Emma Ruth Rundle: ‘I want Marked For Death to be a thing of the past, I want all of these twisted natures to fall away'

The LA musician describes the trials she endured writing her most recent solo record Marked For Death and explains why she’s ready to move on from such dark subject matter

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The Independent Culture

“In theatre, blood is ketchup; in performance, everything is real”

Marina Abramović, artist

For Emma Ruth Rundle, the experience of making Marked For Death was all about performance. The album represents a starkly vivid autobiographical portrayal of one person’s descent into substance abuse and self-loathing. The focus is often defeat and self-destruction but also transformation, marking the end of a personally fraught year in Rundle’s life. Recorded in bleak isolation at a remote idyllic artists residence called The Farm, about an hour and a half’s drive outside Los Angeles, Marked For Death is not only the most deeply personal work of Rundle’s career to date, but it’s quite possibly the best record of her esteemed career, even if she did have initial reservations. ‘I really wasn’t that proud of the record when I finished it’ she says, ‘I really didn't like it! I was in a very dark place and that made it difficult to write in some senses. I knew that I wanted to make a record that was very emotionally honest, that was coming from the heart and from my direct experience. It's been really well received which is kind of freaking me out; people seem to really like this record!’

It should only surprise Rundle that Marked For Death has been received so well, although it’s understandable why she would’ve been reluctant to release a record that is so desolate and bare, but paradoxically, this honesty is one of the record’s greatest strengths. She’s hinted at the darkness that shrouds Marked For Death before, in her previous solo work as well as a part of bands Marriages, The Nocturnes and Red Sparowes, but never has she presented such an unremorsefully frank portrayal of her own insecurities and vices. ‘It's been a f**king crazy time, there's been drug and alcohol issues, mental illness in my family; I realised through the writing of this record that my lifestyle had to change. I had a moment of clarity earlier this year where it occurred to me that I’m not going to die, I'm actually going to live! Not only that, but I’m going to keep on living!' The chances are I'm probably going to keep on living so maybe I need to start getting my s**t together!’

On the evening we meet, Rundle seems tired but in good spirits and well on the way to getting her metaphorical s**t together. It’s the last night of a 29-date tour with fellow Sargent House label-mates Wovenhand and despite the temptations being on the road offers to weary musicians far from home, Rundle has managed to resist, saying she’s felt far healthier on this run than on previous tours. ‘Having to play material like this day after day does bring back the melancholy I felt when I wrote these songs,’ she says, ‘it takes me back to that space in my mind. It's a little destabilising for me, but once I finish this record cycle, I can begin to leave those things behind. I’m excited about writing a record of music that I'm excited to go out and play every night. I want Marked For Death to be a thing of the past, I want all of these twisted natures to fall away and I personally want to be a happier, healthier person.’ 

Rundle went out to The Farm, the Sargent House-owned artist retreat where she also recorded 2014’s Some Heavy Ocean, with the express purpose of finishing the writing and recording of Marked For Death. Whilst the isolated setting did give her an opportunity to focus, it also enabled her to indulge demons. ‘I would drive to the store occasionally to stock up on tons of booze and cigarettes and then I would sit out there by myself every day, write music and get absolutely f**king wasted. There was a point where I just stopped leaving the property; it was a pretty bleak situation! That was in December (2015) and I've had some stretches of sobriety since then. I struggle with alcohol and have struggled with drugs in the past but being out there, I was alone in the desert, getting drunk all the time, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, my personal relationships were in turmoil and I hit a point where I started to go emotionally numb.’

The breakthrough came with the writing of Real Big Sky; the album’s most emotionally vulnerable moment is also its most stark and raw, with Rundle playing alone on a battered acoustic guitar through a little amp with slight distortion whilst pondering questions of mortality and transcendence. It’s a guttural-punch finale, a concluding autobiographical bloodletting that acts as an eloquently vivid full stop to an already evocatively haunting record. ‘That song is absolutely a result of being isolated in that bleak yet beautiful environment’ she says. ‘It’s a death wish, it’s about having a conversation with somebody who is in a lot of physical and mental pain who is ready to die. I've had a bit of a fascination and obsession with death for a long time. It's not something that we talk about that much in our culture really, people just tend to brush over it. I'm very fixated on transcendence, the physical death and this idea that there may be something greater than us. Relief from human suffering is really what it is, but whether that takes the form of some kind of transcendence of an afterlife or a high, I don’t know.’

Recording Marked For Death was such an arduous process for Rundle that she admits she didn’t sing at all for six months after its completion. Instead, she concentrated on her own health and well-being, admitting herself to hospital for surgery due to on-going issues with Adenomyosis and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. ‘I wasn’t aware how sick I really was,’ she says, ‘it got to a point towards the end of the year where I could barely walk. I had some endometriosis and a cyst that hadn't been removed. It's not life threatening, I didn’t have cancer. There's not a cure for it, but there are treatments, and when I’m not taking care of myself properly, I'm often in a lot of quite low-grade pain which becomes like a white noise that slowly wears me down. I became very thin and the amount of drinking that I was doing last year was becoming detrimental to my body and my health. I think it really affected me and the way this record came together; the day we started recording, I cracked open a beer and I literally couldn't drink it, it was like trying to drink gasoline. But I’ve had treatment and I had surgery in March and I feel much better now; a lot of us are in pain and this just happens to be some of mine.’

Marked For Death is an extraordinary work, filled with pain and personal torment. It’s a record that is able to present an immense sense of power, yet also demonstrate an exposed frailty at the same time; its power lies in its brutal honesty, its frailty lies within the truths uncovered. As beautifully evocative as it is, it’s no wonder that Rundle is looking forward to moving on to brighter pastures once the touring cycle is complete. ‘I've had to re-visit all the themes of the record as I've been playing the songs, I have a lot of shame, there's a lot of sexual darkness, there's a lot of stuff about the abuse of substances and mental illness; I've made a lot of art about that s**t now! Some of the subject matter on this record is ugly to me and I feel I need to get away from it; I feel ready to focus on different subjects now.’

Marked For Death is available now through Sargent House. Emma Ruth Rundle has been chosen to play the pre-eminent Roadburn Festival on April 23rd 2017