[POST-CLASSICAL] For three years, Emily Wells has carried the Notorious B.I.G. on her back. In 2009, the Texas-born singer-producer went into the studio and, in her distinctive warble, recited the lyrics to the rap martyr's coming-up classic, "Juicy." She dressed the song with winsome strings and a minimal bass-and-snare beat and threw it on her self-released Dirty EP. It was all a lark, basically. Soon, however, the cover spread across the Internet and took on a life of its own. Now, Wells considers the song a blessing and a burden: It helped win her a lot of new fans, but it also got her labeled as a musician of privilege co-opting a culture not her own.
"I absolutely took some shit for covering that, which I wasn't expecting at all," says Wells, 30. "People were like, 'What is this little hipster chick doing covering this song?' If you don't like it, that's fine, but it's a great song, and great songs deserve to be covered."
Wells insists she wasn't being ironic. She grew up listening to the likes of Biggie and the Wu-Tang Clan, albeit in between violin practices. Long before recording "Juicy," Wells was incorporating production techniques and rhythmic cadences learned from hip-hop into her unique brand of electro-orchestral folk. Like her friends and touring partners the Portland Cello Project, she recontextualizes classical music into the broad framework of modern pop. But in the last few years—particularly since the B.I.G. cover—Wells has begun to sense herself becoming more and more marginalized as a songwriter.
"As an artist, you hope you don't just do one thing and that's it, you're stuck with it for the next 40 years," she says. "But I think people have clung to that, because it's quick and easy to say, 'It's hip-hop with violin.'"
Perhaps that's why her newest record, Mama, plays as a bit of a departure. Aside from the snappy, sexy "Mama's Gonna Give You Love," Wells downplays both the hip-hop and classical elements, leaning more on atmosphere than structure. "I wanted it to feel unforced," she says, "like it was just capturing a moment in time rather than trying to push anything into a box." In the technical sense, Wells took a different approach as well: Although her music has always had an analog feel, this time she actually recorded directly to tape. It was a relief to free herself from layering multiple string arrangements. "For the first time," she says, "it felt easy."
And in case you're wondering: The little girl on the cover wearing the blue dress and massive set of headphones? That's her.
"My mom showed me that picture years ago," Wells says. "She said, 'I'm not giving you this picture. I don't want you just putting this online. This is special.' When I said, 'Look, I want this to be the album cover. Can I have it now?' She said, 'OK, I'll give it to you.' I said, 'Is that special enough?'"
SEE IT: Emily Wells plays the Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., on Saturday, June 2, with 1939 Ensemble. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.