“I can’t feel anything.” Emily Reo’s self-harmonizing repetitions of this phrase, solemn and slow, make up the heavy heart of “Spell,” her first single in three years. It is robotic but delicate; a harrowing electronic meditation on the feedback loops that can trap a person inside her own head. Here, Reo’s struggles are channeled primarily through just her voice and a vocoder—an instrument that embodies the collisions of humans and machines, embedding an eerie world of modern anxiety into her every turn of phrase.
“Spell” is stark and chillingly sparse, the A-side of a 10-inch single due this fall on Orchid Tapes. The lyrics are her most personal to date, and perhaps her most powerful—making the song an unlikely favorite in her live sets over the past years. “Time cast a spell on me / burn down the trees / make me believe / feel something,” Reo sings. Over six minutes, it builds internally into a subtly explosive ending, with mesmerizing strings, looping synth chirps, and wordless falsetto hooks.
“I was going through a long period of feeling numb,” Reo says, on writing this song. “I’ve struggled with different incarnations of mental illness since I was eight, but this was a new kind of depression. I felt unable to be motivated by anything … This was a first for me, being so lyrically open. This song was definitely an act of recognizing myself.”
The B-side, “Stronger Swimmer,” occupies a different emotional space. It was inspired by a short story Reo once read, about a woman who was domestically abused by her husband. As the story goes, the couple were taking a boat ride together, when the boat flipped over. He couldn’t swim, but she was a great swimmer. She left him there and saved herself. “I found that story super powerful,” explains Reo, who translates it through some of her most hypnotic and intricate production yet. “It felt like persevering to me. When everything is rough, sometimes you find one thing that you’re really good at and it saves you. The way that song sounds, it feels like taking external chaos and finding a way to organize it and power through it.”
Together, these songs show two sides of Reo’s production sensibilities: the first being very minimal, the second very maximal. A duality is inherent: “Spell is about feeling internal disorder, even when everything around you is okay. Stronger Swimmer is more about thriving and surviving when you are in an environment of chaos.” Both songs feature a 9-piece string ensemble that Reo scored with Owen Pallett. Reo self-produced and largely engineered this release, with mixing assistance from from Jack Greenleaf and Warren Hildebrand.
“Spell” b/w “Stronger Swimmer” follows Reo’s critically acclaimed debut album, 2013’s Olive Juice. In the years since its release, Reo has toured as a multi-instrumentalist for Foxes and Fiction, and bassist for Sharpless. She has produced and mixed music for other artists, including Yohuna and performed on The Go! Team’s most recent album, The Scene Between.
Reo has been touring and recording independently since 2008, self-releasing demos and cassettes and playing self-booked shows throughout the U.S. and internationally. She has been inspired by the many places she’s called home: Orlando, Boston, Los Angeles, Montreal. She currently lives in Brooklyn.