On Avalon Emerson’s ‘Sandrail Silhouette’, the gorgeous lead single from her self-titled debut album, it feels as if she’s interrogating herself as much as the listener: “Tell me about your life / I wanna hear about your dreams”. After years of DJing solo and travelling on the road, the prospect of a first record gave pause for the San Francisco-born musician to reconsider and reframe her artistry. ‘Avalon Emerson & The Charm’ feels like we’re hearing her live out a new reality, tapping into previously unheard parts of her story.
It makes for a mesmerising listen, one where she fuses her years of experience performing as a DJ in the world’s hottest clubs, and a love for The Magnetic Fields, Cocteau Twins and beyond. Produced alongside Bullion, Emerson follows up her acclaimed ‘DJ Kicks’ mix in 2020 with personal songwriting and pop choruses, setting up a run of shows this summer, including at Primavera Sound in the coming weeks. From her current base of New York, Emerson discusses the decision to switch her sound up, moving into new spaces and the hustle to survive and thrive for independent acts like herself.
Despite your experience, it’s almost as if acts aren’t taken seriously until they release a proper ‘debut album’. How are you feeling about the release?
“It’s both more and less nerve-wracking than I thought it would be. The landscape of being an artist nowadays and getting your music out there, doing stuff with press, social media, is in a different place than when I was doing the ‘DJ Kicks’ mix [in 2020]. I think that now I’m more in a different realm, I’m reaching outside of my comfort zone.”
What were the origins of ‘Avalon Emerson & The Charm’?
“I honestly had been quite content with my life, an increasingly rare one of being able to eke out a kind of decent middle-class existence as a professional musician. And I was pretty content with that and DJing at that level for a really long time. But there was this period pre-pandemic in spring 2020 where I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to take time off, I’m not gonna do any DJing for a few months, I’ll go to LA and do some studio stuff. But then everyone stopped going to see live music and at that point, I didn’t know at all what I wanted to do with my music.”
There’s a noticeable change in the sonics of your music. Why was now the time to do so?
“For me, it didn’t make a ton of sense to be the kind of producer who makes an album that’s full of vocal features. And so I began on the journey of being alone at a computer trying to make a mirror image of other music that has really been a big part of my life. And, frankly, most of that is not house music or techno. There’s always that assumption that if you’re a DJ or if you make whatever kind of music, you only listen to that music. I don’t think that’s ever been true of anyone. I can’t even remember the last time I listened to a mix! Even my own mixes, I don’t even listen to it once I do it.
I think sometimes – especially in dance music – you can be burdened by that weight. It can be easier to have a calling card, like: ‘I am this kind of DJ. This is what I DJ and this is the kind of music I make’. But when I started with this project, I thought about what I wanted to say, what I wanted to talk about, and it wasn’t necessarily in the same world as what had come before.”
How has the music industry changed for independent performers like yourself in that time?
“There’s been a process of atomisation: the idea of being the individual, the business, your own publicist, your own social media person and being your own hustler with everything. The competition has increased, everything is getting harder and more expensive. You have to be more ruthless, and it’s bad for art that you have to spend so much of your day not doing music to compete in the attention economy. That seems worse than it was in 2014 or whatever. It’s hard to say if I would want to really be a part of it if I was a 22-year-old starting off nowadays.”
You worked with London producer Bullion on this record. What was that process like?
“It was so nice to be learning about this process with him. He comes from a similar career place to me – from a big city and used to DJ fairly regularly – so it’s not like he’s coming from this masterful place of being a multi-instrumentalist, or really versed in music theory. We’re both on a ‘need to know’ basis with a lot of music theory, which is sometimes a really good thing – I don’t feel overly saddled by it. But the way I make music and the way that Nathan makes music I think is very analogous and it’s very complimentary so that gave me a lot of confidence in writing that.
If there was a single song that made me feel like ‘maybe I can do this’ was probably ‘Hot Evening’. That was one of the first songs I brought to Nathan. I’d made the demo and it was like 80% done for a long time; Nathan and I worked on a bunch of other ones first and they would come back to it and I was like, ‘there’s still something weird about it that wasn’t done’. Working with Nathan helped get it over the finish line… but I’m not an artist that is not really burdened with this belief that it has to be absolutely perfect.”
Tell us about The Charm…
“The Charm is like this kind of amorphous thing; it’s the whole process and family of people involved. To me there’s a big difference between the way what I’ve done previously works with this. As a DJ, I was quite alone and playing other people’s music and remixing it, but that’s an asynchronous collaboration where I have the stems to play around with or can alter the context when I perform live. But this project is very collaborative, and involves opening up to working with other people at an earlier stage of creation to build a little tower together. I always was a little bit envious of people who were making music with and collaborating at an early stage, and I really wanted to do that with this record.”
You’ve taken on the role of frontperson with this project and the run of live shows. How are you finding it?
“Parts of it feel familiar to what I’ve done before. I’m not getting stage fright in the way that when I was first starting off DJing in front of 5000 people and having all their eyes pointed at you. It’s more like I’m feeling naked and insecure about all the machines being happy today, it’s all sounding good and that I can project what these songs are. The stakes are definitely higher, but it’s also cool and it feels good to be kind of a beginner in this way.”
Avalon Emerson & The Charm’s debut album is out now