Emma Frank: Jazz Mystic or Your New Best Friend?
It’s Sunday morning. While most of Montreal’s Mile End residents sleep off last night’s escapades, Emma Frank is chopping up apples and debating whether or not to eat almond butter alongside muffins to avoid a “gluten crash”. She fights with her gas stove (the ignitor is broken) and then gives up. She tidies up crumbs. She smiles easily.
This Emma Frank is different from the Emma Frank who made her Montreal International Jazz Festival debut on Thursday at Savoy du Metropolis. This Emma Frank flickers around her bright white apartment and makes jokes. She’s all freshly-scrubbed face and open, intense eye contact.
Thursday’s Emma Frank held moody court over a standing-room-only audience, at moments summoning the pregnant kind of gravitas that might be associated with a “dame”. She delivered a set that traveled the line between jazz, folk and pop, carried along on a river of champagne by her plush kinetic voice.
Frank’s stage presence can be extraordinary. Song after song, her face plays out its entire emotional register. Her body sways in easy sympathy to complex improvisations and her arms beckon to the audience, then push them away, making melody corporeal.
In person, the musician talks a lot about the spirituality of music, what she calls “source” and a “deep higher connection.” She off handedly references the audience’s third eye, accessing the light within and Coltrane’s “intense mystical universal consciousness.” Just as effortlessly, she tosses off wry self-effacing comments that ground conversation mid-flight. When talking about pursuing authenticity and finding a true voice in music, Frank casually remarks: “It’s not like I’m a spiritual guru. I’m a 26-year-old person that’s reading standard bookshelf reads and trying to figure out life.”
This sophisticated mix of existential banter and Reality Bites wit appears to be hard-won for Frank. She describes growing up in the affluent Boston suburb of Brookline, the only child of a professor and a professional project manager, as a fraught experience where music offered her both social acceptance and esteem amongst a fiercely competitive peer group.
When Frank talks about moving to Montreal at 18 to study literature at McGill, her voice falls flat. She explains that school was followed by a period of malaise, then a six-month stint as a lounge singer on cruise ships. She performed four times a day, every day, to crowds of tourists traveling to Hawaii, the Caribbean, Alaska. During rare solitary moments, Frank wrote songs, built up a performance routine and pushed past her own “bad self”.
Upon returning, Frank put out her first record, For Being Apart, which has just been re-mastered and re-released. She is working on a second album with her band (Isis Giraldo on piano, Simon Miller on trumpet, Gabriel Drolet on bass, Marc Béland on drums), to be recorded this fall.
Today, Frank appears at ease, her voice quiet but always smoldering. The transcendental flair that gives her so much charge onstage also seems to provide grounding in everyday life. She admits that her jazz fest performance was nerve-racking but then quickly points to a silver lining.
“I guess I felt some pressure at being the breakthrough Montreal artist,” says Frank. She later added, “I realized on stage … audiences want to be supportive. Audiences are there sending as much intention and good energy towards you as you are to the music.”
The word balance comes to mind. Indeed, wrangling the everyday down from the ether is an inspiration for Frank’s current songwriting. It’s something she says is needed, especially in relation to songs about love: “[It’s] people being really sure, or really unsure. Either breaking up or getting married. But what about that long period of daily unsureness and the ups and downs that we don’t have to run away from?”
Adds Frank: “For me that’s been a big part of the songs. Accepting what life actually is.”
Catch Frank next at Le FestiVoix de Trois-Rivières on July 10th.
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