Violinist's Style As Much Hip-Hop As Haydn

Violinist, singer and composer Emily Wells has broken from her classical roots to employ hip-hop rhythms and looped violin melodies. She speaks with Andrea Seabrook.

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(Soundbite of song "Symphony 2 & the Click Click Boom")

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Emily Wells isn't just a violinist. Sometimes, she's two violinists.

(Soundbite of violin music)

SEABROOK: Sometimes she's three, four, or even 21 violinists. Emily Wells writes music to be looped and looped and looped again. One melody drapes over another until you're sucked into a full-on pop symphony.

(Soundbite of song "Dreams, Memories, and Heaven")

Ms. EMILY WELLS: (Singing) Ooh, my love...

SEABROOK: Emily Wells calls her new CD "The Symphonies: Dreams, Memories, and Parties," but she credits her style to hip-hop as much as Haydn. She joins me now from our studios at NPR West. Emily Wells, welcome to the program.

Ms. EMILY WELLS (Violinist): Thank you so much for having me.

SEABROOK: So, first question, all these strings we're hearing right now, these are all you?

Ms. WELLS: They're all me, indeed. I actually sometimes kind of have to get on different personalities and stand in different places of the room and just keep recording many, many layers.

SEABROOK: But how do you that when you play? I mean, you play a lot of shows.

Ms. WELLS: I have this special magical pedal that allows me to sample or record live a bit of music and then it will take - put to music and repeat it. And I can then build layers upon that. You just get to lay much as you want. Any instruments that you have plugged into your pedal, you can just keep it going.

(Soundbite of violin)

SEABROOK: You play very classical-sounding violin.

Ms. WELLS: Absolutely, that's - I came from an incredibly classical world, strictly classical world.

SEABROOK: When did you start playing violin?

Ms. WELLS: I was four. I saw this woman - she wasn't a woman at that time - I think she was 14 - named Midori playing on "The Johnny Carson Show," and I was just enamored, you know. I tried to convince my parents, oh, you've got to let me play the violin. You've got to let me play the violin. And I remember my mother buying me like a plastic one from Michael's to try to sort of assuage my desires. But I didn't let up.

(Soundbite of song "Symphony #4: America's Mercy War")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Mercy, have mercy on me. Baby love, do you believe in mercy?

Ms. WELLS: Eventually, I got really into hip-hop in high school, you know, listened to Outkast a lot in the back of the cars rolling around in, you know, the Midwest. That became a huge influence on me as well.

SEABROOK: When did your classical music playing start to converge with the Outkast?

Ms. WELLS: Yeah.

SEABROOK: When did you actually start playing to hip-hop instead of just listening to hip-hop and playing classical?

Ms. WELLS: Well, I was always a bit shy to attempt to hip-hop because it's this incredible art form that took a long time for me to kind of get comfortable in it, and I still am, you know, getting comfortable with it. But I love real instruments, but I love, you know, beat machines and all that kind of stuff, too. So, it took me a little time, and only in the last couple of years have I started writing, you know, the symphonies so.

SEABROOK: I want to pick one of those out now, "Symphony #6: Fair Thee Well and the Requiem Mix."

(Soundbite of song "Symphony #6: Fair Thee Well and the Requiem Mix")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Fair thee well and the requiem mix, I got a loan shark and a quick fix, For those I left behind, in a suit case of fire flies, Find ya, I wanna treat you right, never leave you beggin and cryin', Coming down the mountain in a wet carriage.

SEABROOK: Tell me about finally setting these symphonies to the hip-hop beats. Do they start out that way?

Ms. WELLS: Well, I initially write in just the violin parts, and then you hear the person that's playing is the incredible drummer that I work with named Sam Halterman. He's a hip-hop drummer primarily, and he'll bring in that live feel. And he and Joey Reina, who plays the basses on the album, they add a lot of their own creativity and ideas as well.

(Soundbite of song "Symphony #6: Fair Thee Well and the Requiem Mix")

SEABROOK: You've also covered a hip-hop song, a Biggie Small song - a Notorious B.I.G., I guess I should say.

Ms. WELLS: You got it.

SEABROOK: It's titled "Juicy." Let's listen to a little a bit - a little piece of that.

Ms. WELLS: OK.

(Soundbite of song "Juicy")

Notorious B.I.G.: (Singing) We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us, No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us. Birthdays was the worst days. Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay. Uh, damn right I like the life I live, 'Cause I went from negative to positive. And it's all, It's all good, And if you don't know, now you know.

Ms. WELLS: I am a huge Biggie Small fan. He has this way of delivering his lyrics that is so musical, so catchy, and also so incredibly heartfelt. Like he goes seamlessly between talking about his life growing up, what he needed, what he didn't have, how he and the people around him suffered, and then lacing that with, you know, now I'm flush, now I'm living the big life. And there's so much pride in it, and it's a really beautiful thing. And some of the lyrics I related with personally, and I actually slowed it way, way down and gave it my own flavor and actually gave melody to the lyrics.

(Soundbite of song "Juicy")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) I made the change from the common thief, To up close and personal with Robin Leach. And I'm far from cheap, I smoke skunk with my peeps all day. Spread love, it's the Brooklyn way. The Moet and Alize keep me pissy, Girls used to diss me, Now they write letters 'cause they miss me...

SEABROOK: How do you go about rapping another artist's words? I mean, it seems like it would be a lot different than just singing a song someone else wrote.

Ms. WELLS: That's a really great point. It's spoken so when the person speaks, somehow, that can be more personal, like you can't hide behind the melody. The way I went about this one, I learned the lyrics, and I just rapped with Biggie in my headphones like probably 50 times a song just over and over.

I basically just took a tiny little bit of melody in the original song and used that to build everything else on. You know, when I first started, you know, I was kind of trying to produce it in the way that it had been produced originally, but I was like just, you know, this isn't quite me. So, I wanted to bring my own element to it.

(Soundbite of song "Juicy")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) And if you don't know, now you know...

I think people can sometimes think of hip-hop as, you know, just write it off, but to me, I think it's one of the most important art forms of this generation. I mean, it embodies so many different kinds of music and influences. And yet, it's just got that funk that you can dance to, you know, which is such an important part of music.

Like I just - I went out on this tour. I just got home a few days ago, and I was the only, like, hip-hop artist, if you could even call what I do that, especially compared to everyone else - everyone else was lovely, but singer songwriter sort of art form. And every night, my goal was just to get people's, you know - can I say asses?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Do it.

Ms. WELLS: Just to get people's asses moving, you know? I really wanted it to be fun, you know? And I've been playing shows for a long time, and I've always, you know, I want people to listen. That's always the goal is engage, you know? And I think, if you can engage the mind as well as the body, then, you know, you've got your listeners fully, fully with you.

(Soundbite of song "Symphony #8 & the Canary's Last Take")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Where could we ever go, Where the party's all we know? Cause this little light, oh, it's gonna shine.

SEABROOK: Emily Wells is a violinist, singer, and composer. Her new CD is called "The Symphonies: Dreams, Memories, and Parties." Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WELLS: The pleasure has been all mine. Thank you so much for having me.

(Soundbite of song "Symphony #8 & the Canary's Last Take")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) More time, they keep saying more time.

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