001 Emily Hope Price
"If you never do it, you can never say you failed at it."
TREVOR EXTER: You're listening to play it like its music, exploring the lives and craft of the people who play. I'm your host Trevor Exter, and we're uptown today with Emily Hope Price, a prolific cellist and singer. She put in a lot of miles with a beloved band called Pearl And The Beard, and she's also played cello for Sting, Roger Waters, Ani DiFranco, D'Angelo and Father John Misty. As an artist she digs deep and makes incredibly beautiful and tender work.
We go back a long way, and we also both play cello, so we get pretty loose hanging out on the mic. She drops a lot of wisdom here. Let's hang out with Emily.
EMILY HOPE PRICE: Do I need to restate questions, you know how they have you do that in interviews where they say... You ask a question and I say it in my answer? Do you need me to do that?
TE: So the question is, you want me to answer the question of whether I want you to restate the questions or not? Is that the question? I don't give a shit about that.
EHP: Foul language?
TE: Please. Right, I think we're established. Okay, so do me a favor and say your name and your instrument.
EHP: My name is Emily Hope Price, and I play the cello. I'm a cellist.
TE: Can I get you to play something?
EHP: Sure. Do you care what it is?
TE: How about... I want a little bit of free improv. Oh, only original stuff because I don't want to have to worry with licensing. And also it would be cool if you could improvise like a little one or two second sting. Like a small taste.
TE: Yeah like that shit. Like that like half a dozen things like that. If you want to do a song I could put that on too if you want.
EHP: Can I plug in?
TE: That cello sounds so good! But I can... Actually give me a little without that for a moment.
EHP: Can I sing?
TE: Yeah. You are a cellist and many other things too.
EHP: Yeah, I get a little busy. Yeah, so I I sing and compose and songwrite and sometimes illustrate and sometimes play funny characters.
TE: Why do you play music?
EHP: I knew you were gonna ask me this. I knew it and I got really nervous. So this is the metaphor I came up with: my relationship with music is... This is a terrible metaphor, but I feel like it's like a lover. I chose it. I'm choosing it. It's not like a sibling. It's not like a mother or father situation where I didn't choose you. I love you. I think for a while it felt that way for me sometimes. I've described it as an arm. It was just there. It was there, and I'm looking at it, and I'm functioning with it.
I'll tell you what I do now. Music and I don't have a romantic relationship outside of the performance moment. I create music to process pain. I create music to process information. I create music to tell stories that I don't know how to tell any other way, and I create music to communicate. I create music to incorporate intimacy because, growing up in a very conservative environment at home in the culture I grew up in, that was how I could communicate intimacy was through sound and music. And I didn't know, I couldn't any other way. So that created this performance pocket. Where I just need the content to get into this performance pocket. That is my passion, is to be in this moment of pure communication and energy exchange. Outside of the actual creation of it. It can be rewarding in the moment, but simultaneously extremely frustrating. I wish I could tell you oh, I just feel this sort of joy" But actually it's really difficult for me to sit down and go "Right. Here we go. I'm gonna do this." It can be hard. I also am very dependent on that Muse moment, where I get like a pulse, an inner pulse going, "you gotta run up to your room right now and make something! Make it! Hurry! Go go!" And it has to happen then or I lose it. I chase it. I'm totally envious of people who feel rejuvenated, who feel "alive".
I'm only talking about the creation of it, the actual building blocks. Like I'm putting these pieces together. Once you have it you have it, and that's great and you know you're done. You can perform it anywhere, but it's the sitting down and looking at... Its like, this is the better example: you see this bloody mess on the ground and you know you have to basically reverse time. And pick up, like oh, there's some brains. I've got a weary...
TE: Wait. What happened?
EHP: ... That we don't know till we put it together, right? Yeah, but I don't feel like... I'm not looking this bloody mess going "well that's an emergency." I don't feel about it like, you know, " does this body interest me enough to put it together?" [laughs]
TE: OK. [laughs] I love this.
EHP: I like zombies by the way.
TE: I'm not a zombie person.
EHP: You don't need to be.
TE: But for those of you who are, I hope you got something out of that.
TE: I know you as a fount of creativity. Tell me about the art first. What's your story? How did it start and where do these ideas come from?
EHP: In 2013 I was doored on my bicycle in Brooklyn, and as a result had to get knee surgery, and I was laid up on a couch for a while. And I just didn't have mobility and I was under no fault insurance which is pretty much No insurance. So there was a lot of stress and there was a lot of fatigue and worry, and I started drawing. And I'd never considered myself an artist and I still actually don't consider myself an illustrator. These are improvised. They start out as circles and they kind of form themselves. It's actually very similar to how I compose music too. So I'll just have a piece of paper, and I'll just draw circles.
I know what this is going to sound like but I'll look at them, and I'll say oh no there's another person that's supposed to be here. There are supposed to be two people in this one. This one wants to be talking to someone else or wants to be alone or whatever. The series itself is called Backhanded Illustrated. They came from this moment of me laying on this couch for several months trying to figure out what to do with the spare time.
The more I did it, the more that I came out processing what I didn't know how to process - like a dream, like when you wake up from a dream and you realize that your brain is trying to work something out. It's about me trying to work out insecurity and the stories that we tell ourselves to believe that actually are just stories.
TE: You do them all in one sitting?
EHP: Yeah. I have to finish them once I start, or I won't finish them. So I know that much about myself.
TE: Yeah, I relate to that. You're telling me that just kind of started one day?
EHP: Yeah, like with cello I have, like a bachelor's degree, master's degree and an artist diploma. I feel at times much more limited because I know what I've been taught. Rules and limitations that -
TE: You don't have a doctorate?
TE: I thought you had a doctorate.
EHP: No no no.
TE: I think I have to leave.
EHP: No man come on!I
EHP: think there's something to say about just doing something and going "I have no idea what I'm doing" and being okay with that and the freedom that comes with the... I am actually not doing anything wrong. And I feel a lot of times - at least with my own instrument - because I know that thumb position needs to be here, your elbow here, your hand here. And it all comes from wanting to play healthy and being able to play with ease. But in terms of theory and composition and... All that can be very limiting.
With these drawings. I found suddenly this new form of expression. There was no self judgment, there was no insecurity. I didn't care. I don't care what people say about them or think about them. I don't.
TE: And that's not the way it is with music?
EHP: No. It's very different actually. I'm getting over the hump. Like it's a lifetime of learning, teaching myself not to self-judge, and that no one's opinion really matters. Because it's just about them. It's about their story, about what they've experienced. It's not about me.
TE: When did you start playing cello?
EHP: I started playing cello in the fourth grade. I started when I was 8. I was given a piece of paper that listed the instruments that were available to me, to choose from. And cello you got to sit. That was the deciding factor on that. I've never really been patriotic in terms of like, cellistically patriotic, but I have really come into my own instrument.
TE: Was there a point where you decided, "this is me. I'm doing this 100%"?
EHP: No, and I'm actually jealous of people who are like that. I've talked to kids who are like that. Like "this is the only thing I want to do" I've talked with adults who have chosen their current profession, and they always know that that's what they wanted to do.
I don't ever remember being little and thinking "yes. This is what I wanted." I've always been a kind of person that kind of stumbles onto something by accident and kind of makes something happen out of that. And that has proven to be a detriment in some cases, but I've now seen the positive side of that, and being adaptable. Through high school and college that all happened. It was me going "alright these are the choices that I'm making, this doesn't feel bad, so I'm just going to keep going." But it would, no. It was never... I never felt that innate need to do it. I just I was good at it, and I liked performing and that was where I felt...The need was to perform. It was like something clicked and I turned into this person that I hadn't met yet, and that person would show up later, and I met her and I was like "wow this person's different than the person who I showed everyone else". You know. It's so it's like a very dual personality.
TE: Cello generally exists to make everything else sound better. So we support the melody that's usually on another instrument, or we beef up the bass line or we just add like, nectar in the middle of the mix to just thicken it up. That's how I see it as a cellist and one of the shocks that I found kind of coming into adulthood as a creative cello player is that I found that it was really hard to find space to be expressive and creative in the job setting. So I think that's one of the things I admire most about watching you work, because you find a way to make it personal and have it work. How do you navigate that?
EHP: That's funny question you ask, because I'm currently battling that problem. And I call it a problem because it's a problem for me when I'm asked to do a gig.
I have this internal battle, like those two Emilys going: "this is a job. You just got to show up. Just show up sit down and be quiet." Then there's this other Emily that feels, "um, I don't want to play other people's music! I should be playing my music!" I had like this feeling of guilt, this feeling of "I'm not doing enough of my own work. I don't... I don't.... I don't want to play other people's..."
I mean I've been playing other people's music since I began the cello, right? That's what they put in front of you is like, "play this Bach" you know? This kind of a thing I wrestle with constantly. There are times when I just want to say no to every job. I do a lot of multitrack cello arrangements for albums and some moving picture scoring. And there are times I'm like, "I should be doing this! I should do this for my stuff. Why aren't I?" I don't handle that very well sometimes. Privately. This is all very private, secret - no longer secret - kind of back-and-forth I have with myself. I don't know the answer. I don't know. I don't really have... I think it will always be there is my guess. Because just, the sheer nature of my personality being restless and being also at the same time trying to battle fear about working on my own stuff. Because if you never do it you can never say you failed at it.
TE: But you're a pretty legit cello player though.
EHP: That doesn't, I don't think that...[laughs]... It says more about my willingness to appease.
TE: How much you practice?
EHP: [Laughs] Ahem! I will say, in my early years, if I went a day or two without practicing I felt it immediately. I can now, having played for much longer, I can go much longer without having to do that maintenance, and it's okay. I'm only now seeing the results of not doing woodshedding or maintenance. I had Bach up on my stand went before you got here, and I thought "this is a misrepresentation. It looks like I practiced maybe more than I do!" So I put it away. [laughs] I was thinking, "I don't want him to think I stay and practice."
In terms of maintenance, the maintenance I do is: I get my loop pedal out, play over drones or I play through compositions. I try to do things that I know I have trouble with. I've never been a technical player, no matter how... Even in my highest like "hours of practicing" throughout my life. I've never considered myself, you know those people. You have marathon runners, and you have speed Runners like a Sprint Runner?
EHP: But a different muscle twitch? I have accepted the fact that I'm not going to be playing like, Flight of the Bumblebee. You know. I wanted to be that person who was, like "hey Emily, can you play this, this or this kind of music, or this? Can you do this?" And I want the answer to be Yes every time.
TE: You weren't that before you came to New York? You didn't get the memo?
EHP: No! I think it's a clinical... There's a clinical name for it when... I can't remember what it's called. It's like fear of being found out if you're a phony. You heard of this?
TE: Yeah, imposter syndrome?
EHP: Imposter syndrome! And I have it openly. I'm openly suffering from imposter syndrome.
TE: I knew it!
EHP: And I think it's something that really should be addressed and talked about openly in our culture today, is imposter syndrome. You know it's motivational to feel like, how someone's going to figure me out one day, "wow she doesn't actually know she's doing!"
TE: You should start the official imposter syndrome blog, and everyone can be like "under what authority?!"
EHP: [laughs] I remember the moment where this melancholy, " I want cello on this"... And you're right, cello had kind of one function. Like I'm staring at my POG pedal, this octave pedal on the floor, and a distortion pedal. I think because of electronics and the internet and dadada, I think that that's changed more and more. It is genre allowances which'll...
Someone once! I performed my material when I was first writing it and someone was like, they were a musician and came to my show. Any they're like " really great seeing you play. It's a little kitschy isn't it though?"
EHP: That was the one hate mail I got. And I actually had never really heard the word Kitsch used towards me, and so I wasn't actually sure of what they meant. But after thinking about it I was like, you know what? That I kind of agree.
There is something, at least in the cultural acceptance of it, a little kitschy about it. "Oh isn't that cute. Cellist singing and writing songs that's super cute." There is something that isn't allowed to happen with an instrument that's mainly classical. These are the rules, this is the fence we're going to draw. But yet, pick up an electric guitar, and we suddenly take you more seriously.
TE: Yeah, electric guitar. Isn't kitschy at all.
EHP: Not at all! Heaven forbid. Well that's the problem I had, even leaving classical music. I struggled so many years with feeling like I lost my validity as a musician. I'm no longer a "real cellist" because I don't play heavily classical anymore. I write my own music. I'm not fiddling around in thumb position. I really struggled with that feeling of "I'm not a valid musician." And it was just me. It was my projections on what I had been told, my projections of what I believe music to be. In what cello has to look like and sound like. And I think we're kind of getting over that hump a little bit. I hope I think.
Because I think you can walk into any show and see a cellist front-and-center and believe it. I think it's a matter of telling people what the realities are now and inviting them in to your intimate space through your work. You do have to go through this intensive trial by fire of kitsch and working out what works for you, and what feels better, and what looks better. And I absolutely did that I was eight years in a band really excavating how I felt. What does it look like? What do we look like together? What does it sound like? When I'm standing, sitting...
I didn't like the look of my legs spread. I felt like it was dopey. Not that it felt like overly sexual. I want to feel more sexual and sexy when I'm playing. That's intimacy for me, to be intimate with - in my own sexuality as a woman, having grown up in a very sheltered environment, growing up very religious. I haven't known how to create that believability consciously, but it's been something on my mind thinking, when I watch someone else I ask myself, "do I believe you? Have you taken me in?" I think that's hard to find. I think it's hard to create.
TE: Give me a little bit of the Pearl And The Beard story.
EHP: I moved to New York in 2007, the fall of 2007. I started going to school at SUNY Purchase. I was there for a few months, and I was going to do a two-year artist diploma. And my first year in 2007 I decided, "you know I'm going to start doing open mics." Just as an exercise. And my first open mic ever in New York City was at Sidewalk Cafe with Lach. And Lach gave you a number. And then around 11 o'clock it went from you could perform two songs to one. My number was like number 22 or something, 11 o'clock hit, and I had had two songs in mind to play. One of them was a cover of Nat King Cole, Nature Boy, and then the other one was an original I'd written.
11 o'clock came and it was my turn to do one song and I got up on stage and I decided to do the cover instead. And I walked off stage after I was finished and I sit down and these two people come up to me Jeremy Styles and Jocelyn Mackenzie, and they had formed a band called Pearl And The Beard and they said "look, we've been looking for a third member. We don't know how we want to use you, but we want to use you. We love what you just did."
And so they gave me the CD, they said "just listen to this". We were still in Myspace mode, at that time still burning CDs on our laptops. They gave me their EP, I listened to it, and I said "sure I'll join the band". So I joined this band.
TE: I remember walking in on an early show at Sidewalk. You guys blew up pretty quickly in that scene right?
EHP: It's hard for me to speak because I was in it
TE: The vibe was great, the vibrancy was great, the people were really, like fun. It was a fun place to be around and support.
TE: So my question for you is, you were in a band that got really big at Sidewalk and then transitioned out of Sidewalk into a "legitimate" place, which is difficult to pull off. Can you offer me some insight about that?
EHP: Well. I will say we had, in the very beginning we had, I think we had good local guidance. We got ourselves on a boutique label with Wes Verhoeve. He was our manager at the time. He was able to teach us how to get out of that. We went from booking at Sidewalk Cafe, and then we started booking at stuff like the Living Room or Pianos. You just move around to different venues, and then we ended up at Rockwood. And then from Rockwood Joe's Pub, so it was a general kind of growth of venue. We moved out and out and out and out, and to all those shows, different kinds of bookers were invited. I mean it's kind of the game you play now a little bit. I think it might be a little different. I shudder to think that I would ever do that again. It's very stressful to have to kind of play this game of "ok now we've got to build again, build again."
You kind of mentioned this a little bit, of it feeling kind of quick. It certainly wasn't meteoric it felt very slow to us from the inside.
TE: What should a newer player just avoid completely?
TE: Cool. Thank you.
EHP: Your welcome.
TE: Right I'm gonna turn this off.
That was Emily Hope Price. Man, that was fun. You can find her work at Emilyhopeprice.com, and she's all over twitter, instagram and facebook. Go look for her. Subscribe to her mailing list. Become one of the many who are just thrilled that she's in the world, making the music that only she can.
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