Skim through the lyrics of Scout Niblett’s latest album, It’s Up to Emma, and the common threads are pretty easy to spot: anger, disappointment, desire. Something—-or more accurately, someone—-went wrong. The album’s seething vocals; downer guitar; and carefully deployed, aching string section bring it all to life. The simmering “Woman and Man” is a prime example. With only three lines, Niblett sums up the range of the feelings one might experience after a relationship falls apart: “What happens right there/Between a woman and a man/Don’t get so excited.”
The Portland, Ore.,-based, England-bred singer-songwriter (real name Emma Niblett) plays at Comet Ping Pong tonight. She’ll be joined by Baltimore’s Dope Body, whose drummer, David Jacober, is also filling in on drums for her. About a month ago, I spoke with her over the phone while she enjoyed a short tour break in Bergen, Norway. We talked about the album’s self-referential title, the odd video for album track “Gun,” and how song meanings can evolve.
This interview has been condensed.
Washington City Paper: With It’s Up to Emma, you’ve included a bit more of yourself by referencing your birth name in the title. What were you hoping to evoke with that reference?
SN: It was really—the idea was kind of like someone that wanted me to do really well, it would be something they would say. People who know me really well don’t call me Scout, they call me Emma. It’s sort of like looking at myself in the third person.
WCP: Could you please tell me about the album cover?
SN: It wasn’t supposed to be on an album. But the photo was a photobooth photo. When I saw it, I just figured—I was working on the album and it made sense as a cover. It seemed to fit in with the theme of the whole record.
WCP: Was it posed or was that a spontaneous reaction, what we see on the cover?
SN: That was a spontaneous reaction. [Laughs]
WCP: So, that person wasn’t a model? Who is the person on the cover?
SN: It was someone I was dating.
WCP: I guess they were OK with the cover?
SN: Yeah, yeah. He was totally fine with it.
WCP: The image is pretty personal. As are these songs. I’m guessing all these songs, on this record, they take from your life, right?
WCP: You produced this record. Have you done other production work before this?
SN: I’ve done singles—a couple of singles I had before. I didn’t engineer the record—there were a couple of engineers. But I just mixed it at home.
WCP: Were you able to use anything that you might have learned from your time working with Steve Albini?
SN: Well, in terms of engineering, that wasn’t my—I wasn’t doing that part. But, I think I tried to make sure the tracks, for example, were as live as they could be in the studio. And, also, I was quite particular about the drum sound.
WCP: Being alone and learning to work with that seems to be one of the themes of this record.
SN: Uh-huh. Yeah.
WCP: Oftentimes, when you’re in a relationship, there’s lots of time and energy spent on focusing on being with this other person, or working with this other person. And when you’re alone, that energy doesn’t have the same place to go. How do you deal with that?
SN: I think that what I was doing with that energy was making the record, really—last year into the new. [That was] all I was doing. [Laughs]
WCP: On the song “What Can I Do?,” it seems like you might be speaking to a partner, or a former partner, but it also seems like you could be speaking to yourself.
WCP: Who were you directing that to?
SN: I think in my mind, when it was being written, I felt like I was talking to someone else. But I think, in retrospect, I’ve had the same thought—that I was maybe talking to myself. But I think that happens a lot with songs. You know, you tend to project—in terms of partnerships or whatever—you tend to project a lot of things that actually are more relevant to you and say more about you than the other person. Or you tend to pick up things about other people that you really, really can kind of hear yourself.
WCP: Looking at the lyrics for this record, I noticed a handful of—spread out among the different songs—of lines like “Get out of my way” and “away,” the kind of pushing of things.
WCP: I’m guessing that was part of that process of making this, was getting away from something?
SN: Yeah, I think that I was definitely pushing situations away from me that I was sick of.
WCP: Where did you shoot the “Gun” video?
SN: It was shot in Portland and it was quite random, but it was the day we were shooting that there happened to be a Cinco de Mayo festival on the fairgrounds and stuff. I had no idea it was going to be there until we got downtown. It was a pretty happy accident there.
WCP: Why [did you dress up like] Snow White in that video?
SN: I woke up one morning and that was the person I wanted to dress up like. I kinda wanted it to be very light and I wanted the character to be someone that was really easily distinguishable and not threatening in any way. A quite innocent character, but iconic at the same time.
WCP: I think I’ve noticed Snow White and ballerinas in some of your art that might be for T-shirts and that kind of thing. What’s your connection to those kind of figures?
SN: Well, the Snow White T-shirt was really because I wanted to tie it to the video so I kind of tried to draw Snow White just because of the video. And the dancer was—I’ve done a lot of shirts where people are kind of, in motion, in some way. Where the figures are always holding up a sign saying something. A lot of the time they’re kind of doing something and I think dancing is one of the most obvious ways that someone could be moving.
Scout Niblett performs with Dope Body and Roomrunner September 10 at 9 p.m. at Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW. $12.