“Music has always been how I work through my turmoil,” Emma Ruth Rundle says by phone while heading toward Albuquerque on her current tour, which arrives at the Echo on Sunday, Dec. 9. The 35-year-old singer-guitarist’s latest album, On Dark Horses (Sargent House), is a darkly engrossing meditation on love and death set against wide-open physical and emotional geography. The L.A. native has endured an unusual amount of difficulty in her life, including dealing with mental illness and the fallout from having been raised by an abusive mother.
But Rundle has managed the greatest magic trick of all on her new record — transmuting the raw pain, fear and alienation of her life into a supremely cathartic work of art that finds the saving grace of love amid the wreckage of her childhood. “All this traumatic past has provided me with a lot of material to work with,” she explains. Describing the song “Darkhorse,” Rundle says, “It represents my sister and I coming out in our adulthood and exploring success and … beating the odds. I’ve had a lot of struggles, particularly mental-health issues, but I’ve come out on the other side.”
“A kiss is a bruise is endurance,” Rundle murmurs during the intimate, spectrally plucked introduction of “Control,” which soon shifts into thunderously heavy passages intercut with more restrained and overtly beautiful melodic verses. “That song is really upfront about physical abuse and alcoholism, and being confused about what love is and continuing to survive,” she says. “Your parent loves you but is just damaged. As a child, you don’t have the tools to understand and separate out gestures of love from gestures of violence.”
And yet, by boldly confronting depression and death, such as the passing of the grandmother who raised her “when my mom was too fucked up to take care of us,” Rundle has witnessed and reveled in the curative powers of love. “It’s about a romantic ensnarled, tangled situation, waiting for someone to love you back,” she says of “Light Song,” a droning, grungy, slowly unwinding soundscape. “The song evolved in Louisville, Kentucky,” where she relocated after falling in love with Evan Patterson, the singer-guitarist with Jaye Jayle, who are co-billed on Rundle’s tour. “It sort of became our wedding song,” she adds. “It also references this baptismal concept of going to the river and being raised up to a new place, and there’s a sensual quality to it.” In 2017, she and Patterson released a split EP, The Time Between Us, which juxtaposed three tracks by Rundle with three songs by Jaye Jayle. On the current tour, Patterson and Jaye Jayle bassist Todd Cook are doing double duty by playing in Rundle’s band.
“I wasn’t raised in any Christian background at all,” Rundle says of the images of saints and angels that recur in her songs. “I think I’m really fascinated with the concept of redemption and salvation and transcendence. … Some of those metaphors were impressed on me in a visual way. It’s an easy, heavy-with-meaning language to draw from. There’s a certain gravity to that imagery — the idea of heaven, the idea of being salvaged in some way.”
Is it difficult going on tour and being in a band with her lover? “It actually makes things easier,” Rundle says. “I much prefer us playing together. Hopefully, Evan will continue to play guitar in my band. It’s a lot of work for him and Todd.”
Part of the price of love, though, is that Rundle had to relocate to Patterson’s home in Louisville. “I would like to move back if I can convince Evan to do it,” says Rundle, who misses the natural beauty in Los Angeles and struggles with Kentucky’s severe winters. “It’s kind of brutal, to be honest. It’s absolutely a culture shock. I don’t feel at home there — I don’t think I ever will. I really long for the West Coast. I’m in an extremely missing-L.A. phase right now.” Although she’s excited to return to Los Angeles, “Homecoming shows are always stressful because there’s so many people to catch up with,” Rundle notes. “I miss the L.A. music community. I miss going to Footsie’s on Heavy Tuesdays.”
Rundle was born in Santa Monica and moved “back and forth between the Westside and Eastside” when she was growing up before attending Eagle Rock High School. “I first started playing music when I was about 8. I was taking Celtic-harp lessons at McCabe’s,” she says, before moving to guitar at age 12. “I started hanging around McCabe’s until I got a job there. At age 13, I started writing songs — they were probably pretty terrible — and playing lots of Mazzy Star covers. I don’t really do covers anymore.”
In addition to her mournful, expressive vocals, Rundle has long been recognized for her heavy, evocative guitar sound. “It’s evolved and changed,” she says. “When I was young, Jimi Hendrix was God, then I got into Smashing Pumpkins, Mazzy Star and Chris Whitley.” In addition to her five solo albums, Rundle also has been a member of The Nocturnes, Red Sparowes and Marriages. About the latter two groups, she says, “There’s been talk of a resurrection of both bands. When there’s time, I believe there will be more output.”
As much as Rundle misses Los Angeles, she also feels a special kinship with the United Kingdom, where she spent some time with a past romantic partner, inspiring her to write “To Fold in England (Hours),” a languid, engrossing idyll that was included on The Time Between Us. “I feel this spiritual center when I’m there. There are so many sheep [in the countryside] that, when they die, they just deteriorate into the landscape. That’s how I want to die, consumed by those green, rolling hills in England.”
Emma Ruth Rundle and Jaye Jayle perform at the Echo, 1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; Sun., Dec. 9, 8 p.m.; $16. (213) 413-8200.