Emily Bezar

An Intimate Portrait

Interview and HTML
© Emily Bezar and Russell W Elliot 2000
Formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows
Last updated: 23 June 2000

Emily Bezar
Image © 2000 Emily Bezar
click on image to visit Emily's website

Musical Discoveries editor Russ Elliot originally contacted Emily Bezar in late March 2000. The two quickly began to discuss an internet feature that would review her work and incorporate the results of a planned interview. The exclusive Musical Discoveries interview took almost two months to prepare; it provides an extremely intimate portrait of the artist spanning her background, inspirations of the three albums released to date and her feelings about the music industry including the impact of the world wide web. The full text of the interview is presented below.

Musical Discoveries: Emily, please tell us about your background; we'd like to know where you are from. Will you give us a short version of your biography in your own words for our audience please.

Emily Bezar: I'm a true California girl—I've got saltwater in my veins. I was born in Palo Alto up in northern California back when Silicon Valley meant Hewlett Packard and Xerox, the San Andreas fault and lots of trees. My dad is a chemistry professor, my mom's a librarian, and I have one sister, two years younger. At a young age we moved almost immediately to Laguna Beach, down south on the coast. Laguna in the 70s was a vibrant artist colony, one of the last reserves of the 60's and liberalism in southern California. Timothy Leary was our local celebrity fugitive.

I've always believed that living on the edge of the continent gave me the oceanic surges in my music. I spent day after day on the beach every summer, studying the sunsets and the lifeguards' schedules, of course! We lived there with one short and important exception until I was 18, when I went off to college at Oberlin in Ohio and needed socks for the first time.

We lived in Germany for about a year when I was 11. I went to a German school and we took lots of weekend trips in our little VW bug. I fell in love with Naples, Paris and the Dolomites in Northern Italy. My mom was really into churches, so we must have seen every medieval triptych in Western Europe. Our downstairs landlords had a fancy electric organ in the basement and a Beatles book. I spent hours with that book figuring out how to play the chords. I think I found my muse that year.

MD: We'd like to know what artists were you influenced by when writing/performing your music.

Oh man, this is a hard one. As for pop music, I guess I just have trace my history back and the influences pile on year by year. The first records I owned were Elton John's Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a Paul McCartney & Wings album, a couple Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRea classics and I'm sure some Streisand albums, though I don't recall which one I owned first. I owe my love of tasteful Hollywood schlock to her brilliant arrangers.

A momentous time for me was summer of 1979-right before highschool. That was the summer of Blondie's Parallel Lines, the Pretenders' debut and Earth Wind and Fire's I Am. Some guy on the beach used to play Queen and Cheap Trick incessantly, so I have to count them in too, though I looked through my LPs and I can't find them anywhere. You'll be thrilled to know that Supertramp and ELO are well-represented, however! And Rickie Lee Jones and the Motels—two debut albums I remember buying on the same day!

Ahhh RLJ and Martha Davis. Probably second and third to Joni Mitchell in terms of my early women songwriter influences. Soon after came the Clash with London Calling, X with Wild Gift, Weather Report's Mr. Gone, Elvis Costello's, Imperial Bedroom. That's a good sample of the records as I owned in highschool. Oh, and Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita—Andrew Lloyd Weber had his moments—and I wore out my BeeGees Saturday Night Fever tape. All this was in my ears as I was studiously practicing piano 4 hours a day and singing in choirs.

I'd like to go back to Joni for a minute. Blue was the first album I owned. Then I jumped back to Ladies of the Canyon" and forwards to Mingus and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. So I guess my earliest exposure to her was at her extremes of intimacy and complexity. I consider her trio of masterpieces to be, Court and Spark, Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. I discovered those later in my teens. By that time I was also listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter. I should also say that the Police were one of my favorite bands and I still think they are as important to rock history as Zeppelin or Hendrix. I discovered Eric's [Emily's husband] early Genesis collection in college, and was awestruck by Peter Gabriel. I heard Kate Bush for the first time through the dorm wall my freshman year at Oberlin. Hounds of Love is one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded.

MD: Please tell us about how and where in your music these influences come through.

It's really hard to dissect, to uncompose. Maybe the jazz harmony in my piano playing is from Jarrett? Joni's wide ranging melodic leaps are in my vocals, but then there's all the French art song stuff in there too. I think orchestrally when I arrange electronic sound. The biggest challenge as a producer/arranger for me has always been how to balance the frequency spectrum around my voice because it tends to dart about like a minnow. And how to trick the ear into thinking all those little moving parts are just one big greasy machine!

MD: Who are currently your favourite artists and who do you find yourself listening to all the time these days?

In addition to all the enduring hits of my youth, hmmmm, if I had more time to listen these days—you wouldn't believe how little music I actually listen to lately—I'd be overflowing with discoveries. Well, surprise, surprise, I think my recent favorite Famous-Modern-Rock-Band has got to be Radiohead. OK Computer, and even The Bends. I think OK Computer has made grandeur meaningful again in rock: the songs are vast in sound as well as content.

I listen to jazz as much as anything else: Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Wayne Shorter, Bill Frisell, and all the piano giants. Right now I'm very inspired by Brad Mehldau's solo piano album Elegiac Cycle—it's like a brilliant collision of Brahms and all of post-bop jazz piano history. I love Bjork and have ever since Birthday stopped me in my tracks way back when I used to watch a lot of European MTV in Switzerland!

I can hear Jeff Buckley's Grace for days on end. His San Francisco concert at the Great American Music Hall was one of the most moving musical experiences I've ever had. That same spring I saw the San Franciso symphony do Mahler's 8th and I think of that as a season of revelation. I feel fortunate to have witnessed that. And I am a Debussy fan, especially the orchestral works ie: La Mer, Jeux and his amazing Songs. Of the Germans, Italians and Russians, I'd have to vote for R. Strauss and Berg. I'm a sucker for opulent sound: Strauss' Four Last Songs Verdi, Scriabin and Prokofiev. John Adams' Harmonielehre is one of my favorite pieces of contemporary orchestral music.

MD: Please tell us about your musical training and education as well as how you developed your vocal style.

Well, I guess my singing style, at least in my own music, is a pretty natural hybrid of everything I sang and heard along the way. Classical, pop and jazz—it's all in there and I honestly don't know how to adjust the balance very well. The melodies come and my voice just goes into automatic shift mode. I don't think about the technique of it unless I'm singing when I'm sick and then the wheels have to start turning. I have a pretty traditional soprano voice, in the sense that I have register breaks that I blend over and my voice is usually not too breathy. I don't have one of those powerful Broadway-belter voices—I get my power in the upper register like opera singers do, by fine tuning the resonant spaces in my head. This must sound absurdly nerdy and technical and yes, it is all really pretty instinctive for me; but I have always been fascinated by the science of the singing voice. That a human voice can be heard unamplified over a huge Wagnerian orchestra is really a miracle when you think about it—and it's basically all physiology.

I took weekly piano lessons from about age 5 to age 18, but didn't actually take voice lessons until I was about 16. In high school I was playing the heavy piano-student classics: the Chopin Etudes, Brahms Intermezzi, Bach's WTC and others while at the same time listening to pop radio and singing with the school jazz band and the chorale. I don't know that I ever would have stepped over into classical singing but for my choir director who pulled me aside one day and offered to give me private lessons. Off the bat he had me singing Verdi's Caro Nome, Strauss' Morgen, Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade. I was 16! What was I doing? Where were my 24 Italian songs? But that intense classical repertoire seduced me. I mean, the ripe melodrama of opera was perfectly suited to my teenage temperament—which I won't pretend to have grown out of—though my voice wasn't quite ready to sing it. I was also learning to play the pipe organ at my church during highschool. This was definitely my epiphany about sound, the power of big sound from your own fingers. Marshall amps have nothing on a rank of 30-foot pipes blowing over your head! After that my goal became to convince my parents to by me an Oberheim synth, but I actually never did touch anything electronic until my first year at college.

I went to the Oberlin Conservatory to study, specifically, classical singing. Was I a rebel at school? Not really. Never have been on the surface. I took the standard courses of music history/theory but found myself drawn more and more to modern music. I studied mostly 20th century composers and I started singing lots of student composers' works in concerts. I made some amazing lifelong singer friends at Oberlin. The amazing Amy X Neuburg for one. Amy and I had the same voice teacher and were some of the first women warriors of Oberlin's basement electronic music studios. I sure hope more women are down there now!

I went on to Stanford University after Oberlin where I was technically a Doctoral student in voice, but I spent most of my time up at the computer music center (CCRMA) learning about the microproperties of sound—Big Sound again! This time dissected in vivid mathematical detail. In the world of academic electronic music, Stanford was known for the sonic beauty—rather than bleeps and bloops—coming out of its studio. At that time, some of the most exciting and formative research in digital sound and acoustics was going on there. My Stanford computer music professor, John Chowning, was the guy who gave Yamaha and the world the DX7 synth. Remember those? FM synthesis and a whole lotta Michael Jackson albums. Well, I won't get too technical here, but yes, I too was writing code to make sound. But early on I knew I was better at the music than the code. I think I've found a good balance in my work. I love to design and edit sound but don't feel the need to write my own algorithms and reinvent the wheel every time I need a better reverb for my vocal! Specialization saves the species.

I took a leave from graduate school and Eric and I went to Switzerland for two years. It was my first reentry into what most would call the real world after being shuttered in the ivory tower for most of my early adulthood. Although Switzerland is an exotic, surreal place not really classifiable as "reality." I gigged around a little bit there, made some demo tapes and broke through into the the style of my first album. When I came back to the US I buckled down for a few months to finish my Master's thesis on Kurt Weill's Mahagonny opera, then I ditched school for good, moved to San Francisco and joined a band called The Potato Eaters. And school began all over again.

Emily Bezar
Emily Bezar
Image © 1993 Tom Erikson

MD: We'd like to understand more about the various sequences you go through when writing your music. Could you tell us a bit about the studios that you use in different stages.

I guess the recording process for each of my three albums was quite different, but for all three works I combined tracks from my home midi-studio and a large recording studio. Sometimes I think I should go into construction management! Building a house, with all the details, must be something like this. So much of the way I record is determined by the budget I have to work within, but I think that's one of the great rewards of independent record making. You find ways to be resourceful within your means and you rise to the challenge. With enough rehearsal and preproduction, you can approach the recording photographically and capture some really great moments rather than fuss for weeks in the studio. More than a few of my vocals on Four Walls Bending were in fact, first takes. We spent a while trying to get the perfect microphone and compression chain and then I went for it.

As a writer, I guess I've always known that I am at my most fluid and creative at the piano. Most of my song ideas arise out of free improvising. Song sections evolve from a chord progression, or a string of piano gestures. I'll often finish the whole harmonic structure of a song but have only 30% of the melody/lyric completed. Then the tune may gestate for weeks and the piano part will morph around the developing vocal line. Moon In Grenadine was very much written at the piano, in this way.

But I think Grandmother's Tea Leaves and Four Walls Bending were a more a fusion of initial piano ideas and computer/electronic experimenting. The computer came in at a pretty early stage on Four Walls Bending. I had sounds for that album before I had the song in some cases. About half the songs started as piano tunes (ie: "Black Sand," "Four Walls," "Maybe So") but the others were generated with some kernals I made in my studio when I was messing around with sound early in the writing process. "Velvet Eye" came out of the main analog synth pattern under the opening band build-up and then developed further around that sound. In fact, an old Sequential six-track was quite the workhorse on this album. "Filigree of Noon" started as a piano song in 1997, but I stripped the piano out entirely and orchestrated the whole thing electronically. It was quite a new and thrilling challenge for me and one that I hope to do much more of soon. Making this album was quite a nightmare of logistics, going between my own small midi-studio and a big 48-track analog studio in San Francisco. The only way I could afford to make the big album I wanted was to find foolproof sync parallels between home and the studio. I had an amazing engineer who worked his tail off to make the sessions go insanely smoothly and quickly. I owe a lot to him for the depth of the sound and the dynamic shape of the record. And my band made even the biggest parts of the songs rise and fall gracefully. I was very lucky to have recorded with such talented people.

MD: We can hear a change in approach and style through your three albums. Please tell us about it.

Hearing them all now—and during the production of Four Walls I had a sense that this was happening but didn't know if it would succeed until the album was born—the most concise way I can put it is: Four Walls Bending is the love child of Granmother's Tea Leaves and Moon in Grenadine. What would ether sound like if it were solid, chunky and you could squeeze it in your hands? If I'm forced to genre-fy my music, I think there are axes that each album swings toward. Of course, this is just my skewed perspective, but if Grandmother's Tea Leaves is avant-garde classical music, then Moon in Grenadine is jazz, and Four Walls Bending is definitely rock/pop.

Emily Bezar
Emily Bezar
Image © 1993 Lorene Warwick


Grandmother's Tea Leaves was an overflow. The stew of my musical experience to that date was quite full in the pot, not entirely cooked through and fused in flavor—with the carrots still a little hard, you know—but unbounded on every side. No tether to the earth and a pure spill out from me who actually had no idea it was as weird as I now know it was; that happens to you behind the walls in those fancy schools. "Madames' Reverie" remains the most challenging piece I've composed, as it was a purely sonic journey with nothing but a sound trajectory and pure psychological states to portray. No melodies/lyrics to delineate form or get in the way of immediate emotional cry. Formally, "Madames' Reverie" has a "program." It's a short scene from the unabridged version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" but it's mainly about sound and how sound can rip me away from me. In fact, everything on this album is about sound drama. And I do hear the residue of all the modern classical music I had immersed myself in college and my ambivalence about the vocal idioms attached to it. I guess this is intense theatrical vocal music that is not opera, not music theater and NOT rock—what to call it? I know that "Just Like Orestes" succeeds as a monodrama—maybe it's not the concert aria it wants to be, but it's definitely not song-form.

Then Moon in Grenadine was all bones showing. I think I pulled back the velvet curtain for this one. I think of angles and tension and cantilevers and torque with Moon in Grenadine, and it certainly is tethered to the earth in a way that Grandmother's Tea Leaves never is. "Gingerbread" sums up this album for me. Clockwork rhythmically, but still a harmonic smorgasbord.

With Moon, getting a band together seemed like to only way to express the dynamic range in the songs I was writing. It was never really about "the groove" for me. In fact, I won't forget Andrew {bass) and Steve (drums) asking when they'd get to play the same thing for more than 16 bars. The grooves ebb and flow with the song parts but they never form the song's foundation. The strong jazz element on Moon is true to my earliest tin-pan-alley influences and also native to the band, who are all wonderful jazz players. Kurt Weill certainly hovers over "Mosquito." I couldn't have written that without my immersion in his "Mahagonny". And Moon, of the three albums, feels the most like chamber music. I really think of it as an acoustic album, though I spent ages on some of those really subtle electronic sounds, like in "Opiate Cheer" and "Rain in Calgary." They were just ambient resonances that needed to be there to give the song its psychic weight I guess. Your ear might never know it if they were gone, but they are the breath and the color in the spaces—you'd miss the ghosts. And in the solo piano/voice tunes, could it be Joni Mitchell meets Debussy's Ariettes Oubliees? I don't know—they were, at the time, my two most significant influences as I wrote at the piano.

Emily Bezar
Emily Bezar
Image © 2000 Tom Erikson


With Four Walls Bending, I think I've made one piece of cloth with a lot of different textured yarns here. It surges like Grandmother's Tea Leaves but is contained like Moon in Grenadine. When I say contained, I mean that the song structures close in on themselves more precisely and the harmonic language is not as free-associative. As the for the sound of the album, I didn't want any light coming through on this one. I was after something monolithic but always quivering. Like a dense grove of trees in the wind. And the bending walls, that is a structure in motion, but never close to collapsing. There is an elasticity to that image that attracts me, like the beginning images of explosion captured in slow-motion. Oh, I'm doing my abstract Emily thing here. Back to earth we go. I think the songs on Four Walls Bending are the closest I've gotten to pop. Maybe it has something to do with becoming a Mom and reaching outward. Yes, I want my music to speak to people. I've never been willfully obscure. I think I indulged as many of the pop pleasures as I could within the production restraints of an independently financed album. Most of all, I had something very specific to express: I became a mother and the depth of joy and turmoil in the process of shifting my identity away from me was almost overwhelming.

MD: Emily, besides being a mom, do you have a career or work outside writing and performing music?

Between [when I lived in] Switzerland and Noah (he's now 2 and a half), I was doing freelance desktop publishing jobs. I worked for a variety of temp agencies and publishers putting words and pictures together for print, picking up the skills along the way. It's really an apprentice art, the world of desktop design and print pre-press. No, I'm not a trained graphic artist by any means but I think I managed to fake it ok. Now I am very fortunate to be doing two things that feed my soul: motherhood and music.

MD: We'd like to know more about your live performances.

Because I don't have a touring budget or a record deal, I haven't been able to tour yet. It's a big frustration for me but I know that a band tour will happen someday and that I need to wait to do it right. I may be able to do some solo travelling in the coming year but for now I perform mainly in the Bay Area. My shows have ranged from solo concerts to full electric band shows. Right now I'm having a lot of fun as a piano trio. We just did a few shows at a jazz club in San Francisco and it was great to see how I could pare my arrangements down to the rhythm section basics and the songs still gathered steam. The bigger the vehicle, the harder it is to improvise, to steer quickly—too many legs to snag in the spokes. I would love to have a six-piece band churning like a speedboat, soaring and diving in the waves. This will come.

MD: How has the internet influenced your musical career and the promotion of your music?

  Emily Bezar
Emily Bezar
Image © 1993
Olio Records

I wouldn't have any audience at all outside of the Bay Area were it not for the internet! I owe so much to those who have spread the news about my music on the net, on the ecto mailing list: people who have waved big flags on my behalf on their own sites and who have contacted me with so much warmth and encouragement. It's an honor to have inspired people to proclaim about my music in this vast forum.

I guess my own website is now like an information kiosk for people who hear about me in other ways. Eventually, I'd like it to be richer and deeper; to present more of my process and link into a broader context. As for the knotty issues of music on the web: I'm still confused about the whole Napster controversy and what it means for me as an independent artist. I know it is great for me as a musician to have my music heard and exposed but as a self-sustaining record label, it is scary. It's the people struggling to fund their albums on their own who may be hurt the most by free music trading. Who knows. I actually don't fret over it too much these days. I'm just so happy to have an audience.

MD: Thank you for giving us an intimate look into your background and telling us more about your music. We wish you the best of luck and certainly hope you'll stay in touch with us.

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