Emma Ruth Rundle’s fifth solo album sees her confront and pick at the bones of her darkest memories, searching for closure. Fragile, vulnerable and raw, it’s her most emotional and conceptually heavy album yet.
Rundle has established herself as a master of texture and tone, creating sounds that build and shiver in the darkness. But following her recent collaborations with sludge maestros Thou and the full-band maximalism of her previous solo album, she knew her next offering required a change of pace. “I describe it as a punk-rock aesthetic: throwing away everything I’m known for doing — electric guitar, tons of effects, creating soundscapes,” she says. “I wanted to do something like that for years, but the opportunity just never came.” Holing up alone for the winter in Pembrokeshire, Wales, her ideas started to come together. “I wanted to throw all that stuff out the window and make a bare-bones, vocal-forward, nothing-to-hide-behind, warts-and-all album that has a fragility to it,” she explains.
With the sonics stripped away, leaving just a piano and sparing use of acoustic guitar, Rundle knew there needed to be real substance to the lyrics. “It deals a lot with reforming my identity,” she says. “I’ve had some massive changes in my personal life; getting sober, leaving my marriage, moving back to the West Coast, cutting off all my hair and figuring out who I wanted to be. I think that was all worked through during the making of this record.” Indeed, Rundle sees the album as a “journey through the underworld, being half alive and ending up at the far reaches of space, looking back on everything that had happened.” Unedited and crushing, Rundle admits for some, it will be an unnerving and uncomfortable listen, as is any art that blows up another person’s pain to widescreen proportions.
Looking grief in the eye
Grief and death are recurring themes in Rundle’s work, but they’ve never been laid out more starkly than on “Body.” The song was written about her grandmother, her “main stability on planet Earth,” who passed away when she was a teenager. “I lived with her. She gave me my first piano, and I would play for her,” she remembers. “As a young person, I was very troubled. I got into drugs when I was an early age. I got expelled from everywhere and sent away to places, and there was always her to come back to.” Against stark keys, Rundle recalls her grandmother’s death with unflinching candor. She explores our ever-evolving relationship with grief, something we never wholly pass through but learn to accommodate, singing, “I can’t feel your arms around me anymore.”
Connect to the past
Much of the album plays out over the skeletal keys of a piano, the instrument Rundle played as a teenager but abandoned when she started to join bands during her 20s. “I had wanted to reconnect with the piano, but I never was able to because I had lived a nomadic life,” she says. “I was living with other people or traveling on tour, and I never really could afford to have my own place to have a piano in.” Returning to the instrument, she says, has “connected me to who I was when I was a young person in my formative years.” It’s also what gives Engine Of Hell its evocative, sometimes uncomfortably intimate quality. “It helped me to process what was happening with my life then that I really didn’t have the tools to deal with as a young person,” she says.
The last song to be written for the album was closer “In My Afterlife.” The only track penned in a major key, it opens Rundle up to the realization that there can be life after loss, and there can be second chances. “[A lot of the record] was me trying to figure out what happened because I think a lot of my adult life, through drugs and alcohol, has been me numbing away. I simply cannot face any of that stuff,” she says. “I have to find a way to live without drugs and alcohol because it’s frankly killing my body.” The final lyric on the album, “Now we’re free,” represents closure and much-needed hope. “By adding that lyric, there’s a finality to it, but it gives permission for something else to happen,” she says of the song. “This record is bringing opportunities to me to grow as a person and an artist.”
This story appeared in issue 400, available here.