emily reo is cheering herself on
The indie-pop singer claps back at toxic masculinity in her new video for 'Strawberry'.
When Emily Reo began playing pop music in basements, living rooms, and DIY spaces throughout North America a decade ago, her songs also echoed out through the blogosphere. Among the 404-page graveyard of music blogs past, web aggregator Hype Machine brings up fans in Auckland, New Zealand; Oxfordshire, England; Sydney, Australia and in her hometown of Orlando, Florida. Reo’s biggest hit back then was a cover of Built to Spill’s “Car”; an indie rock original that Reo rebuilt with synths and vocal loops until it messed with your perception of what a pop song could be. A later version ended up on Olive Juice, her second full-length album that was released in 2013.
Since then Reo has been working on Only You Can See It, her long-awaited follow-up which arrives today via Carpark Records. Where her previous releases were full of woozy rhythms and starry bubblegum pastiches, Only You Can See It is a smorgasbord of beats and pop motifs that Reo has taught herself over the past five years. There are introspective songs like “Charlie” (an obituary for her cat), sparkly pop numbers like “Balloon” (about “straight-up relationship stuff”), and zingers like “Strawberry” (about toxic masculinity and mansplaining), which has a video directed by Van Witt premiering today on i-D.
Wearing a grey tweed blazer (“I feel like it makes me a little more powerful,” Reo says) over one of her newly minted Emily Reo ‘eye chart’ t-shirts, Reo gave us a little more insight into the video during a recent interview in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. “The spelling part in 'Strawberry' sounds very cheerleadery, and I was a cheerleader in high school for a couple of years,” she explains. “So I wanted to do something that incorporated that, but switched the power dynamic from cheerleaders being there to support and cheer on typically male athletes, to where the women or non-men were in the position of power.”
“I’m also a huge fan of basketball, so I thought, cheerleaders cheer for a sport and I love basketball, let’s put these two things together and flip the script. (In the video) I’m with my squad and we’re walking around and we’ve got this one mean annoying guy representing some of the shitty things that can happen to women. Going along with the theme of the song, I wanted to do all these things that you think I can’t.”
In late March the Botanic Gardens are still relatively quiet – there are just a few people looking at kale and an assortment of spring bulbs in the Shakespeare Garden. Most of the plants are in what botanists call prebloom, the final stage of being dormant before they come to life and show off their full range of colors. It’s one of the reasons why Reo chose the location for our interview/picnic (she brought along berries, bread, hummus and three cans of LaCroix. Her favorite flavor is Coconut). Like the flowers, she too is about to reveal more of herself to the world.
“I started working on some of these songs in rough instrumental form in 2011, but I really sat down and started turning these into songs and focussed on starting [Only You Can See It] in probably late 2014 or early 2015,” she remembers. “So it’s been a good five years of my life.”
“It was so ingrained in me that this was the thing that I was doing,” she continues. “It was the thing that kept me from hanging out with my friends. It was the thing that I always felt like I needed to be doing above everything else.” Now that it’s all done, Reo says she’s been thinking a lot about whether the sacrifices she made to complete it will ever pay off – though she also acknowledges that it’s hard to quantify exactly what "payoff" really looks like. “The longer you work on something the more you put this sense of importance or urgency on it,” she says. “I have to get myself out of thinking that this has to be received really well because it’s what I’ve spent all this time and money investing in.”
“Payout is strange. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately,” she says later. Though her primary skill is making music (she also records and mixes music for others), she also works part-time at a library. “I’ve spent the last few years feeling guilty and lazy because I don’t get paid proportionately to the work I put in,” Reo says. “I am just now starting to change my view on that and go easy on myself, and be like, ‘no, you’re actually never not working.’ Feeling like it’s not valid or legitimate can be really disheartening and dehumanizing, but I’m starting to try and separate the payout from my expectations of myself. It doesn’t make me lazy if I’m not making a living off of it.”
Referenced in the song “Ghosting”, a period of poor mental health added extra weight to the isolation and urgency that Reo was already feeling. Midway through making OYCSI she suffered a bout of depression and was forced to temporarily step away from it to care for herself. “When I wrote that one I was like, ‘I’m finishing this, I’m back, I can make music again,’” she says of the song. But even on some of the toughest days, a few lightbulb moments occurred. Reo grew up listening to pop music (“the first concert I ever went to was the Spice Girls and I was really into Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Mandy Moore. But Mariah Carey was my absolute hero”), however in high school she became enamored by The Strokes and Broken Social Scene and, like all the other cool kids, she disowned that part of her identity. Suffering depression helped to flip that back.
“When my depression was really bad it was hard to be inspired to listen to music or get anything from it, so I just let the radio take over for a year. I didn’t have to think about it, I didn’t have to curate it, and I could also see what was going on out there. Around that time Carly Rae Jepsen released Emotion and I was like, ‘oh shit, this is amazing!’ It’s also just a straight-up pop record, it doesn’t have to be anything else to be good. It made me appreciate how difficult it is to write an incredibly catchy, accessible pop song.” Reo adds: “I re-found my appreciation for pop music over the last few years and it’s been really fun.”
The ideas that Reo absorbed from idols like Carly Rae and the way she reapplied them all add to the gravity of OYCSI. Now she’s happy to put it out there knowing that it’s her best work. “Letting it go at a certain point and saying, these are my resources, this is what I’m capable of at this time in my life and this is a snapshot of where I’m at creatively, even if it’s not the best I think I could do in my life… I feel, I want to say 95 percent good about how it turned out, and I think that’s probably the best I can feel about anything.”