Emily Wells won't say exactly why she left Los Angeles, only that when she moved out of town three years ago, it was simply time to go. Wells is funny and easy to talk to, but the hesitation in her voice concerning this subject suggests some sort of ordeal.
The clues are in the music. Wells' 2012 LP, Mama is an album about loss and grief. A new companion piece, Mama Acoustic Recordings, out yesterday, features pared down versions of the same songs. While a typical performance might find Wells, 31, playing a dozen instruments, she made this latest LP using just her voice and a guitar, recording each song in one take. She sings quietly on the new album, because, she says, she felt quieter about the subject matter this second time around. The stage of grief that these two albums represent, Mama Acoustic, Wells says, is acceptance.
Born in Texas to musical parents, Wells lived all over with her family, attending high school in Indiana and then settling in Los Angeles for eight years. When she decided to move away, she gave up her cabin in Topanga and headed first to New York City and then to Portland. In Oregon, she took a break from her fast-paced touring schedule, staying with friends and “learning how to eat really well and run long distances and be really wholesome” while also exploring her acoustic side.
She found that the technique, so different from her typical production style, allowed for a new level of honesty in expression. With just a guitar, there was simply less music to hide behind. Re-recording her songs with no plans to release them, “allowed me to be totally tender with the music.” But then the desire to hear the new versions on vinyl led to to the project becoming an album.
Music of such pared down contemplation is an about face for Wells, a musician since childhood who came to prominence in the local folktronic scene on the power of mad scientist style performances that find her oscillating between piano, violin, a beat machine, drums, guitar, banjo and more, layering their sounds along with her own haunting voice via live looping.
The result is big, sometimes orchestral and often moody music that comes to life during live shows and on albums including 2008's The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties and the following year's Dirty EP. Wells worked with composer Clint Mansell on the soundtrack to the movie Stoker, and the debut album from Pillowfight, Wells' collaboration with producer Dan the Automator, was released earlier this year.
There is one new song on Mama Acoustic, the only thing Wells wrote during her Portland sabbatical. It's called “Los Angeles.” Wells wrote the track for a friend who had just moved to the city and calls it a love song to the place and people she left behind. “I missed it like you miss a lover,” she says of L.A.,” I ached for it. I romanticized it, but this song is about loving people and a time and a place.”
Now based in New York, Wells is currently touring behind Mama and Mama Acoustic, presenting both sides of her musical persona during shows. “[Playing acoustically] is a practice in presence,” she says, “which is kind of funny because that's part of why I started doing the other set up. I wanted to stay challenged as a musician onstage. It's kind of coming back full circle, because this is about being emotionally available.”
In this new method of laying herself so bare, confessing her emotions onstage without her instrumental accoutrements, Wells has perhaps never been so powerful a performer. She says it's not unheard of for audience members to weep while she's onstage just playing guitar and singing. “And I'm not a great guitarist by any stretch of the imagination.”
Wells presents this softer side when she plays her homecoming show at the Echo on Thursday. On an evening sure to be thick with old friends, Wells will play two sets, the first acoustic and the second with all her instruments. “L.A. is going to get a special, super long type of thing,” she says. “I trust L.A. enough to let me do this.”
She won't be in town for long, just enough time to play the show and maybe take a drive through Topanga. For her, it's still home though. “There's a lot of cities that claim me,” she says of all the places she has lived, “but I claim L.A.”