage, and that’s okay.”
There was a 2018 EP ‘Daydreaming’, and a new album is in the works.
“Over lockdown, I was just writing, writing, writing, writing, writing! I was thriving, just loving it. And I was learning how to use Ableton. Learning how to produce my own music. I’m really digging into that now. I’ve written a set of songs that I’m really happy with.
“I’d really like to learn at least how to do it all myself, so that I know that I can. And then inviting people would be just really purely community based, not because I need to, but because I just want to have those people on it.”
And she doesn’t muck around – projecting her album will be finished by February.
“I really want to get it out as soon as possible, especially before I start to get stale on these songs.”
But first will come a post-tour rest, which the natural introvert says is essential.
“I know that it’s coming, I can feel it. Even after every show the morning after the show feels like it can be a little bit of an emotional hangover. So even if I was dead sober I still feel weirdly like emotionally hungover, just from the over stimulus thing.”
Working on music production alone is more of a pleasure for Browning, but there’s another reason for her wanting to go it alone.
“If you have like a guy come in and do something there is that assumption that he was the producer, or maybe he did the more technical side, because, unfortunately, it is just assumed that the girl just does the singing on the top.
And I feel like we have something to prove. It’s like you have to really grit your teeth and push that little bit harder to make it happen, and that’s a little bit frustrating, but it’s all part of it. There are positives and negatives of being a woman in the music industry. And sometimes it’s like swimming through mud.”
One of her most rewarding collaborations of late is called Her Songs, a five-woman group with members from the UK, US, and of course, NZ. They have recorded three EPs and intend to do more.
“It’s really pushed as like a worldwide collective of female producers who are trying to just independently make good music. The goal is just to inspire the next generation of female musicians.”