Strawberry Runners' Emi Night Builds Pop Songs That Won't Crumble
Emi Night of Strawberry Runners moved to Denver from the Midwest in 2011 for the same reasons as many transplants: friends and the sunshine. Night has been immersed in the music scene since her arrival, playing in Mega Gem and now performing as vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and all-around leader of Strawberry Runners. The band's current lineup includes Davy Timm (trumpet, keys, vocals), Tyler Williams (bass, harmony) and Max Barcelow (drums, harmony), and it is currently in the mixing stages of a new album recorded at Evergroove. In advance of the band's opening slot for Hop Along tonight, Thursday, February 11, at Larimer Lounge, we spoke to Night about the darkness of her delicate pop songs, the influence of mainstream country and the folk-punk scene of Bloomington, Indiana, and Plan-It-X Records.
Westword: What's your sense of being part of the Denver music scene? Everyone seems to be trying to get a handle on it or define it in some way.
Emi Night: I know what you mean. A lot of my early friends in Denver were part of the last generation of twenty-somethings playing music here. That had changed a lot with people moving away or doing bigger things – like Paper Bird or Nathaniel Rateliff – or they dropped off and stopped playing music. A lot of the people who were left, trying to make it work here in Denver, were kind of frustrated because their entire community had somehow dissipated and all these new people were coming in who didn't grow up in Denver and didn't know anything about the scene.
Technically, I'm part of that new scene, even though I'm friends with a lot of people who have been around a long time. There are people who are going to get frustrated and there are people who are going to embrace it and make the best of it, and that's true of any scene and any genre or any field of work in the world in all time, you know? I wouldn't say that the Denver scene is any more or less confused...there are a lot of good things coming out of Denver, and that's a sign of growth and good ideas. I feel really inspired by what's happening in Denver and the fact that I learn about a new Denver band every week. It doesn't feel particularly competitive, though. It's just the opportunity for creative solutions.
Could you talk about Hatcher Creek? What's the story behind that place or that song?
"Hatcher Creek" is a made-up name for a bunch of different creeks around Madison, Indiana. There's the big river and lots of creeks running to it. I spent a lot of time at the creek growing up; that was where where I liked to play. It represents a place where I found solace and safety and comfort. I daydreamed a lot and wrote a lot and imagined other lives.
When I wrote the song, I had come into a new living situation that felt really good and safe to me, and it was one of the first times in a while that I felt really awesome about where I was living. You know how it is when you're poor and you have to jump on any opportunity, and often it's not always the best situation.... But I had come into a place that felt really empowering and fun, reminded me of...this creek where I used to go as a kid, how important it is to have a home outside of where you live if where you live isn't safe. You need to find a place that does feel safe. This place allowed me to develop as a person and develop my creativity. It gave me a chance to grow up and trust myself a little more.
I imagine you're wondering, "Is this experience true? What is that, what happened?" They're all true, some of these darker stories. I try to give them a place in my life today that isn't full of fear and regret and disassociation. I want to weave it into my current life and figure out how it made me into the person I am. When I write about the scarier parts of that story, it's all a part of holding that truth, even though it can be uncomfortable or possibly off-putting or triggering.
In writing, it seems that we're often writing a version of what we've experienced in hopes of making sense, making meaning, imagining things had turned out differently. I feel like that's what a lot of art is — this alchemy of pain, making something else out of it. How does this idea of making space for past pain within your current life affect your decision to mix dark narratives with this deliberately sunny pop sound?
It's partially due to my aesthetic and how I came into playing music. It's based on where I was and who I listened to…. When I was really little, on the bus to school we always listened to a pop-country station. They are the saddest songs. My mom hated country music, but to me the stories were so moving that I would sit on the bus and listen to the stories of these songs and just cry. They touched me; I could somehow relate to them.
Do you have a favorite pop-country song?
This is not a recommendation, but two of the songs that I loved the most — one was called "Don't Take the Girl" [by Tim McGraw]. And one was "Private Malone," something like that? It's about this car [laughing]. This guy happens upon this garage sale where this car is for sale, like a classic Chevy. He drives it off and finds out that it used to be owned by this soldier who died in the war, and he feels like he's driving with the ghost of this man who's like protecting him somehow. It's a very weird song. For some reason, my eight-year-old self was super moved by this idea of a haunted Corvette.
So from haunted Corvettes to the music you make now...?
Growing up, I was always attracted to this melancholy and this very honest and raw storytelling in song. I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith in high school, and Bright Eyes and stuff like that. I'll admit it.
That's what I was listening to, too. This is a safe space — no judgment of our emo pasts.
Isn't it only fair to be truthful to our high-school selves?
It's not junk. If something moves you, it definitely has value.
I agree! None of that music, though, really played with this juxtaposition of pop songs and dark material as much as some of the stuff that I've heard in the folk-punk music scene. Stuff that was coming out of Bloomington and the Pacific Northwest. Because I lived in Bloomington, I was able to just eat it up. I listened to a lot of Kimya Dawson and Defiance, Ohio and those sorts of bands. I think there was an irony to the pop sound, and I didn't theorize on it too much, but it was striking.
My dad passed away a few years ago, and when he passed away, a lot of these dark stories started coming back up for me. I had to write about them, and I was writing pop songs at the time. What if I just shamelessly share these stories in a medium that's not used to holding that kind of weight? Will the story still hold up? Will the song crumble beneath the weight? I think that they hold up.
It's a style I stumbled upon. A style is just the way that you do things over and over again. You just have to trust your instincts and keep doing something, then over time you look back and see some consistency. Someone tries to understand it and gives you a name for your style. That's what happened with this body of work.
It is striking. If people are listening to the stories of these songs, they might expect the vocal delivery to be different. They might expect you to be screaming or crying rather than being able to channel it into pop.
My music used to be more emotive in that way, a lot more visceral. I don't really like that very much. It moves me, but it almost feels too easy — though it is very beautiful when someone gives themselves so much to their art that it's an emotional performance without being chaotic or out of control.
How do you spell your last name?
It's Night. My dad's last name is with a K. For a long time, I had been thinking of changing it.
What's the significance of changing your name? And of dropping the K rather than choosing a whole new word?
I like the way my name sounds and having the same name as my brothers and my mom. But I wanted to separate myself from the Knight with a K, partially because I wanted to separate myself from my dad. Then I looked into the last name, and I don't love the origins of the word "knight." The KKK call themselves knights, and the Knights of Columbus..... In general, a knight is an honorable idea, but in reality, most knights weren't people I would want to be like. I thought maybe I could just be "Night." It feels really good. The night is what we all come back to.... It's surprising to me that Night isn't actually a last name. Maybe it's because people are afraid of the dark, or don't want to look at the inevitability of death or the idea of the universe without our sun? But there's something calming about it, and I find the night to be peaceful and rejuvenating. I think it's something to be honored.
Strawberry Runners play the Larimer Lounge tonight, Thursday, February 11, with Hop Along and Montoneros.