Strawberry Runners is the musical project of Emi Night, who started gaining traction with releases like the 2015 tape Hatcher Creek and 2017’s In the Garden, In the Night EP. Though they kept writing songs – often centered around traumatic events involving domestic violence and mental illness in their family – Night took a break from performing and recording music, which was starting to feel like a selfish pursuit as they saw people struggling to make ends meet. But realizing the impact it had on others and finding a sense of community in the Philly music scene inspired her to get back into it, and with help from friends and collaborators including co-producer Michael Cormier-O’Leary, Strawberry Runners’ self-titled debut LP, out today, was able to slowly come to life. It’s a mesmerizing, beautifully realized collection that not only seems to stretch its hands across time but treats it kindly, letting in a warmth not usually afforded to songs wrought from chaos and solitude. In sharing them, Night reminds us that in order to take something in, like beauty, you have to learn to let go. “I lie on the water/ Too breathless to speak,” they sing on ‘Can I Take This’, “Dare I beg my maker/ This moment, to keep.”
We caught up with Emi Night for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about their earliest musical memories, the journey behind Strawberry Runners, the recording process, and more.
Could you share your earliest memories of connecting with music?
When I was about four, my mom would be at work, my dad would be watching me. He’d have to run errands all the time, and we’d be in the truck driving around – there’s no A/C or anything, we’d just have the windows down, and he’d always made up songs while we were driving. He’s singing really loud – he was an opera singer, so he really just let loose out on the highways of Southern Indiana, making up stupid songs about stuff that we’d see. I was pretty shy when I was little, so I would have a hard time on the spot freestyling lyrics, but I’d always be singing his songs with him. Singing was a part of everyday life, just how we communicated. As I got a little older, I went to a Catholic school, which was weird for me because I didn’t really feel like I fit into that religion. But I did love how at church we would sing, and the music was so moving. I joined the choir, and my second grade teacher taught me how to play guitar so that I could play with the choir. I did feel like an outsider, I didn’t feel religiously connected to the school and to my peers, but when we were playing the songs at church, that was my way of connecting to people and making friends and feeling like a part of the community. It’s always been my form of communication.
Did you feel the need for it to become something a little more private or personal over time?
I always had this dream of standing out, I guess, because I didn’t really fit in when I was little. I was bullied a lot, and I just didn’t feel like I had friends. But I loved music so much, I wanted to use that as a way to prove, I don’t know, I belonged in the world or something. I started this girl group, this pop group when I was little. [laughs] I just made up dumb songs – I actually think I stole some songs from someone, I was like, “These are my songs.” But as I got older, I don’t know how to describe it – I just felt comforted by music. When things would be happening in my life – like my parents were going through a divorce, and I lost a relative – I just remember taking a lot of solace in being able to just like sit with my guitar and come to myself. I started writing then, probably when I was like 12 or 13, and not really fitting in was to my benefit in a way, because I spent a lot more time alone. I was comfortable being alone as a kid, so as a teenager, I was like, “I’ll just sit here for hours and work on a song, and that’s fine.” But then I could share it with people, and that was a way to engage with the world and make friends and connect with other people who felt similarly, like they didn’t fit in, and we’d play music together.
When did you really feel comfortable sharing your music with people?
I felt a little uncomfortable with the way that people treated me when I played music, but when I got older, I realized people just really needed to hear the songs. I guess I just felt obliged to continue making music – I felt obliged to continue putting music out and playing it in front of people, for more than just myself. Because people would reach out and tell me how some of the songs connected to them. Selfishly, I was just writing it because I needed to write that thing at the time. But when I realized that the music was connecting to people, I started to understand that there’s more weight there; there’s more importance in actively participating in that as a performer and as an artist.
How does this fit into the evolution of Strawberry Runners as a project? I know that it dates back to 2013 in some form.
I started writing the Strawberry Runner songs around the time when my dad had brain cancer, and he died. I was writing these songs processing his death and processing his life. It was a really confusing and difficult relationship. My dad was abusive and a very, very scary person, and in the last few years of his life, he just became very small from this illness. These aspects of his character started coming out that I had never seen before, like the love and the curiosity and the patience, and I was processing all of that and writing about it. And then I was writing about my family, how everyone was coping and what I was seeing in the people around me. It was hard to play those songs for my family, but when they came out, people told me that it was meaningful to them, so it made me want to continue writing. But I also had other things to write about. That history is still a part of who I am and how I write and how I see the world, but I think it’s important to also be able to take a step back and integrate that into a bigger view of the world and other experiences. I did need to take a little bit of time to figure out how to do that, because it’s my own trauma that I’m working through. I don’t produce music to be successful. I’m making music to process life. Sometimes that’s convenient for putting things out and having this commodification of feelings and art, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it just takes time.
I read the part of what legitimized music as a passion for you, also, was a conversation you had with the department head of the master’s program in psychology that you were in. What do you remember about it, and how was it different from other things people had told you?
Well, first of all, it was my interview for the program, I hadn’t gotten in yet. The interview was going really well, I was on that day. And then she asks me, “What do you do in your spare time?” I like to compartmentalize things, I don’t usually tell people what I do outside of work. But in this moment I was like, why not, I’m kind of moving on from playing music anyway. So, “I play music and I write songs.” And she said, “Oh, yeah, I know of your music.” And I was like, “No, you don’t.” She said, “Your band is called Strawberry Runners.” And I was like, “Oh God, she does know about my music.” I was like, “That’s so interesting, how did you hear of my music?” And she said, “I actually print off your lyrics for my clients sometimes in sessions.” It just threw me for a spin, and in the moment I was like, “Whoa, that’s amazing, thank you.” I just forgot about it for a little bit, and then I was like, “Well, this interview definitely going well, I’m definitely gonna get in. She likes me and thinks that I have good lyrics, that’s probably good for a psychology program.” I did end up getting into the program, but the school was really expensive, so I decided couldn’t really afford to go. I had been thinking about the interview, and it just hit me later: I’m doing what I’m setting out to do right now. I’m reaching people in the way that I think I want to reach people, and I’m doing it in this form that I actually love. I don’t think I need to stop doing that, and I also think I should do it more and just see what happens. So it did make me feel like it was more legitimate, but it also made me feel like I don’t need to go totally change my life to reach people the way that I’m trying to reach people. I can do that just by being myself and living the way that feels honest to me.
There’s a lot of small moments and different characters spread across these songs, often alternating between the past and present. When you think about the big picture of the album, what is it that comes to mind?
I’ve been thinking of it like that story form, the journey and return, where the character is in a situation where it’s like, “Okay, this is fine, right?” But then maybe there’s something that seems like maybe it’s not so fine, or there’s some problem that comes up that needs to be resolved, but in order to resolve it, they have to go through this whole process of going somewhere, going into some dark places. But then they come out the other side kind of back to where they were, but it’s not the same. Whatever issue had come up is now resolved. So, the pacing of the album is supposed to kind of resemble that. At the beginning, on ‘When I Walk’, it’s clear that there’s a certain level of comfort with this solitude, but then there’s also a bit of bitterness or a bit of sadness, or something that’s hinted at in that song. And then we kind of get into where that’s coming from, and we bring it around all the way through the ups and downs of the album. And then ‘Circle Circle’ is the final song, where it’s this sense of belonging and the sense of holding all of the chaos of everything, just recognizing that’s the way the world is, and we still belong in it.
Tell me more about coming up with that song.
I was feeling kind of sick and delirious. Sometimes playing music comforts me when I’m feeling crappy, so I just took it through my sickness. One night, when I was just not able to sleep, I picked up my guitar and I was looking around my room. I’ve moved around so much in my life – I grew up in Indiana, I moved to Colorado, I moved to Connecticut, I moved to Philly, I moved to New York, I moved upstate, I went to school in Vermont. I feel like I’ve been in a lot of places. Sometimes when I’m really tired, I get really anxious, and that’s what was happening in my sick time. I was just trying to make sense of things, like, What is my story? What’s going on here? I’m looking around my room and all of the things that I’ve collected that represent different times in my life, and I settled this painting that my friend made. We went to school together – I studied painting and we were studio mates, and she and I traded paintings before we left. I was looking at this painting that she made, and there was this section of the painting that is these little circles, and there are a bunch of them.
I was thinking about how things come back around, looking at the painting and kind of describing it with lyrics, and then it opened up my memory. As I was writing about the painting, I was also seeing all of these different stories in my life and how they all fit together and overlapped. It was a delirious song, but sometimes when you’re in a different mindset, you’ll see things that you took for granted and find a connection there. I think that’s what I did when I was writing this. I was finding this comfort in the chaos of everything and not really being able to make sense of my story. In the end, that’s just how life is. We all have these days and weeks and years, and that becomes your life, and that’s your story.
You recorded the album in several different studios, which I think also contributes to this pacing and the chaos of moving around, this feeling of it not being locked in a particular time and space. In what ways did that approach benefit the music for you?
I love recording music, and I also get so nervous in the studio. In each of the sessions, I was in a different place in my journey – musically, mentally, emotionally – and the band was in a different formation each time. I think that it offers more depth than just one week in the studio would have. I’m always intentional about how I record things, and my intentions were changing over that period. It’s like having a lot of different versions of me producing the album in a room.
What were those different versions?
When we started this, I was playing electric guitar, and we had Heather [Jones] on lead guitar. Heather has this really beautiful way of playing the songs. They just brought out this darkness and this sadness in certain places that, it was there in the song, but Heather really found it and shed light on it. You can hear it in, like, ‘Buddy’, and they were playing Rhodes on ‘Can I Take This’. The chords that they chose add this sad question at the end of a line, maybe, and that’s something I wanted to have. But it didn’t fit everywhere, and there were certain songs that I don’t think they found what they needed in the first round. The first round was with Heather in Philly at So Big Auditory, and the second round was at Headroom in Philly. In that round, we found a lot of energy, and it felt very band-y. There were some more rocking moments, like ‘Alison’ came to life there, and it felt just right. We didn’t need to change it much after that. But there are a few songs, like ‘Breakup 2’ and ‘Look Like This’ and ‘Circle Circle’ – those are the three singles that are out right now – which were still like, “What are these songs?”
After two rounds of recording, my life was changing, I was going through a lot of stuff, and I needed to just take a break. I was feeling frustrated that the album wasn’t where I wanted it to be. It wasn’t ready to release, there were still these songs that just didn’t seem to have an identity yet. So I took some time away, and that’s when I started thinking of going back to school. I was working a lot, and stuff was happening with family. And then I came back to wanting to do music again. Mike, who had been drumming on the album for round two, was like, “Hey, what’s going on with these songs? Let’s see if we can make this happen.” We decided to go back into it and get into those three songs that I just didn’t even want to listen to ever again. They gave me so much energy when I heard the new versions, and I knew that we could do this album because of these songs. I started taking voice lessons and started teaching voice lessons. I feel like the way that I performed changed a lot over the last couple of years, so going back into the studio, I just felt like a new musician. I brought everything that I had been learning over the years and finished the album at Big Nice studio outside of Providence. It was just an amazing experience. After all the ups and downs, I felt so much joy to be there and see it all coming together. It felt like there was no work to do, even though we were going constantly for a few days.
I love the vocal arrangements throughout the album, but especially on ‘Slip Through’, which has this dreaminess that intensifies through the fried distortion and the guitars it’s filtered through. How intentional were you about achieving that effect?
It’s funny you mentioned ‘Slip Through’ – that one and ‘Hollow’ are the two songs that I recorded at home very early on. I had ‘Slip Through’ before we ever went into the studio. And then I kind of used that to judge everything else against; if the other songs weren’t sounding good as ‘Slip Through’, which I did myself at home, then it wasn’t good enough for the album. I love recording vocals and layering vocals and finding harmonies. In that one, I remember specifically, I was in a new house, and it was kind of empty. With the chorus, I was like, I’m gonna do really, really low, and I’m gonna sing really, really high. At that time, I didn’t really know how to sing high, I didn’t know how to do it without hurting my voice, and I needed to be really loud to feel comfortable singing that high. So I went out in the hallway of my house, and it was all reverberating through the house. It felt cathartic singing that part. It felt like I was touching on my dad’s operatic “ahh” stuff, remembering how he sings.
When we took it into Big Nice – we did re-record it both other times that we went into the studio at So Big Auditory and at Headroom, and it never felt right. So I actually scrapped both of those recordings and just went back to the original demo, brought that into Big Nice. We were like, this is good, but there’s this part in the chorus, I had this classical guitar that was just rhythmic, pulsing 4/4 strums. And that was working, but Brad [Krieger] was like, “I just feel like it’s it’s not allowing the emotiveness of that moment to come through.” I think Mike was on the same page. I was like, “Hmm, no, I think we need to keep that.” And they were like, “I think we should try this other thing, let’s just see.” And I was like, “Okay, sure, do what you want, we’ll see what happens.” And then they added this heavy, gritty electric guitar that was super overdriven. And it was shocking to hear it. At first I was like, “This kind of hurts my ears, I don’t know.” [laughs] And they were like, “No, no, no, this is the moment, this is it.” And I was like, “Okay, okay. Let’s keep going.”
That moment where it gets really loud and distorted, I went back and forth on it a couple of times. I’d let other people hear it, and they were like, “I actually had to turn it down that point.” My mom listened to it and was like, “This hurts my ears.” But then some other friends were like, “No, that’s the moment that you need to keep.” I spend a lot of time just listening to other people and I think about what other people want all the time. It’s something that is very dividing – some people are gonna love it, some people are gonna hate it – but it’s it’s kind of good to have those moments. I think it gives it a character that it wouldn’t have had otherwise, so in the end I decided to keep it, and I do love it myself.
What are you most proud of yourself for achieving with this album?
I feel the most pride in letting go of control of the songs that I didn’t really know how to figure out myself. I think that asking for help from someone is an essential part of the process of making anything at all. That’s just being a creative person. You have to be able to balance your own like intentions and your own wilful, prideful decisions with being able to take input from other people and sources. I just had to have a ton of faith, and I’m not great at having faith. [laughs] But I think I’m better now, knowing how this went. Everyone thinks differently, everyone sees things differently, and if you get trapped in your own little view of the world, you’re just never going to be able to do your best work, or see so much of the beauty that exists already around you. Letting go of that control allowed me to see so much that I had been missing and taking for granted and gave me so much more opportunity to grow and keep playing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Strawberry Runners’ Strawberry Runners is out now.