Though Scout (née Emma) Niblett’s new record features a striking cover photo of her deep in a kiss, love songs are not on the menu.
The English musician, whose stage name references To Kill a Mockingbird, has returned with her sixth full-length record, It’s Up to Emma, out now on Drag City. The album is a raw, sparse slow burn. It picks up where Niblett let off in the purifying furnace of her previous effort, The Calcination of Scout Niblett.
Here, Niblett discusses the new album, her covers of Janet Jackson and TLC songs, and her take on astrology.
The Rumpus: In one of the interviews I read where you talked about The Calcination of Scout Niblett, you said that you had realized you were an angry person and that the music was cathartic for you. Do you feel less angry now that you’ve made that album?
Scout Niblett: To be honest, I think I’ve gotten in touch with my anger even more as I made It’s Up to Emma.
Rumpus: Would you say there is a dominant emotion or journey on It’s Up to Emma?
Niblett: I think for me, this album seems to be a reflection of a journey through all emotions. It feels like a document of an emotional evolution. Almost like the different stages of grief (anger, denial, acceptance, etc.), all about the same theme.
Niblett: I am immersed in a kiss, but the male has his eyes open…I see it as me being alone in that kiss. The songs are really me dealing with being alone, and the path I took to learning to embrace and value being alone.
Rumpus: You play drums, but not on this record. Is that just a function of recording live, or did you not want to do it this time through?
Niblett: I wanted to record as near as we could to a live setup for the basic tracks. And there weren’t any “just drums and vocal” songs on this record. Rather, this set of songs all seemed to need drums, rhythm guitar, and vocals at least, so I wanted there to be a drummer playing along with me while I played rhythm guitar.
Rumpus: Who produced It’s Up to Emma? How did s/he influence the album?
Niblett: I produced it. I knew exactly how I wanted the album to sound…and I think it took six attempts in four different studios with four different engineers off and on for over a seven-month period to get all the tracks how I wanted them. We managed to mix three songs in the studio. Then we ran out of time, and so I ended up mixing the rest of them myself at home on my laptop.
Rumpus: When you start writing, are you consciously writing an album, or do you just write songs that you piece together later?
Niblett: Songwriting never feels like it’s me doing anything consciously except for becoming aware somehow that it’s time to let something out, or let something in, depending on how you look at it.
So then I give myself time with a guitar and PA to let my subconscious do its thing. This happens repeatedly over a period of time, and slowly, a set of songs emerge that make some sort of sense to me as a body of work that turns into an album.
Rumpus: With my limited knowledge of musical notation, I always think your songs must be difficult to notate, especially with all your melodic fluctuations. How do you notate your songs?
Niblett: I’ve never thought to notate my songs…I tend to just have to remember them.
Rumpus: Do you have any videos planned for this record?
Niblett: Yes. I just finished the first one for “Gun.”
Rumpus: Your cover of “No Scrubs” is outstanding—it completely transforms the song and makes it your own. Why did you pick this song to cover, and did you have a different interpretation of it that helped you pick an arrangement?
Niblett: I just love that song so much and had been playing it live for years. I used to play it in the middle of an older song of mine called “Good to Me” so it acted like a bridge. But it made sense for some reason to record it along with these new songs, as thematically, it seemed to fit really well.
When I’d been playing it at shows, it was just as a drums-and-guitar two-piece arrangement, and I wanted to keep it really stripped down for the studio version, too. But I also asked Emil (who was the drummer on the track) if he’d be interested in maybe playing a solo guitar line in the background. He came up with an EBow guitar solo epic, which gave it this soaring feeling toward the end of the song.
Rumpus: You covered Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” on the same EP. I feel like it could raise ire for a white woman to release an EP with two covers of black artists. Were the racial politics on your mind when you got the idea?
Niblett: No, not at all. I tend to play covers when I’m gearing up for creating new song. Singing other people’s songs is a way that I get inspired. Those particular songs seemed so relevant to me lyrically at that time, and pointed to a theme that I understood and felt I could identify with emotionally.
Rumpus: Speaking of covers, I know Nirvana and Hole have been big for you, and you’ve played some Nirvana live. Do you think you’ll ever record covers of either artist? (Please say you’ll record a Hole cover!)
Niblett: I don’t think so, but who knows?
Rumpus: Do you do any visual art these days?
Niblett: Yeah, I’ve just finished some drawings that will be printed on T-shirts for the tour coming up in Europe. And I’m about to do a zine-type collection of drawings to sell on the tour, too.
Rumpus: I know you have an interest in astrology, so I wanted to ask you about that. (Also, in the spirit of fair disclosure, I have sun in Aries, moon in Leo, Cancer rising.) What are the planetary positions and shifts that make it an auspicious time for creativity?
Niblett: The beauty of inspiration for me is that you can’t predict when it’s coming. I like that it just pops up out of nowhere. You just have to be open to its arrival. It’s a very mysterious process. It’s not really something I ever want to figure out. It’s like a divine surprise gift, in a sense.
Rumpus: I’m a writer myself, and I’ve never known what to do during the Mercury retrograde. Do you have any advice for riding that wave in a creatively fruitful manner?
Niblett: Trying to start or initiate projects in a Mercury retrograde period is probably not a good idea, as they will have to be repeated or reworked when it goes direct. But Mercury retrograde is a great time to reassess and reflect on how you feel about things that you have already started. It’s a time to redefine, reword, and readjust anything you’re already involved in.