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Emily Warren Is Putting Personality Back In Pop

Music
Photo via @emilywarrennnn Instagram

“I just want to put songs out and be myself”

Given her openness and charisma, not to mention an impressive list of songwriting credits dating back to 2013, it’s almost funny that Emily Warren’s proper coming out as a solo artist was billed by many as a reveal in the first place. In reality, Warren, who began penning tracks for pop powerhouses like Jessie J and Shawn Mendes while she was still studying music at NYU, has had a rise to prominence that quickly went from gradual to all at once, gaining steam with each hit she helped pen.

It started with her credited turn on Capsize’s “Frenship,” a slow-burning sensation that eventually went platinum and reached the Billboard Hot 100. But Warren became something of a household mystery figure when she lent her voice to the Chainsmokers' “Paris,” which is either the most or second most ubiquitous song of 2017, depending on what you think of their other hit, “Something Just Like This.” 

But Warren has now officially stepped into the spotlight on her own with “Hurt By You,” a soulful standout that makes great use of Warren’s confident, varied vocal delivery by building Motown style harmonies and incorporating some vintage soul elements into her distinctly modern songwriting approach. Even the single’s artwork is a nod to Etta James’ seminal “At Last.” 

The track is vulnerable and frank, so while musically it is just about as far as you can get from singles like “Paris” or Jessie J’s “Masterpiece,” Warren’s songs are all linked by her commitment to mining truth from her own life or those of her collaborators. She’s fighting the misconception that pop songwriting is often interchangeable, and her mission of empowering artists to tell their own stories is making what comes on your radio far more palatable.

Fresh off an opening spot on the Chainsmokers’ recent tour and with plenty of new music on the horizon, we caught up with Warren about her process, how today’s boom in songwriters making their own music recalls the 1960s, and being the mystery voice on “Paris.” 

There was a tweet where you shouted-out your fellow songwriters who were putting out their own music and likened it to the 1960s. Could you explain that?
My dad raised me on a lot of ‘60s music, and it was always like, ‘Okay, here’s Carole King, and here’s the song she wrote for this person, and here’s her music.’ It was way more fluid as common knowledge, and now it’s so interesting seeing, like, Julia Michaels and all these different people who’ve been behind the scenes putting songs out. And part of what they’re using to introduce themselves is the whole catalog of songs they’ve written for other people, which I think is so cool and how it should be.

Do you think it’s easier for a songwriter to make that jump into being a solo artist nowadays than it used to be?
For me, what made it such an easy decision were things like when “Capsize” went viral on Spotify. It kind of made me realize, that with Spotify being such a big part of the way people listen to music now, you don’t have to be any sort of specific artist. Before this period, when there were these kind of manufactured pop stars, it seemed scarier and harder as an artist. I just wanted to put songs out and be myself. 

How did you realize writing was as much of a passion for you?
I always kept diaries when I was growing up, and when I figured out I could turn them into songs it was like anything that happened to me had to turn into a song. That’s how I kind of feel when I’m listening to music, too, and going through new music. It bothers me that songs come out just because a label thought that it was going to be a hit for an artist versus telling a story that’s personal. 

What was your first major credit?
The first song that I was really freaking out about was the Jessie J single “Masterpiece.” I had another song that I pitched to her; it was called “Ain’t Been Done” that went on the album, and once we had that we pitched her “Masterpiece.” It was crazy for me because I’d gotten album tracks before, but never a single, especially from Jessie J who I really admire. I remember Diplo had a single in the mix, and there were all these other people in the mix, and somehow we got the single, which was a huge deal for me, I was still in school at the time. I’m constantly pinching myself because I feel like since that point it’s just been one ridiculous thing after another. 

How does your approach change when you’re working with an artist like Jessie J versus a band like COIN?
With Jessie J, that was a pitch song. I never actually worked with her. My approach is related to what story I'm telling with the song. My approach to writing, and why I like to be in the room with an artist normally when I’m writing a song with them, is that I really just want to get an honest story and tell the truth with them, and you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been in the room with an artist and said, "What’s going on with you?" and they’re just shocked that someone is asking them that question and that I’m not coming in with a concept that I want to make work or whatever. For me, the music that I like to listen to tells someone’s unique story and perspective, so whenever I go in with an artist, it’s an hour, two hours, three hours, of just talking and helping them open up.

Who helped inspire your writing process?
Scott Harris, who I’ve done a lot of stuff with, he and I kind of came up with this approach together. I guess it was two, maybe three years ago, we were working with this band that had these two twin sisters, and we ended up going to work with them in their hometown for like a week. We weren’t really getting anything at the beginning, and then I’m a twin, too, so I was asking them about [that experience], and we got in this whole crazy conversation where these two twin girls were telling each other all these insecurities they’d never talked about while Scott and I were just watching this whole thing unfold. Everyone’s got shit that they’re dealing with, everyone’s got stuff. We realized in that moment: Our jobs are so much easier now because we just have to help people get out these ideas that are already within them, and help craft that. It’s genuinely what made me really fall in love with songwriting; I used to say I would never write songs for other people, and that was kind of the turning point for me.

What do you think about the state of pop music today?
My mom was saying the other day someone said to her that I was a pop artist and she was like, "Pop is Britney Spears, I don’t think you’re pop." We had a whole conversation about it because I probably wouldn’t describe myself as a pop artist, too, because pop just means popular music, which hopefully means anything that people will listen to, which is just such a broad category now. I think because of platforms like Spotify and things not needing to be formatted, in order for people to hear them on radio, it means that everything has a fair shot, which is so cool. I write a lot in the U.K. for this reason, and it’s now happening here. They’re just more receptive, they’ll play stuff off of SoundCloud on radio stations there, and it’s starting to be like that here. Radio is probably going to take another second, but with playlists and the way that people are sharing music now everything kind of has a fair shot, which I think is great. 

How do you feel about the fact that so many people discovered you as the uncredited vocalist on “Paris?”
I’m totally happy with how it happened. We always joke about how I was never going to get a feature on “Paris,” because the song was basically done when I jumped on it. I just happened to be like across the street, and Drew [Taggart] was like, "Can you come sing something?" and I just came and sang that and then the song was out within a week. Drew and Alex [Pall] themselves are extremely supportive of me, just the fact that I’m on this tour with them and that everyone on the tour was sharing my song when it came out. 

When [“Hurt By You”] came out a couple weeks ago, so many artists I’ve worked with were posting about it, which I didn’t ask them to and they didn’t have to, and it was so cool to see, so positive to see people support each other. I loved that.

How did “Hurt By You” come together? Why did you want that to be the single that introduced you to the world as a solo act?
I played a handful of songs for a bunch of people, and what everyone said about that song was that they couldn’t place what genre it was—it sounded like it was all these different genres. I loved that, because when I was in my band [Emily Warren & The Betters], the number one criticism we would get was that I needed to figure out what my style was; we’d have a rock song and then a reggae song and then a pop song, and we were kind of all over the place. To me, “Hurt By You” is the culmination of that because it’s very much me, but it’s also tying in all the music that I love and listen to. 

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.