Musician Emma Ruth Rundle: ‘What I have to offer is the ugliness of things’

The gothic folk artist’s addiction issues began at 12 and lasted for more than 20 years, exacerbated by a rock’n’roll marriage. Now single and sober, clarity fills her starkly beautiful new album

In both life and art, Emma Ruth Rundle has been running. For the past 15 years, the Los Angeles-born musician has gone from project to project, living nomadically while she played guitar in post-rock bands before branching out into a gothic folk solo career. Now, though, with her fourth solo album Engine of Hell, she seems to have come to a stop.

Rundle sings and plays piano on eight devastatingly intimate songs that confront her drug and alcohol addiction – everything is exposed. “As I age, I’m realising the true value of what I have to offer as an artist is the ugliness of things,” she says.

The 38-year-old operates on the fringes of metal, but often shares more with the folk music she was raised on than with her heavier peers. However, the darkness in her music constantly draws fans from the metal community, and led to an acclaimed 2020 collaboration with sludge band Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full.

Inspired in part by time she spent alone on Wales’s stark Pembrokeshire coast before the pandemic, Engine of Hell is a complete departure from that noisy predecessor – not just sonically, but philosophically. Her lyrics have never been so detailed or naked; no words are minced when Emma sings about being “down at the methadone clinic” as a child, watching someone she loved suffer the consequences of heroin. She says that seeing addiction close at hand in her youth ended up fuelling her own, beginning at age 12, rather than warding it off, though she is keen not to implicate or blame anyone. A blunt anonymity pervades the whole record, giving us tiny yet unflinching glimpses into her own battle for sobriety while maintaining distance and privacy. “I was forced to confront certain things,” she says, adding that the piano, which she hadn’t played since she was a teenager, allowed her to sit still and reflect. After more than 20 years, she is now sober.

Emma Ruth Rundle in the studio.
Emma Ruth Rundle in the studio. Photograph: Bobby Cochran

Rundle also divorced her husband Evan Patterson earlier this year, in a creative as well as romantic split: he was in her backing band on her previous album. “I take what I do very seriously and I won’t ever mix romance and artistic collaboration again,” she says. “There was always a sense of contention in our relationship because [Patterson] felt gratification having a creative partner but it didn’t work for me.” Her addiction issues weren’t helped either: “Our rock’n’roll lifestyle wasn’t good for me, or my body.”

Her self-reliance on Engine of Hell also comes from her experiences as a woman. “I’m apprehensive about involving other people in my work, because I’ve spent a long time getting out from behind men. Engine of Hell is a statement that I’m not going to involve people in making aesthetic choices, or compromise on the emotional content.”

Working with producer Sonny DiPerri, the record has a stripped-back feel, and the majority of it was performed live to create an imperfect, humanising tone. “I always knew that was going to be flawed, because I’m not a trained musician. For me it’s not about the technique as much as the catharsis.” This catharsis saturates the record, from Rundle’s lyrics to the “anti-production” (her words). “The way I knew I was going to record it – warts and all – helped to inspire me and made it feel safe.”

Shaking loose her past traumas via Engine of Hell has been healing. “Healthy, positive ways are presenting themselves, and my life continues to change since I finished the record.” As well as getting sober and checking herself into a psychiatric hospital as part of the process, she has taken up dancing, including in two self-directed music videos she has released so far from Engine of Hell. “I’ve spent my whole life numbing my body,” she says. “Dance gave me permission to experience my own physicality in a more lighthearted, creative, playful way.”

With the last line of the album, “… and now we’re free,” Rundle hints at some of the redemptive rewards she would reap following the album’s completion. In returning to her past trauma, she’s begun to heal herself. “Part of what Engine of Hell set out to do was to look for myself. Where did that go? Why is it so grey? Why is everything dead? Whatever went into making this album, it’s left me in an objectively better place. It’s been a great, magical transformation.”

Rosie Solomon

The GuardianTramp

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