It was one of those hazy days between Christmas and New Years, a day when you’re not sure what time it is or even which month, that I stumbled into the Sahara Lounge and heard Emme for the first time. A duo comprised of two people: Sowmya Somanath and Walter Nichols, both classically trained, both pushing the envelope of what that means. On stage, the two are an electric combination that is much better seen than described by me. After their show I sat down with them with a single intention in mind: to get a better look inside the minds of people who can create music like this.
GW: Let’s do this chronologically: Where did the music come from?
W: For me it was elementary school, I saw the saxophone on TV, 90’s dudes with all the reverb. I absently thought, ‘Yeah! I want to play that!’ The same way you’d say ‘Yeah! I wanna be a baseball player!’ But then when I was ten I actually started playing the saxophone and was like ‘Woah. I love this.’
S: I’ve sung for as long as I can remember. My mom says I sang my first song when I was 2. There was never a time that I considered not singing - it was my most natural language of expression. Growing up in a conservative Indian family influenced me to aspire more towards math and science, but I abandoned those desires. I realized music was my home.
W: It came really naturally. I’ve been in a classical place for most of my musical life, then I released W, which was my attempt at something more experimental. Emme is an attempt at using aspects of both of those styles but more accessible.
GW: Walter, how is Emme’s sound different than your 2015 album W?
W: First of all, it has lyrics. Instrumental stuff like W is a little less accessible because it’s abstract. That album was especially abstract because it had such unconventional forms. One song literally had a fugue in the middle of it, which is an old form of composition where you employ different complementary melodies played together in various ways. It’s like a super intense math equation and I slapped one right in the middle of an electronic/ambient saxophone song. Needless to say — not super accessible.
GW: Would I ever hear the fugue in the song?
W: No, (laughs) never.
GW: Sowmya, where did you develop your voice?
S: My mother was my first mentor, and began training me in South Indian classical singing at age 4. In middle school I began Western classical singing, and after college, I realized I loved North Indian classical music, and began training in that too. I have always loved dreamy, mellifluous melodies.
GW: Which influences have guided your work? Which ones overlap for you both?
S: Learning three classical systems (South Indian, North Indian, and Western) has undoubtedly shaped my musical intuition. One of my favorite bands growing up was Eisley, then in high school my brother got me hooked on Radiohead. In college, Walter and I discovered we were both huge Thom Yorke fans. I would say our shared influences are Radiohead, Sylvan Esso, Bjork, Grimes, and anything classical.
W: Our tastes in music line up very closely. We have comparable knowledge of music theory which allows us to use similar language when we’re talking about chords or song structure or melody.
GW: Did you ever fear that your tastes were too similar?
W: Never, her background is in Indian classical music and other types of non-Western music. She thinks in a different way. I think about music in a vertical way, like chords, but in Indian and Middle Eastern music they think about it horizontally, like in terms of melody. That brings a whole different perspective to the table. It has actually become a joke between us - like, ‘Where do you hear this?’ ‘No I totally hear that a different way.’ It’s really refreshing.
GW: What is the writing process for Emme?
S: Usually Walter will have a chord progression that I listen to. I will already have a few ideas about what I want to write about, and I’ll write some poetry or lyrics while listening to his progression. Sometimes, I have to modify my words to fit the structure. Making sure the text reflects the music and vice versa is something we are very particular about.
W: It depends — sometimes the song is constructed more by one person and finished out by the other; other times one person will write the whole thing and the other will sprinkle their little fairy dust on it. The process is usually very interconnected though. Often she’ll have an idea floating around in her head and will write about it. We’ll talk through the idea and her text and I’ll make some music with a mood that (hopefully) matches up. It’s tricky though. I catch myself sometimes, like, ‘Oh man, I was just doing that because I thought it sounded cool… not because it’s what the song needed.’
GW: Looking at your first album, does it look the way you imagined it would?
W: Certain songs have gone through rewrite after rewrite, but I think the things we set out to communicate have stayed in focus.
S: I think everything we both brought to the table was more or less what I expected, and I couldn’t be happier.
GW: Describe your live performance: what is most important to you as the performer?
S: I value the exchange of ideas by using music as a vessel. I’m very interested in encouraging original thought in listeners - whether it is political, social, or emotional. Each idea embedded in our songs is precious to me and being able to communicate them is a privilege.
W: The live experience is intimate since it’s just the two of us. We try to focus on engaging with the audience. I do quite a bit of improvisation on saxophone, synths, and effects, so I have to always be mindful about that. Like there’s a line between something being fun to watch and something that is clouding the point of the song.
GW: Which genre would Emme fall under?
S: Electro pop, Electro-alternative.
GW: I haven’t heard that genre before.
W: Yeah it’s not real.
GW: What’s next for Emme?
W: We’re young and green, so we’re gonna bungle our way through it and focus on making music that makes us happy.
S: I can only hope that every time we play, our message resonates as deeply with the audience as it does with me.
GW: 3 adjectives to sum up your first self-titled album, Emme:
S: Honest, dreamy, synchronistic.
W: Atmospheric, lush, romantic.