NPR First Listen: Emily King, ‘Scenery’
By Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey
Before she was born, Emily King’s future parents made a pact: The two musicians vowed that if they started a family, they wouldn’t give up music in favor of a more secure career. When King was a child in New York City, she lived happily with the consequences of that commitment. There was never much money, but there was always music, and she could tell early on that she, too, would become a musician. Since then, King has lived on the long tail of that commitment. She caught an early break when she signed to Clive Davis’ J Records, but the label soon dropped her, spurring King to release an album and EP on her own. That path has led her to Scenery, her first album for the independent ATO label.
Before making Scenery, King was living with her mother and growing anxious in the city. She decided she needed a change. She and producing partner Jeremy Most moved upstate to a small town in the Catskills. She learned to drive. Her grandmother, a former used-car saleswoman, helped her negotiate a good deal on a small car. She and Most built a studio in their garage. Scenery is a record born between the quiet atmosphere of upstate New York and the big, loud feelings of King’s long-anticipated renewal. Album opener “Remind Me” is a driving pop anthem about regaining a feeling you thought you’d lost. It was the first song King wrote out of the city.
Scenery is a culmination for King and Most. The two are perfectionists, and Scenery is a precise-yet-fluid blend of ’80s pop and rock, contemporary R&B and light jazz touches that, together, reveal a starry-eyed earnestness. Most is a gifted producer who can bend limited means to full effect. He creates flawless orchestral segments from manipulated samples and the feeling of live drumming from his drum-machine programming. King contributes beautiful acoustic guitar work to songs like the gentle “Marigold,” but her greatest strength as a performer is her voice.
She sings just above a whisper, rhythmic and insistent, as if she doesn’t wish to jolt you, but also wouldn’t mind if you danced. There’s a trace of Michael Jackson in how King punctuates her phrases; in songs like “2nd Guess” and “Can’t Hold Me,” even the ends of her words mark the beat with a precisely articulated consonant or sharp breath. King has described her music in terms of ’80s cinema, and it conjures the films of John Hughes, especially. That’s due in part to her and Most’s penchant for the Juno-60 and Juno-106 synthesizers, the hopeful, crepuscular tones of which will forever signify that era’s romantic American visions. But there’s an emotional kinship, too. Many of Hughes’ best movies are coming-of-age films, and the bittersweet question they pose is whether anything will ever again feel as powerful as it does when we’re young.
That’s a question King has had ample cause to ask. She signed her first deal when she was quite young, and it clearly felt exhilarating, as if she’d arrived immediately at her destination. “I was sure I’d be famous the next morning,” she tells NPR. When she was dropped from the label, she embarked on a longer, harder path that required extreme persistence. It ends — for now — with “Go Back,” Scenery’s last and best song. It’s a resolute yet bittersweet reflection on commencement; on defiantly shedding old lows and waving goodbye to younger, innocent times. In the bridge, King sings, “I can’t expect to find a feeling like that again, no, I won’t pretend / I know there’s something waiting down this road ahead, I’ll find it in the end.” It’s a clear articulation of Scenery’s key theme. Then the Juno kicks in, the acoustic guitars follow, and King and Most’s voices rise to a sweeping, twilit finish.