June Artist of the Month, Aaron Emmanuel, interviewed by Kerrie L. Kemperman
How do you describe your music and what’s your songwriting process like?
My music evolves as I do, so it is difficult to describe. Over the years I’ve written jazz, gospel, neo-soul, alternative rock, and electronica. These days my sound is even harder to describe because I've added more genres to my palette. To give an example: In my current project I have songs that I’m rapping on, which I have never ever done. When you listen to my music you will likely hear lots of atmospheric layers, heavy drums, some bass lines, and some falsetto vocals. In regards to my writing process, it’s convoluted to say the least. Music and lyrics live somewhat separately inside me; really, my process is trying to marry the two.
Some songs take a few days, other songs take a few months. It takes time to discover what pieces of my insides are trying to work themselves out.
At what age did your creative journey begin, and who influenced you on your path?
As a young teenager I began writing poetry and short stories. I didn’t delve into a serious musical pursuit until my senior year of high school when my parents were telling me I needed to find my path. My father was the pastor of our church and a classically trained pianist; he is my greatest influence. [As I was] growing up he would say, “You should strive to be outstanding in all that you pursue.” This established my work ethic and dedication to my craft… to an unhealthy degree to be honest, but I’ve tried to find some balance in the pursuit of my life’s passion, and my passion for life.
What role does music play in your life, both as a musician and a listener?
I’ll answer this question with a story, building off my previous answer. There was a musician who was brought on as our minister of music at church. Though he was older, he was much closer in age to me than the previous musicians had been. He brought a vibrancy and spark into every room he walked in. About a year into his time there, I’d started to learn how to play piano. He excitedly took me under his wing, but — as fate would have it — he died of pneumonia a few weeks later. He was 28 years old. At his funeral, feelings ran high. Some members of the choir from the university he attended volunteered their time and voices to perform some pieces. During one seminal moment as the choir sang I found myself swept up, overcome with emotion. The music filled the entire room like it was the air. I looked around in that moment and saw that seemingly everyone else in the room was feeling the same way I was. I was a part of the music… we were a part of the music, even though we weren’t performing it. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do: be a part of and hopefully create those captivating moments for others. Music has become a lifeline for me, a way to make sense of myself and the world, a way to center my thoughts, and a funnel to channel my emotions. It’s also the way I try to honor all the people I’ve lost.
What do you like about the experience of performing? What is hard about it? What do you learn from it?
Performing is a lot of fun. I put a lot of pressure on myself about it, so sometimes it can be stressful. It is an opportunity to fully own who I am in confidence and also be fully vulnerable in equal parts. Riding that threshold is exciting. I’ve come a long way from the boy at that funeral. I’ve tried to find spaces outside of the church walls where people are open to that kind of experience. The difficulties of my style of performing is that not everyone is looking to be deeply moved in a bar on a Friday night, though in any situation I try to show up as authentically as I can.
What are some artists or artworks (of any creative discipline or genre or style) that you love and/or have influenced your work?
My artistic influences vary. Music: Michael Jackson, Prince, Radiohead, James Blake, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino. Films: Inception, Finding Neverland, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and lots of sci-fi. Authors: James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare.
What are some of the various creative projects you’ve worked on in the past?
After my upbringing in church, in my undergrad I did musical theater and opera. I’ve played keys for Baltimore-based band Vinny Vegas for over ten years. I started an experimental electronica trio called Glass Mannequins and self-produced our record that was released in 2017. I also work in post-production on films, doing film scoring and some sound design.
What are you working on now and what excites you about it?
Currently I am writing a new solo record to be released this year. What excites me about it is what terrifies me about it: I’ve really put my heart into these songs. It’s uncomfortably vulnerable on some tracks. So, um, be gentle if it sucks.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work?
Covid has been interesting. My freelance jobs were severely impacted by the pandemic. Finances have been a struggle. I really hoped that somehow people would value art more, having been deprived of it for a year, but I’m not sure if that will stick. I have experimented with streaming performances, which are fun but not better than in-person for me.
What is your favorite Somerville restaurant, diner, or café?
The Foundry is my go-to restaurant to take family and friends. Also, Anna’s Taqueria for those late-night burrito cravings.
What are your thoughts on the arts community in Somerville, or how do you feel about living and creating in Somerville?
I’ve been delighted to find the Somerville Arts Council, which has been very supportive over the last year. I love the venues as well, such as the Rockwell and Once Somerville [which closed but is surviving virtually for now]. I’d love to find even more musicians to work with though! So if you’re a musician and you wanna get weird, hit me up.
Do you have any performances planned this year, either in-person or virtual?
How can fans follow your events?
I plan to tour with the release of my record this fall. I can be found on:
Instagram @thisisaaronemmanuel &
Facebook, Aaron Emmanuel
Kris Lee (Davis Square photos)
Robert Lundberg (performance shots)