Image: Kristin Cofer
Ours is a most precarious moment. Ecologically, economically and, perhaps, most importantly inter-personally. Our bonds are becoming increasingly more and more undone. Then there are, also, the bonds that have been buried, the untold stories and histories of generations of women and indigenous voices erased by capitalism and the whitewashing of a different, alternative path. These were voices whose connection and responsibility to the earth were a profoundly ethical and communal skin. Many today feel severed - not just from this deeper ancestral story, but from the earth itself. We find ourselves in the grip of a nameless dread, climate anxiety and political confusion which often manifests in states of rage or cynicism or numb or, quite simply, defeat. But what if, beyond this deep despair, there were also well springs of hope? Emily Jane White's new album, Immanent Fire draws a circle for us, an invitation to step into our grief. Grief over what we've become, to the earth, to each other. The Canadian Songwriter Ferron once sang that "in our hearts we know we are goodness", Emily picks up on this elemental spark, a fire of hope that is burning still in each of us. Things that are immanent have a right to be in and of themselves. A river, a crow, a valley, an oak, an inviolable soul and purpose inheres in each of these. And, it should be said, in each of us. Immanent life is also an interconnected life. And that interconnection begs response, care, tending to. And love.
This grief work of an album is a singularly unique and transformative invitation into the circle of mutual acknowledgement, holding and reconciliation of our current moment of catastrophe and earthly wounding. A music that speaks to the dismantling of our blessed and only container. Perhaps the way into these problems, after all, at least at the level of acknowledgement and reconciliation, is better traveled through the invitational source of art than through the cold and detached media lens. And so an album of songs become invitation to enter this circle and to reclaim our bonds to the earth and to one another.
And into that deeper part of ourselves we are called, parts that we learn to shut down in our everyday lives, sometimes for good reason. The danger is in staying shut down (or only taking in shut-down sounds). But music hits that switch to our emotional, permeable selves, an expansive self, a grieving self. (Think of all the songs that move us to tears.) In this way music seems to be a way into much of what we shut out, in order to survive and not succumb to despair. But music offers us also possibility, redress, promise, potential. I think in these listening moments we ourselves often become creative co-participants, we are open to receiving something we didn’t anticipate before we encountered and were moved by the power of the song. Songs such as these do something indescribable to us; they hammer a truth home.
Perhaps these songs, speaking to the grief and catastrophe of our current moment, can do the same, open up something indescribable in us that invites us towards change. “There is no awareness more situated in the present moment than what is found in our bodies,” Francis Weller writes. Music enters into our bodies, sound awash and through us, reverberates down into our bones. It is what opens us to presence (sound cannot be denied) it comes to us unbidden, each time a surprise, while also opening us to dreaming and infinity. It becomes a liminal space, a crossing from present presence to unknown and creative river beds of potential, of change and transformation. How do we learn to expand on those moments? How do we take them with us? How do we keep feeding the flame in a world that prioritizes smothering it, killing the dream and destroying the liminal crossing that music and art open up in us? I talked with Emily recently about these questions and about her new album; Immanent Fire. The hope and wisdom found here was deeply moving and inspiring and I sincerely hope that our readers might find, in what follows, much the same.
James Diaz: Immanent Fire is such a profound album that really speaks to our current moment and I’d like to start with the title. This idea of immanence, of things sufficient unto themselves. What are your thoughts on that, on connectivity and the interdependence of things. Do you think we need to start out with that base line recognition first, that things have a right, in and of themselves to be, and then go from there?
Emily Jane White: That’s a really good way of putting it. It’s kind of a question of morals and ethics in a way. In this day and age, with out of control, unregulated capitalism, there's this sort of fundamental belief that you can extract, separate things and basically reap as much benefit from the earth as you want. But, like you mentioned, there’s a real interdependence and a sort of wholeness that provides for our quality of life and well being here on this planet. We have a bunch of climate scientists saying we need to turn things around, that our very quality of life depends on it, and yet there are still people who believe, fundamentally, morally and ethically, that they can decide that those things aren’t important. I don’t know how you would convince somebody that’s so strong minded - that there’s an inherent value to life and all beings and that we are all connected and that there is an interdependence. I’ve never had to argue somebody directly on that point exactly.
JD: I think your album is a great entry point on that front. For me, as a listener, it felt kind of like grief work, a type of deep and embodied mourning. And grief work is hard. I certainly know people who just can’t think about it or fathom it. I wonder if maybe for some people it's just such a traumatizing thing to fully take in, because another part of it is our part in it and how we participate in it. Just at the psychological level, that can be really hard to sit with. And yet I think that art allows us to find a way there. Your album feels like an invitation to considering something on that deeper level that we might want to push away otherwise. Do you think that art, as an invitation to grief work, might be one of the best ways to reach people who have a hard time letting in what we’re doing to the earth?
EJW: Absolutely. That’s very much where I’m coming from. I think all of my music taps into grief, a sense of sadness, melancholy and that emotional part of our lives and to that emotional part of people. Or really, you could even say, of life itself. I very much believe that that struggle to let certain things in is true also because of the alienation I have felt in myself from events in my own life, and that that is also something that many, many people feel, to varying degrees and varying sets of circumstances, especially given the current economic state of the world. When people are in a sort of traumatized state of survival, and when there are layers and layers of trauma beneath that, how does it become possible for people to take a moment and really digest what is happening, especially when there are all kinds of mixed messages out there. I really do believe in the healing power of art and music because I myself have experienced healing through other people's work. That’s what really brought me to becoming a songwriter very early on in my life.
I also think that acknowledging that everything is connected, people’s everyday state and every day life, connected to and threaded with survival, on whatever level they’re trying to survive at, economically, spiritually, emotionally, all of it, might also be connected with a sense of deep, inner climate anxiety. People are feeling a very particular kind of distress around the planet, but I feel that this is really interconnected with everything else also.
I do make this music very much as an offering, potentially an offering to the world and from a place of experience, that, I hope, someone else might be able to find soothing.
JD: It felt like an invitation. It felt honest and not at all forced, in that way that political songs must, if they are to have a long shelf life, go beyond the current moment and touch the universal, which I think these songs do. They have almost a tribal energy to them, which reminds me of the place music comes from, as a way of gathering the community together to tell our stories, our lineage, what things mean and what our role is supposed to be in all of it, what do we owe each other. I could really feel all of this coming across in the music and I do think there’s real hope in these songs. You write “I cannot brace for the end”, which I heard as ‘I won’t accept defeat or fatality’. That we can always rewrite this and do something different. I felt all of this come alive on this record, and that gives me immense hope because I feel that that is probably the best way to try and reach people.
EJW: I agree and I really do hope so. I’m also aware that not everyone has a lot of time in their lives for music and art. I live in the Bay area and I feel as if this area has a very specific mark on it in regards to our current moment. There are many people here who are in very serious survival mode on many different levels, including extraordinarily wealthy people. It feels like a major catastrophe here in a lot of ways. In this moment we’re in I feel that music and art is really deprioritized, which makes me feel grateful, in a way, that there are streaming platforms that are easily accessible for people. I do appreciate music being made more accessible to people. I really hope this record finds its way to people who really need it and who will appreciate it.
JD: Another thing you touched on that really stood out to me was the term, ‘traumaed religion’ the sorts of things that give us false hope or might be a diversion from something deeper. Our anxiety is forcing us to realize that the earth is a living thing, that it’s not something that’s just there, which we’ve taken for granted. How do we turn our attention towards that as the existentially hard work we have to do, and away from traumaed religion, or the media even, traumed media, which is often cold and abstract and giving us too much all at once, a presentation that doesn’t really offer a way, as your songs do, to really sit with and work our way through something?
EJW: The way in which our concept of lived experiences of time has shifted so dramatically because of all of this, because of technology, essentially, and this concept of time and the culture of distraction, this sort of ‘institutionalized ADD’, as some have called it, very much severs you from a feeling of groundedness and a sense of being connected, ironically. Even though all of these corporations are telling us “we’re connected, stay connected”. There was a Twitter commercial I saw recently with this group of young teenagers and they were all gathered around a person's cell phone looking at one person’s twitter account, it blew my mind! It had the right sort of soundtrack and everything.
JD: That’s often how they sell these sorts of things, creating that artificial emotional narrative and score. Traumaed advertising, in a way. And that’s a really important aspect of our lives that you explore on the album. Sherry Turkle once said something like, we haven’t figured out the social mores of technology yet. We haven’t figured out how to fit technology into our lives rather than fitting our lives into technology, and not let it take the place of being with each other. So often children are growing up nowadays with a sense of real disconnect, dissociation and trauma around technology. We don’t talk often enough about how traumatizing our technologies can be. Even though it does bring us together also, we have this interview because of it, but in other ways it really impoverishes us and our ability to be with one another. I don’t know if you’ve ever found it true also, how, a lot of times, people will say something online that they would never say in person. Absent that idea of how I would say something if I were in the room with somebody. Because I would be taking in the person’s face, their reaction and body language, that part is missing. The longer we spend with our devices and the less we spend with each other we really lose the soul of our how we communicate and that probably connects to how we begin solving some of these big problems we need to start solving.
EJW: I absolutely agree with you. I was born in 1981, which is technically when the first millennials were born. I didn’t grow up with computers and I didn’t have a cell phone until I was like 22. And even then I didn’t really use it. I never did that much emailing or going on line even all through college. All through my formative years there wasn’t really a buffer of devices.
When you were uncomfortable you had to really sit with your feelings. You had to feel uncomfortable and deal with reality face to face. Also there was so much more time and space in the world to just be. You were forced to just be, in a lot of ways. I also grew up in a really rural area which informed my connection to nature and really helped to shape who I am. So when I return home, to where I grew up, I appreciate it all the more.
To have lived in a place and time like this. Having a sense of solitude and a one on one relationship with nature, what that feels like. As I grow older I see how having a relationship to the natural world really fosters creativity and how that creativity forges a relationship back into the world, I really feel that, and have experienced that myself. Severing from nature is a huge problem for us.
JD: And our first impulse is often to put something in between ourselves and that experience of nature too. If you see a beautiful sunset you are tempted to photograph it rather than just sit there and really take it in.
EJW: Yes. A lot of this can be looked at through the lens of alienation. And consenting to being alienated, really.
JD: I like that phrase; consenting to alienation, because there is a choice, on some level, whether we’re able to admit it to ourselves or not. We all forget that we have agency. Whether we’re having difficulties with a friendship or accepting to live in a world that's abstracting us each and every day, to remember, ‘I can do something, I can do some small thing to change the way I’m behaving or my relationship with the world and with other people’. That’s such an important thing to remember. To think; Oh yeah, we have agency!
EJW: Yeah. And I think it feels very complicated on an emotional level for people to know when to engage and when not to engage on these fronts. People are really conflicted, on many levels. Ourselves included. Social media is complicated. When I feel I have to put myself out there, post or promote music for example, just on a spiritual and emotional level, occasionally it will feel okay, but it doesn’t always feel right or come natural to me.
JD: Sometimes it can feel forced, contrived and uncomfortable.
EJW: Contrived and a bit exhausting, yeah.
JD: Especially with this album. You’ve put together such a beautiful and sacred work, I can imagine when you finish a project like this you would feel both relieved and fulfilled but also exhausted at the same time. And then there are all these things you have to do to put yourself out there that might feel a bit contrived or that take away from the deep relationship you’ve forged with and through the work. I imagine that can feel really overwhelming at times. Is the other piece of this just reminding yourself what the work is all about and that it’s going out there now into the world to speak to people, and seeing that, maybe, there is some value to this seemingly obnoxious thing that we have to do to promote it?
Image: Kristin Cofer
EJW: I try to be very specific about what it is I’m trying to do with each record. That helps a lot. And it helps me better find and engage with people who are really curious about the work itself and the concepts that guide it. It’s always nice to be able to speak about the work in a profound way rather than using pretty watered down and generic music writing terms. I really just can’t stand a lot of journalism around music.
JD: I guess it helps that I’m not a music journalist.
EJW: That’s not really my language. I guess I’ve always been like any artist, you’re on your path, sort of moving along. Often it can feel very isolating, like ‘maybe I’m just out here, in obscurity, all on my own’. I do feel very grateful for any kind of journalism that covers my work, but I definitely want to talk about pretty particular things.
JD: The substance and depth of what you’re creating. Especially with your work, you take on subjects that many songwriters never bother to take on, because it can be scary to go there. The issues are deeply philosophical, so, I imagine, it can be hard when someone asks musically generic questions when the songs themselves are so huge and so much more than that, such universes unto themselves. But that question isn’t always being asked, when it’s actually the most important element to it.
EJW: One of the things that’s really helpful, and that I did with the last record too, is writing a bio that is very succinct and to the point. That really helps to weed out who will be interested in these types of things. I remember someone once telling me “I don’t know, I feel like your bio is too long and detailed and that no one will bother reading it”, and I was like “alright! Yeah.” That means that the people who are actually interested and curious will read it. Those are the people I want to talk to.
JD: And that’s what your music is. Speaking to those who are really curious and want to get to the bottom of and underneath these things. That often generic way of writing and talking about music seems so disconnected from what music does to us. It’s often a kind of spiritual experience. A song can transform you, poetry does too, but there’s something about adding sound and the voice and tactility and feeling something sort of rush through your body, that, I think, opens up so many layers. If you think about trauma being in the body and music tapping into the body I would think that it probably awakens something in us that we’re not always consciously aware of. That’s where musical tears come from, ‘why am I crying’ because you’re feeling something and you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s located but the song is unrooting something, and that is very sacred. Throughout the ages music has been that component that taps into who we are and who we are in the universe. We seem to be losing that lately.
EJW: The great thing about music is being able to reach people I’ve never met and probably will never get to meet. That’s the wonderful part of music, how it finds its way into the lives of those who need it. It’s difficult, at times, being out in the world with music as my art form. Just because there’s so many different kinds of music and artists, there’s so many different things going on under the umbrella category of music. And I primarily feel like a musicians songwriter, but I’ve had a rough time with other people’s projections onto me of what that might mean. I haven’t always felt comfortable because I feel so deeply in service to this work that it often feels antithetical to put an individual identity on this work. On the one hand, I’m grateful, because these songs get to travel around. But I don’t always feel right putting these things out there in a particular way, for example, on social media, as “my” individual creation. Because really what I’m trying to do is connect with something larger and much bigger than I am. There are times where I even feel strange getting paid for my work. I mean, I will embrace it in order to survive, but sometimes it just feels like this is purely what I am called to do and being compensated for it can feel strange at times. I don't know if that makes any sense.
JD: It definitely does. You’re calling to community, and it’s not just this individualistic thing of ‘here's “my” song’, it’s an offering really to community and coming together as community. And I understand how strange that could feel to have to package it in a narcissistic way when your art is the exact opposite of that.
EJW: Yeah, it can feel very strange. I’ve gotten better at managing it. Music is not about the visual, virtual imagery. Music is not about any of that. It’s really about the work and the songs at the end of the day.
JD: You talk about, in one of your songs, walking through the gates covered with the pens of forgotten women. That is such a central part of your work, the forgotten, indigenous female voices buried under, in our culture, and in past cultures. Could you explore a bit of that? What are those forgotten voices for you, do you feel you’re bringing them out through your songs and who are some of those voices for you?
EJW: I’ve always been interested in women’s experience. Women, meaning not one solid category but many different categories. And the fact that women’s history and experience has been erased in many different ways.
Star Hawk’s work, Dreaming The Dark, talks about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and how what women represented at that time was an embodiment of the erotic, that God is here and living among all beings, essentially. This element was so deeply profound and interconnected and soon to be severed with the transition into capitalism. There was a real interdependence then, and in nature as well. And women were in positions of power then, power with each other, not power over.
And so part of what happened with the transition into capitalism is that, basically, all that women inhabited and all that women embodied had to be cut off from what it had been. So women’s experiences and culture all got relegated to the area of being labor. And there was also a push to make women’s labor, value and culture free, and unpaid in relation to doctors and lawyers, things that were very severed and often had to do with class. And so women were segregated from and by power, rules, expertise and professionalism. Women began to be used, basically, as a source of free labor. And I would say it continues to be true to this day. Women’s work, women’s labor, is still completely undervalued. Femininity is undervalued. And there are many elements of patriarchy where men are severed from the feminine aspects of themselves as well, whatever that might be.
I was listening to this study that was done with a group of teenagers, and the researcher said that, when girls think about sex, they tend to grow into feeling alienated from their bodies and boys grow into feeling alienated from their hearts. And I think that’s because this idea of masculinity we’ve inherited today bears a real element of trauma in it. The point being that many feminine aspects, divine, earthly and otherwise are demeaned and forgotten. There really is a war on what this idea of what the feminine is. So many women’s stories are lost to us. Just due to the fact that many women weren’t able to be educated and so their stories and histories aren’t written down in the history books anywhere. They are only passed down through oral tradition. So much is lost about history and women’s worth and work, women’s relationships and women's lives. Women have worth. Women have voices. And we’re still struggling to say so to this day. Star Hawk ends, and it brings me to tears every time I read it, by speaking to the fact that the women who existed back then, during pagan times, women’s relationships and culture that existed at the time, is dead. It’s gone. And yet there are glimpses that live on.
JD: It’s an erasure of half a story. How can we live off of half a story. Which is what we’re asked to do and it’s impossible. It’s sad. Men and women are still not talking with each other but rather over and at each other. Finding a language that is imminently feminine is so important, and also building bridges that contain the narrative of how interconnected we are. There’s a lot of work to be done there. Maybe a part of it has to do with men embracing their feminine aspect. Remembering the permeability between the two landscapes and moving away from hierarchy. This idea that there is difference in sameness and that we can co exist equally and share this world together, as Luce Irigaray posits.
EJW: You know I wasn’t always into Goddesses and things like that, and I’m not religious, but recently I've realized and been feeling in my own life that it’s really important for women to have these really strong female figures and characters and to know that that embodiment exists. Star Hawk really describes how vital and how real this type of embodiment was. And how even our perception that this sort of woman once existed, and had such a powerful and embodied role in society has been diminished. There’s something really profound about that realization. That it existed. Women’s lives and bodies are so controlled in this day and age. To be able to catch glimpses of these incredibly powerful and revered women who were once considered sacred and were able to walk in the world that way is really empowering.
This idea of immanence, for many of us, like you and I, we would read the definition and go, ‘well, yeah, duh’. To me it just speaks to life and to living. The very idea that it’s still a point to be made just shows how far we’ve come from the importance of this, that things have value in and of themselves. As much damage and trauma and horror as there has been to this world and to the people and living things on it, this idea that everything has an inner organization and interdependence and a wholeness unto itself, brings me hope. It’s here, it’s alive. We are here. These elements are living. We need to be looking at the world through this lens. How can I shift and change my lens so I begin the hard work of living in a world where everything and everyone is valued and has inherent value. We’re still here. There’s still time. We’re not on the brink of total extinction yet. We’ve got hope, and, a lot of work to do.
JD: You mentioned feeling somewhat conflicted about promoting and talking about your music in a language of ownership. Do you feel the music is more a part of the lost commons and community (a thing belonging to all) that has been lost and forced into a capitalist ownership frame that severs the gathering force of what we offer one another? And also, perhaps, as an inheritance of the ancestral line of women's voices lost to us, do you feel your musical offerings more a way of joining the common choir of female wisdom, and that that is hardly a thing you feel you could call "mine" but that is instead "ours", this archive of the feminine story? Is part of envisioning the coming community of tomorrow, for you, tied into an uneasy feeling around proclaiming a too self enclosed idea of the art you are making?
EJW: I definitely feel like music is a part of lost community. I was formed by my community and family and many factors played a role in helping me emerge as an artist. There was always a deep pained sensitivity and passionate hopeful sorrow driving me to create, but I was also influenced by my environment, friends, and teachers. The natural environment I grew up in aided me in the process as well. I am not separate from any of this. I do feel like the forced capitalist ownership can sever the force of what we offer one another. Very well put! I think that music and art still have the ability to overpower those false barriers and that’s why music and art can never be truly contained or controlled. Music is collective. Music is meant to be created and given; absorbed and received. Yes, I agree about an ancestral line of women’s lost voices. The women’s culture Starhawk speaks about in her book Dreaming the Dark highlights a collectivity, a power with, a power amongst all creation and all living things, “heaven” and “hell” are here on earth not transcendent. To compartmentalize and sell creative work as a product has never come easily to me because of all these spiritual, emotional, and intimate cultural factors. However, pragmatically speaking, it is incredibly important to support artists monetarily.
JD: In thinking of the concept of intergenerational haunting, the idea that the traumas of our ancestors live on in our bodies and psyches, a telescoping of generations that continue as hauntings until they can be acknowledged and repaired, I'm wondering if, for women, these hauntings are perhaps more pronounced and grievous, given the immense suffering and alienation imposed on women for so long by our exploitative and disembodied, dis-souling economic system? It is said that one must transform one's ghosts into ancestors, meaning one must work through what has been done to our ghosts in order to arrive at an ancestral now that lives healthily and honorably with one's past, and the people of our past. Does this at all resonate with your vision and hope in Immanent Fire? Do you think part of Immanent Fire is about turning ghosts into ancestors through the act of acknowledgment, untanglement and voicing, not just the value of intergenerational women, but the existential, spiritual necessity of women and our need to make room for generations of grievable, lost voices?
EJW: I really love this question. I feel like my work might be a healing of this intergenerational trauma and haunting you speak of. I have at times been weighed down by feelings and sensations that are mine, embodied in my being, and at the same time dissociated, fractured - coming from a different time and place. I’ve always been sensitive to the brutal violence inflicted on women for centuries, and this sensation and concern feels like it runs historically far beyond my birth on this earth. I am a product of many generations of trauma and addiction and I grieve the women who struggled immensely before me. I feel like my work has faced untanglement and given voice to this undercurrent, and collective undercurrent. In this record I am very much calling for the existential and spiritual necessity of women and our need to make room to grieve and to rebirth. In order to honor the immense potency within all of us, perhaps we have to grieve all that’s been lost and connect to those disavowed voices, lives, energy, love, and vivacious women’s culture that once thrived more harmoniously in order to create this in the here and now. I don’t believe it’s dead, I believe the potential to reconnect, to heal, to grow through the trauma, the damage done to this earth and all the many people and living entities living on it is possible by reconnecting to this concept and felt sense of Immanence that Starhawk speaks about.
JD: Music enters into our bodies, sound awash and through us, reverberates down into our bones. It is what opens us to presence (sound cannot be denied) it comes to us unbidden, each time a surprise, while also opening us to dreaming and infinity, it becomes a liminal space, a crossing from present presence to unknown and creative river beds of potential, of change and transformation. How do we learn to expand on those moments? How do we take them with us? How do we keep feeding the flame in a world that prioritizes smothering the flame, killing the dream and destroying the liminal crossing that music and art open up in us?
EJW: You're speaking directly to this idea of “Immanent Fire,” this flame, this potential, this dreaming, this liminal space, this creativity, this desire for things to be different, an honoring of the self and all beings here on earth, connecting to the vastness and healing potency of life. It is within us and it will always be within us. What taps into this space the most? There are certainly many things that can suffocate the flame, or cause it to dimly burn. Continuing to connect again and again to one’s own potency through art, music, nature, engaging, creativity, somatic modalities, meditation, dance, each other, revolutionary politics, or whatever speaks to you, seeks to change current conditioning. But - we must continue to stand up to systems and institutions that thrive on the exploitation of our vital selves, communities, and resources. There’s a struggle, and there’s a deep fight involved. You have to be willing to stand up and empathetically fight for people you don’t know and will probably never meet. It is my hope that music can be an agent and travel to people and places who need it most.
Immanent Fire is available now from Talitres and Bandcamp.
Visit http://emilyjanewhite.net/ for more.
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