Emergent Heart is a philanthropic musician collective spearheaded by Athens, GA resident Luke Johnson. Luke, an old schoolmate of mine, recently contacted me through facebook making me aware of the project and asking if I would write about it on my blog. After listening to the music and reading the website I quickly decided an interview was in order. Luke obliged and this the result of our little Q & A session.
BUT FIRST...If you don't feel like reading the interview at least check out the music! Their debut EP "One" is available to stream or download for free here. Donations to Nuci's Space are encouraged but if you are unable to make a donation please pass the word along via blogs and social networking sites. Thanks!
What was your idea behind Emergent Heart?
A: The idea for Emergent Heart came to me a little over 6 years ago. I struggled everywhere I went to keep a band together for a variety of reasons. I craved to have a permenant project that could withstand all the line-up changes and departures that happen to bands. At that point in my life, I was listening to three records that helped crystalize the concept. The Postal Service had proved that long distance collaborations were not some fantasy and that meaningful music could be produced despite distance. Broken Social Scene proved to me that it was possible for a band to function with a rotating line-up and have a coherent sound. And from The Beta Band I learned that sometimes it is best to release records in shorter formats before your shoot for the moon with an ambitious LP. That is why I thought releasing a series of EPs would be the best move. I also wanted to couple the project with a charity, but it would take some events in my life to decide what cause I wanted to devote the efforts to. So the idea for Emergent heart was probably fully formed in my head back in 2004, but I didn't begin work on it til 2009. A number of events brought the idea to reality:
1) Sadly, I was profoundly affected by the untimely loss of several individuals to suicide and then unrelated to these events, I endured a period of emotional turmoil that truly tested me. I relied heavily at first on the folks at nuci's space to get back up on my feet. Spending time with the staff and working with musicians at the space, was one of my first steps towards recorvery. Given these experiences, I knew if Emergent Heart ever became a reality, I would want to give back to nuci's.
2) I found myself with some time to work on a new project. I play in a band called The Premonitions, but our singer at the time was leaving and then our guitar player left. It took 9 months or so to rebuild the band. In the meantime, I focused my creative efforts on Emergent Heart.
3) Probably the biggest boon to the Emergent Heart efforts occurred when my co-producer Sam Kim returned to DC. He was between projects and I always thought the world of his abilities, so it seemed natural to seek out his help since I am not gifted when it comes to music engineering. Sam is a genius. Whatever rough ideas I have, he takes them to another level. I think it is a really great partnership, but it would not exist in this form without sam. He really is the musical brains of the operation.
How and when did Emergent Heart begin?
A: Oh it looks like I answered most of this question already. Hmm...Sam and I began tracking the first song "What Do You Mean" in June of 2009. The EP "One" was released in late august/early september 2010. You can download it digitally here www.emergentheart.com You can pay what you want. all proceeds go to nuci's space. If you don't have any money, just share with friends. Let them know about the cause and the music.
How is the music produced? Are the collaborations done together in one location or does each contributer work in their respective locations?
A: There really isn't a formula for how the songs come to be. I'll give you an idea of how these four songs came together
"What Do You Mean": I sorta dreamed up who I wanted on this track and had a very basic idea of how it would sound. I tracked some drums in my athens studio, Chris Byron threw in some synth accents, and then I had my friend Kelly (Kelly Servick) record a violin part in her bedroom on garage band. I sent those rough mixes to Sam and what I got back blew my mind. It was essentially the structure that exists today. I then had to decide who I wanted to sing on the track. I got really into this local band Reptar (who are going to be huge by the way) and befriended the frontman. Graham (Ulicny) came in with some ideas and an hour later he produced a really memorable vocal take. I also seemed to be obsessed with guy/girl vocals at the time, so then I asked kelly to take a vocal shot at it and it turned out great as well. Sent it back to Sam. He mixed it great. Later we added a philosophy sample; that is actually my advisor in the PhD program. He recorded his part on his iphone. So in short, for this song, barely any of the contributors have met each other.
"Enchanter"-I had always been a fan of Andrew Black's drumming and I new he did beats for hip hop artists. He donated the drum track and then I shot it to the bass player from the premonitions (alex cooper). This was a really good foundation for sam to work on. He then did his thing, which is pure magic. When I got the mix back, I heard horns, like tv on the radio horns in my head. So I put out some feelers and one of my students recommended a sax player, Neil Newcomb. He took the song in his home studio did a tremendous job. Oh, and then we added tabla. My advisor's son had been playing the tabla in India, so I had him record a part on his iphone. Sam mixed it and that is how we got the music for enchanter. We debated keeping it an instrumental, but it was very important to get my friend Christina B to sing on the track. She and I had worked in a band before and never released the songs we labored upon. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to finally collaborate and share with the world. I like the tune a lot. I think it came out like Dirty Projectors meets TV on the Radio.
"The Future Doesn't Need Us"- Kai Riedl (Macha) had been a friend of mine for a while. He taught religion classes at UGA while I taught philosophy classes. we bonded over that and music. I had wanted to work with him for some time. He contributed some scraps of songs to me and Sam. Sam made this really beautiful lo-fi song skeleton and to be honest, we were ready to release it like that. But Kai, being the visionary he is, wanted to take it to another level. Kai and, my very good friend/engineer, Suny Lyons labored tirelessly on that tune and made it a thing of beauty. I had very little to do with that one. I tracked some drums for it up at Toby Gomez's house over Christmas, but they are kinda low in the mix. Which is fine by me. I think that song is incredibly strong. Suny and Kai did a terrific job. Hopefully, Sam and I will work with them again.
"All Around You"-Is a song that Sam wrote. He sent it to me and asked for some feedback. I think I was still obsessed with girl/guy vocals. I mean who isn't? Anywho, I thought the singer from the premonitions at that time, Maureen McGinnis, should back Sam up on the tune. The song was really beautiful, but Sam ultimately decided that he liked Maureen's backing vocals so much that he brought them to the forefront and sam contributes the backing vocals on that tune. That's what's great about Sam. He doesn't let ego get in the way of a song. He did what he thought was best for the tune, even though it was his baby. Having Maureen lead the song opened up some sonic space. I had been listening to a lot of songs with trumpets and reverb. I thought A-ha, this is it. I got in touch with this guy (Taylor Barnett) from my Richmond days, shot him the tune and he tracked exactly what I envisioned. Sam mixed it all and the rest is history.
Tell me a little bit about Nuci's Space and why you decided for the proceeds from this project to go to them.
A: I think I covered the second part of this question already in my first response (Ooops! I need to learn how to be a good interviewee). Nuci's Space is a great resource here in Athens. Getting treatment for mental health issues is incredibly costly, even if you have health insurance. Nuci's Space connects artists in the community to doctors who work on sliding scales. Nuci's also runs support groups and provides an environment that anyone in need can take advantage of. They always have someone on staff to listen and direct folks to help. They also have a musician mentoring program. They work with young kids during the summers and help them develop their music skills.
What are your future plans for the project? Do you have any plans for live shows?
A: On the philanthropic side, what I would like to do is develop a database of doctors and resources for those outside of athens. Once things settle down a bit that is my next goal. I want people from all over the country to have the same resources we have here in Athens. Maybe one day I'll open up my own facility, but that is a ways off. On the music side, I'm busy making a record with the new line-up of the premonitions and sam is working on his solo material. We have tentatively planned to start work on the second EP at the beginning of the new year. I tracked some drums this summer and have already begun thinking about who I would like to appear on the second installment. In the meantime, I will be working with my friends to make videos for each of the songs. We are gonna try to blend art and advocacy. Get the word out there. As for shows, there are no plans for this to be a touring band, but never say never. If this thing gains momentum and Sam wants to do it, I'm sure we could figure something out. But right now, it is incredibly gratifying project in its current form. I get to work with my best friends, writing tunes I'm very proud of and for a good cause.