“See the world through apathetic eyes / love is useless when I die,” Emily Whitehurst of Survival Guide sings on “January Shock,” the lead single off her debut LP, Way To Go. Sure, such a line seems ripped from the Sylvia Plath playbook but keep listening: as the drums kick into the charging chorus beat her tone becomes resurgent, almost triumphant. “The sun will rise again,” she reassures the listener and, judging by the passion in her voice, you believe it. You have to.
This emotional struggle comes to define Whitehurst’s sound on her first full-length album, one simultaneously aching with love, shaking with grief, lacking in answers and bursting with determination to survive all the doubt, frustration and heartbreak the universe can throw at us. Musically, it recalls the dark, drone days of early Cure and synth-driven ‘80s pop, all coated in a modern-day electronic rock sheen. During our conversation, we discussed how this unique sound made its way to the record.
The Bay Bridged: First off, congratulations on the new album. Was it a long time in the making?
Emily Whitehurst: Yes, it did take awhile due to some logistical reasons. My guitarist and writing partner Jason (McKissick) was having a kid as we were constructing these songs. The process slowed down, and he couldn’t fully commit to the project anymore. We finished writing the songs together, but it took some time to achieve what’s on the album.
TBB: Did you have the arrangements planned from the start or did they change during the recording process?
EW: Well, the connection I had with Jason as a writing partner allowed for a lot of freedom. Whatever seemed right at the time is what ended up in the songs. We had a sort of free-form writing style, always trying to do the opposite of what would be expected in a pop song.
TBB: So did you add layers or go in any new directions once you hit the studio?
EW: Not so much new directions, but we definitely added layers. Jason was the engineer on the record and really fleshed out some of the musical arrangements. Paul Haile, who really has a knack for vocal arrangements, added a lot of harmonies as well.
TBB: I’ve noticed that the lyrics on the record balance that line between hope and despair. I was wondering what your mindset was like when you wrote them.
EW: You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head of every song I’ve ever written (laughs). I try to be a positive, optimistic person, and I generally am in real life, but for some reason I can never write a completely happy song. My creative drive doesn’t come from positivity I suppose. The things that upset or anger me, the constant push and pull of emotion in life – that’s what ends up in my songs.
TBB: So you’ve tried writing completely happy songs in the past?
EW: I just can’t do it! It’s weird, I have nothing personally against happy songs. I love all the upbeat, positive songs my friends write, but it’s like I have this aversion to writing them myself. Maybe some of it stems from my punk rock roots, but even that doesn’t totally explain it.
TBB: I love punk rock! Tell me about those roots.
EW: Well my first few bands were poppy, pop-punk bands. Things got a little more aggressive when I joined a harder-edged group called Tsunami Bomb, so maybe some of that edge has trickled into the music I make today.
TBB: How has your songwriting process changed, or has it changed, since your previously released singles?
EW: It’s more relaxed now and there is less emphasis on specific instrumentation. Overall, I think the whole songwriting process is becoming easier. It’s hard to give up a song. You’re always concerned with getting things exactly right, and now I’m trying to put away some of that concern. I think I’ve learned to let go a bit with this album.
Survival Guide, Young Aundee, DJ Stefan Aronsen
Neck of the Woods
May 22, 2015
9:30pm, $7-10 (21+)