Interviews Music

One Track Mind: Emily Wells

The singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist on the educational perfection of Harry Nilsson

The premise of One Track Mind is pretty simple: I ask artists to pick one track that means a lot to them – either something they’ve discovered recently, something that’s been with them for years, or one that reminds them of a specific time in their life or career – and tell me what makes it so special to them. I get to talk to the artists I love, and they get to talk about the artists they love. Love all round!

Emily Wells is a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, arranger, and producer, whose extraordinary music incorporates elements from experimental, electronic, chamber pop and classical, and has been variously described as “dramatic, meticulous and gothic” (New York Times) and “visionary” (NPR). Released earlier this year, her latest album Regards To The End was inspired by the often radical actions of AIDs activists in the 1980s as seen through the lens of the current climate emergency. Intricate, sobering and quietly powerful, it is an immaculately atmospheric body of work from a breathtakingly talented artist.

For her One Track Mind selection, Emily has chosen a song from American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, that for her transcends the artistry of songwriting and becomes a lesson for storytellers, regardless of the medium.

Emily Wells on Harry Nilsson – I’ll Never Leave You

“Harry Nilsson gives us everything we could hope for in this song. If you stripped away the strings, the harmonies, the delicate touches and retractions, you would be left with a perfect song from the opening lines: “Some nights I go to sleep without you, the river’s far too deep without you.” Anyone could sing this song at a piano or on the corner with a guitar and it would remain a perfect song, but in Nilsson’s hands it becomes an object lesson in performance, arrangement, theme, subtlety, and drama, equally true of the skill in the recording and mix itself.

“It is a three-act play, each instrument and melody stepping to the front of the stage into the lights, then back into the shadows. It is never a monologue despite the clarity and singularity of the voice. It is a dance partner who knows how to lead: a tiny push on the back to the other side of the room, a surprise turn, a soft laugh just when things are getting a little too serious, and finally you’re in the embrace: “I’ll never leave you alone in the garden where nothing grows.” It’s also the kind of song that gives you permission – as a songwriter, an arranger, a producer – and reminds you that a single phrase played only once can at times be more potent than repetition.

“I put this song on a drum reference playlist for drummer Mike Thies before our recording session for my album. He said, “Emily, there aren’t any drums on that song,” to which I replied, “exactly.” Then we all laughed and said, “Amen Harry Nilsson.””

Emily Wells – Regards To The End is out now