Interview: Hello Emerson Talk Track By Track Through Latest Album
“One of my favorite things to do is to stay home but so many of you decided not to stay home tonight and I take that personally, in a good way, so thank you very much for coming out,” Sam Bodary, the songwriter behind Hello Emerson, tells the crowd at Ace of Cups in Columbus, Ohio before the last song at the band’s album release show. That was February 21 of this year, before a pandemic brought shows essentially to a halt and isolation became the norm.
“We did everything we wanted to do right under a wire that we didn’t know was there,” Bodary tells me via Facetime in late July. After releasing their second full-length album, How To Cook Everything, on January 24, Hello Emerson spent a month in Germany, where the band’s label K&F Records (Anyway Records handled the new album in the United States) had been one of the group’s earliest advocates, playing sometimes crammed shows, sleeping in strangers’ homes, and sharing snacks. “We did that without knowing that it was going to be something that we couldn’t do,” Bodary concludes.
How To Cook Everything is a group affair. While it begins with Bodary alone and soon joined by percussionist and arranger Daniel Siebert and pianist Jack Doran, the trio work their way up to include strings, horns, and at the album’s climax a chorus of roughly 30 voices. It’s an elaborate production rooted in Bodary’s intimate storytelling and dynamic folk that builds those narratives from personal confiding to grand, existential questioning. Six months after the album’s release, Bodary walks us through each of the album’s tracks.
“The Last Dinner”
It never appears you’re afraid to write hyper-detailed, personal songs. This is definitely one of them to my interpretation. Do you ever feel reservations about sharing these stories?
I feel less reservations when the people involved help you draft the song. There are a couple songs on the record that are more personal or explicit, and I ran a few drafts by the person who’s most involved in those songs. We sat down over a couple meetings, chats, hangouts to hash out what can be said, what should be said, what shouldn’t be said. In all of that, I think to maintain some mutual respect and anonymity to all of that. I think it helps that that is also how our relationship was and ended. I think I learned through mistakes in the past that it’s always better to talk things through with the people you care about if it’s going to be in a song, so I did with these, and it’s great. It turned out lovely.
Why choose to open the album with something that’s so vulnerable? Was that a conscious decision?
It’s funny; I think the last decision on track listing the record was were we going to use “Last Dinner” and “16B” as the bookends, but I didn’t know which one was going to start so we flipped them around a couple times, and we were trying to figure it out. I think from the beginning I was very much like ‘oh, well, we have to start with “16B.” It’s big and you want to start with something big.’ And I think I remember Jack and Dan both being like ‘no, that’s the last one.’ And I think I really liked the arrangement of how it builds from a voice and a guitar up into something bigger, and I think in terms of the arc of the record: beginning with an ending and ending with a beginning, so you start with this really lovely situation of the end of a relationship, and then you end the record with this really hopeful situation for a future relationship. They’re not the same relationship, it’s thematically involved but I think that’s what went into it.
“Edges and Corners”
I’m just curious in general at this point, kind of getting into the album here, what’s your lyrical process like when you’re putting things together for a song?
I’m not very good at it yet, I think. If you think about songwriting like throwing darts I think what I have been doing, and still do to some extent, is you throw a dart, and you’re not really controlling the direction that it went. So, say it hits a seven, it’s like ‘alright, how do I make this seven the most meaningful it can be?’ Meaning I didn’t know I was going to write this song, but now that it’s there, and it has a direction; let’s try and make it the best seven that it can be.
I think this started with an image of beds looking a lot like phones. You can lie in your little rectangular bed and then if you wake up and you look at your little rectangular phone, you’re not paying attention to the person that you might be waking up next to, and that’s a bummer. Or you might not be paying attention to the person that you’re waking up inside—you’re not paying attention to you if you’re looking at your phone. And I think I was uncomfortable with my relationship with my phone in my bed, and those shapes both had edges and corners but I couldn’t tell you if that came before that chunk of lyrics or after.
In the future I’d like to be better, and I think I’d like to pick my shots and take them accurately. Right now, I’m not there yet.
“Dancing in the Kitchen”
A lot of your songs, and if not your songs your blog postings online, like to pay homage to cultural influences, or at least cultural encounters, that seems important to your writing. This one brings in Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” How did he earn inclusion here?
He’s The Boss, man. I love Bruce Springsteen, I love Jackson Browne. Some of those songs are very aggro and very stereotypical: ‘I’m a man, and I can get it done, and I’m working hard.’ I love “Thunder Road” so much, and I was listening to [Born To Run] for a while like on repeat but then also some of the lyrics just being like ‘oh, did you have to write it that way, Bruce?’ Cause the whole song is like this man in his car, like ‘come on, get off that porch we’re driving. We’re going to change the world, we’re going to fix all this,’ and it is so insistent, and I love the song so much but it is so… that song feels like if I just try as hard as I can possibly try then I can move the world and I think sometimes that’s not true. So, this song I think was specifically from the perspective of somebody who might be on that porch and disagree with Bruce Springsteen. I’m not sure when that line came in but just the like ‘yeah, this is not working out and no matter what you do can’t change that. We’re not a good match.’ That being the song that the characters in this song disagree about maybe felt good and then I think Jack noticed that ‘oh, I could just put that in the melody there, put in the riff.’ This song was originally about somebody needing an Inkjet printer when I worked as an IT intern at The Phonebook Company and then it just became an ideally compassionate song about the end of a relationship.
This is one of your most jubilant or fun songs. Why did you choose to go in that direction here?
I know that once it existed, we emphatically wanted to put it on the record somewhere to be just a weird curve ball. I guess, now that we’re talking, so much of this is about endings. And there can be a lot of joy and growth in really big failures, and I think it’s something that I was better at when I was younger. I think I’m more guarded and more reserved and put myself out there less now, but I think that time sticks out to me as like a lovely bad moment and like a lovely, loud, clumsy failure. We knew we wanted a saxophone duel. It just seemed to thematically fit. Jon Weisbrot and Alex Burgoyne play on it and kill it. I think Alex says that if pop music was based on getting saxophones to sound like squealing cats he’d be a millionaire.
That was actually my other question. I wanted to ask about the free jazz skronking—the saxophone duel—how spontaneous was that in this song?
Our direction was ‘pretend you’re both middle schoolers and you are playing soccer and one of you scuffs the others shoes as a joke but then the other person doesn’t take it as a joke and then a fight starts happening going back and forth.’ So essentially it was ‘hey, act like middle schoolers fighting on a soccer field’ and that was pretty much the extent of the direction.
This one’s a little bit sweeter in the midst of some emotionally heavier songs. How did this come together and find its place in the album?
I don’t know if it found it’s place in the album. I think if I were going to take one song away it would be this one. I think it found its place in the album because you needed to bridge the bombast of “We Lost” into the next track, and that was a really difficult transition for us when we were track listing, so that is maybe how it saved it’s spot on the album. This is about growing up. The previous song was about me breaking my nose, this song comes from me falling down the stairs when I was a little kid and got a scar. In terms of injuries and little failures growing up, it fits in just fine. I’m not sure we pulled it off perfectly. I think it’s a really charming sweet song, and I think I’m going to air on the side of including charming sweet songs. I think it mostly functions as a palette cleanser.
“Am I the Midwest?”
This is probably one of the heavier lyrical contents of these songs but I don’t think you can really talk about what you’re saying here without first bringing up Germany. You’ve had unexpected success there. How unexpected was that and how important was that to the development of Hello Emerson?
It was completely unexpected, and also important to temper—pretty random. I think our songs are good, but there are so many good songs that don’t get heard by many people, so also important to mention that we’re no super stars. We make back our money when we go over there. Nobody’s coming back with a bunch of cash. [I] met a guy named Lars at a show some years ago, I think before our tape came out, and he was here because his wife was studying at [Ohio State University], but they lived in Dresden and ran this small singer-songwriter label. So we became friends and found excuses to go over there and tour, and they supported our release on their little like break-even singer-songwriter label. That’s all random.
I think it’s been a really lovely galvanizing opportunity and a lovely treat and maybe more than anything like a good timeline thing for us. We knew that we were going be gone for a couple weeks so we had to have a record out and get all our ducks in a row, and I think that puts a fire under our butt to have some external time pressure. I know I have finite time to spend on music, and I’d much prefer to write songs at home than book extensive tours, so I think this is one of the main factors in us playing shows outside of the state. I’m not going to walk away from my job anytime soon, and I think I would need to do that to have the time to book a bunch of shows, write the songs I want to write, and make the records that I want to make. So, I think a random thing like this is what keeps us able to go around and meet people and share songs like that.
And that random connection to Germany and those meetings because of it are the reason that this song came together: the story that you were in Germany and you were on a radio show and they started asking about what it’s like in the American Midwest. How has touring abroad affected your outlook on the United States and the world either musically specifically or just in general?
I think one of my failings is I generally talk too much and say too little. When you’re performing for an audience of people for whom English is their second, third or fourth language, when you’re introducing songs it always works better if you concisely say what you mean. Playing over there for a while and then coming back over here helped me realize that that is also true here. It helps to concisely say what you mean. I think that that influenced the writing of [How to Cook Everything]. The songs are shorter; I think they’re more focused. I think it also influenced how I chew over things on my own and how I approach my own writing and other aspects of life.
We’re obviously doing things wrong as a country and everybody knows it. Even people here know it, right? The way I think we treat black and brown people that have been in this country, the way that we treat immigrants coming to this country, from like a police level, from a systemic level is obviously not the best way to go about things. You see that when you see other countries and the decisions they’ve made. I think all of this ties back to economics and people having enough money to live. I know that my friends in Germany when this pandemic hit they said ‘this is going to be bad but they said they’re going to support us and we believe them.’ They’re talking about their government. And they’re like ‘we hear that Trump’s going to support you guys but we don’t really believe that’ and that’s borne out to be true. And the world sees that. I think no matter how big our military is, it can’t cover up how we underserve huge portions of our society.
[In a later email, Bodary points to Community Refugee & Immigration Services as a resource for supporting immigrants in Central Ohio.]
I’m curious if that ties into the next track, “Another War.”
Oh, yeah, it does.
I don’t know if it’s coincidental that you put those next to each other.
That does make sense. I did make that decision at one point.
When this song came out, if my memory’s correct, the United States and Iran seemed to be on the brink of war, but I don’t believe that was your initial intention when writing this. How does that play into the song’s meaning, though, that it’s still a continued and generalized applicability?
There’s a Jackson Browne lyric that talks about the way that the hammer shapes the hand. You have a tool, you’re going to find some reason to use that tool. This song is about drawing connections between police overuse of force and military use of force. We talk about invading other countries with dubious evidence or dubious goals, it has an analog to how we treat our own residents. I don’t think all cops are terrible but boy, oh, boy. Here’s the top line thing: as a country if you’re often going to use force to solve problems abroad, you’re often going to use force to solve problems here.
I think one of the first times we performed this song live was during the Masonique Saunders and Julius Tate Jr. initial protests here. Columbus police department set up a sting operation, they shot Julius, he died, and they charged Masonique with his murder. They’re both in their teens. And it was because there was a felony murder law in Ohio, which meant that if somebody dies while somebody is committing a felony then their accomplices can be charged with their own murder. Which was so obviously bullshit. And the song wasn’t written about that but that’s so obviously bullshit. It’s a great legal justification for overuse of force that keeps everybody’s hands clean and let’s things continue to roll. We use plenty of other legal justifications of force when you’re sending troops other places. It fills me with a whole big sense of hopelessness that none of that is ever going to change. Maybe that’s unproductive. But that’s a hopeless song.
[In our later email exchange, Bodary offers Black Queer and Intersectional Collective as an organization to support on the issue of police violence.]
I did want to note on here that there some really great sounds. Early on you get some great screeching cymbals that maybe capture some of that chaos and hopelessness. I think this really shows off Daniel Siebert a lot.
Absolutely. I agree one hundred percent.
Can you talk a little bit about how collaborative and how fundamental he is in the Hello Emerson songs?
Dan Siebert is the best. We were sitting right here [in this apartment]. We had a synth, he had all of his percussive equipment, and we were recording pretty much all of that extra stuff in my apartment here. He is a classically trained percussionist. He does all the arrangements. He has an ear for textures, sounds, and arrangements, and I think he can make something impactful. He can make something feel fully realized. This band wouldn’t exist without Dan.
Kyle Kerley gets a full name shout out. When did he first hear the song, and how did he react about such a blatant inclusion?
I think the song was initially a joke, like a voice memo that I sent to him of that riff. I think he appreciates it, you’d have to ask him though. I know that it can be a burden if your name becomes an ear worm. In high school I was in an a cappella group. I was a beatboxer, and at one show I did like a looping thing where essentially my name was the hook. The lyrics were ‘my name is Sam Bodary’ and that just repeated, and hell if that didn’t follow me around for a long time; so if he appreciates it, I don’t think it comes without its downsides. I’m really happy that radio stations are playing it around Columbus; it makes me really appreciate it. I hope that every time somebody hears that and knows Kyle, they find that really charming.
This one, to me, feels lyrically like a predecessor to “The Last Dinner.”
You got it. You nailed it.
The start before the end, which is a nice tie as the ending of the album is looming. Why separate the story?
That’s a good question. I think it can serve two purposes. I think arrangement wise “Last Dinner” works better for the beginning of a record than this does. I think also putting this before “[Seat] 16B,” while they’re not about the same thing, they’re leading on that same trajectory. They’re thematically similar. So, if you were going to put them on a timeline, “May 2018” would come before “16B.” It would be preparing for this relationship to end. Then the gap between “May 2018” and “16B” would be, okay, some breakup happens. You could put “Last Dinner” in there, and then “16B” would be the hopeful part that goes after. I think it was another chance to put in another bit of a redemption arc at the back half of the record so at the end nodding to endings but not having it be completely depressing. I think an early draft of [the album] ended “May 2018” and then “Last Dinner,” which, boy, that’s a bummer way to end a record.
This song is kind of an ‘all hands on deck’ moment. How important is collaboration to you and Hello Emerson, and how did you bring everyone together for this song?
There’s almost no reason that the stuff that we make as local musicians in Columbus, Ohio can’t be as grand, or produced, or sometimes ostentatious as, like, big name stuff coming out of big-name labels. It’s just a matter of how many people can you organize to work on one thing together. So, a bunch of emails is how that happens. I think going to a bunch of shows and making friends over years is how that happens, and I think developing trust in your relationships with people is how that happens. There’s no way that we could make a record like this when I first moved to Columbus. This is an expression of the many people that I’ve met and friends that I’ve made around the city who make stuff that I think is great.
The money in this is not good enough for people to do it if they really don’t want to do it. I think over the past couple years we’ve made enough fans and found inspiration in enough other people to be able to, once we had our arrangements and had everything organized, to ask people if they wanted to join, and a bunch of people said yes, which I’m endlessly thankful for and flattered by.
At the start of this we were talking about “The Last Dinner,” and you mentioned how you come to people and make sure they’re comfortable with the lyrics that are about them or interactions with them. This song is about a stranger. How much did you fill in? I’m assuming you weren’t able to go back and talk this through with that stranger.
Most of the specifics. I was able to eavesdrop across the aisle to figure out that, yeah, it’s her first time out of state. Yeah, it’s her first time on a plane, flying across the country to see this person that she went to high school with that she’s been dating online for a couple of months but has not seen since high school. That’s the information I got, and then from there it’s like ‘alright let’s imagine.’ Like, I know she has kids, so she probably has an ex-husband, maybe. I don’t know that he works in IT, but let’s just say that he works in IT to try to fill out the picture a little bit. Maybe 40% of that is artistic liberty, but the whole big event was watching how these strangers reacted to someone being so open and vulnerable about them taking a risk, and feeling it, everyone rooting for her as she got off that plane and never knowing how it’s going to work out.
And in the end, it remains unconcluded, you never know if it’s going to work out.
Nobody knows. It’s great.
Which is maybe a theme through the album that some of these songs leave something unconcluded, but you’ve been talking about hope and how this feels hopeful to you. How intentional was the decision to leave it open-ended here? Could you talk about how you wound up knowing this needed to be the end to keep that bit of hopefulness?
It needed to be true to reality. As we’re seeing in the world right now, we don’t know when things are going to end or be different. And even if things right now happen to be great for you there’s no guarantee that it’s going to stay that way. So there really is no ending. Retroactively there’s an ending after you die but you’re not around to point to it and say ‘that’s the ending.’ I think an orientation towards hope is a common theme throughout all these songs even in the parts that are really difficult. I think where it feels most hopeless is in songs like “Another War” and, to a lesser extent, songs like “Am I the Midwest?” cause it’s like I don’t know. I don’t know how quickly this can change. I don’t know how a country reckons with being built on slavery and never paying that back. I don’t know how a country reckons with deciding who is a citizen and who’s not a citizen. I don’t know how a country reckons with the vast educational inequality across socioeconomics, across race. I don’t know how a country reckons with having policy that has set in stone and brick so much segregation across so much of the country, but I think there is a huge spark of hope even in dark moments like this right now. You know the Mr. Rogers thing, the Mr. Rogers quote? ‘In bad times we look for the helpers.’ And then you can go one step forward and you can be a helper.
I think your orientation towards hope relies on what you see as the ending. If you think that now is the ending, you don’t have much hope. Sometimes I don’t have much hope, sometimes I do. I think making this record I did. And I think I still do, but I’m trying to foster, and I’m trying to learn how to have a sense of pragmatic hope, and hope doesn’t mean much unless you’re doing something.