Letting Joseph do the singing

Emma Louise pitched her voice lower for her third album, Lilac Everything.
Emma Louise pitched her voice lower for her third album, Lilac Everything.PHOTO: LIBERATION RECORDS

INDIE POP

LILAC EVERYTHING

Emma Louise

Liberation Records

4 stars

Everyone, meet Joseph. He croons like a world-weary Adele, a tenor who's witnessed the best of times, the worst of times. The late-night balladeer stretches out, reclines and opens up, touched by a halo of cool.

Here's a confession: Joseph isn't a real person. He's an extension of Emma Louise, the 27-year-old indie pop musician from Cairns, Australia, who actually sings with a bell-clear soprano for her first two albums.

Most of her third album was already recorded in her original voice, but she asked to pitch her voice lower, much to the surprise of her band.

Emma Louise pitched her voice lower for her third album, Lilac Everything.

She recalls how, at 19, she first heard Joseph peeping through when her voice was slowed down in the studio one day as she was prepping for her first album.

With the acclaimed Vancouver songsmith Tobias Jesso Jr taking on the role of producer for the first time, she lures out Joseph on Lilac Everything.

"There she is/Perfectly framed by the woods she painted green/With the hand of those hands of his," are the opening lines of the first song Wish You Well.

The vivid image captures the androgynous thrust of the project. Who is "she", this object of someone's affection, exquisitely magicked by a man's hands? This question hangs in the air, as it's Louise herself who has dreamt up this gender-fluid fantasy.

Against a dolorous piano, the voice unfurls, slow and sultry. It's an alluring conundrum: You want to know more, probe, get closer.

The utter mystery of Joseph gets under your skin. Unlike virtual, holographic pop stars such as Japan's Miku Hatsune and Canada's Maya Kodes, with their own meticulous imagery and choreography, Joseph remains elusive and, yes, invisible. There is no sub-text accompanying Joseph, who "isn't a character or anything, it's just another expression of me", says Louise.

Whereas someone like Lizzie Grant transforms herself into Lana Del Rey with a make-believe backstory, Louise leaves Joseph unexplained.

Lilac Everything is so named because she started seeing lilac everywhere "in all the shadows on the cement, roads and everywhere". A painter friend has told her that one can approximate the look of shadows by using different shades of purple.

Similarly, Joseph is more an experience, an atmosphere to immerse oneself in.

In Shadowman, a piece of bluesy piano nocturne accented by barely-there percussion and a horn or two, Louise pines for a loved one: "Oh how dare he holds me like a ray/Let me slip through his fingers."

It's followed by a cinematic instrumental called Solitude, a Tex-Mex saxophone solo where nothing is said and everything implied.

By the time one comes to the gorgeous closer When It Comes To You, everything has come full circle and you're none the wiser.

"And I'm a fraud, I am thick/A forest overgrown, just doing what you say," she moans over sparse piano and drums, and a lingering sax. Who's in charge? Who's the fraud and who's the willing victim? The answers are in the shadows.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2018, with the headline 'Letting Joseph do the singing'. Print Edition | Subscribe