On a perfectly cool spring evening (19 September), our once-local Emma Louise played Brisbane’s The Tivoli Theatre to a packed room full of old friends and acquaintances.
In the nearly four years since her West End days, Cairns-born Emma has grown into one of Australia’s most sophisticated and respected young musicians.
Part of Brisbane Festival's Tivoli In The Round series, couches lined the rafters and walls, with patrons reclining, leaning, and casually laying across the Tivoli carpet as openers Greta Stanley and Ryan Downey carved out the cosy mood.
The main stage itself was peppered with comfort sofas; the entire venue transformed in the manner of a grand-scale lounge room. Emma and her tidy quartet graced the centre-room stage, placed auspiciously in the middle of the crowd. Four pillars of speakers cornered the plinth, creating a surround-sound experience the calibre of which Brisbane is seldom treated to.
One might have been reminded of George Harrison in his Concert For Bangladesh by the white suit Emma comfortably adorned as the group settled into the opening song, 2015’s single ‘Underflow’.
Bathed in amber, lavender and lilac light, the group soared through forlorn and dulcet tunes. Emma’s songwriting has matured to a degree that not many modern pop singers reach. Nowhere was this more blatantly apparent than on the earnestly warming heartbreak of ‘Wish You Well’. Her sensibilities have evolved into a hybrid form, equal parts inventive and steeped in tradition.
Latest album ‘Lilac Everything’ is tinged with the tastes of collaborator and producer Tobias Jesso Jr., a classic auditory palate ranging anywhere between the emotional rawness of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and the expansive vocal tapestries of Bon Iver.
But it’s hard to make comparisons without reducing the originality of ‘Lilac Everything’. The record breathes like an artist in the throes of self-realisation, an earnest and at all paces deliberate document of personal growth and sincerity. The croon of ‘Falling Apart’ had couples swooning with hearts aflutter, swaying to the Dylan-esque organ and crushing dynamic exchanges.
Her music has always been tasteful, and Emma Louise has never been one to give too much - or too little - away. Utilising elegant, rustic instrumental tones and thoughtful prosody, Emma thrives in both the accessible and the oblique.
The invigorating optimism of ‘Gentleman’ danced its way into listeners’ souls, trotting with a gallant and love-stoned glee reminiscent of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.
Comparisons to highly regarded male singers may come as a surprise, but for Emma Louise, ‘Lilac Everything’ was in part an experiment in the exploration of her masculine side. Emma truly revels in the gender-bending freedom afforded by her newfound persona Joseph, the character through whom she transformed her voice and liberated her artistic identity.
A certain melancholy seemed to choke Emma as she prefaced the performance of her breakthrough single, ‘Jungle’. It seems that the tune, now nearly 10 years old and written around the age of 20, has run its course for the 28-year-old singer. “. . . This might be the last time we ever play this song live,” she nervously declared.
Though ‘Jungle’ may serve only as a reminder of bygone days to Emma Louise, by no means did it fail to feel fresh and exhilarating on stage. ‘A Thousand Sundowns’, a solo acoustic tune written at 16, continued the theme of long-gone experiences. But in a flash the atmosphere careened to the new with the dazzling ‘Mexico’.
A high point of the set and the place of Emma’s spontaneous creative retreat, the word and country itself stirred a large portion of the ‘Lilac Everything’ potion. The tune features some of the most inspired instrumentals on the album, an emotionally revelatory mix of synth bass and syncopated rhythms.
Rounding out the evening with her Flight Facilities collaboration ‘Two Bodies’, Emma and co. fully embraced the deep groove of their moody disco banger. For the first time all evening, Emma removed her instruments and took to the mic with both hands, swaying with her audience in a dignified embrace of their farewell.
With candid humour the group left the stage, turning with a catwalk wink before slinking off between the couches and away into the night.
Emma Louise left a crowd in awe, impassioned and renewed by the refreshing integrity of her flourishing catalogue. On behalf of Brisbane and the ‘West End Kids’, thanks Emma - from the bottom of our hearts.