Emily Whitehurst's musical journey defies easy categorization.
A Central California native, Whitehurst first came to prominence as Agent M, frontperson for Bay Area punk band Tsunami Bomb. After the group's 2005 disbanding, Whitehurst and Tsunami Bomb's Matt McKenzie formed the Action Design, which moved Whitehurst into a more distinctive pop-rock role.
But as that band crumbled, Whitehurst slowly found her footing as Survival Guide, first bringing Jaycen Mckissick along and then ultimately becoming a solo vehicle. Whitehurst has now grown closer to the music she was always heading towards — synth-driven pop with a certain dark sweetness attached to her voice. Her fourth full-length album, Deathdreams, was released in October 2023 on Double Helix Records. Marking a departure from those straight-ahead early days, the collection features songs that (according to the artist) "range from upbeat and punchy to horror sound effect drum beats to a ’70s Bond theme to a sad piano ballad."
Q caught up with Whitehurst via Zoom from her home studio in Texas.
The first thing I have to talk about are these videos that you've done for Deathdreams. They are epic.
"Sour Sorrow" is the most recent music video that I've made for the record. I'm not even sure what is happening over the course of these four videos. [Laughs] But I've been getting to work with this amazing video team [The Motivated Mind Group] who writes and produces and films, and they have all the skills and all of the cinematography, knowledge and lighting and everything. I've been letting my music inspire them to sort of shape the stories of these videos and the "Sour Sorrow" video in particular. The director Bryan [Heiden] felt like it was a very indie film type of feel for this song. He wanted to make it gritty and serious.
It's a video where my character has been scorned and is threatening to set off a bomb. And maybe it does happen. But we don't see it happen. But maybe it did happen. [Laughs]
Do you have a penchant for nostalgia? There's a certain nostalgia in the way you present yourself in the "Pie" video.
I feel like my music pulls from a lot of different eras, and I think that has a lot to do with listening to vinyl. When I started listening to vinyl, I was looking through bargain bins and just pulling out anything that I recognized. If it's a dollar, and it's Billy Joel, it's gotta be worth it.
I wouldn't say I specifically, consciously put any sort of nostalgia into my music. But I've got a little bit of industrial hints. Let's say, Nine Inch Nails. There are some hints of Bjork in there. "Sour Sorrow" is a perfect example of a song, that to me, almost sounds like it has a bassline from a '60s girl group. And "Pie" has those '50s, strings and harps going on. So yeah, it's definitely there. But it wasn't a conscious decision.
You've had a very dedicated fan base from all of your previous work. How has this transition gone over?
It's definitely been a struggle, both internally and externally. A lot of people who were fans of Tsunami Bomb probably still don't know that Survival Guide exists. But also, even if they do know that I am still making music, I'm not sure whether they would like it or not. I know that some people do, obviously, but like you said, it's very different. I have shifted in my own tastes and expanded to various types of music, but I do feel it's been a weird transition because I've just forced it. This is what I want to do and if people find out about it and like it, then that's awesome, and if not, I just have to find completely new listeners!
When did you make that choice to say I need to leave that behind and pursue this?
I remember when I was recording the last full-length album that I did with Tsunami Bomb, I was really into early Bjork stuff at the time. And before that, during the first album, I was getting into the Smiths. My tastes made me kind of long for something that had a little bit more freedom. And I've thought about this a lot recently, with various interviews happening.
I just assumed that being in punk rock, I was restricted to only doing things within the confines of punk rock, which depending on the way you look at it, we were a punk band. But it wasn't common to have a keyboard or some sort of outside instrument in a punk band. And I think also at that time it was hard not to give lots of importance to people's comments because that was early in the social media days. So it was like taking people's reactions into account and assuming the worst. Assuming that people would not accept a shifting sound. I couldn't picture the guys that were left in the band looking to change direction musically or change things up. So for me, the timing of it was natural. Continue on and do the Action Design and have the opportunity to switch things up and be a little less rigid, musically.
I was feeling stifled musically and we were set to start writing another record and I felt like I don't know how I can do another album and feel authentic to myself. There's more that I want to do. So I'm glad that I stepped away from my biggest project. I still feel glad that I did it.
Can you give me a timeline of when you started to feel that this was the right way to go?
At the end of the Action Design funnily enough, I was starting to feel a similar feeling as I was at the end of Tsunami Bomb, where I wanted to do more. I loved playing with those guys and they're some of my favorite musicians ever, but it just seemed more restrictive than I had hoped. So the guitar player from that band [Jaycen Mckissick] and I decided to start Survival Guide together and because we were just guitar and vocals, we had the freedom to do whatever we felt like and create whatever kind of sound we wanted using more electronics. It was a blank slate for us, which was really fun and scary, and we didn't know what we were doing.
Then he had to leave the band because of stuff going on in his personal life. So I was then left to decide what I 100% completely wanted to do. I had to imagine what my life would be like without music. It didn't take me long to decide, because I was like, "What am I doing? I'm a vocalist. I was in this with another musician, and now I'm alone, and I don't know how to do this all by myself." I had been in bands for years and it's hard to find other musicians who want to have music as a priority in their lives. So I had to do it alone if I was going to do it at all.
I started my Patreon and that's where I found people were enthusiastic about wanting to hear me make music. That made me feel I should do some learning. I should learn how to record myself, so I can at least demo some songs. I should take a songwriting class, where I write the entire song because I've never done that before. I watched YouTube videos, I took some online classes and I gradually started to write my album. I had zero expectations for myself and my songwriting because it was a ground rule that I knew I had never done this before. I'm gonna be super easy on myself. I'm gonna just write songs and see what happens. Then I took it into the studio last year and Bob Hoag, the producer that I worked with liked the music and turned the songs into what they are now. And I'm so happy with all of it. It's been a journey for sure to this point, and wasn't until I was actually in the studio with Bob that I felt like, okay, I did something right. Maybe I'm on the right path now.
Did you collaborate at all with other musicians during this period?
I had a number of fellow musicians offer their services. I did have one friend who wrote the guitar part and recorded it on "Stay Dead." But for the most part, even though it was so difficult and took longer than it would have if I had collaborated with people, I felt determined that I wanted to do it by myself. I've been a musician for a long time. But I'm just going to do it by myself. I feel now I can do anything.
What kind of feedback have you gotten in regards to Deathdreams as a whole?
I've gotten that it's tough to define, genre-wise, and that it's kind of all over the place. Not necessarily in a bad way. But I haven't really thought about the future, musically. And I might not, because I don't know what I'm going to do. I didn't think about that for this album. I just thought about sitting down to write and then turning my writing into songs. I will probably do that again. But I could see it being very different whenever I start writing again, which I probably will start doing soon, because I'm a very slow writer. [Laughs]