Survival Guide’s Emily Whitehurst Talks Independent Songwriting For ‘deathdreams’

[Cover photo credit to Mike Carey]

Indie outfit Survival Guide will be releasing its fourth full-length album, deathdreams, on October 19th, 2023, and it marks the first where songwriter, vocalist, and instrumentalist Emily Whitehurst has handled solo songwriting and recording duties. Formerly the vocalist for Punk band Tsunami Bomb, Whitehurst initially founded Survival Guide as a collaboration and took the big personal step of moving into solo duties for this release. Her journey involved a first foray into creating cover songs for Survival Guide’s Patreon supporters, which encouraged Whitehurst to take on greater Production skills and orchestration duties, which in turn made the plunge into solo writing and recording a little less formidable.

The songs on deathdreams, including “Blood Perfume” and “Lady Neptune”, which are out now, show a remarkably ambitious approach to instrumentation, along with a dynamic range in terms of sparseness versus layering of instruments and sparing vocals versus rich, anthemic tones. Whitehurst worked with Producer Bob Hoag (Dear and the Headlights, The Ataris, The Format) at Flying Blanket Recording in Mesa, Arizona to bring deathdreams to life.

I spoke with Emily Whitehurst about her experiences with Patreon, building up her craft through cover songs, and taking the reigns on solo work, which to all accounts has been a demanding but exhilarating experience for her.

HMS: I know this has been a big transition toward writing and recording solo for deathdreams. Did you find there were uncertainties that you had to overcome to make those steps in a new direction?

Emily Whitehurst: The first thing that started building my confidence was when I decided to start my Patreon. It was kind of at the same time as me deciding, “You know what? I think I can do this by myself, I just need to learn some things. I need to maybe take some classes.” Which I did. I needed to be able to record myself to make better demos. I needed more skills. I also wanted to attempt to solely do music as my job. I’m still on that path. Starting the Patreon in combination with deciding to really commit meant that I decided that it would be perfect to offer people a cover of a song of their choosing.

HMS: Oh wow! I didn’t realize that fans got to choose which covers you did. That’s a lot of power.

EW: Yes! I decided to offer that as a reward for signing up. I thought, “This will be great. I can really tinker with these songs and take them apart. I can learn how to figure out ways to reimagine them.” I knew that would be good for me as a musician. But I intended to just send the songs to the person who had requested them, and after I started doing it, I thought maybe I should post it to all of Patreon for others to listen to. I invited feedback. The responses were really great. I gradually developed more skills over time and I’ve learned a lot.

Then I got the point where I felt like, “Why shouldn’t I release those covers? They are just sitting there.” That’s one thing that’s great about the landscape of music today is that it’s so easy for artists to publish things. Doing those covers helped me get to the place where I could realize that the songs weren’t perfect or polished, but I could go ahead and put them out there. So it’s been not only an exercise in learning how to create music more easily, but also in how to sort of let it go and put it out there without stressing too much about it. That’s a big thing for me, being solo, and not having another musician to work with. I’m in a position of not having someone to run things by, so I eventually decided that maybe that didn’t matter anymore.

I released about two entire albums’ worth of requests by patrons. There were only a couple that I decided to record and include. The rest are someone else’s choice.

HMS: That’s terrifying! You have a ton of musical experience that led up to this, but musically, that must have been challenging.

EW: In approaching these cover songs, for the most part, I wanted to give them a totally different feel. There were a couple where I wanted to recreate those sounds. But mostly I wanted to use the resources and skills that I have. If it is a Punk song, and I don’t know how to play guitar and drums, I have to decide if I’m going to reproduce those elements electronically, which might sound terrible, or are there other ways I can make this more “me”?

I feel like that’s a good way to approach covers, in general. Why not make a cover into something else, something new and fresh? I didn’t put a time limit on coming up with these covers, though, so I could put it off if I didn’t come up with a solution right away. I had 35 song slots and they sold out immediately, though, so I had 35 songs to cover!

HMS: Working on your own, was motivation an issue? It seems like finding structure for work might be more difficult.

EW: For sure. I have to plan, “I’m going to write for this many hours, whether it’s good or bad.” Then I have to force myself to do it. When I was really cracking down on myself, I put aside enough money to be able to rent an Airbnb trailer out in the country for five or six nights. So I went by myself, and took my laptop, midi keyboard, microphone, and lyric book, and spent as much time as I could handle writing music and lyrics. It really worked for me.

HMS: Are some of these songs on the album from that period?

EW: Yes, I came away from that with three songs that were done and three songs that were partially done. It was huge for me to have written that much in that amount of time. I think, for me, it was about removing myself from all other distractions, whether it was other people, needing to clean my house, social media. All of those three songs that I was working on are going to be on the album.

HMS: That must have been an amazing feeling coming out of that trailer with those songs. It really affirms that you had made the right creative decision in moving forward with solo songwriting.

EW: I felt really good about it.

HMS: Was the next stop to show these new songs to Bob Hoag before going into the studio?

EW: I recorded all of them as demos in various stages of completion which I brought to the studio. I actually didn’t really get any feedback from him until we were in the studio, and we listened to all of my demos together. I didn’t know what he was going to think! That was a little nerve-wracking. [Laughs] Most of them were pretty full in terms of arrangement, lyrics, drumbeats, and instrumentation. I think there were three that needed a lot of instrumentation and one of them ended up being left that way on purpose.

HMS: How do you think you came to the sonic direction on this record? Did the challenge of working on all those covers help with that?

EW: I do, but there are two things that I’ve always wanted to do more of in my music, and one of them is to have more orchestral layers. I still kind of have no clue how to do that myself but I did that on some covers. I have a lot to learn in that department. Also, I love having sound effects in songs and I was able to do a little more of that too on the covers. So doing the covers reinforced those two directions for me. Once I got into the studio with Bob, I was able to do more. I would love to have more analog instruments involved in the future, too. This all helped expand my horizons on what instruments go well together for me, and for my music.

HMS: I can hear some of what you’re saying on these songs. The layering is incredibly important to the overall sound of this album. There are times when certain songs “go big”. They seem almost orchestral. Also, there were so many things that you could choose from as a vocalist, and here we hear an almost operatic approach at times. But there’s a lot of contrast, too, even within certain songs, between minimal and layered aspects.

EW: I love it when music is dynamic like that. That’s also something I was going for with the record, as I’m sure you can tell. It’s kind of all up and down in terms of energy level and big versus small.

HMS: One song that’s out with an incredibly creepy video, which I love, is “Blood Perfume.” What made that the song to release first in your mind?

EW: [Laughs] As a team, between the label, Bob, and me, we debated about what songs to release in what order. It was difficult to decide. It turned out to be the combination of the singles that made “Blood Perfume” a good introduction. It’s not necessarily the most explosive song on the album, but it has all of the elements that kind of embody the record. But it is very dark! It’s the creepiest song on the record. The contrast of “Blood Perfume” and the following single, “Lady Neptune”, is interesting because that one’s upbeat and sounds a lot happier. The contrast is something that makes it cohesive, I think.

HMS: Are those kind of the two poles of the album?

EW: Yes, sort of.

HMS: Well, “Blood Perfume” is dark, but people love dark music, and one of the things that works so well about the song is how relatable it is to so many different areas of life. The speaker’s voice is interesting, speaking from a dark perspective, as the antagonist. It’s also not very preachy and it’s presented in a seductive way, so it provokes thought.

EW: That is definitely what I was going for. I was thinking that if it was from the perspective of “us”, or whoever is being manipulated, it wouldn’t have had as much creep-factor.

HMS: We see the individual impact on our lives, like a particular social media post upsetting us, or a particular person in our life who has a negative tone towards us, but this song points out a bigger overview. It also makes it seem understandable that we fall for this stuff.

EW: Yes, the song is not there to say, “Don’t do this or that.” I think, in the song, I am trying to convey that we are all effected by something doing this to us. If we could see the bigger picture, maybe we could step away from it.

HMS: The video really adds to this. You star as the speaker in the video, and I think it’s good to see women in villains’ roles, as long as they are not presented as a stereotype. The fact that you’re portraying this speaker is cool because it’s far beyond a femme fatale. It’s a being who’s very smart, has planned things, knows exactly what they are doing. It’s a super-villain, really. It’s cool to see a video portraying a woman in that role.

EW: Yes, for sure! I’m glad you feel that way. In making the video, I knew that it would be a little too extreme and graphic for some people. But I know some people will appreciate and enjoy it for what it is.

HMS: I heard that “Words, Words, Words” was the weirdest song on the album for you, so I wanted to ask about it. It’s sort of stream of consciousness, and there’s an interesting tonal shift about 2/3 of the way through. Some of the ideas that come up after that pose a lot of questions. That’s one of the songs that has an operatic feel leading in, and feels experimental.

EW: You’re right, the lyrics are definitely more stream of consciousness. There’s not a heavy-hitting message in the chorus. The weirdness is the structure of the song and my melodic decisions and my instrumental decisions. I feel like all of those pieces together make the song unlike anything that I’ve written in any band, let alone Survival Guide.

For me, at least, I made some really off-the-wall decisions, but that song’s one of my favorites on the record because of that. We pulled it off! Bob helped a lot, but that’s one song, where when we were listening to the demos, he kind of turned around and said, “What? What’s happening in this song??” He helped make the sections more distinct, he helped clean up the concept, and it’s definitely still weird, but it’s much more listenable now. Overall, I’m really happy that he did not say that we should throw the song away. I went into it thinking he was going to want it to be an unreleased B-side, or one that we didn’t record.

HMS: It’s a little less traditional because it keeps flowing and changing as it goes, which I think is really freeing.

EW: It’s one of those songs where you’re not really sure what is the chorus. Sections come back that you thought were done. Other sections don’t come back that you think are going to come back. Then there’s a whole bridge where the feel changes. I did what seemed right at the time even though it felt weird. I just felt like that’s how it should be, and it worked out.

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