Slow Pulp is the Chicago-via-Madison quartet made up of vocalist Emily Massey, guitarist/producer Henry Stoehr, bassist Alexander Leeds, and drummer Theodore Mathew. The band’s roots date back to elementary school; Leeds, Mathews, and Stoehr had been playing in bands together since the sixth grade before Massey was invited to join their new project, contributing guitar and backing vocals to 2017’s EP2. After relocating from Wisconsin to Chicago, Illinois, Slow Pulp released the Big Day EP in 2019 and went on tour with Alex G as they worked on their debut full-length, Moveys, which arrived in the fall of 2020. The pandemic wasn’t the only challenge the group had to face in completing the album: Massey was diagnosed with Lyme disease and chronic mono, then had to move back home to take care of her parents after they were involved in a sreious car accident. They ended up finishing Moveys remotely, with Massey recording her vocals with her dad, Michael. Though they had more of a choice this time, they opted to do the same on Yard, their gauzy, confident, and endlessly comforting sophomore full-length.
With Stoehr once again helming the production, Yard showcases a band capable of switching between loud, intoxicating indie rock songs and soft, quietly affecting ones – what’s remarkable is that they so clearly share the same heart. It’s an album that grapples with anxious isolation as much as it benefits from collaboration, that finds Massey pushing her vocal limits while continuing to express self-doubt around different facets of her life. “Am I wrong?/ Or is it okay to stay inside and out of love?/ Tell me I’m wrong/ I’m just gonna give it a try and hope that it’s enough,” she sings on ‘Broadview’. All over Yard, you can feel the sun burning, and you can feel the love slipping through. Those questions don’t go away, but the feeling is infectious.
We caught up with Slow Pulp’s Emily Massey for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the making of Yard, writing in isolation, self-doubt, and more.
There were a lot of obstacles in making and releasing Moveys, and you’ve talked about how working on that album was a healing process for you. Were you processing a lot of the same feelings and trauma transitioning into Yard?
During lockdown, I was with my family, and we were kind of on top of each other, as a lot of people were if they lived with other people in their houses. And it felt at times hard to be vulnerable or be able to express more intense bouts of emotion, because you had to hold it together for other people or just didn’t feel like you wanted to exert that energy or let people in to help you through that. Sometimes, I found it’s easiest for me to be vulnerable with myself and my own emotions when I’m completely alone, and I think really benefited the songwriting because I was able to be super open. Even if I’m alone in a house somewhere but I can tell that my neighbors can hear me – like recently, I ran into my neighbour in the hallway, and he was like, “Oh, you’re the singer! I hear you all the time.” And I was like, Oh my god, that’s the worst possible thing I could hear. But I had the privilege to be able to go up to a couple of cabins in Northern Wisconsin and write and be really, truly alone.
I think for sure, there’s probably a lot of residual processing of things that happen during the pandemic. Moveys is so much about my relationship to myself, and it’s very internally reflective. Almost every song on Yard, it’s still a reflection, but about my relationships with other people. It was an interesting juxtaposition – wanting to be alone, but for whatever reason that brought out thoughts of others, which I guess makes sense.
How does that tie into your relationship with your band, which is a different kind of family? Did the isolation allow you to be more vulnerable with them?
We have a very specific relationship between the four of us – we’re friends and co-workers, and we spend a lot of time together – more than probably any humans should spend together [laughs]. But we try to just be really open with each other. For me, it’s always been really easy. Because of our closeness, I trust them so much, I feel like I’m able to be really vulnerable with them. I think we go in phases of how we’re able to do that, but at the end of the day, they’re incredibly supportive of me and really give me a lot of space and create a freedom to work on the songs lyrically and melodically. I really appreciate that in this project so much.
Was that space something you expressed the need for in a direct way?
It started because I used to teach ballet to toddlers. In 2021 or early 2022, one of the kids tested positive for COVID, so they had everybody who is in the the class quarantine just in case, so I couldn’t teach for a week. Last minute, I asked a friend’s family if I could go up to their cabin because I had been wanting to do some sort of writing retreat or isolated thing, just to try it. So when I went up there, it just clicked for me that this was something that is really important for my process, or something that want to continue. And they’re very supportive of that. Already we write a lot of things kind of separate from each other – we have a shared Google Drive that we send things back and forth, even though we’re together a lot [laughs]. Sometimes I think that space can be good to kind of flesh things out some of the stuff that’s a bit more laborious or takes more time. For me, when I’m writing a vocal melody, I’ll just sing for hours and hours and hours and hours to try and find the right thing. I can speak for Henry, too, who is the guitar player and does the production for our records, having that space to push through can be a good thing.
In terms of writing, was it important in ways that were different from writing alone before?
Yeah, that first trip for me personally – what I did was I got there and I cried for a full day straight, just because I felt like I was allowed to do that. I think I find it personally hard to do that kind of emoting when other people are around. I mean, there’s a lot of things I just didn’t expect to happen with that kind of space. And after that, it felt like I was able to open up in a way that felt better. Another thing that was really important about isolation for me was allowing myself to fail more, to make songs that were bad that I knew no one would hear. Something about that really opened up the process for me. I get really in my head about and I’m really self-critical when I make things that I don’t feel are worthy, and I tie that too much to my own self-worth. But having this space, I just felt like it was such a judgment-free zone – even though other people aren’t directly judging, it was just all this preconceived thing that I had built up in my own mind. But being alone kind of squashed that.
Self-doubt is also something you explore in some of the new songs, which is a theme that carries over from Moveys. But you’re also more self-aware about it, like on the song ‘Doubt’, and it’s often more to do with how you relate to other people. How has your relationship with self-doubt changed over time?
It’s one of those things that has been a bit of a constant in my life. It comes in waves; I think I’ve done a lot of work to make it not such a pertinent thing that’s at the forefront of my life and the way I move around in the world. But it’s funny, because I think I’ve gotten through a lot of periods of time recently where I felt really good, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m not doubting myself as much.” But then a week later I’ll be right back where I feel like I started. That’s kind of the frustrating part of growth, is it’s never just this linear path – you have dips, you have valleys. But I think I think I’m just really trying to give myself space to make mistakes, to be imperfect, and trust myself to move forward from that – and trust my relationships with the people that are close to me in my life to work through those things, too. But it takes time, and it goes in and out.
I was thinking about how my self-doubt affects other people, and how sometimes the things that that feel so internal do affect our relationships outside of ourselves. I know personally, I tend to project things or expect things out of people that might be unfair, because I’m doing it to myself, but I’m putting it on other people. But it’s really so much about trust, and that is a hard thing to build up. But it is possible.
On ‘Broadview’, you’re fighting isolation in an effort to embrace this new thing that’s happening. Trust is a key ingredient in that, and there’s also a sense of hope.
Absolutely, hope is a great word. I think that’s something that is a common theme throughout a lot of our music, even if it’s kind of touching on a darker subject. There’s this sense of longing for the other side and believing that there’s there’s some way to get there.
How did that become apparent this time?
I think it actually kind of started in Moveys. When the song ‘New Horse’ was written, that’s pretty directly about that. That song was a big turning point for me in terms of self-trust and belief in myself. I think that was the first song in a really long time that I had a part in writing where I was really proud of myself – having that be a lost feeling for a while, and then having that come back, was really what I needed. And I think that’s kind of propelled me through even now, is being like, “You made something that you were proud of actively, and you can do it again.”
What do you remember about writing ‘Fishes’?
I went to another family friend’s cabin – again, so lucky that I get to be able to do that – and they didn’t have any internet. They were a lot more off the grid than the other one that I normally go to. But I remember feeling really lonely at that time, and having that feel really visceral. They had a CD stand – I had a high school band, and the CD was sitting next to a Lucinda Williams CD. And I was like, “Those shouldn’t even be together, that feels crazy.” But I listened to that Lucinda Williams album Essence over and over again, because there wasn’t any internet. After listening to that album for like the third or fourth time, I just sat down and tried playing guitar a little bit, and that song just came out. And then I didn’t write a song the rest of the week. I tried so hard and nothing else came out, but for whatever reason, that one just shot right out.
I don’t know how many of the songs started out in a sparse form, but it’s interesting that there are couple of more intimate songs – the title track and ‘Carina Phone 1000’ – in the middle of the record. How do they, along with ‘Fishes’ as a closer, fit into the broader vision of Yard?
I think almost all of the songs started in a pretty sparse place. Something that we learned from Moveys was that it was beneficial for me to take the chords, whoever wrote them, and maybe change the key, change up some little minor things, and then write a melody over it – having the song feel good at a space that felt pretty minimal that anything that we added was ideally going to just benefit what already was there. The first iteration of ‘Mud’ was really acoustic, but I think Teddy, our drummer, expressed a desire to work on that one, and we kind of changed the rhythm together and it turned into a totally different thing, which is so cool when something like that happens with a song. I think that’s what’s great about collaboration, is you start something and you take it to other people and it ends up being something you never would have thought of. That’s kind of my favorite part of making music, is seeing how it all ends up. But some of the songs felt really right in that more sparse space, like ‘Carina’.
Can you talk more about that song?
Carina is my best friend in the whole world. We’ve been best friends since the sixth grade as well, which, I feel really privileged to have a relationship like that. As equal as the positives that come out of being isolated, there are a lot of things that are not so romantic about it, and being alone like that – it’s so easy to spiral in your brain when you have no one to pull you out of that. I was up there and really feeling not great, just feeling kind of stuck, both creatively and mentally. My friend Carina called me at just the perfect time. It’s almost like a telepathic connection happened and they just knew that I needed them in some way. We had a really long phone conversation, and they were just so validating about feeling those types of emotions. They’re so good at listening and allowing me to have that space to be sad, or to be, you know, not the best version of myself. So the song ended up being that, and the reason it’s called ‘Carina Phone 1000’ is because they notoriously lose their phone and have to get new phone numbers all the time, so I have like six contacts in my phone that are different Carina phone numbers. The most recent one is Carina Phone 1000, and I thought it would be funny to title the song that.
What have you learned about music and collaboration from working with your dad, Michael?
So, Moveys I recorded vocals with my dad more out of necessity, because we were all separate at that time during lockdown and needed to finish the album. I was a bit nervous to do that, because it’s always a toss-up working with family, seeing how that relationship would translate to a creative one. It ended up going so well that it felt like it would be a good thing to do it again for this record. We’re able to be very open with each other, for better or worse – sometimes we’ll fully fight and argue when we’re recording. But he’s so good at guiding me in delivery and finding the micro things to either change my voice or change in phrasing that really helped bring out the best takes. And he’s really good at telling me to stop, because I’ll just go forever if I could. I feel really lucky that we have that facet to our relationship, it’s very strange and unique. But it really has brought us closer together, and I think having that practice in communication and collaboration has helped us to communicate better in our relationship.
Can you share one thing that inspires you about each member of the band?
Oh, cute! They’re all in the car right now, overhearing my answers [laughs]. I mean, I love them to death. They are my brothers through and through. I’ll start with Alex, he’s to my left. He is one of the funniest people I know and keeps things so positive. It’s so easy to laugh with all of them, and it’s so easy to laugh especially with Alex. I think he has such a good nature of allowing things to be silly, and I really appreciate that. Sometimes things can be so serious, and I think he’s really good at finding the positive in a lot of things. Henry produces all our records. He shreds, he rocks [laughs]. Him and I started working on music before I joined Slow Pulp, and I feel like he was one of the first people to really believe in me and have a sense of trust in me that I had never felt in a creative collaboration with anybody before. It felt like one of those instant things, and throughout all of this he’s been a big supporter of not just me, but everybody. I think he champions his friends in such a big way. Teddy, who’s the drummer, he is so caring and so kind. He’s like Dad – he’s gonna laugh at me saying that – he keeps us together in so many good ways and is open and vulnerable and really easy to talk to. I feel like when I’ve had really hard times in in my life, he’s been a great crutch and very understanding. He’s helped me through a lot of things. I mean, all of them have. I couldn’t say enough good things about this group of guys. They rule.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.