Only at the end of my almost hour-long interview with Emma Winston (Deerful) does she realise she hasn’t once mentioned her upcoming EP, Home (out 14 October on WIAIWYA). Luckily she didn’t completely forget it, because then we wouldn’t have been able to offer you this exclusive first listen stream.
Don’t forget to read on as we also did a long interview with Emma about why she started writing songs, the differences between the indie pop and creative tech scenes, and other topics ranging from what DIY is to stalking bands you want to be part of.
The Home EP was intended as something a little different. It features two old songs, a new song, and a cover of the Mountain Goats all arranged in the style of old-school video game music, or chiptune. I have a real soft spot for old games and their soundtracks; I remember playing through Kirby’s Dreamland, Super Mario Land and Ducktales (of all things) on my old brick-style Game Boy as a kid, listening to the music and wondering how they did it, thinking, ‘I wish I could do that!’. Well, now I have, sort of.
There is a mini-game which goes with the EP which is loaded on to the limited USB drives, but which you can also play online here.
I meet with Emma Winston, who writes songs as Deerful, at the London Bookshop Review Cafe, which I chose because it is a bookshop and I like books, and because it is close to King’s College where my girlfriend studies. Incidentally. Emma teaches at King’s too, but like me she is unfamiliar with the area. The cafe turns out to be cosy but a tiny bit too posh, with a wide range of teas served in porcelain, with tea strainers. We both pick the Vanilla Black.
Before Deerful, Emma played in a couple of other bands, including Owl & Mouse, Enderby’s Room and with Darren Hayman. “I have this really embarrassing tendency of joining bands I’m a fan of, which is really not cool. I found Owl & Mouse on the internet and I was like, I wanna be friends with them so badly! And then we met at a gig and she took me out drinking and I drank the most alcohol I’ve ever drank in my life. I blacked out and woke up in her house, but for some reason she still let me be in her band, even though I thought ‘she’ll never be friends with me now’.” Similar stories exist for her involvement in Enderby’s Room and Darren Hayman’s band.
Now, of course, there is Deerful, which has Emma’s synths and voice on the forefront, reminding me of the early Magnetic Fields as well as indie pop classics like The Field Mice – so it’s not surprising that she has done a cover of their tearjerker ‘Emma’s House’. What’s the difference between being in a band and working alone like?
“One odd thing is that I’ve never collaborated creatively. I’ve never been one of the writers in the bands I’ve played with, so actually I can’t imagine working in a creative capacity with someone else. Even with Dan, my partner with who I’ve been for four years now, he writes songs when he’s in our flat all the time, and I write songs when he’s in the flat all the time, but we never collaborated. I love working on my own because I feel I can get so much done and I like being completely self-sufficient. To an excessive extent. I’m working on an album [probably out at the beginning of next year] at the moment and I decided I wanted to be the one to mix it, even though I really liked the mixing on Staying Still. I just decided that I wanted to learn how to do that. Several people have told me that it’s a bad idea, but it’s too late now as I’ve already done initial mixes for the entire album. And it sounds okay!” Indeed, Emma is not a perfectionist (anymore): “I know it’s never going to be perfect so I’m very much going to finish it when it’s no longer shameful for people to hear.” She laughs: “That sounds really shit!”
How will the sound of the new album compare to the EP? From the sound of it the new work will be a lot more lo-fi, though Emma warns me this won’t be a bedroom record! However, it will definitely be a more stripped back sound, and apparently there will also be some “really weird stuff” on there, like the following: “It’s not really a song, it’s a sort of song, but the only part is a text-to-speech thing on my Macbook that’s reading stuff out from a Twitter live-feed, which probably sounds a lot more experimental than it actually will sound on record.”
Talking about experimental: this new Deerful music video was entirely procedurally generated by a computer!
In terms of the lyrics, I ask whether the new songs will be as personal as Staying Still was. I point out that even though the press release stressed how personal that EP is, all songs except for one are written from the second person perspective – and the other one’s written in third person! “This is like a therapy session!”, Emma cries, and what follows is a long elaboration on exactly how personal her songs are. “I don’t know how to write something not about myself. None of the songs on Staying Still are completely about me except one, but they are all at least partly about me. I was reading an article the other day about the art blender: the idea is that you put all of your ideas in that blender, and then you decide how finely you’re going to blend it and how much like the original thing it’s going to be. Some people have it turned up really high, and they put all their ideas in there, and what comes out doesn’t seem to relate to that at all, but it’s still there at some distant level. And some people barely blend it at all, and it’s really obvious. I think I’m somewhere in the middle.” Halfway through this stream of consciousness Emma becomes self-conscious about talking a lot (that’s what interviews are for!). “I talk just this much when I’m playing shows. The first show I ever did I ran over by half an hour because I was talking so much. I’ve been told that it would ‘increase my mystique’ if I talked less on stage. That sort of perversely made me want to talk even more, because I don’t think you’d say that to a male musician.”
Obviously Deerful’s songs are great. However, Emma’s greatest achievement might not be her music, but the Cat Simulator 3000 (although she tells me that financially it’s a lot less successful, the total revenue from making the game available at a pay what you want basis being one single pound). It reminds me of the supremely sad text-game Emily Is Away, of which Emma happens to possibly know the creator [turns out she doesn’t]. This discovery leads us to a discussion of the creative tech scene she is involved with (her Tiny Gallery twitterbot project was “my 15 minutes of fame… but why did it have to be this thing?”), and the differences between that scene and the London indie pop scene. “I’m gonna have to be careful,” she starts. “In general I’m less sceptical of the creative tech community, but it’s still not very diverse. I would say the same about the indie pop scene. Both of them are overall friendly, provided you fit into their ideals of what a person involved in that scene should look and be like. If anything the tech scene is more diverse, still overwhelmingly white and middle class, but less so and more aware of it. There is a bunch of people myself included who think that the indie scene is less enthused about diversity than it believes itself to be, which is understandable for a music scene full of mostly white people, but they seem to be very bad at owning it and taking steps to rectify it when things go wrong. The online creative tech community is better at holding people to account for that stuff – maybe it’s easier to hold people accountable online.” This topic naturally brings us onto Emma’s PhD research, which is about subcultures in the ukulele community. “Subcultures are always messy. There are no clear boundaries. The way people talk about subcultures it seems that the scene is a mass that acts of its own accord and everyone in it thinks and behaves in a particular way, which is not the case, as it’s made up of individual actors who will agree and disagree with each other on some things, overlap with other subcultures, move in different directions. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about a subculture as being inclusive or exclusive, even though some corner of it might be better than others, some individuals may be better than others, but there’s a constant clash between individuals in subcultures, be it indie pop, creative tech or ukulele players. I owe a great deal to the indie pop scene, but I also feel that relying on it too much and valorising it as this perfect inclusive utopia to the extent I think sometimes happens is not good. That’s something you see a lot in the ukulele scene I’m studying. There’s an equal number of people who hate the ukulele and love it for the same reasons, whereas that hasn’t happened to the indie pop scene in the same way, even though they’re very similar: broadly left wing, very white middle class, but the left-wingness doesn’t seem to undo the white middleclassness, even though people would like to believe that it does.” Contentious territory, perhaps, but an important message nonetheless. I don’t know the indie scene as well as Emma, but looking at representation alone it’s clear that race is a problem indie still struggles with.
I sometimes feel that the DIY ethos found in these circles is part of the problem: you need to be privileged to be able to ‘afford’ DIY, when there’s often no record deal or other funding available. Emma mentions that even though her iPad/Macbook-only approach seems DIY, it doesn’t feel like that. “In a sense electronic music is more democratic than guitar bands, because statistically 93% of people under 30 have a laptop and you can get a lot of the software for free. Oddly despite the fact that electronic music is financially more accessible it’s not thought of that way and I don’t know why that is. It feels less DIY for some reason. If I decided to be a singer who plays the piano instead that would almost be more DIY, even though I don’t have an electric piano because I can’t afford one in the first place.” (In relation to that, there’s this article by Grimes which Emma has retrieved for me – it’s an interesting read!).
This is my favourite Deerful song!
With her PhD research, creative tech endeavours and other projects, I wonder how these things all relate back to Deerful. “I started doing that stuff around the same time as I started writing music. Before that I never really made anything. It was during a period of time where I was rock bottom horribly depressed. I wasn’t feeding myself or getting dressed, but the one thing I managed to do, even if it was only for half an hour a day, was to just start make stuff. I almost didn’t care what it was, but it had to be things that I wouldn’t have to get out of bed for. So for about six months I made everything I could make with a laptop or iPad in small increments. And that crystallised into ‘Yes, I really enjoy making music’. I’ve gone my entire life without making anything. It was almost like I realised just now that I’m allowed to, so I’m doing anything I can now.” At that point I realise that this afternoon I’ve been talking to and getting to know Emma, the person, and not merely Emma, the woman behind Deerful.
To close off I ask the question I always ask when I do an interview: are you a Beautiful Freak? Like a lot of musicians I meet, Emma feels easier with describing herself as a freak than calling herself beautiful. “But having said that, that is probably a good description for what I’m trying to do with Deerful. I wanted to be odd, but I also want to be pretty I think. I feel like a lot of DIY music shies away from being pretty. There’s this whole community of people making music on Gameboys, but they all make techno which isn’t pretty at all. But those things also lend themselves very well to prettiness, you just never see them being used that way. I’m always trying to find a balance between prettiness and weirdness. And I don’t think I’ve found it just yet.”
-- Caspar Jacobs, October 13, 2016