r.em.edy: the Melbourne R&B artist speaking out about disability

Ahead of the release of her debut EP ‘Last Summer’, r.em.edy talks to NME about setting boundaries and living with chronic illness and disability in the Australian music industry

Melbourne R&B artist r.em.edy is preparing to release her debut EP, ‘Last Summer’, and she’s buzzing with nervous energy and anticipation. Years of work and refinement have led to this point. The project began as a recounting of a fling in the summer of 2020, before expanding to tell a story of self-love and leaving the past behind.

But there’s another painful tale integral to ‘Last Summer’. Running parallel to the stories in its songs are the 23-year-old’s experiences with chronic fatigue and pain, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (known as TMJ, referring to jaw joint and surrounding muscle pain) and more. Chronic illness “definitely is the reason why this project took so many years,” the artist born Emma Coldrey tells NME. “If that wasn’t a part of the equation, I think it would take me like three months to make this instead of three years.”

r.em.edy
Credit: Rachael Vowles

A vocal injury in 2020 following a string of gigs pushed Coldrey to double down on understanding – and protecting – her health. After working with a physical therapist, she discovered her TMJ had caused muscle tension dysphonia, which can in turn lead to excessive muscle tension in and around the larynx.

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The injury was momentous for Coldrey, who fell in love with music and singing thanks to mixtapes curated by her father and Hannah Montana. Some of her earliest influences are Tina Arena and Alicia Keys. “I didn’t have to get vocal surgery, but I still went through the mental pain of wondering ‘am I ever going to sing again?’, as well as a complete identity crisis.”

Managing her health requires sacrifices in all aspects of life, and it’s something that Coldrey has had to come to terms with. “I’ve actually had to accept that I’m not able-bodied, because with invisible disabilities you can get by, pretending that you are, and it got to a point where I didn’t have as much of that privilege anymore. I still do have it, but if people stick around with me for more than five minutes, they can see me moving or in pain.” To complete ‘Last Summer’, Coldrey adjusted her lifestyle. “In order to finish this project, I had to really look after myself more. Now it’s just how I function. I stopped drinking and I stopped going out too much and really nurtured myself so that I could do what I love.”

“I didn’t have to get vocal surgery, but I still went through the mental pain of wondering ‘am I ever going to sing again?’”

Coldrey committed to making music in 2019 after taking vocal lessons, going on to release a string of singles and work with a range of Australian artists. Those include two features on Melbourne collective New Wave Infinity’s 2020 album ‘All Corners’, which also includes contributions from KVNYL, Emile Battour, Eleftherios, hon3y and many more.

‘Last Summer’, which drops this Friday, is more of a solo effort – a choice Coldrey made because it meant she “wasn’t holding anyone else back”. Across nine largely self-produced tracks, she brings together elements of R&B, hip-hop, lo-fi and more, all underpinned by arresting vocals and self-reflective lyricism. Highlights include the Donna Missal-inspired ‘Don’t Love You’, the ethereal ‘Questions’ (co-produced with Melbourne’s Balaram), and the gentle yet powerful title track, in which r.em.edy asks “Am I worthy of your love boy? / Even if I don’t love me”.

Absent from the project is r.em.edy’s alter ego, Nikki, who she introduced on June’s ‘Love Drunk’ – a passionate non-EP single. At the time, she explained that Nikki “represents a higher, more powerful and fiercer version of myself. She’s reckless, dangerous and knows what she wants”. Talking about Nikki now, Coldrey reveals that she started pretending to be Nikki while searching for some “escapism” during Melbourne’s lockdowns, going as far as to colour her hair red. It’s a hairstyle Coldrey is currently sporting, evidence of how she’s embraced the heightened personality as “a part of my image”. She’s excited for a future where both personas co-exist: “I’m interested to see how I balanced both r.em.edy and Nikki, because I don’t want to lose either of them.”

“You have to have so much thick skin when you’re already so tired”

Coldrey isn’t the only Australian artist who manages chronic illness and disability, but it’s not often you find people in the industry talking about it so openly. Thankfully, those frank conversations have begun. In August, alt-pop artist daine revealed that they have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. They wrote, “I hope this starts a conversation about disability in the music industry and potentially helps someone feel less alone in their experience – and less weak, as I struggle with the internalised rhetoric of feeling ‘weak’ for being sick.”

Coldrey echoes daine’s message, highlighting that there’s a “long way to go” when it comes to how the Australian music industry supports artists with chronic illness. “You have to be so bold to set your boundaries when you get people disrespecting you and being super ableist,” she says. “You have to have so much thick skin when you’re already so tired.” It’s important for artists to put their needs first, Coldrey adds, and to speak with those around them so those needs can be met – especially when performing live. ”If they’re not going to make that accessible for you, I promise you, there’ll be a better opportunity down the road with someone that’s understanding.”

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r.em.edy
Credit: Rachael Vowles

Coldrey rounds out our conversation with a sobering reminder for her peers – and a pledge to support other Australian musicians also living with disability. “With the way I was going, I wouldn’t be singing by 30,” she confesses. “It was bad. And I think a lot of people that I work with, and that I see in the scene, don’t think about vocal health because they can rely on youth.” Her mission statement for her music is simple: be a force for good.

“I really want to own my disability and make it a part of my brand so that other artists with health issues can know that they can do this too, in their own way.”

‘Last Summer’ is out this Friday (November 25). r.em.edy is playing a hometown headline show at the Toff In Town on November 26 – find tickets and more info here

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