Emily Otnes remembers the day she waited in Max Perenchio’s studio, The Nest. Its walls were covered with tarot card tapestries and around the room were stacks of amps, nets of wire, and miscellaneous mess.
“We were doing a session for this song,” Emily tells me from her home in Champaign, “and we needed a tag at the end of the chorus. We needed that thing.” She leans toward the webcam and brushes a loose strand of brown hair behind her ear. She is in a directorial mindset these days. She wants everything in its right place. “He came back with his arms spread open,” she says demonstrating, her palms to the ceiling, her chin lifting like she’s at church, “and belted out ‘We’re living in the Afterlove.'”
Keeping her hands raised, she says, “This is how he talks when he was excited.” Emily mixes her tenses when she talks about Max, her friend, producer, and closest collaborator, who passed away from injuries sustained during a car accident two days before we spoke. She lives between times, both past and present simultaneously.
“We kept that as the title and the hook,” Emily tells me. “We were trying to build this world, an elevated world, sparkly, above regular life energy. I think there is a place spiritually that we have to go when we lose somebody — physically or romantically — that is more real than an afterlife. I can picture it more clearly. We’ve gone through it a hundred times.”
In the world of Emily Blue, Otnes’ musical persona, time is a thing that repeats, and “The Afterlove,” her latest album, has become an album full of playful odes to pop music of the ‘80s. It imagines a “bisexual hookup utopia” that could have existed in the past and might in the future. It seems to wonder: If we could go back in time — if we could be our parents, shape our culture, rebuild the world of today — would things be different, or would they stay the same?
“I’ve been pushing through, trying to finish these songs, because if I don’t do that, I will spend weeks in my feelings,” she says. “This is a way for me to feel connected to him and motivated by him because he … ha[d] such a strong belief in me.”
In the 11 years since Emily’s first album, released with her band Tara Terra, Emily has played the roles of many women. She has stood in a black and white striped t-shirt and sung folksy songs of girls gone astray and trains back to the dead. In a buttermilk lace dress and wide white sunhat, she once folded her arms over the rail of a sun-bleached fire escape and sang, “I will take the backdoor baby / because I can see you’re trying to show me out. / I know you’re fine with someone else.” Most of her life, Emily has worn her hair long and blonde. Sometimes she styles it as a blunt bob or an abundant mass of curls, which evokes the barroom indie-rock of our Midwest childhoods and the covers of CDs plucked from the dashboard while driving down I-90. Other times, it is so sleek it looks like the past’s vision of a future full of femmebots and androids.
When the eye of her webcam opened on our conversation, her hair was brown and pulled behind her ears. So used to the blonde of her videos, I was shocked. “It’s easy to describe women,” she tells me, “because I am one. … And also, women’s visual appearances and their choice of dress and makeup and expression is so vast. I can draw from so many memories.” Often, Emily’s music can feel as if you are watching her tweak a digital timeline where the self is resequenced, reimagined, remixed, and always changing. “It’s a kind of digital costume,” she says.
She sounds at times like an alternate reality Taylor Swift. Other times, she swaggers like Melissa Etheridge or shreds like St. Vincent. Each persona is unmistakably Emily, though. Her recent albums have found her leaning further into her sci-fi tendencies than ever before. Prior to “The Afterlove” was “*69,” an album of stirring and boisterous glitch-pop.
“I’ve been wanting to do another record for a long time,” Emily says. “I made ‘*69’ with Max — Max Perenchio.” She articulates his full name slowly, carefully. “He is so unique in his approach. He’s one of the most zany humans I’ve ever encountered.” You can hear that in the music they made. Even when lyrics are serious, the beats are bouncy and the narrative is part of a science-fiction genre that promises to be only a black mirror. In “Microscope” Emily sings, “But you know how it goes. / The light gets up, and then suddenly you’re under the microscope. / And everybody wants to see…. / It’s all part of the wave of an afterthought / When somebody dies they never let you grieve.”
We talked briefly about Legacy Russell’s book “Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto.” Russell proposes that the glitch allows, enables, and embodies paradoxes, which can be radical tools. It breaks how a system runs or the speed it runs at. It says no to scripted programs and activates others. Emily is running a paradoxical program, too. In one conversation — the recording of which a glitch reduced to an hour of corrupted silence — Emily told me that “The Afterlove” and its ‘80s odes came out of a desire for a “pre-social media.” “I want to market this album with a Zine about things relevant today — things that weren’t talked about then.” Emily wants the past and the present, wants playfulness and horror, wants men and women and everyone in between. She wants the nuance and the complexity.
“*69” was a record “about a bold sexuality,” Emily tells me. “The Afterlove” is about relationships writ large, how they begin and how they end. “The ending is what ‘The Afterlove’ theme stands for. That’s the part that sticks with us,” she tells me. “There are songs about the newness and excitement at the beginning, … but it’s a cycle,” Emily says. “I am doing a moon cycle of people. I’ve grown a lot with this record, and I’m still making it right now, while we’re incubating.”
It strikes me that “incubating” is the right word for an album where Emily is turning increasingly towards the fleshy, animalistic moments of music. It’s the right word for an artist whose strongest instrument is her body. On “*69,” she let animal noises of gasps and gags create the soundscape of a hyper-excited body, like on the track “Falling In Love,” where she hyperventilates into the line “Bad girls, you’re breaking my heart. Never could get over you.” The meter forces a sigh, and she adds, “Sad boys, you tear me apart. Nothing hurts me like you do.”
As Emily Blue releases more music, there is a sense if not of hatching, then of becoming. She paces melodies according to sharp breaths. These breaths underscore the desires of her characters, the desires they are trying to keep from breaking out of the body or the people they might like to invite in.
“The Afterlove” takes this desire even further, locates it on a new planet, follows its trajectory around the solar system. “Peace out. Let’s take this to the clouds,” she sings on “See You in My Dreams.” “Diamonds in the sky. / We’re so cute that I’m crying. / Every touch is like a shooting star. / Every kiss is glowing in the dark. / I never want to wake up.”
Before his death, Max produced the first four songs on the eight-song record. At the start of each “The Afterlove” recording session, “I would show up with an iced coffee, probably two, because he likes Dunkin’ black coffee as well,” she says. “We’d joke around, make a plan based on one song.” Emily would bring her aesthetic and Max would bring his own. “Max’s textural world is very vast, and he loves a good psychedelic idea.” The two of them would “start putting things together, shouting at each other in a good way: ‘What if we did this!?’” When Emily says this, she mimes excitement but cannot quite seem to muster the energy she clearly misses. The music “slowly pieced itself together” when they recorded. “He would hand me this horrible microphone, plug it into autotune, and make it sound like a ’90s or early 2000s vocoder sound. I would start singing ideas, not words necessarily, mostly the tune,” she says. “He would pick sounds that made it sound more like the future.”
“In fact, I’ve been watching the ‘Back to the Future’ series lately,” Emily confesses with a chuckle. “I just love how time travel is represented! It’s so zany!” This is how she described Max, too, I note. “With time travel you can be very creative,” she says. “You can visualize anything.”
In “The Afterlove”’s signature track, “7 Minutes,” Emily visualizes a party where her lover’s gender isn’t decided until the second verse, where the “closet is a new dimension,” where seven minutes in Heaven is literal, she has angel wings and wears a white corset and lace sleeves that shimmer and swoop like bubbles in low gravity. Anyone could join her there.
The music video for “7 Minutes” is filmed in the style of a VHS tape: grainy, purple, and sepia. Her blonde hair is back. Her brown hair is, too, styled high and huge. She is both herself and somebody else. The future of those two characters is unwritten. At the root of “The Afterlove” is a question: What do you get if you combine “my retro aesthetic and the question, ‘What could the future possibly hold?’”
“In my mind,” Emily answers, “a queer paradise where everyone can be open and vulnerably themselves. … My music can be that universe.” It’s a new dimension where we live well and dance. It’s a queer, colorful world; it’s just one person short.
“The process of working on something that Max and I created is now to preserve the integrity of the song,” she tells me. “I don’t want to pretend to be Max, and I don’t want another producer to pretend to be Max. If I’m producing a track by myself I have a conversation with Max in my head — maybe out loud — and I’ll ask him ‘What do you think of this?’ I can pretty much hear the answer. Somehow we ended up exactly where we were hoping to.”