Photography Sonya Belakhlef

gobbinjr writes deceptively sweet pop songs about creepy men

Emma Witmer's new album 'Ocala Wick' was shaped by encounters in the Brooklyn DIY scene.

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Jun 11 2018, 2:58pm

Photography Sonya Belakhlef

An hour before meeting up to talk about her new album Ocala Wick (Topshelf Records), Emma Witmer, who goes by the stage name gobbinjr, tweeted “today i Will Not smoke weed before meeting up w The Press for an interview.” It’s the type of playful tweet that would normally disappear into the algorithm after a few hours and never surface again, except I happened to see it. Ocala Wick opens with the lines “I’m going to work high / I’m sitting at work high / I’m smoking at work / Hi, nice to meet you,” so the tweet felt kind of relevant. Witmer moved to New York from Wisconsin in 2014 to attend NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Music and it has been reported that one of her professors tried to encourage her to embrace her “stoner” image. To set the record straight, Witmer does not have a stoner image. Ocala Wick is not a stoner rock album, but rather a collection of 11 plot-driven bedroom pop songs that talk about encounters with creepy dudes, eulogize lost classmates, and dream about imaginary dogs.

Shortly after being told to embrace her inner stoner, Witmer dropped out of NYU and started spending most of her time at Brooklyn DIY venue Shea Stadium (which closed in 2017 and is currently looking for a new location). She refers to the venue as “home” and has incredibly fond memories of the space that defined her early 20s, but sadly, it was also the setting for some of the negative encounters she sings about on Ocala Wick. “It just goes to show that that shit is happening to fucking everyone”, Witmer says.

Was Shea Stadium the first space in New York that nurtured you as a musician?
Definitely! I went to other spaces, obviously, but that was the space that I kept coming back to and feeling the most comfortable at. They were the most open to me joining their little family.

On Ocala Wick there are a lot of songs about encounters you’ve had with shitty men. What more can you tell us about them?
A lot of those happened at Shea, which is kinda sad since it’s a place that I love so much. I’d literally be working a show and dudes would get drunk and grab my face and kiss me. “Immune,” that didn’t happen at Shea Stadium, but that’s about this guy who was 15 years older than me, an established musician, who kept trying to get me to come over to his house in the middle of the night. He was talking to me on the internet and then one day he showed up at a show that my friends were playing here [at Trans Pecos]. He tried to buy me a drink and I was like, ‘No dude, please go away.’ You can try so hard to portray that you don’t want any sexual advances, like, I wear large clothes, I don’t wear makeup, and I don’t have nice haircuts. I think it just goes to show that that shit is happening to fucking everyone. It’s really cool that the conversation has opened so much, ‘cause that song is three years old, at least, and when I first wrote it #TimesUp and #MeToo hadn’t happened yet. It’s really cool that that’s happened and made a space for that song, whereas before it might have been a little more abrasive.

The fact that this stuff goes on in DIY spaces just shows how widespread the problem is.
Yeah, Shea was a place that I viewed as my home. There are so many things about that place that I love so much. Like, I’ve never lost anything there. Once I left a hundred dollar bill on the bar and I came in the next day and it was still there. But I don’t know, any space where there are a lot of people getting drunk has the potential to go pretty bad, pretty quick.

Were you able to talk to friends and people who worked at Shea about it, or is Ocala Wick the first time you’ve talked about some of these things?
I definitely talked with friends. I think I might have bought it up with the people who run Shea, like, maybe once, but this music is the first time where I’m actually saying that this shit happened at Shea, too. I love Shea so much, I’m never out there trying to post these comments like, ‘boo, all this shit’s happening at Shea,’ ‘cause it’s not their fault at all, but it’s definitely something I want to have a conversation with them about when they’re opening up a new space, to say, how can we make sure this happens the least amount possible.

How have other people reacted to these songs?
The song “Fake Bitch,” I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to put that on an album, but I toured with it for a bit and I played this college town in Ohio where I’d heard that fraternities were invented. I played that song and another called “Politely,” which is about wanting to be respected by men, and the screams from women as I was playing [them] was incredible. It was both empowering and immensely saddening that all the women in the room had essentially experienced this stuff [I sing about].

It must be a difficult thing to reckon with, knowing that so many women connect with such sad songs.
Sometimes I feel like I should have trigger warnings for certain songs. It’s tough but it definitely connects people, and that’s great.

I read somewhere that you were a dog walker and on the song “Friends” you make reference to dog named Bartlett. What can you tell me about him?
Bartlett is my dream dog. I always had the idea of [owning] a Great Dane and a Corgi; the Great Dane would be Melvin and the Corgi would be Bartlett.

So Bartlett is not a real dog?
Bartlett is not a real dog. He is the dog I wanna have.

Do you view your music as a form of therapy?
Most definitely. Sometimes it’s hard to know how you’re really feeling until you write it out. I like to journal also, and that’s similar, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as making something nice and pretty that you can show to everyone.

How do you decide what goes in your journal and what goes into a song?
When it affects other people that’s when I think you can’t really put it out. I’ve definitely written songs that I can’t ever put out, because they deal with other people’s lives and I can’t be writing about these things that other people don’t want to share. If it’s me, I don’t care, I can put whatever I want in a song because I don’t care what people know about me. But involving other people is a line that I don’t need to cross.

Does that mean you try to not use personal pronouns?
That is something I think about, because I had a professor at NYU who would always bitch about pronouns. I had Bob Power, the engineer for A Tribe Called Quest, and he would always say take out the pronouns, you don’t need them. Instead of saying, ‘I went to the store’, you can just say, ‘went to the store.’ It’s very hip-hop and definitely makes sense for Tribe, but for me it’s a little more personal so I definitely have a lot of ‘I’s’.