Meet visual artist-turned-rocker Emily Cross, whose new album hits on family and nature
We’re always listening out for musical acts with unique sounds and artistic visions, and when we first heard the wife-and-husband team Cross Record, we were hooked on their textured, intimate take on rock music. Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski are releasing their new record Wabi-Sabi today, and as its title suggests, the album draws inspiration from the Japanese aesthetic of accepting imperfection. But, Cross Record’s music is less Zen garden and more sweeping Midwestern landscape — rolling waves of lush, thrumming sound, recorded in their studio/home in Dripping Springs, Texas.
In advance of the record’s release, HelloGiggles spoke by phone to Cross about the relationship between visual art and invisible sound, working with family, and the natural world:
HelloGiggles (HG): The kind of sound that you’ve curated on Wabi-Sabi is really special. What background do you have in visual art, since wabi-sabi is a visual art concept?
Emily Cross (EC): I’ve been drawing and painting my whole life, so it definitely came before music. I went to art school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in my last year of going there is when I started making music. Even the first two or three years I was making music, I was much more heavily into the art side of things. In fact, when I first started, I was more interested in drawing the songs, and how I could draw a song and then try to translate that into music.
The longer I played music, the more into the music side I got. But my basis is from my background in visual arts.
HG: Are you familiar with Marie Kondo? (The Japanese organizing expert whose book/manifesto The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up swept the world last year.)
EC: I have! I’m not super familiar, but have you seen those unfolding rooms, where they look like a cube and unfold into these small living spaces?
HG: Mini houses?
EC: Not really! They’re a block, and then they open up. They actually remind me of a Polly Pocket! Everything has a function, and everything that’s there is where it needs to be, nothing more or nothing less.
HG: I haven’t heard a Polly Pocket reference in a decade. That was solid.
EC: It’s funny because now I’m a nanny, and I watch this 8-year-old girl. She’s really into this thing called Littlest Pet Shop, and it’s kind of like Polly Pocket. The actual Polly Pocket looks way less cool now. The thing I most loved about them is how some of the figures were fuzzy.
HG: There’s that same sense of care and meticulousness in the songs on Wabi-Sabi. Your background is pretty interesting — you moved from Chicago to basically be ensconced in nature. How much of that has affected the way that you approach music, especially since “popular” music tends to be urban life-focused and inorganic in sound? And, was it important to Wabi-Sabi’s creation that it was kept away from that?
EC: I don’t think it was necessarily a conscious decision, but when I lived in Chicago, I would want to be out in nature, but it was hard. There are trees, of course, but it’s not the same as being in a quiet, open space where no one else is. You can get glimpses of that in parks, but I was always writing about nature from the point-of-view of yearning for it.
Now that I’m here and able to enjoy it on a much more daily basis and in a more intimate way, living it . . . it feels more comfortable to write about it. It’s in me now more than it was before. It’s always been something I write about, regardless of what my surroundings at the time were.
HG: Perhaps it’s easier to access it, whereas the nexus of your music remains unchanged.
EC: I used to have to mentally put myself there and try to get there, and now I don’t really have to think about it because it’s around me all the time. It feels more in-line with me as a person.
HG: The way that you’re describing your surroundings reminds me of this painting, “Christina’s World.”
EC: I love that painting! By Andrew Wyeth.
HG: There’s a place near where I grew up where, there used to be a flat plane, and there was a red barn on the hill. So I grew up with this super idyllic thing, and later, they built and developed that area more. You don’t recognize the kind of spiritual impact of these, not just natural, but big, natural spaces, unless you’re in them or lose them.
EC: I think that’s a pretty common experience. People grow up in suburbs, and eventually they get more and more built up.
My husband and I went to Chicago for Christmas. We were in the middle of this street, and shit was everywhere. He was like, “You see that building there? That was the only building that was there when I was growing up.” That’s crazy! It’s incredible how landscapes change.
HG: It’s a theme that’s reflected pretty well in your music. It’s there, not just in your lyrics, but in your production — when I listen to your songs, they transport me to an idyllic place.
When you’re listening back on your own music, do you reflect on it in that kind of way, or are you more self-critical as its creator?
EC: My relationship is a lot different than yours! When I listen, I’m more replaying and living back the recording process or the time that we spent in the studio together. Also, where I was when I was recording it, what I was thinking about. There are a lot of things piled up on top of each other.
Listening to your own songs is weird because you don’t know if you like them or not! You’re like, “Do I like this? Is this good?” You have no idea, because you’re so a part of it. Maybe some people can go, “This is my song, fuck yeah!” I don’t ever think I’ve ever met anyone like that.
HG: I’ve performed in ensembles before, but I haven’t experienced that particular feedback loop. It’s true that most performers tend to (publicly) downplay their creative accomplishments though, versus being like, “I’m the shit and so is my song!”
EC: Yeah, I probably wouldn’t wanna be friends with that person. Maybe! I don’t know. Just kidding, I love everyone!
HG: Something that is a huge part of your band story is the idea of family, and not just because the two of you are married together.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re seriously thinking about motherhood — how much has that informed Wabi-Sabi (beyond the song “Basket”), and how do you take that into consideration as you consider the future of Cross Record? The intimacy of working with someone you love can also be amazing, but when things get too real, that can spill out too.
EC: With every songwriting period, and I say that because I think a lot of musicians operate in this on-period, off-period way . . . In those periods of time where I’m feeling like I wanna write and create music, there are gonna be certain themes that keep coming up because that’s the way life is. You’ll have stuff going on that’s specific to the time that you’re experiencing, and you can choose to ignore that when you’re writing or just write about it, or incorporate it a little bit.
During this record, I was thinking a lot about motherhood. But I wouldn’t say that the record was heavily influenced by these feelings; I also wrote about my parents’ divorce, and being married myself, and this song that was kind of a dedication, a determination, for my relationship not to end like that. I’m writing this record right after I got married, so all of these thoughts — my marriage, my parents’ marriage, having children with this person I’m in a secure relationship with, love in general — it all informed my lyrics. I’m not one to go into in-depth, specific details, but you can read into it pretty well.
HG: That’s interesting, because that sounds pretty different from the model a lot of musicians do. There was this artist last year who, before she dropped her album, kept dropping more and more specific anecdotes about her music in interviews; she’d complain about and mock the press cycle. But there’s something to be said about letting your songs speak for themselves.
EC: I always think about, when I was in Chicago . . . The Art Institute of Chicago was right there, connected to my school, so during lunch, we’d go in there and look at paintings. Our professors were very big on, like, “Don’t get any information before going in to look at the paintings. Go and look at them and let them affect you. Put your own projections onto them. If you want to delve deeper, go look and then get more information.”
I love when, people get upset when there’s a painting and there’s no information plastered next to it, or it’s “Untitled #2,” and they’d be like, “I wish there was a title so I know what it’s about!” I get that, but I think it’s a beautiful mystery to look at something and not know what the artist was thinking.
HG: People tend to like to overshare these days, so withdrawing from that and observing is totally underrated. It’s like . . . I came to your music, because I listened to “Steady Waves” and was immediately arrested by it.
Sorry if this doesn’t make sense. I’m trying to give up coffee, and it’s been hard.
EC: Oh, I don’t drink coffee either! I generally don’t think caffeine is good for me. Everyone that I know knows that I am kind of a health nut, and I’m very into eating well, and I’m a really big baby when it comes to sleep. When it comes to playing shows, I’ll be like, “Can we just open so we can play early because 9 is my bedtime?” Past 9, I don’t really perform well!
I felt a while ago that I was a little too dependent on it, and I don’t like to be dependent on stuff. I’d wake up and be like, “Ah yes, coffee!” And I don’t think coffee is bad for you, but it was bad for me. Now, it’s not dictating anything for me; I don’t need it to get up, or to study. It’s a personal health, wellness, choice. I don’t drink alcohol either.
HG: After you go through rock history and read your fiftieth “We trashed the hotel room and drank Jack out of a handle!” story . . .
EC: I hate to sound like a prude, a party-pooper. I think it’s fine if other people want to do that, but I don’t wanna wake up feeling like shit.
HG: All of this information about your habits somehow explains your music as well. You seem very conscious of your presence and your being, and I can hear that in your work. Wabi-Sabi sounds austere, but these songs are packed with really scintillating sounds.
Ugh, I’m already pre-emptively cringing at the fact that I have to hear my own voice when I transcribe this.
EC: Oh, I hate that too!
HG: How can you hate that? You record your own voice!
EC: Well, talking is different than singing, for sure. I’m glad no one is gonna hear this, only read this.
HG: Word. So, as you move forward in 2016, what songs are you most excited to be playing live, and where do you want Cross Record, and your own life, to go? Big questions.
EC: I’m gonna keep it conversative, so I don’t feel like I failed in 2017! The band’s gonna be traveling in February and March, which should be really fun. I’ll be going to countries I’ve never been to before. My father is maybe moving to Thailand, so I wanna go there as well, and I’ll probably do a lot of writing there.
As far as life on the ranch, we’re working on building some structures on our land so that other people can rent them and hopefully create some income for us so we can have a more flexible life, in terms of money. I’d much rather stay home and do stuff here. We’re trying to get more clients in our studio so we can keep that going. We’re just excited to play.
As far as playing, Dan’s really loved playing “Steady Waves” live. More people have heard that song, so we’ll see someone who knows that song in the audience and they’ll be rocking out, which is cool. It’s just me and Dan playing in the band, so it’s been tricky translating the songs from the record, so we’re trying to figure out the best ways to do that without getting super computer-y. But, yeah! All that stuff!
Order Wabi-Sabi here; stream the record below:
(Images courtesy of Bryan C. Parker, Ba Da Bing Records, Madeline Harvey)