Silence is myth on the fourth Florist album – simply titled Florist – a sci-fi concoction. Because after years of being alone, quiet, and detached, singer Emily Sprague realized that that’s no way of living. And so instead, the first full-band album in five years by the New York folk band is a celebration of connectedness, friendship, and sound, a collaboration not just with each other, but with the birds, the bugs, and beech trees all around. A conversation about intense nature and physical reconnection.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
In the darkest depths of Emily Alone (2019), Emily Sprague pondered submerging herself in the nocturnal ocean. “Dark into dark, I want it to pull me deeply,” we heard her speak on ‘Still’, “I think sound would disappear, light would too. That would be nice after a very earthly series of thoughts.”
Death and solitude were all over the third Florist album, released under the Florist name, but made entirely by its lead vocalist. Alone. The loss of her mother, her best friend, in 2017, had prompted Sprague to leave Brooklyn behind and move to California – to get away from everything, into sun-drenched darkness. In that state, the only viable outlet was to record her thoughts unmediated, resulting in some of the most remarkably transparent songwriting in recent memory. An expression of the soul as visceral and crystalline as some of the ambient music Sprague had already been releasing under her own name – now with words, all heart.
She prophesied her own catharsis when, on ‘As Alone’, she sang about how, with all the confusion she was feeling, “some kind of sadness is freed from the words and the sounds that I sing to myself.” And, “Emily, just know that you’re not as alone as you feel in the dark.”
"Being there for a month, really living in this place, and not having a ton of connection to the things we do that root us in our human world, we just started to feel like a part of the ecosystem there."
Now, the Pacific Ocean no longer tempts her, nor does silence – at least not in any all-encompassing way. Days after the release (and deliverance) of Emily Alone in July of 2019, Sprague found herself reunited with her bandmates – Jonnie Baker, Rick Spataro, and Felix Walworth – recording in a house in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. After a month, the quartet emerged with eighty percent of a full-band album completed; an album simply titled Florist that sees the light of day only now, three-years-and-three-months after its predecessor.
The pandemic, naturally, was part of the album’s delay, but became its own opportunity that made for an already-markedly different end product when compared to Emily Alone. After that first month in the Hudson Valley, it would be another two years before the band was able to get together again and wrap up. “It was kind of a cool period to really sit with [the album],” Sprague tells me from her new home in the Catskill Mountains, “Everything else that we’ve made, we’ve finished – start to finish – in the time that we were recording. Within a month, or within a couple of months. And I like doing it that way. We’ve just never done it this way, where we got to really love it, then hate it, then want to change something about it, and then come back around to liking it how it is.”
After two years, some new songs were added, some old songs re-recorded, and some of the instrumental tracks, most of them jams spearheaded by guitarist Jonnie Baker, were tweaked. Yet, Florist still very much holds as a time capsule; a record of a family rekindled in the place where it all started. Rather than a longing for quietude, here, there is abundance. The sound of someone embracing everything, “ready to be infinitely open,” as Sprague sings on ‘Feathers’. And so we spoke about what it means to be connected once again.
Can you take me back to that one month in the summer of 2019? Recording and living with your bandmates in a way that you hadn’t really done before, I can imagine that must have been quite an intense period for all of you.
Sprague: “It was really intense. We’re all pretty emotional people and we’re so close to each other, we treat each other kind of like family. We bring everything into the room with each other when we’re recording, we’re not being polite, we’re feeling all of our feelings. It was really hard, but it was also one of the best times of my life. I think for all of us it was such a special place, such a beautiful time that we shared together and that means so much to us now. And the cool part about it is that almost all of the record captures what that time was like. You can hear so much of what the place was like, how we were communicating with each other.”
So how much of the album was written and fully formed before going into the recording process? And how much was written in the moment?
“I think there were maybe three or four songs written ahead of time, a handful that I had partially written, and a couple that I wrote while we were there. I still would write everything in my little solitude area – whether it was in my room or outside by myself or something – but we would be talking about them as that was happening, which was also something that was totally new. It’s always been: ‘Here’s the songs, they’re done. Let’s just go in and record them.’ And I think that definitely influenced the process.”
I’ve always sensed this beautiful, natural, almost animistic spirituality in a lot of your music, both with Florist and your solo work, but especially on this album. From that perspective I wanted to ask: can you maybe talk about the natural environment in which you recorded this album and how that may have seeped through, both sonically and spiritually?
“So, we recorded in the Hudson Valley, which is where I grew up. My childhood, my coming-of-age experience was very solitary. I grew up in a really, really, really small town. I had friends, but with the environment I was in, I was basically always going out, being by myself in the woods, by the lake or the creek or whatever. That has been a huge influence on the things that are sacred to me. It really is just what I feel most connected to – and it’s also where I feel the magic lies within our world and our lives. We’re a part of Earth and that idea – it’s kind of cliché and simple – that we are made up of the same stuff as everything around us is just always banging in my head. I basically can’t not think about that… all the time. It was really important to come back and record in nature, because the songs themselves are so much about this idea.”
“And it was really intense nature. There’s a line in one of the songs – it’s in ‘Dandelion’ – and the line is: ‘I’ve never seen summer like the summer this time.’ I wrote that song while we were there and it’s just about being outside, being attacked by bugs, and it’s so hot and it’s also raining and the world is exploding around you. It was like a mushroom trip, sitting in your reality and being hyper sensitive to everything. And it was like that that whole summer. Everything was so alive.”
You mentioned growing up with a sense of solitude in that same area that you now went back to, but approaching it, alongside your bandmates, with this sense of connectedness instead. Are there moments during the recording of this album that stand out where you felt especially in touch with your surroundings – be it you individually or as a group?
“We were always trying to change our headspace and, if we were stuck on something, just try and do something that changed where we were at. At one point, we all just jumped in the creek [that was running behind the house], then got back and started working on whatever we were working on. We walked a lot, spent a lot of time outside. And we recorded on a porch that was three walls of screen, so it felt like we were outside a lot. The connection to the outside was always there. And I think that being there for a month, really living in this place, and not having a ton of connection to the things we do that really root us in our human world – technology, our comforts, all these places we go to that remove us from nature – we just started to feel like a part of the ecosystem there, like a part of that environment.”
The previous Florist LP, Emily Alone, was essentially a solo album that you made in relative isolation, alone. What did you take away from that period that made you approach this album differently?
“Emily Alone was definitely my big journey within myself. In a lot of different ways, I was pretty much alone in life. I felt this extreme need for that. It was basically right after a period in my life where a lot of things came crashing down, a lot of hard things to go through. I knew that I needed to unpack what I was feeling, because I felt really unstable, didn’t know where I stood, who I was, what I was even doing. I was just living by myself out in California.”
"Living on the West Coast, I was definitely off the ground in a way. I wasn’t tied to a place."
“We had actually been talking about making a full-band Florist record and I started writing songs forEmily Alone. I basically just wrote the first couple of songs and then knew exactly what the thing was that I wanted to make and share. After realizing that, I wrote all the songs so quickly, knowing that I needed to go as far inside myself as I could and just understand why I was feeling the way that I was feeling. It definitely wasn’t an end-all, be-all exploration of that, but for that period in my life it was definitely something that helped me move on past the experience of being so paralysed within my own pain. It was a lot of work that I had – until that point in my life – never done. And then once that all happened, I felt safe enough and inspired to just have a lot of collaborations in my life again. Go out and actually be connected to people, have relationships that are intense and meaningful, love people really deeply, even though you can lose anybody at any time. And then, even though it’s harder, collaboration can, when it’s working, very much be greater than the sum of its parts.”
“Florist has always been rooted in friendship, in us sharing what it is we love about music with each other. Still, I’ve never really collaborated with anyone else in the capacity of these three people. It has a greater weight than just a collaboration, because Florist wouldn’t exist if we weren’t doing it together. That’s just not what this project is. With Emily Alone, it was the four of us – if that makes sense. It was the way that it was, because of our relationship to each other and because I was going through this thing. I definitely took a liberty by just being like: ‘Well, I’m the songwriter and I’m just going to release this.’ But in my mind, it was the way it should’ve been. This new record wouldn’t exist without it. Florist is a collaboration that will just always exist as a family more than it will exist as bandmates that just play music together. That is something I had to come back to in a way. I had to come back to just having friends at all, because I was so terrified of losing anything.”
Thank you so much for opening up like that, for making Emily Alone. It’s an album that’s definitely given me a lot of solace and comfort in moments of solitude, and I’m sure it has done the same for many others. Now, while making Florist, you were still living on the West Coast, in California. Was it a part of why you decided to move back?
“My journey back home is very much about this whole thing that we’re talking about. You know, I went out there to be as far away as possible, literally – within the United States – as I could from everything that was familiar to me, everything that I knew, and my life changed completely because of it in so many ways. And at a certain point I just realized: I want to go home, I want to be near the people that I love the most. So I decided to move back to the area that I grew up in, to be closer to my dad, which was also a huge part of this whole thing. We had a little bit of an unspoken plan to somehow just be closer again, physically in each other’s lives, wherever we’re living. I just knew that it was time to do that. Being near Florist was the other top of the list reason for coming back. Those are basically the two most important things in my life. Those people.”
“I think I’ve been – up until this point in my life – avoiding the place where I grew up. I felt really uncomfortable. Whenever I came back, I never wanted to stay for very long. It was all based in this fear of whatever I had experienced that was difficult or painful that I associated with this place. But it was always kind of confusing, because there’s so much here that is so sacred to me and so, so, so, so special. I just wasn’t able to see it clearly. I’m back here now and I love it. Being home feels so comforting. It was just all about wanting to be close again, having people in my life.”
To what extent did you have to physically reconnect, moving back to this place that’s so sacred to you?
“Living on the West Coast, I was definitely off the ground in a way. I wasn’t tied to a place. I was just living in a place, experimenting with what it is to wander. And that physical reconnection was really just: all being in the same place, getting together, playing our instruments in the same room, having that come into our bodies, to spend physical time with people and not just exist. You exist connected, you exist in relation to each other, but if you don’t sit down at a table with somebody every once in a while, you never get to access that part of the relationship.”
Florist is out on July 29th through Double Double Whammy. You can buy the album through the band's Bandcamp page.