The powerful string and choral parts on Emily Wells’ latest album, Promise, reveal her deepest musical roots. The daughter of a music minister, Wells was encouraged to learn classical violin from an early age, and she grew up surrounded by old-world Christian hymns.
“Then more recently, my obsession has been music from Mali. Seeing Tinariwen live a few years ago—I was in awe. Their music falls into a certain place where my body understands it but my mind doesn’t, and there’s something really thrilling about that.”
On the self-produced and mostly self-engineered Promise, Wells has fused those sounds of church choirs, classical strings, West African music, and modern electronic instruments into magnificent original songs that evolve throughout the composition and recording process.
Emily Wells did most of the recording for Promise in her personal studio. “Production is a big part of the writing process for me,” Wells explains. “I usually go into the studio with a pretty clear but skeletal idea—a melody and lyrics concept. For me a very focused writing process could take a day or a week, but when I’m in it, it’s almost like a fever.”
However, sometimes it helps Wells to come up for air: “When I was working on the song ‘Light is Draining,’” she says, “I had been obsessively in that space for a few days, and I knew it needed something. Finally, I broke away to have dinner with friends and I witnessed this scene: A taxi driver was pulled over and slumped over, and there was a paramedic knocking on his window. Two girls were walking in front of us; one was lagging back out of concern, and the other was yelling to her friend, ‘Come on, we gotta go! Come on, the light is drainin’!’ When I returned to my studio that night, I couldn’t shake that. Some piece of dialog you overhear can finish a song.”
Wells’ studio is equipped with Pro Tools, a few microphones, preamps, and outboard pieces, and of course her collection of acoustic and electronic instruments.
She records her strings with a RODE NTK mic, into a Ridge Farm Gas Cooker preamp. “No compression going in,” she says. “I keep it simple, and add strings, layer on layer.”
Many of Wells vocal parts were done in her studio as well, via her Neumann TLM 103 mic, while other vocals were tracked in Bushwick—a studio that used to be situated in the same building as Wells’. “It was wonderful because I could just trot on down to the next floor,” Wells says. “The mic we used was an older Neumann that he had rebuilt and replaced the capsule. Of course, now I would do anything to have it, because it so matched my voice, but he made it himself and the space is in different hands.”
Wells did drum programming in her own studio, and then asked her friend Shayna Dunkelman to play acoustic drums and other percussion instruments in Brooklyn’s The Creamery studio, where her friend and occasional production partner Jacob Plasse often works. “Jacob came in close to the end and helped me make some production decisions, which was great. It can be scary sometimes, making choices, telling yourself you made the right choice, and then building on them. If there’s a fault, the whole castle can fall.”
Those later drums and percussion parts were captured by engineer Jeffrey Fettig. “We did a lot with this enormous bass drum that Shayna has, and it really rounded out the electronic beats,” Wells says. “I love that mixture of acoustic and electronic drums.”
Wells also recorded additional keyboards in The Creamery before returning to her own space to mix with Plasse. “We wanted to take our time in a comfortable environment,” Wells says. “We used a lot of my Fostex spring reverb, Waves plug-ins, a lot of Soundtoys, which I love. But I will say that I also was mixing as I went along [during tracking], so there were not a lot of big ideas that happened in the mix. It was more like, ‘This is finished. Now let’s make it sound as good as we can.’ It was more like massaging something—pulling the blood to the surface.”