Emma Back’s ‘Little World’: Central Vermont artist serves up captivating sound

 

A self-described “avant-folk live looping artist,” Worcester-based Emma Back blends violin and other acoustic instrumentation with Balkan and African inspired percussive loops, layers of lush vocal and string harmonies, and Eastern European tonalities. All are compellingly culled on her first full-length album, “Little World,” the release of which Back will celebrate on Thursday at ArtsRiot in Burlington. Produced by esteemed central Vermont musician Colin McCaffrey, “Little World” soars on the strength of Back’s stunning vocals, sparse and compelling instrumentation, poetic lyrics and a captivating sound that conjures such singular artists as Andrew Bird, Rhiannon Giddens and Tori Amos while standing tall on its own unique merits. Back, 30, is a native of Boulder, Colorado who moved to Vermont at age 6, growing up between the village of Maple Corner in Calais and Worcester, where she currently resides. She took to classical violin and singing early on, and has been performing since she was 7, developing a love for Balkan and African music while singing with the teen world music choir Village Harmony. A 2006 graduate of U-32 High School in East Montpelier, Back lived in Paris before moving back to Boulder to study avant-garde improvisation, composition and vocal performance at Naropa University, graduating with a degree in music in 2011. She has toured throughout the U.S. and performed in England, Israel and France both solo and with a variety of bands, playing everything from Greek and Turkish music (Cameron Powers Project) and sacred Jewish music (Neva Tehilla) to Balkan choir (Planina) and folk rock (The Inquiry). Back moved back to Vermont in 2014, where she was bedridden for six months following what she describes as “an intense health crisis” and burnout from traveling in Israel and touring and teaching throughout the U.S. Her experiences and her recovery inspired a renewed outlook on her music. “I found myself contemplating personal and global conflict as ‘illness,’” she says in press materials. “What I discovered in my own pathway to healing is that, in bearing witness to ‘shadow’ — the parts of our inner or outer worlds that we either strive to ignore or feel hopeless about resolving — we can transform not only our pain, but both the ancestral and current collective suffering we carry. “How exactly this can then impact the world on a larger scale is an ongoing investigation for me, and the root from which the songs of ‘Little World’ emerged,” she adds. “I feel this kind of music and message is highly necessary in these challenging times.” After working with three different producers across three states and rewriting many of her songs, Back eventually went with McCaffrey, recording the album at his home studio, the Greenroom in East Montpelier. McCaffrey, who proves a perfect fit for Back’s distinctive vision, keeps the proceedings suitably spare while adding musical enhancement on acoustic bass, cello, hand percussion and sampling. But Back and her songs are the stars of “Little World,” on which she plays everything from violin and viola to keyboard and alto recorder, while also delivering vocals, beat boxing, hand percussion and sampling. It’s an album that rewards repeated listens, a cohesive collection that grows in infectiousness with every spin. The title track opener is a mesmerizing standout, beautifully melancholic with a subtle buoyance and quirky groove. The haunting “Home” and “Traveler’s Prayer” employ Eastern European influences to great effect; the former is a perfect blend of personal and political, while the latter enchants with a spellbinding melody. “This Fear” is an autobiographical centerpiece, slowly building to a melodic chorus and containing lines like: “This fear, this fear / It burns my ground. / I tell you my story / To slow it down.” And “Mocking Gun” is a pointed paean to the politics of weapons. “Women at the Wall” is upbeat and sprightly while tackling gender inequality, while “Alive” employs pretty piano and is more sensual and personal. “Shadow,” about a “femme fatale,” is a funky and affecting highlight, and “Refugee” is a powerful closer. In live performance, Back uses a loop pedal to create layers of strings and percussion as the backdrop for melodic vocal lines. Billed as “an evening of multimedia performance and community engagement,” Thursday’s album release show will begin with an interactive art installation by Meredith Muse, with “opportunities for the audience to engage in dialogue and activities based on the themes” of the new album, according to a press release. Opening the performance portion of the show is Senayit, aka New England-based pop-rock vocalist and guitarist Senayit Tomlinson. Back will follow, and will be joined by McCaffrey and by dancer Jessie Owens, who will perform original choreography.   ArtsRiot Emma Back, performing with Colin McCaffrey and Jessie Owens, celebrates the release of her album “Little World” at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 24, at ArtsRiot in Burlington (doors open at 7 p.m.). Senayit opens the show, which begins with an interactive art installation by Meredith Muse. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 day of show (all ages); call 802-540-0406, or go online to www.artsriot.com.   Pull quote: Produced by esteemed central Vermont musician Colin McCaffrey, “Little World” soars on the strength of Back’s stunning vocals, sparse and compelling instrumentation, poetic lyrics and a captivating sound that conjures such singular artists as Andrew Bird, Rhiannon Giddens and Tori Amos while standing tall on its own unique merits.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.