Songwriting in isolation

Tupper Lake native, making album in Brooklyn, hones craft during pandemic

Emily Mitchell, who grew up in Tupper Lake, has been writing, recording and mixing music for a second album in her home studio in Brooklyn. (Provided photo — Emily Mitchell)

From a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, Tupper Lake native Emily Mitchell is writing, recording and mixing her second album, a personal blend of folk, pop, punk and rock music, produced during a global pandemic in a city that has for months been a hotspot for the virus.

This is not a coronavirus-themed album, but the effects of the time and place of its creation are seen on both the process and product.

Mitchell said the yet-to-be-titled project’s central theme is a heartache she feels every July. The isolation and strangeness of a pandemic changing everyday life have also cropped up as unexpected themes in some of her songs and have altered her songwriting process.

Instrumentation on the internet

Tupper Lake native Emily Mitchell records herself playing guitar in her home studio in Brooklyn. (Provided photo — Emily Mitchell)

Mitchell has always played a lot of the instruments heard in her songs — guitar, keyboard and banjo, not so much drums and bass. So self-producing an album while isolated by a virus was natural for her. Collaboration, though, has changed dramatically.

She said the usual in-person studio sessions of album creation are a thing of the past for her. Constructing tracks now involves describing rhythms and playing rough tracks with other musicians over video chat, sending them Snapchat videos of unfinished Pro Tools files for feedback, and collaborating with people 3,000 miles away.

In the last week of September, Mitchell finished laying down guitar and vocal tracks for “Stop the Bleeding” — a song reflecting on her experience of isolation and self-discovery during the COVID-19 pandemic. She emailed the track to her college pal Cody Okonski so he could record a drum track.

They texted back and forth about the sound she wanted. With the drums added, the track went to Joe Benevento, who also attended the College of Saint Rose in Albany, so he could add bass guitar. That track was then sent to Ian Taylor Sutton, a pedal steel player from San Francisco who Mitchell met online during the pandemic, so he could add a layer of wailing strings on top.

“I’m really thankful for technology,” Mitchell said. “Facetime is amazing, and I’ve done some mixing sessions over Zoom.”

However, it’s not all smooth sailing on the web.

“It’s a lot of emailing back and forth and having to make tweaks without ever being able to listen to something together at the same time,” she added.

A return to songwriting

After the release of her first album, “Retrospect,” in 2017, Mitchell took a year-long hiatus from songwriting. She had just graduated college with a music industry degree and was feeling “burnt out.”

“It totally took the fun out of it,” Mitchell said. “I felt like I was this machine just pumping out these songs.”

She questioned if songwriting was what she really wanted to do. In that year, though, she would find herself writing down melodies and lyrics, unsure of what to do with them.

“I feel like — this is true for a lot of things in life — things always come to you when you’re not really looking for it anymore,” she said.

She said last fall she began writing in earnest again, and now she said she has around 60 songs fully written over the course of the year.

She has a day gig working from home in music publishing, but every night she said she flexes her songwriting muscle. She writes a verse and a chorus every day, “even if it is bad.”

“You have to be willing to write 10 bad songs until you get to a good one eventually,” Mitchell said.

She said she saves all her unfinished songs, returning to them later for lines she wants to repurpose once she finds a good place for them.

“It’s interesting the way that when you get older, sometimes the songs that you’ve written before will become irrelevant, but certain bits remain relevant,” she said. “That tends to be what I pull out.”

She removed her first album from all digital platforms earlier this year, leaving only physical copies remaining.

“The reason I took it down is because I’ve just become such a better producer,” she said. “That record, I still really believe in the songs on it … but the recordings are not great.”

She said those are the “growing pains” of an inaugural album. She plans to rerecord two of the songs from that album for her upcoming release.

Her lyrics feel like a peek into her private life, almost like reading her journal without her knowing. In her pandemic-related isolation, she said she interacts with fewer people to pull influence from, but hopes she can still tap into a universal experience listeners can relate to.

“My lyrics, I feel, have become so much more personal throughout this,” she said. “The songs have really become — I won’t say too personal — but they’re like pushing there.”

“Stop the Bleeding was written and recorded all within 4 days and is all about my journey of self discovery and acceptance in isolation due to COVID-19,” Mitchell wrote in an email.

The yet-to-be-released song carries a forlorn sound, contrasted with themes of growing closer to friends and feeling more at home, even during a difficult time.

“I think I figured out that being lonely doesn’t mean that you’re alone,” she sings on the demo track.

Rock from a hard place

Mitchell said New York City being in lockdown for months in the spring and summer left a large hole of free time in her days. With the virus impeding on her social life, she focused her efforts on breaking new ground musically.

“I got really into practicing guitar. I always played guitar, but I sort of just played to write,” she said. “I actually took the time to sit here and use my time to develop this skill. Because of that, my music has taken a lot more of a rock tone. … It’s allowed me to take on a little bit of a different persona.”

She said she has incorporated more electric guitar into her sound, bringing in elements of bands she loved since childhood — like Green Day and My Chemical Romance.

Her album will be released in two parts — the A-side in December and B-side in February. She said she wants to treat it as one album rather than two EPs. There are currently two singles — “I’d Like to Believe” and “Heed the Signs” — released on most digital music platforms. She will also release songs later in October and November.

She also recorded a live version of “Heed the Signs” from her parent’s home in Tupper Lake for the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts’ YouTube channel.

She said she is unsure if being a musical artist is her “dream.” But she said she loves, writing, recording, releasing and performing music, and that’s good enough for her.

She said she misses playing and seeing shows, which have been absent since the pandemic started in the spring.

“Whenever shows do come back, I would love to come up to Tupper and play again,” she said.


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