Perth singer/songwriter, Em Burrows, has become a striking presence on the WA music scene, since the dissolution of her previous band Lammas Tide saw her emerge as a solo artist with the release of a debut EP, Solitary Sounds, and its excellent single, Paces, in 2016.
It was a big step forward, in a lot of ways, but one she was certainly ready for.
“It seemed like a natural progression in a way,” Burrows considers now. “I still very much see myself as a ‘band’ person though; I'm not really into doing solo live shows or anything like that. Calling myself a solo artist basically came from the way I write my music. I used to write songs on the piano and take them to The Tide and the band would write their own parts, but then I started writing on an iPad and demoing songs in their entirety.
“Whereas The Tide was a sum of the flavours of all of the great players in that band now my songs are very much just what's in my head… and then executed live by various brilliant local musos!”
Burrows first backing band was the The Bearded Rainbow. Although this line-up was relatively short-lived it provided the personalities and musicality for her to step back on to a stage with new songs and a new performance dynamic.
“I was pretty burnt out after The Tide,” she notes. “I absolutely loved it. I dig psych folk music to my core and I'll never not feel like that about it, but it was hard playing that kind of music in a small scene where there wasn't really an audience for it. We sold more records in Scandinavia than we ever did in Australia! After we released (2014 debut LP) Barefoot Electric I actually thought I'd never write music again. I'd really put everything into it and after five years we were still playing weeknight shows. But you know, I guess you can never get away from being a songwriter and eventually I started messing around with some songs again and felt okay about it. I'd gone through a divorce around that time too, so I was finding myself in more ways than one. I had a break from playing for at least a year.
“I basically recorded my new tunes first, then co-opted some friends in to play it live and it worked a little more like a session band where I'd write all the parts and they played them. That was The Bearded Rainbow, the name was a shameless Cream reference!”
With creative momentum clearly a factor, over the last year Burrows has written and recorded her debut solo LP, Invisible Seams. It’s a rather sumptuous listen, with vocals and instrumentation quite beautifully layered.
“I guess I wanted to explore different sounds and go for more of a pop sensibility,” Burrows says of her intentions for the album. “The stuff I used to write was much more proggy; different time signatures, sections that never repeated and odd chord progressions. It was more conscious writing; more cerebral. I wanted to get rid of that and write without screening myself.
“Usually I write a bunch of songs that are really cohesive in a short period of time - like maybe five or six - then I'll go, ‘oh this has a flavour’ and write the rest to that flavour, which makes up an album. I discard a lot too.
Invisible Seams explores the connections we have to others – and other things. While there’s been a ‘60s feel running through Burrows’ music, from folk to psych, this album has moments - certainly for this listener - that are very evocative of the ‘80s in a manner that goes beyond a mere synthesiser-aesthetic.
“Yeah, I love the ‘60s,” Burrows enthuses. “It was such a unique time in history where people were really present, you know? It was fresh and exciting and people were pushing boundaries.
“Growing up in the ‘90s, the ‘80s was always anathema to me. So uncool! All those cheesy pop songs and shoulder pads! (laughs). But then I think I had enough distance from it to realise that a lot of it is really fucking cool. Like my dad always adored Sade and I never got it and now I absolutely love her too. Definitely the sax vibe on this record is more in the vein of the ‘80s pop sax thing - hopefully something a little like Echo Beach meets Roxy Music (laughs).”
Expectations is once such song certainly that evokes that, right down to the video. It’s like one of the great lost videos from the Rage archives.
“I handed that over to some great women (Daisy Clover Films) I know with a brief that it should be a little bit like an ‘80s female Reservoir Dogs,” Burrow reveals. “They totally picked up on that! It's also really Australian in flavour that clip, which is a first for me. I tend to lean towards the more English thing, usually.”
Meanwhile, Melt Away transcends from commercial pop to an avant-garde freak-out/send-off. It seems these polar opposites often do battle in Burrows’ mind.
“Totally! Music is always about conflict and contrast for me. It's those chords that shouldn't work but kinda do and those textural things that push boundaries that I love. My friend Mark got an MS20 when we were playing in the Rainbow and I found that really inspiring. I was like, ‘Use it on everything!’ That's what you hear at the end of that song.”
Burrow’s grandfather’s voice features on the title track. He was the Professor of English at UWA throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, which goes some way to explaining some of Burrows own lyrical nous.
“He was so erudite and articulate,” she recalls, fondly. “He always talked about poetry and literature. He emigrated to Australia from England in the ‘50s. He died a few years ago now and I found some great audio on the UWA website of an aural history with him. It was so good I decided to incorporate it into Invisible Seams which is basically all about trawling through history and making connections.”
As well as literature, music also reigned in the family household as Burrows grew up. It has had lasting memories and influence.
“I was so lucky to be raised in a house with two parents who really love music,” she notes. “My dad reads a lot about music too and to this day knows more about it than anyone I know - other than his brother; there's a bit of rivalry there I think!
“He loves English folk rock, so we always listened to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span but then he would also crank up Julian Cope and Elvis Costello. My mum loves to dance and even when we put on horrible ‘90s stuff in the kitchen she'd still get into it! I was so lucky to be absorbing all of those sounds and vibes throughout my childhood.”
Passing that on, Burrows has worked in music education over many years. It’s provided an education on both sides of the classroom.
“I'm pretty sure that I've learnt more than all of the kids,” she laughs. “Teaching music helped me to understand it better; how it's constructed, how to work with other people to make it. Mentoring bands for so many years at Rock Scholars (Burrows founded the school) was a really steep learning curve for me because teenagers get good at things so quickly and you have to keep up.”
These days Web Rumors is the band through which Burrows records and performs her music. It was formed as a one-off performance celebrating women in music, with songs especially written for the show.
“The short story is that playing with a group of women changed my life for the better,” Burrows explains. “It feels more authentic and natural than anything I've ever done in a way. Basically, I couldn't not play with that band after that gig. The members of the Bearded Rainbow were so understanding and supportive. It wasn't my intention to move on to something else at all.”
Burrows has previously stated that Web Rumors has been perhaps the most fun and constructive band line-up she’s played with. Does it feel more pertinent playing with a female line-up in this era when gender equity in music and arts is beginning to be recognised (and debated) more than ever?
“Absolutely,” she affirms. “The first rehearsal we ever had we basically stopped halfway through and started talking about things that had happened to us all in the industry. The stories were all the same. It was the first time I'd realised that a lot of the difficulties I'd had stemmed from being a female musician. Feeling like I had to really prove myself technically to be worthy of a place in the music landscape was something that most of the band members had experienced, not to mention the attitudes of punters/sound people, etc.
“I feel so liberated in this band because the attention is spread evenly across the players. Whereas, when there's only one woman, or two, in a big band you feel a bit of a spotlight.”
With Invisible Seams now released, future plans simply reveal more of the same. Same, but different, no doubt.
“I'm about halfway through recording a follow up album which will come out around September and I've got half of the third one written too,” Burrows says. “I just want to make records, to be honest. It's all I've ever wanted to do and now in my late 30s I think that life's too short not to just do it!”
Em Burrows & Web Rumours launch Invisible Seams on March 22 at The Bird with help from Ryan Beno, Erasers and DJ Libby Noble (RTRFM). Full details at www.facebook.com/events/221871148359728/
Invisible Seams is out now through Group Therapy Records