Restraining Order Material:
Scout Niblett Has Both Barrels Blazing
Something about Scout Niblett has always seemed a little… off. Check out the cover photo of her 2011 album The Calcination of Scout Niblett for a case in point – she’s sporting a detached, eerily gleeful smile while waving and holding a lit blowtorch, either oblivious to or relishing the havoc she’s about to trigger. Until recently, however, Niblett’s recorded output has struck me as more detached than dangerous.
That all changed with this year’s It’s Up To Emma, a focused, spine-tingling breakup album – perhaps from the stubbly-bearded dude with whom she’s sucking face in the photo-booth shot that graces the latest cover. When you’ve got an opener as arresting as “Gun” it’s pretty hard to go wrong. Essentially a murder ballad with Niblett’s voice backed by little more than her reverb-laden guitar, she opens Emma with the arresting couplets, “I think I’m gonna buy me a gun/ A nice little silver one/ And in a crowd someday/ You won’t see it coming anyway….”
Given this backdrop, I wasn’t expecting the polite, soft-spoken Brit I encountered, enjoying a bit of home leave following a month-long European tour. Niblett has historically hit the road flanked only by a drummer, but her band configuration is but one of many recent changes. “This is the first tour where I’ve gone out with three pieces – I had someone who was playing a second guitar. Plus we did one show in Cologne with a cello and a violin player – that was pretty amazing.” When she returns to the road in her adopted US homeland in September it’ll be with a different set of backing musicians, this time drawn from her Drag City labelmates and touring partners Dope Body.
Neither of these lineups overlap with the musicians on It’s Up To Emma, another break from her norm. “My usual pattern is completely the opposite of what I did on this one,” she explains by phone from England. “I usually get all the songs together, rehearse and rehearse until we’re really tight, go in and record for four days to a week, and it’s done. This time we recorded on and off for seven months – going into the studio like four or five times. I knew I wanted to do the record as live as possible but there were so many different people involved – there were three different drummers – I had an intuition that I’d need more time for overdubs and the like because we basically weren’t like a tight band, like it would need to be to go to Steve.”
The Steve in question is her longtime producer Steve Albini. For this outing Niblett made the call to stay at home in Portland and to produce herself for the first time. It’s hard to say which of these changes triggered the payoff, but Emma is a stark, tension-laden tour de force. And by the way, Emma is Scout Niblett’s given name. “My work’s always pretty much autobiographical, I don’t mind people knowing that,” she adds with an audible shrug even while discussing raw personal emotions.
My money’s on the source material – Pitchfork’s review of the album declared its song cycle to be a guided tour along the Kubler-Ross model for the five stages of grief. “I read that and thought ‘oh wow, that’s really true’,” she giggles. “The songs were written over a three-year period, and since they’re talking about the same theme there are natural psychological progressions. And I like that about it.” The songs are not presented in the order written, however. “The sequencing was hard – I knew it was going to start with ‘Gun’ (the first one she wrote) and end with ‘What Can I Do’ (which offers some compassionate closure) and I wanted it to have some sort of narrative, but had to balance what was appropriate musically.” The transitional “Woman and Man” is a decade-old nugget that went unrecorded until now, but “it fit so perfectly that I had to pull it back out.”
Niblett is unfazed by my suggestion that it would be hard for a male singer (save for perhaps an acknowledged play-actor like Nick Cave) to get away with “Gun”’s menacing lines in this politically correct era. “I think it’s just a human emotion that isn’t limited by gender. That really never entered my thought process.” She does inject some black humor with the line, “Maybe you’ll be holding her hand/ Or watching her shitty band,” and lightens the mood (or depending on your perspective, really ups the creepy factor) by setting the track to a video of her cavorting about town in a Snow White costume.
“I knew I wanted the video to be quite lighthearted, in complete juxtaposition to the song. We tried filming me dressing as Snow White in a more staged situation, and I really wasn’t happy with the results. So I decided I wanted someone filming me just randomly walking around downtown Portland, capturing what happens. Luckily the day we did that there was a Cinco de Mayo festival, which was the best random luck we could possibly have. All of a sudden all these kids were there and it was like ‘I want my photo taken with Snow White!’ They had no idea whatsoever what was going on.” Niblett has a long history of donning wigs for performances. “I’m still working out what the whole dress-up thing is about – partly fun, for me,” she confesses. “I’m really obsessed with transformation, seeing my own image transformed into something else.” Also on the lighter side – maybe – is her deadpan, slowcore cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” at mid-album. “I’d been doing it live for a couple years, and realized it fit in,” she reports, revealing no mischievous intent.
Niblett has drawn frequent comparisons to PJ Harvey, and the structural and thematic similarities between It’s Up To Emma and Harvey’s brilliantly harrowing 1993 album Rid of Me are bound to perpetuate those parallels. I’m struck by the notion that Harvey bristles at the assumption her lyrics are autobiographical while Niblett is given a pass she hasn’t requested – perhaps because of the wigs? The mere topic causes Emma to become curt for the only time during our conversation. “I’m sure she doesn’t get compared to me, why should I be compared to other people?” she retorts. “I’ve been doing this for 10-12 years.” She claims never to have heard Cave’s Grinderman work, but sounds more intrigued by my suggestion of that reference point – perhaps familiarity does breed contempt.
On the topic of men and breakups, Niblett assures me there’s no drama between her and Albini – who she met through the recently deceased Jason Molina via her work with Magnolia Electric Co. “The main reason we didn’t go to Steve was that I didn’t feel prepared in the way I normally am to do a live record. I knew I needed a bit more leeway in terms of time, so it didn’t make sense to travel to Chicago.” Although she says she’d happily work with him again, Niblett seems to have absorbed enough of Albini’s tricks of the trade that it may not be the best use of her limited funds.
Niblett left Nottingham, England for Bloomington, Indiana in 2003 to situate herself closer to friends and supporters from her then-label Secretly Canadian, another Molina connection. Since then she’s become a textbook American itinerant, passing through Philadelphia and Oakland before settling in Portland in 2006 for its more humane cost of living. “I try to save as much money as I can while touring to live on for the next two or so years. It’s worked so far, though I’m not sure how much longer it will. It’s a problem because I never know when the next record is coming out.”
Niblett senses that her audience is currently a bit bigger abroad than in the US, but that “it seems to ebb and flow – I never really know what to expect.” She’s a big proponent of intuition, and has no intention of over-analyzing or forcing her songwriting. “To be honest it’s really mysterious. I tend to have a cycle of two, two-and-a-half years of things coming up, coming out. And I never know when in that cycle it’s going to happen. It’s very sporadic – I can’t just sit down for the purpose of writing, I have to sit and wait and live my life.”
This time the cycle ran a little longer, and apparently involved a gut-wrenching breakup. The material didn’t flow as freely – there were no leftover tracks left in the vault – but the ones that found their way through pack a wallop.
Photo by Devin Ludwig.