EMILY STEWART is a sought-after violinist. Whether for SOAP&SKIN, ANDRÉ HELLER, BELLE AND SEBASTIAN or most recently at the WIENER BURGTHEATER (in Euripides “Bakchen”) – she’s successful across all genres. Now the Vienna-based Englishwoman has released her first solo album on the “col legno” label. It is called “The Anatomy of Melancholy” and is inspired by Robert Burton’s 17th century eponymous book. Markus Deisenberger spoke with EMILY STEWART about the album as a melting pot of one’s own needs and the search for a place where one feels at home.
You are a sought-after musician, serving a wide range of genres, from classical to jazz to contemporary music (with KVIN) to pop (with Neuschnee). That looks like a fulfilled musician’s existence at first. Why a solo album? How did it happen?
Emily Stewart: I didn’t even consider it a solo album in the beginning. I thought I’d start an ensemble and see where it goes. Above all I wanted to try to combine text and music, because I’ve always carried both in me. So why not try the combination of both? Perhaps, I thought, I would dare to read the texts in public. That was an incentive for me to write, and suddenly these songs emerged. It turned out that the other two, Lukas Lauermann and Philipp Kienberger, were very busy themselves and couldn’t contribute any music pieces.
I am extremely concept-oriented, and always need a concept, a story, a frame, a picture before I write anything. Without that I have no anchor. I looked through my texts and this one book and I thought: “Actually, that would be perfect. That is what I am! I can imagine something about that and build a story around it.”
You’re referring to Robert Burton’s book “The Anatomy of Melancholy”. How did you come across that text? What fascinated you about it?
Emily Stewart: Someone gave me a postcard of Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia”. A bit later I discovered that this picture was used as a cover for an edition of Burton’s work. And so I bought this version of the book, a greatly slimmed-down version without all the quotes. I liked it so much that I bought the unabridged original shortly afterwards.
What attracted you to Burton’s book?
Emily Stewart: Mainly his humor. That he didn’t take himself so seriously. But also the idea that everything is at the same time the cause and the solution of melancholy. We can’t escape the feeling. It always catches up with us.
When you say, “This is what I am,” does that refer more to melancholy or depression or to humor?
Emily Stewart: To something somewhere in between, I think. In the text I liked the humor and the main statement that you shouldn’t take everything so seriously. It’s structured like a medical text from that time, but in the end it’s not about the medical background, it’s not just about the depression itself, it’s about the idea that the feeling of melancholy is in everything: in joy, in longing and in memories. Since my life was always so eventful and I had no anchor anywhere, no roots, this longing for something was a permanent state. I was filled with a permanent longing. That’s why I immediately had a connection to Burton’s permanent longing. A permanent longing: for me, that’s what describes melancholy best.
To what extent is this book or the essence of the book reflected in the album?
Emily Stewart: Of course, it’s not a one-to-one translation into music. The book is just a source of inspiration. I wanted to have that feeling. That’s why I wrote a lot in the style of melodies that already exist, like the baroque piece, or the way Scottish folk songs are constructed: long standing tones carrying an echo.
You come across a text that fascinates you, that reflects the longing that you carry within yourself. So far, so good, yet that you come across something that fascinates and inspires you happens to many people. But the thought of making your own art out of it is a big step. Did the thought come to you immediately or did it take a while to take shape?
Emily Stewart: It came after a while. I always thought I had nothing to say because I was moving between all these genres. In classical music for one, at the same time I kept diving into the jazz world, and also listening to an extremely large amount of folk rock. I carry all that inside of me. And so I thought: “Why should I write something? I can’t settle down in any world, be it one or the other.” Then I looked at what sketches I had and thought: “Maybe all doesn’t have to be connected in one genre.” That’s when the book I’d had for a while came into play. It’s not a book you read all at once, you pick it up again and again. And at some point I began to notice parallels.
Emily Stewart: Burton himself did nothing but collecting. He worked on this book all his life, expanding the text again and again, taking from here and quoting from there. From the gesture I felt like being in the same situation. And so, like him, I put something together piece by piece.
So in a way, the album is a cornucopia of this fragmentation, a hotch-potch of different genres that you make into a potpourri and for which you deploy all your skills, throwing in everything you hold dear. But at the same time it’s more than that: an album about vulnerability and longing and the disclosure of one’s inner life, isn’t it?
Emily Stewart: Right. It’s multifaceted. Melancholy is not one thing in particular. A lot happens through it and a lot is created from it. As a person you are a potpourri yourself, so to speak. Everything you have, you do, whom you meet, leaves traces and then materializes in one way or another.
The album as a melting pot of your own diverse interests, views and experiences?
Emily Stewart: Yes, you could say it like that. It goes through a filter and something is created. It’s the way I work and the way I capture the world. But I think everybody feels that way.
The album is pretty varied. Spoken word, solo violin, pieces on the piano, yet it always seems homogeneous, as if from one piece. What is the reason for that?
Emily Stewart: I wanted to convey a certain feeling with it. That’s why I like what you say. But each and everyone gets something different out of the album. For me personally it’s that you feel like being in a cocoon afterwards. Loss, memories and then at the end of an inner journey you come to yourself in a feeling of security. Does that sound silly?
No, not at all. Let’s go to the first single. “Fair” is an intimate, melancholy piece. Greatly reduced and focused on the essential, it reminds me a bit of David Sylvian. For a violinist to sit at the piano and sing is an unusual step. How did it happen?
Emily Stewart: My first instrument was the piano. I majored in piano in Costa Rica, but at some point had to stop because I was doing too many things in parallel. But even today, when I’m composing, I’m writing on the piano first because I can play all the harmonies there. I first wrote “Fair” for a solo program. I played it on the violin one evening in London. The label then asked me if I had more songs with vocals. They liked “My Melancholy Baby” and thought it would be good for the album to have more songs of that kind. At first I thought I could record “Flair” with strings. But then we decided to keep it that way. The intimate quality – just me on the piano – goes well with the lyrics, we thought.
How did the lyrics come about?
Emily Stewart: It’s a poem I wrote. It’s inspired by Arthur Rackham, one of the most famous illustrators, at least in Britain, in the 19th century. He was one of the first to illustrate “Die Nibelungen” and “Alice in Wonderland”. There is an incredibly beautiful picture of him that shows a fairy lying on the ground in the forest. Her hair spreads out like a spider’s web. From this picture this song was created.
Many artists have a theme that they vary throughout their lives. The results may sometimes be very different, but there’s always this one theme lurking in the background. For Burton it is depression, for Hemingway mortality, for Dickens alienation and loneliness. The child thrown into a world that is alien to him… Which is Emily Stewart’s life theme?
Emily Stewart: I think it’s the search. I come from a nomadic family. I always have the feeling that I have to leave soon and move to the next station. Searching for a place where you feel at home. I’m always looking for what is mine. That’s present throughout. Looking for my cluster.
You came to Vienna via Linz. Is that right?
Emily Stewart: Yes, my mother met my stepfather, a friend of the groom, at a cousin’s wedding in Costa Rica. The two fell in love with each other. Half a year later, we were here.
What was that like? Coming from Costa Rica to Linz, I imagine that was difficult.
Emily Stewart: It was easier for my little sister, I think. She started to go to school at that time and immediately had a world of her own. I was seventeen years old, alone, couldn’t speak a word of German, and had my violin lessons and a German course. So first you have to see how you get on. But it’s already helpful if you’re a musician. That opens up possibilities. It became easier step by step, yet in the beginning it was anything but that.
Burton lived a very secluded life at times, they say. Although he advises in the book to seek fresh air because it awakens the spirits of life, he rather sought the proximity of books in which he buried himself. He was considered to be a bookworm living like a monk. Are you also more of the withdrawn type who isolates him/herself from the outside world for the realization of his/her art?
Emily Stewart: Not that much. There are indeed phases of withdrawal, sometimes intense ones. If something fascinates me, I am immediately immersed in it and get lost to the world, because I am very strict. But a week later I am already absorbed in something else. And: I am a very social person. I do need people. What I’m missing most in times like these is meeting people. Hiding away, that’s not me, although it happens now and then. Burton was similar. Because on the one hand he was said to be kind of monkish, but on the other hand he was a welcome guest at many dinner parties, because his wit was highly appreciated.
Burton expands the concept of melancholy into a universal metaphor and, with his text, dissects a world that is sick in itself, which he apostrophizes as “domicilium insanorum”, a madhouse. A book functions as a mirror of madness, so to speak. Was that also something that fascinated you?
Emily Stewart: Absolutely, yes. The role of melancholy was an important topic back then. Dowland also dealt with it. The quarantine now and the possibility for contemplation that it brings with it, seeing how the world goes on somehow without us: it’s all in this book. The opportunity to take a step back and see what you’ve built up over the years out there, good or bad, that’s what Burton is all about.
In this respect it’s the record for the times: retreat and reflection of madness in domestic melancholy.
Emily Stewart [laughs]: Exactly. You could put it like that.
How did you team up with your two musical comrades-in-arms?
Emily Stewart: I have been playing with Lukas [Lauermann; note] for a long time. It turned out that we did things together, again and again. I really like his musicality and his way of playing a lot. We get on well together as human beings and we play well together. This is a guy who understands my world. I got to know Philipp [Kienberger; note] on stage. I played in his quintet, always appreciated his input. He always has helpful suggestions how to bring something to life. The two didn’t know each other, but I thought it was worth a try. And lo and behold, a beautiful chemistry developed between the three of us. In particular, there were no ego stories. The music was always the center of attention.
One last word about the social situation in which musicians find themselves at the moment?
Emily Stewart: Of course it’s not very pleasant. At the beginning I thought: “Well, then I’ll go working as a waitress.” But that’s not possible anymore. I like what is happening on the internet: Everyone is posting about music, doing covers, trying to support others by featuring their music. But nobody knows how to make money out of that. Fortunately, at the same time we aren’t spending much money. I am confident that the problems will be solved. As a musician, you are familiar with the fact that there are drier times anyway.
That means you are full of hope?
Emily Stewart: Yes, at some point everything will start again. But then, when you’re outside for a moment and you see how paralyzed the city is, you panic and ask yourself: “What if the parks and clubs won’t open anymore? What if these were the last few concerts?” These are apocalyptic visions that befall you occasionally, before you finally put them aside. As an artist you have the luck or at least the idea that you’ll somehow get through and that you’ll always come up with something to keep your head above water.
Many thanks for the interview!
Translated from the German Original by Julian Schoenfeld