THE BENEFIT OF BEING ALONE
Words: James Frostick
Jarrod Mahon is Emerson Snowe. I spoke to him about his debut EP, Within My Dreams and the isolationist process involved in its creation.
I get some of my best thinking done while I am alone, most of my best writing too. It’s more than just a matter of having less distractions; being alone forces you to rely on your own abilities without the benefit of easily consulting someone else. The end product is yours alone, regardless of quality.
For any creative pursuit, this is pretty much the stock-standard approach. The thoughts and emotions that surface, especially if your work is self-reflective, are usually the most honest and personal; thus are important to the authenticity and validity of the end result. Music can be created as a group, but how much that song will resonate with those that wrote it differs – unless something affected a group of people in exactly the same way (not likely). The songs, artworks and written pieces made in bedrooms or places of solitude are countless, proving that, indeed, creative enlightenment is often best sought alone.
From a slightly different standpoint, being alone and isolated can refer to the actual mindset of the creative; an emotional and social isolation that can be equal parts confining and freeing. It is one thing to lock yourself in a bedroom and write for a few hours only to leave it and be social, it is another to spend your time creating and then having nothing much else to focus on. The ‘island’ that many find themselves on often result in some astounding work.
Affecting, beautiful, damaged.
The work of Jarrod Mahon, who writes and performs under the pseudonym Emerson Snowe, is a result of such isolation. The now-18 year old relocated from Townsville to Brisbane last February to pursue studies in music. Most of 2012 Jarrod spent living alone, in a new city he was unaccustomed to. While he has found his feet socially and creatively in Brisbane, most of last year was a challenge, but it was also the time where a lot of his current material originated or at least evolved.
I became acquainted with Jarrod through mutual friends late last year; we arranged to meet to discuss his EP, Within My Dreams once its February release date was set. His easy going manner and cool-dude aesthetic don’t do much to bolster the ‘serious and brooding’ mystique that I am propagating here; but once you listen to his music, you notice that there is a lot to take seriously.
First, Jarrod has got serious talent. Second, he has got serious drive. Third, he is seriously only going to get better.
I will describe his music as I felt it in a bit, but essentially it is a great mix of electronic ambience and skewed folk-pop balladry. Throw in some fragile, wraithlike emotionality and you are close, I think.
The great thing about it is that you are listening to one guy when it sounds like it was created by four or five. There is a denseness to the sparseness that does my head in; but that’s cool. Before last year Jarrod was shaping up to be a prototypical singer-songwriter – so mind-bending composition is probably better.
“When you hear someone’s name, like Jarrod Mahon, it’s such a stereotypical singer-songwriter sort of thing,” says Jarrod. “Most of the time people don’t want to listen to it, but if you’ve got something different (like, an interesting name), I found that it worked well with the music.”
“The reason I did call it Emerson Snowe was because when I was first doing home demos and things, I’d show it to people and call it Emerson Snowe – make it as if it was from someone else – and see what they say.”
Perhaps it was a defensive tactic to switch the name up along with the style. If it doesn’t work then it’s not your own name being sullied. It has paid off so far though.
“Before, I was just doing acoustic guitar and vocals – I always wanted it to be like a live band or something more ‘whole’,” says Jarrod. “I never wanted to stick with just the guitar and vocals. Then I started working with different elements when I was living by myself and I guess I started making Emerson Snowe and it really did change the whole approach and how I was writing music.”
It was during those 8-or-so months of secluded living that Jarrod forged the identity of Emerson Snowe. Thanks to the isolation in the wake of his move to Brisbane, the moodiness of his creation took hold of the song-writing and once combined with his sonic experimentation it wasn’t long before Jarrod had crafted a suitable vibe to go with the name. The stark contrast between Jarrod and the perceived personality of Emerson are so different that you’d think Jarrod spent that time making a replica of himself to house sad thoughts and memories.
“It was really intense,” says Jarrod of his move. “But I’m really glad I went through that mental stage. I had a few friends who had moved down, but I never really saw anyone, I just kept to myself. I moved down for Uni originally; I was doing a Bachelor of Music and I guess living by myself really got to me and it just got really intense over a period of time. I deferred from Uni and I just wanted to concentrate on my own music and building different things.”
After moving to Brisbane to pursue music in the academic sense, Jarrod’s deferral of study might have indicated a loss of faith. The opposite is the case. While not having ‘grades’ to show for his effort, the process of creating Emerson Snowe may have taught Jarrod more than anything he could have learned in class. While 18 is an important year for formative adult experiences, Jarrod put himself through things that not many 18 year olds in Brisbane are accustomed to. At the end of 2012’s evolutionary process, Jarrod seems to have emerged more confident in his choice to pursue music as a career.
“It’s such a corny thing to say but all through high school I wasn’t good at ‘education’ other than doing drama and music so I always concentrated on those two things,” says Jarrod. “Music is all I want to do.”
It also gave Jarrod a chance to get some perspective and, dare I say it, some maturity.
“It was pretty intimidating when I first moved down, especially when I didn’t know anyone,” says Jarrod. “I thought, ‘Shit, I have to make this work. This is all I’ve got.’ But that’s also really good I found, for myself, seeing what I have and having to make it work. I have to work now and I have to meet people. I didn’t have to rely on other people travelling down; I don’t have to worry about other people’s thoughts on my work, which is a good thing. I kinda feel proud of myself for making the move and living by myself and having to depend on this.”
For his efforts Jarrod will soon have the EP, Within My Dreams; his first release under Emerson Snowe, encompassing his writing from before his move and his period of isolation. It was recorded in Melbourne with Maxwell Roberts from Velma Grove, who Jarrod connected with after some correspondence. Some parts of the EP were also recorded in Townsville.
Emerson Snowe’s progression from acoustic composition to its current electronic –hybrid form came about during recording in Melbourne, where Jarrod had the opportunity to experiment further with new equipment.
“A change came when I went down to Melbourne,” says Jarrod. “Because I had all these songs planned out to record, but I went down to Melbourne and I guess I got the chance to try them in different ways. They were all just home recordings that went straight into the laptop so I got the chance to try out different types of sound. I guess it just came out the way they did. It was a lot of fun because it’s a lot different.”
The programmed drum-sets and woozy ambience is still entirely Emerson, but the opportunity to try more things helped flesh out the songs that were perhaps unbalanced by the emotionality. Speaking of which, I probed Jarrod about what exactly Emerson Snowe writes about.
“Every song on that is pretty much based of stuff that has happened and most of the songs I have had for about two years,” says Jarrod. “I really liked the songs mainly because of the memories I had when I wrote them. It’s pretty much about ex-girlfriends and the stuff that happens afterwards. Being an only child I have always been more emotional than someone that has had people around them all the time. I liked what the songs represented so I just wanted to put them on my first actual release so I would have a whole thing of diary entries, written to be like pop.”
What about the isolation?
“It was definitely about that too,” clarifies Jarrod. “’Bella Rose’, ‘Reflecting Scars’ and ‘Within My Dreams’, the title track, they were definitely about the isolation of living alone. I still have a heap of demos on my computer that I could have recorded. Living by myself was really intense, but I am glad it happened because I did write all this stuff. All my songs actually mean something. That’s all I wanted Emerson Snowe to be, actual emotion but with catchy elements, without being too corny with it or anything. There is a really fine line between being simply emotional and having that and having a good song as well.”
For further clarification, Jarrod is no longer living by himself. He lives amongst new friends and is probably one of the more sociable guys in the Brisbane nightlife. His newest side project is Rumblegumz, a summery party-rock duo that he formed with Harrison Tang. Now that his circumstances have changed, what will Emerson Snowe’s next batch of songs sound like? He can still draw from the pile of demos on his computer, but what about creating new songs?
“I haven’t written for a while,” admits Jarrod. “Not since I was living by myself and I had heaps of time and obviously felt different emotions compared to living with housemates.”
“It’s definitely affected the content with some things. Sometimes I do wish I still lived alone; it sounds really stupid but just so I could feel all the emotions again so I could keep writing. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter who is around you sometimes, you’ll still feel different things towards them. I can still write about that, but not at the moment. I think at the moment everything is going a bit too well. I am just waiting for it to come down a little bit, I think.”
Well, at the moment, things aren’t looking like they’ll come down, only rise higher. The past few months have seen the lead single from Within My Dreams, ‘Bella Rose’, earn praise around the blogosphere and even a written publication. AdamNotEve and Yen have taken an interest in Jarrod’s tunes, and people in Brisbane are starting to catch on as a consequence. There is still a long way to go, though.
“I have learned that everything just takes so much time, to even build up a fan base,” says Jarrod. “Mainly it’s just like friends but since I have released ‘Bella Rose’ I feel like a few more fans and a lot more people appeared. I had to learn to take time with things.”
Within My Dreams will be out digitally and on Vinyl (with artwork done by Jesse Olsen) at the end of February, so there is some time to become acquainted with the demo’s on Emerson Snowe’s BandPage. As for what to expect? Well, I’ll leave that up to Jarrod to describe what he hopes listeners get out of it.
“I hope they connect with the emotional feel of it because when I was writing this stuff I was in a really bad place, and a few of these songs you can really get that feel out of it,” says Jarrod. “There is a song called ‘Fields’ which is pretty much just about my parents, and it’s just guitar and vocals and it’s the only song that is just those. I remember one of my friends was on a bus one day and she started crying while listening to one of my demos. With this EP, it’s not all that deep. I really hope that when people hear it, they will feel something. I try to make it as emotional as I could but also overwhelming as well.”
“I’d just rather make music that has a lot more meaning. I brought myself up on music that was emotional. I don’t really want to create something that isn’t. I have Rumblegumz and stuff, that’s to have fun with. With Emerson Snowe I wanted to have a meaning to it. I’m so glad that I went down this path. It’s like I’m not just a singer-songwriter anymore.”
I said before I was going to tell you how Emerson Snowe’s songs made me feel. Jarrod and I were in my car driving across the Story Bridge, he was playing me some samples from his EP. Stylistically my first thought was of The Antlers, but with a slightly rougher texture. Jarrod cites Conor Oberst and Dev Hines as artistic touchstones.
Honestly, the music made me want to be alone. Not in a bad way, although the depressive tendencies of music like this do tend to favour that perspective. It made me want to be by myself, made me want to reminisce on things from the past. What a particular no-longer-friend is doing, things I could have done different when I was younger, re-evaluate where my life was heading and face repressed feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Not everyone will feel this, I’m sure.
The point is that songs formed in isolation have a peculiar effect on those who end up listening by chance. I can’t say if it was the lyrics or the music that clicked with me, but there is something special in the way Jarrod turns self-centric neurosis into something relatable. Perhaps that is a statement on our generation as a whole; I forgot to ask Jarrod about this, my bad. In the end though, his serious music is serious, but it has a fair share of magic in it too. Good on him for choosing to share it with us.