Aug. 28 2013 09:53 AM

Songwriter evokes a ton of emotion with a stripped-down set-up

Photo by Maxime Fauconnier

Emma Niblett has no use for the fancy tools of modern music-making. You won't hear any electronic beats or space-age synthesizers from this England-born, Portland-based songwriter. You won't find Pro Tools plugins or Ableton loops on her six albums. Like some primordial rock druid of the 20th century, she keeps her setup bare-bones, relying solely on what can be done with a six-string, a pair of drumsticks and her own deceptively sweet voice.

"For me, a lot of the song, really, is pretty much encapsulated in the beginning. So, it's just me and a guitar, or me and just drums," says Niblett—who performs under the name Scout Niblett, taking her stage name from the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird—about her writing and recording process. "And I try really hard to not elaborate on it, because I feel like, sometimes, when you elaborate and add things, it can actually take away the intensity." 

For all the infinite possibilities provided by today's music landscape—saturated as it is with computerized production, kooky genre hybrids and fleeting micro-trends—one might be surprised to find that Niblett can still do a lot with limited means. Indeed, her latest album, It's Up to Emma (released on Drag City in May), is one of the most emotionally rich albums to come out this year. Tightly wound with brooding guitars, raw drums and pained lyrics, it's like a ride through the Kübler-Ross model's five stages of grief. There are moments of righteous fury and defiance (at one point in the form of a brooding cover of TLC's 1999 R&B hit "No Scrubs"), but also of crippling vulnerability and sadness. 

The album, which was written during the course of several years, plunges into the emotional aftereffects of a doomed relationship and nasty breakup. Things get off to a stormy start on the opening track, "Gun," as Niblett fantasizes about busting a cap in an unfaithful lover—"I think I'm gonna buy me a gun / A nice little silver one / And in a crowd some day / You won't see it coming anyway"—while strumming out a guitar line that eventually boils over with Earth-shaking, doom-metal rage.

Niblett—who'll play with P.G. Six and Tori Rogg at Tin Can Ale House on Saturday, Aug. 31—hasn't shared any details about the relationship that served as the inspiration for this set of songs. Suffice it to say, though, it made for a rough time. Now that the album is finished and out, she says she's begun to understand her experience with disturbing new clarity. 

"I almost see it as like a third person," she says. "And I'm like, 'Oh, wow, she really went through it... She went through the wringer.'" 

Niblett, 39, has long been interested in astrology and metaphysics and seems to be precisely in tune with her own emotional landscape. While some musicians can sit down and write a song under basically any circumstance, she says she can write only when she's built up a sufficient store of emotional energy and needs a way to release it. This helps explain the undercurrent of intensity that drives all of her music, giving her songs the power to stop you cold. 

At the same time, relying on these emotional buildups and breaks can make for an unpredictable writing process. "It's something that I can rely on that's going to come along at some point, but I never know when that is going to be. It's so sporadic and not really controllable at all," she says.

Though music this emotionally taxing can paralyze some performers, Niblett doesn't get overwhelmed. When she's writing music, she says she has no way of planning what will come out. But when the song is finished and recorded, she approaches it anew with a degree of emotional distance. 

"It's almost like I meet myself through songwriting," she says. "Once it's recorded, pretty much mastered and it's ready to put out in the world, then I can actually step back and look at it and go, 'What actually happened here? What is this?' And then I can see what it is."

Niblett has been plying the indie-rock circuit since 2001, when Secretly Canadian released her gorgeous and understated debut album, Sweet Heart Fever. Though she grew up in the area around Birmingham, England, she now calls Portland home, and her music feels steeped in the rainy vibes and grunge traditions of the Pacific Northwest. You can even hear echoes of Kurt Cobain's screams in the small aches and cracks of Niblett's passionate vocals. 

"I was, I think, 17 when Nirvana played Reading Festival, '91, and I went to see them play. It was right before Nevermind came out, like a month before," she recalls. "I think the coming-of-age time, whenever that is for people—it's usually those teens or whatever—I think that stays with you, always. I have a huge affection for music from that period, and I'm definitely influenced by it. For me, it makes sense that that's coming out still in me, because that's what turned me on, actually."

Of course, a lot has happened in music since the days of Nevermind. But as guitars make way for laptops, and drums to digital drum pads, there's still something to be said for an artist like Niblett. Her songs smolder with feeling—not in spite of her relatively traditional approach, but because of it.

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