Emma Frank lets go of existential doom

A feature interview with the former Montrealer ahead of her show this week.

“I have really tried to let go of my sense of existential doom,” says jazz singer Emma Frank, making a statement that turns out to be the core of our recent discussion about how her life and her music have changed dramatically since we last spoke in 2015.

Back then she was a long-time Montrealer, having moved here from her native Brookline, MA to study at McGill and be part of the local music scene. She had been voted #3 Best Jazz Act in the Best of MTL readers poll and was about to play the Jazz Fest. But a few months later, after nine years away, she returned to the USA to join the much larger pool of musicians in Brooklyn, NY.

“[The move was for] personal reasons,” she says, “and I’m loathe to say that there were professional reasons because Montreal is so dreamy — I had a really nice thing going there. I don’t think I really anticipated that New York would be as fruitful as it has been creatively. I saw my creative process as mainly having to do with, ‘Do I have enough time to write?’ and in Montreal, the answer was yes. I was nervous about coming here and being stressed about money all the time, but I was lucky. I got hired at a nice restaurant right away even though I didn’t have much experience, and everything in my logistical set-up made it possible for me to be here and be creative and have the space that I needed.”

Acknowledging that life is good is not something that has always come naturally to Frank. She now works at Prune alongside well-known chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, she’s happily married and she recently released her fourth album Come Back. But she’s always been prone to pessimism and cynicism when it comes to politics and the state of the world, a level of worry that also caused a lot of self-doubt.

“Trump got elected two weeks before I went into the studio to record my last record,” she says (comparing the experience of being in the States at that time to “a zombie apocalypse movie”), “and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a useless thing to do right now.’ I don’t think that I will ever be able to fully convince myself that music is the answer that the world needs. Music is a really beautiful thing to put into the world and it’s a humanitarian thing in that it’s about improving people’s lives by providing insight into themselves, but when shit really hits the fan politically, and when you look around the world at the level of suffering going on, I’m not like, ‘Oh well, here are my songs, refugees. Please enjoy my next album and follow me on Instagram.’”

The fact that both of Frank’s parents have Masters degrees in Marxist economics, and her mother is an economics professor — despite the fact that they’re supportive of her chosen career — has contributed to her feeling that the work she does is self-involved, even narcissistic, as opposed to “an act of generosity.”

“I think it can be both,” she says. “I’m not really interested in the narcissism analysis at this point because it’s judgmental and mean-spirited. If it’s being a songwriter vs. working in the Peace Corps., okay we can have that conversation, but if it’s being a songwriter vs. working in marketing … you know? Not to knock anybody working in corporate America, but we’re all trying to find a place in the world and find a sense of belonging.”

As a senior at McGill, Frank wrote a thesis paper titled “My Mother Was a Marxist: Confessions of a Self-absorbed Bourgeois.” Making sense of her interests in light of what she calls “a sense of impending doom, late capitalism, we’re all screwed” was a challenge that occupied her mind during most of her time in Montreal, but she’s hardly alone in that.

“That’s a big question for a lot of people in their early 20s. It’s part of a liberal arts education, questioning what you’ve grown up with and wondering, ‘How can I do this differently? How can I make a better impact on the world?’”

For Frank, the existential doom she spoke about was more acute than it was for the majority of people who (with good reason) wring their hands about the state of the world. “I felt like an outsider,” she says. “Like, ‘Why is everybody else able to relax and have a good time and I just want to cry?’

“I’ve gone on Prozac, that happened two years ago, and this is the first group of songs that I wrote while on anti-depressants. That was an interesting transition. I was like, ‘Woah, what is my creative process without these major downs and revelatory highs?’ A lot of these songs were about me learning that there is already so much suffering in the world regardless of what your brain is doing chemically, that me choosing to stabilize my brain chemistry and get chemical help in that department does not mean that I’m flatlining — it doesn’t mean that my experience of life is flat at all. It’s just the suffering part is a little less gratuitous.”

“I definitely notice it,” she says of the difference in her music on Come Back. “Just from a musical perspective, something that I tried to steer away from a little bit on this record was using odd meters all over the place, or changing meters abruptly. On my last record that felt like the way I needed to communicate in my songs. Part of what I was trying to approximate with that musical tool was the feeling inside the body of things flipping on a dime, feelings changing really suddenly, like the mat’s been pulled out from under you. Physically I feel more grounded now, so I think there’s a greater stability settling into grooves and settling into ambiance on this record.”

Frank calls her current frame of mind “a new spectrum of experience” that has increased her appreciation for everything that she has, especially the challenges, professional and otherwise.

Realizing oh my life is pretty awesome and I’m working on stuff and it’s hard — I love it. All of this discomfort that I used to respond to in a way where I just wanted to get away from it, now I feel a little more able to lean into it and trust that it’s leading towards personal growth.” ■

Emma Frank plays with Thom Gill at Resonance Café (5175 Parc) on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 9 p.m., price unlisted