Photo by KS Garner
To unpack the ear-boggling new single from Tucson, Arizona experimental pop band Emby Alexander, it helps to go back to the beginning, before the layers of distorted vocals, synths, and shuffling samples. Lead singer and primary songwriter Michael Alexander first sat down at the piano to write “Morality of Accuracy in Photojournalism” on September 12, 2019–one day after the death of legendary artist Daniel Johnston.
“This song began very intentionally, which is rare for me,” says Alexander. “I wanted to write a song that was moving to others the way Daniel’s were to me.”
To do that, he ended up reaching out to one of his other influences: Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare of Animal Collective. He contacted Portner via Instagram with questions about the recording of Animal Collective’s “Cuckoo Cuckoo.”
“I told him I was writing a Daniel Johnston-style ballad through the lens of an AC/Avey ballad,” says Alexander. “He answered my questions.”
By that point, Portner had already recorded what would become one of the signature sounds of “Morality of Accuracy in Photojournalism.” Earlier in 2019, Alexander hatched a “guerrilla-style” sampling project, capturing field audio from artists in the “real world.” One of those artists was Portner, who Alexander approached outside a solo Avey Tare show in Tucson–his portable recorder at the ready, he asked Portner to contribute a sample to the collection.
“I definitely put him on the spot, but he conceded and obliged by making a rhythmic shuffling of his feet with an odd dance on the old asphalt parking lot,” says Alexander. “I included the sounds of some of our banter, his shuffling, and the approaching Tucson train that passed behind the venue.”
That scene melts into the track’s scrambled beats and steady piano arpeggios, plus its rich patchwork of voices. “Morality of Accuracy in Photojournalism” also features backing vocals from Joel Marquard, known for his work with Dear and the Headlights as well as Spiritual Warfare and the Greasy Shadows.
“He’s contributed vocals to some of our songs in the past, but this was the first time he came over to my home studio, Spine Island, to record. We usually share tracks via email, so it was very cool to see his process in person.”
Alexander says it was a pleasantly surprising curveball moment of collaboration–one that transformed the track for the better.
“I was shocked how quickly he grasped the song, and he provided some weird layers that have become my favorite part of the song, along with Austin Harshman’s haunting Casio keyboard and strange effects swirling around.”
Lyrically, Alexander was working through fears of inadequacy, specifically the frustration of feeling like he couldn’t do enough to help other people.
“I feel my skill set is so limited and I often get discouraged that I can’t offer much to the world,” he says. “Rather than feeling helpless and saying that I can provide nothing, I wanted a song that says, ‘Whatever little way you can help is enough. Don’t be intimidated if others can help more; there may come a time when you can help more, but in the meantime, a little help is just fine.’”
The track is a contrast to Cactus Candy, the bright, poppy album Emby Alexander released in 2019–see their Sofar Sounds performance of “Run Out Groove” below for a taste of how that sound lends itself to an upbeat, energetic live show. “Morality of Accuracy in Photojournalism” offers a preview of their next album, SOARS ERA. Alexander previously teased the album as a more confident exploration of deeper, weirder sounds; it’s safe to say now he wasn’t exaggerating.