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Portrait of An Artist: Emily M. Spector ’21

Emily Spector
Emily M. Spector ’21. Photo Courtesy of Hope Y. Kudo.

Musician Emily M. Spector ’21 premiered her latest album, “Tokens,” for a crowd of students in Winthrop Grille on Feb. 16. The Harvard Crimson sat down with Spector to discuss her album, introduction to music, and plans for the future.

The Harvard Crimson: How did you get your start in music?

Emily M. Spector: If you ask my parents, they’ll tell you I started singing when I was two, which is probably true. I started playing violin when I was four, but I always had this adoration for rock. I took guitar lessons for a while. I played and sang in some jazz bands, all while still playing classical violin. At Harvard, I’m a music major and a Berklee dual-degree student. I’m involved in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) as the General Manager and I play violin for them. I’m also part of the Administrative Board for Harvard Radio Broadcasting (WHRB) and the Chief Studio Engineer.

THC: What was your creative process for developing your newest album, “Tokens?”

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EMS: I have an EP from high school called “Departed Qualities,” which helps to contextualize my newest album. I wasn’t the happiest kid in high school and the music I was writing at the time reflected that. But coming to college, so many things are different and I feel so much better. As a result what I listen to has changed and what I want to say has changed. I feel like the EP I produced in high school wasn’t the whole picture that I wanted to represent me. I’ve been writing way more this year and last year than ever before, so I had a lot of material and I decided it was time to put it out there. I was sending songs to my friends and family, saying “listen to these” — and you don’t always have this impulse. Not every song you write is a hit, but there were so many songs I felt really proud of and put so much hard work into. The production process is something I’ve always procrastinated on, but one Saturday night I just churned out all the tracks.

THC: What’s the story behind the title?

EMS: I like to think of songs as markers of time. A songwriting teacher told me, “A song is an instant.” You can’t cover that much material in three minutes. It’s a moment so you just have to pick something and say it. The songs on this album are all vignettes, little moments in time. I sing about the moments you never see coming, which is why I thought “Tokens” was so fitting.

THC: I notice that in all of your songs you’ve opted to only use your acoustic guitar, is that for a reason?

EMS: Freshman year, I got bands together and we’d rehearse. I’d have a six-piece band and we’d play shows at Queen’s Head. It was awesome. It was a great experience and I want to return to that at some point, but it wasn’t sustainable for me. When I started this year, I was going to say yes to every gig. I didn’t care where it was, I would make it work. The way that it ended up playing out was just me and my acoustic guitar. Sometimes it’d be amplified, or I’d have a friend do harmonies with me or play acoustic guitar with me. Now when I write songs I want to make sure that they can be played on guitar, that way they’re portable. I can take them anywhere, and it’s easy. It feels like a very natural and simple way to show everyone what I’m working on.”

THC: Has your time as a dual student at Berklee helped you develop your songwriting?

EMS: Going to Berklee, they purposefully crack you open. I’ve found a lot of really great co-writers at Berklee. Since a lot of songs are written by multiple people — which is the reigning model in the commercial world — this has been super useful for me. Additionally, the songwriting teachers and workshops have been great. I’m taking a workshop this semester where we have to write a song a week which has helped me prioritize songwriting.

THC: Has Harvard impacted your songwriting at all?

EMC: Last semester at Harvard, I took a class called “Music and Lyrics,” which was a class on Musical Theatre analysis and composition with my “Queen” [Dr. Katherine] Pukinskis. Instead of a final exam we could either write a research paper or a song to be in a musical, so I got to think deeply and write my first duet. Even if my dream isn’t to write a musical, it’s a valuable skill in theatricality and storytelling.

THC: Are there any similarities or differences that you tried to emphasize between this new album and your old album “Departed Qualities”?

EMS: Storytelling is a big part of my songs. I think my stories have gotten clearer and more comprehensive. In high school, I felt like I was writing to survive. There were a lot of things that I had to say and that were more for myself. The idea behind my EP was I’ll write and put them together, and if you understand them then you understand them. In “Tokens,” I wanted it to be clearer. I’ve worked on my craft and improved my storytelling skills, which makes the album different than the EP.

THC: What are your future plans concerning music?

EMS: I don’t have a set timeline, but the plan is to continue with music. I’m trying to spend the summer in Nashville, so I’m flying down during Spring Break to have a bunch of meetings with writers and publishers. I’m not sure what it’ll materialize into, but they’re all great people and I’m thinking we’ll have great conversations.

Check out Emily Spector’s album “Tokens” on Spotify.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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