Emily Jane White
There’s a rare confidence to Emily Jane White’s songwriting: it’s at once generous and tough-minded, reflective and unsentimental. Her work shares some elements with folk music, but the term does not do justice to her ambitious songwriting and robust arrangements. White possesses a singular voice inspired by the raveled threads of the uncanny in American culture, including depression-era blues and classic works of gothic literature such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
White’s third album Ode to Sentience is her most realized work to date. Drawing upon finger-picked folk, traditional country, classical music and rock, White creates an expansive space for her intuitive lyrics and elegiac vocals. The spare skeletons of the songs on Ode to Sentience are fleshed out with subdued electric guitar thrums, diaphanous organ, ethereal pedal steel guitar, lush strings, and White’s dusky alto with its signature catch. Her indelible sound has earned White a devoted European following, prompting her to regularly tour France, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands in recent years.
Ode to Sentience unifies White’s recurring themes and her fascination with Gothic America into an assured statement. There’s an emotional potency to the songs, betraying her keen eye for the power dynamics of interpersonal conflict, melancholy, and confinement. In “I Lay to Rest (California)”, a meditation upon isolation, oppression, and the redemption of grace, White imbues the potentially morbid statement “You were a body, you were a ghost, now you are nothing, the dark it up and rose, and toward the light it took you, and melted your wings, you were a body and now you are nothing” with the optimistic recitation, “there must be a way out.” White doesn’t wallow in darkness and morbidity; instead she considers her work to be unifying, an empathetic reflection on the universality of adversity. She sings of individuals “dwelling within oppressive circumstances while seeking liberation despite their isolation and silent suffering.”
This sensibility betrays White’s provenance. Raised in Fort Bragg, California, a seaside town nestled in the misty, secluded woodland of the Mendocino Coast, it could be said that optimistic melancholy and isolation don’t only suffuse White’s songwriting, but are in her bones. While attending the University of California, Santa Cruz, White researched gender studies and nurtured an acute social conscience. Her passion for social justice informs her songwriting, evidenced by her previous releases Dark Undercoat, which garnered raves from the likes of Spin and Rolling Stone, and Victorian America, which contended with the state of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. Ode to Sentience is equally engaged as White’s previous works, but delves deeper into the fundamental dynamics of injustice, achieving a sympathetic and universal investigation of the personal as political.
Despite such thoughtful concerns, White embraces songwriting’s intuitive logic. “I strive to create scenes in my writing that allow for abstract rather than literal interpretation,” she says, giving listeners space for “interpretation and discovery.” While there is rich subtext to her work, in execution it is effortless and transporting. As she demonstrates on Ode to Sentience, “a simple melody with words can be impressionistic and suggestive.”