Photo by Sasha Pedro
There’s an archetype in musical theater called the “I want” or “I wish” song–it comes early on in the hero’s journey and clues the audience into their motivations. Though in the songs she writes as Mountainess, Emily Goldstein works in the realm of pop music, the first track of her Soundtrack EP casts herself as one such heroine who’s not shy about her wishes: “I won’t apologize, I won’t apologize / for wanting your eyes on me / your attention, please.”
It’s emblematic of a shift in the kinds of stories the LA-by-way-of-RI singer/songwriter wanted to tell on the EP, focusing on self-empowerment as a woman and a self-identified introvert. “Attention” opens the show with just her voice and piano in the spotlight as she declines to be a damsel in distress or a silent muse–in the musical of her life, she’ll act and overact as she pleases, men in the peanut gallery be damned. It’s vulnerable, witty, sweeping, and cinematic all at the same time.
On the guitar-driven “Just Desserts,” she takes a vengeful (but distinctly sex-positive) swing at the exploitation of women in the entertainment industry. The homemade, film-noir-inspired video (produced by her partner Anthony Savino and with lyric animations by frequent collaborator Hope Anderson) is the latest in a series of Mountainess projects making the most of lockdown and working to Goldstein’s strengths as an introvert.
After the EP release, she spoke to The All Scene Eye about learning to engineer her own music in the making of Soundtrack, plus her recent move to California and her work in music coordinating.
I’m outside because that’s where I’m getting the best reception, but if it gets too windy to hear what I’m saying, let me know and I’ll find another spot.
Will do–how’s the weather out there, besides windy?
It’s really pretty today. [laughs] I’m sorry, is that rubbing it in? Is it snowy by you?
We had some snow that went away pretty quick. We didn’t get as much as it was made out to be, over here [in Northern Virginia].
That’s a relief. This is my first California winter in a long time, ‘cause I was Providence-bound for a long time, and I’m not really missing the snow. I thought I’d miss it a little bit more, but I’m not loving the wind that we’re having–the Santa Ana, so it’s that crazy energy, but other than that, it’s very clear and pretty.
You moved out there right around the start of the pandemic, is that right?
Yeah, not a recommended thing to do, but we’d already set plans in motion, my partner and I. In May, we just drove three days, fairly straight, and have been here ever since. Haven’t really gotten to see much of California–I mean, I grew up here, but have not experienced it as an adult human, so it’s an interesting way to have moved back.
What brought you back?
Well, my very small remaining family is here, and I wanted to be a little closer to them. I also just wanted to explore the scene out here and see what there was to offer. Currently, I’m working in animation–in the music department of Bob’s Burgers and Great North–so, getting to experience music coordinator life.
You released your self-titled EP back 2017, and you put out a couple standalone singles the year after that, so I’m curious, when did you first start putting together this EP, Soundtrack?
Kind of in bits and quilted pieces. I would say around the time I started putting out some singles, I was feeling particularly inspired and writing a lot. All five of the songs came to be in different ways, but felt like they all were playing with a new personal theme of maybe moving away from some damsel narratives [laughs] that I still can relate to, but I felt a little more empowered by these five particular songs. They felt like they fit together, and I started playing with John Faraone and Anthony Savino, who’s my partner–we started playing them as a band together, sort of in preparation for the idea of recording them.
We went to Big Nice last February, right before the pandemic, recorded them, and have been sitting with them ever since, which was not particularly fun because I’m not good at sitting with songs. I like to just share them immediately. As anyone who knows me as a songwriter knows, I like to share stuff probably when I should sit with it a little bit longer [laughs] so this was a good practice in patience. But fortunately, I still like them! That was also a nice thing, that a year later, I still felt I could connect to them.
Once you’d gone from that reimagining and putting together this trio, what was it like taking those songs into the studio?
It was delightful. Brad, who runs Big Nice in Lincoln, Rhode Island, is just a wonderful person. Actually, two of the songs were just the two of us getting together and playing, and him actually teaching me a little bit about engineering, letting me co-engineer, which was a big deal for me and very generous of him [laughs] because it’s a lot to juggle recording someone and also teaching someone about what you’re doing.
I went to music school, but was very intimidated by engineering when I was there, and really felt like the program was not catered for anyone except [laughs] the cis males there, so I felt very happy to have the opportunity a little later in life to learn more about it and actually get my hands on a board. That was a really positive experience, and then recording with Anthony and John was just–it was so easy. I think because we’d played the songs as a band, there was a clear vision for them at that point, and it was just a very supportive studio environment, which is a gift, and not always how it is.
What was the difference between that school experience versus actually, you know, being taught hands-on in the studio?
Well, definitely being able to just physically get in there and do it, but I think also just feeling like you can ask questions is so important, and not feeling like you have to go in knowing everything. In school, there was this sense of–I don’t know if there was a part of it that was in my own head, but I felt very much like everyone who was in the engineering side of things already had a lot of knowledge about how things were working and understood that on this deep level that I didn’t. It was very intimidating, and I just felt stupid. Someone like Brad, who’s just very open, an ally to all, and wants to share the knowledge, there’s no shame involved in just not knowing. That was really nice.
You’re credited on the record for co-engineering “Vacation” and then “Just Desserts.” Starting with “Vacation,” tell me more about what it was like putting those together.
It was really fun, you know? It was just one thing at a time–I wish I had my notes in front of me ’cause I did write down everything while we were there, but it was setting up the amps, testing sounds, learning more about the different microphones, doing the vocal shootout, and also dealing with the wiring of it all and how signal was getting to and fro. We would set everything up together, test the sound, find something we liked, and then I would go play, or in some cases, Brad would go play, like on drums, because that’s not happening [laughs] for me.
I read about an earlier part of this project when you were writing that song, “Vacation,” during a residency in Martha’s Vineyard, where you were working on a musical. How did that come about?
Yeah, so the Turkey Land Cove Foundation–it’s targeted towards female artists, and my friend Courtney Swain, who’s a really amazing musician, had done it and suggested that I try. I was very swamped at the time, so I guess you can apply for a month, or, you know, an extended period of time, but I had just applied for a week, and I got in.
It was this very surreal experience because I’d never been to Martha’s Vineyard, so I was not aware of just how beautiful, but also opulent it is. [laughs] I stayed in this beautiful house-cabin place, where this woman would come once a day and bring me these delicious meals to heat up, and it was just a very strange, but also lovely experience to have.
I was really isolated during my time there. I wrote a lot, and “Vacation” was just something that was totally different from what I was working on while I was there, and I think came out from this imagined existence that one could–there are people that live life like this, and it is hard to come back to reality after living the good life.
It was one of the first songs I’d written on guitar, so that was another fun thing about recording with Brad, is, you know, he helped me figure out how you record on guitar, because I was getting a lot of extra sound when I was playing. [laughs] Again, he’s just lovely about not making the people he’s working with feel embarrassed about anything.
I’m curious then, are there other places where that musical theater mode does inform the way you write for Mountainess?
Yeah, certainly. I mean, teen Emily, even early-20s Emily [laughs] was very reticent to admit to the musical theater theatricality influence, but it’s there. I write mostly on piano, and I think that already lends a little bit of that to what I’m doing, and that is my early musical love, so it’s there. I don’t write stuff thinking that I want it to sound like musical theater, but it’s just an inevitable part of who I am.
I think it’s a cool facet of these songs. It almost feels like “Attention” is an “I want” song, you know what I mean?
Yes! That’s my “I wish, I want”–that’s very true, and that’s how you start a musical, right? So that makes sense. Do you have a background in musical theater?
Not very much at all.
I studied media in school, so I was surrounded by a lot of people who were very interested in different things. My dad is a barbershop quartet singer, my sister sang in musicals growing up–I have a shallow knowledge of many kinds of music, is what I’m trying to say. [laughs]
You have your hands in a lot of different musical pots, yeah. [laughs] And that’s so cool, that your dad is in a barbershop quartet. I actually just had a thing at work where I had to arrange something for a barbershop quartet, so I was learning about that, and it was really cool.
You did a few installments of a series called Interviews with Introverts on your YouTube channel, kind of unpacking this EP and the making of it. What inspired that format?
Really it was working with Hope, who is my frequent collaborator, which I’m so grateful for, ’cause she’s insanely talented. She’s a friend of mine from Rhode Island who is just able to really do anything artistic. She’s very gifted, and I think working together–we’re both introverts. We’re introverts in different ways, and I think because I’m in music and she’s in visual art, I’m often in a position where I have to put it aside a little bit more. We were talking about it, and it just became a thought that it kind of worked with the idea of “Attention.”
She offered to make this adorable little video, which she did, with these fairy versions of us having a conversation, and after I did it, a lot of people who I know and care about were talking to me and saying, “Oh, you know, I also identify as an introvert.” It was just funny–maybe everybody that I know is an introvert [laughs] either secretly or not so secretly, so it inspired me to make some more. I still do intend to keep that going, just ’cause I think it’s interesting to talk to people who–especially right now, I think [laughs] Introverts are thriving in some ways, but it’s an interesting time to reflect on identifying that way and talk to people who make their artistic life work either with that or in spite of that.
How has it also impacted the way you’ve thought about this EP over the last year, as you’ve gone from having recorded it to getting ready to release it?
I struggle with social media, as you probably noticed from looking at my stuff. I try to put myself out there and follow my “I want” song of “Attention,” but it’s a funny world to navigate, and it does push up against some of my makeup, so I have to work at it to promote it and share it. But the good thing is that I do like it. [laughs] Sometimes I think you make something, and after you’ve sat with it for a while, you’re not as excited about it. I do feel very proud of this EP, so I feel happy to share it with people. It feels like I’m sharing something that I’m proud of instead of forcing it upon people.
Are there any tracks in particular that you’re excited about that way?
Yeah, just this past week, I’ve been working on a music video for “Just Desserts.” I’ve been listening to that song a lot, and it just feels good right now. It’s a good little vengeance question mark song. [laughs] I feel like I can move to these songs a little differently than anything I’ve made before, so that’s also been fun.
How do you mean?
This is my impression of my stuff, which might not be anyone else’s, but I feel like the stuff that I’ve made as Mountainess has been more, like, head-nod, and this song feels a little more dance-y to me, so I feel like there’s bigger movement. It welcomes that, for me, a little bit more.
Subject-matter-wise, this is a song that gets into this culture of exploitation in the entertainment industry. When did you write that song, and what got you thinking about that?
I think, like all of these songs, these were things that I had been stewing on for a little while, so this was just in my apartment in Providence, staring out the window [laughs] with the guitar in my hand, I think looking at a bird. It was just there very quickly, and I think it is an every-person song. I didn’t try to write it just about my personal experience, but I did definitely pull from some of those feelings of being a female artist in a hopefully-changing landscape, but a landscape that was kind of icky in my 20s, so–hoping that it’ll get better. [laughs]
I also hope that. From where I stand, it’s hard to tell in the moment how far things have come or not just because there’s still so much conversation being had. I don’t know what your impression is, but I’m hoping things are on a path to getting better.
I think they are. You know, talking about it is so important. I definitely am wary, I think like anyone who’s been a part of it–definitely see some people who I’ve interacted with and feel like they have some toxic behavior be very quick to try to adopt, like, “Oh, I’m an ally!” And, you know, “I would never have this behavior.” I’m on the lookout for that, and I think everyone is, [laughs] but I think it’s shifting, at least.
Maybe it’s not going to change 100% for the better, but at least we’re having conversations about it, so that’s good. It’s certainly, in my heart, maybe not the most–I mean, I don’t know. How can you rank [laughs] fixing all the issues that exist in society? But I think as a white woman, I’m not feeling like my problems are the greatest of problems right now, but I hope the song can work for anyone who’s feeling like they’re not being treated right.
What was the process like for the video?
Oh, it was real quarantine video right here. [laughs] Yeah, me and my partner–I’m a big lover of film noir, and I’ve just been deep in it these past couple months, so we made our version of a noir. We just did what we could with what we have, and I think it’s fun. I’m very lucky that he’s got great aesthetic sense and understanding of lighting, because I really don’t [laughs] but he was able to make something really cool happen, so I’m excited to share it. Hope, who I collaborate with a lot, is going to be adding the text to it because that’s sort of a theme across all the videos for this EP, is that we’re making the lyrics the focus.
You’ve been involved in the entertainment industry on a different level as you’ve been music-coordinating. How did you get involved in doing that kind of work?
Complete stroke of luck. [laughs] I have two friends that are brothers, the Dacey brothers, and they both have been working on Bob’s for–I mean, I think Tim has been in it with Loren [Bouchard] since the beginning. I visited with them last time I was in California, and actually, as Anthony and I were crossing the border into California to arrive here, I got a message from Patrick saying there was a job opening. I interviewed and I got the job in the first couple weeks we were here, which was a big whirlwind.
I’ve always been really interested in music supervision and that side of things. It’s been a completely new world to enter into, but it’s fortunately with very nice people, and people who also understood that this was my first entry into this world. Basically, I’m just always seeking out people who are in a place of not shaming people for not knowing things. [laughs] I love learning, so it’s been very positive because I am learning a lot every day. I do have to quell some of my instincts to give creative input because that’s not what my job is. [laughs] It’s very much about learning right now and assisting, and that’s okay too. I have other creative outputs, so that’s good.
What does the job entail?
It’s a real mishmash, but the job on paper is helping the writers and the producers communicate with the composers for the show. That’s the main idea–sort of being a translator of ideas, so translating between script to music and music to script. We work with quite a few different composers, so that’s really really cool, to get to learn how to speak to everyone’s individual language.
I haven’t seen the new show, but I know Bob’s Burgers has so much music intrinsic to it. There’s a lot that goes into an episode of that show, musically.
Yeah, I think Loren is such a musical person–who I’ve never met, by the way, other than Zoom. I’m just this weird ghost person to everyone I work with because I have never met them in person, but yeah, I think he’s just so musical, and then Central Park, which is another show, is a musical show that they’re doing, so–yeah, it’s an education. I’m learning a lot. [laughs]
There was one other thing from your past year of music that I wanted to touch on, which is, you contributed to an album called Hidden Place: Songs Inspired by the Paintings of Maggie Siegel. What was that project about, and how did you come to be involved with it?
So, actually, that was a project that I coordinated with my friend Kate Jones, and Maggie, who is unfortunately not on this planet anymore, was just a lovely human–actually, my first EP for Mountainess I recorded in her house. Michael Samos engineered it, who’s her partner, and she actually sang on one of the songs.
But her art is just stunning, and when she was in treatment, we just wanted to, more than anything, let her know how many people in the community cared for her deeply and also just respected her, so yeah, we sent out an email, and everyone wanted to do it. Her work is just so whimsical, and the way she saw the world was really, really cool, and I think it just inspired a lot of beautiful pieces. I’m really, really glad she got to hear it while she was still around.
I’m really sorry to hear that that is how that story ended, but it’s an amazing piece of art to exist. Tell me about the song you contributed to that, “Dandelion Smoke.”
Yeah, another one that–I mean, I’m a very visual learner, and [laughs] I have no artistic skill when it comes to visual art, but I just sat with that piece for a little while and got such a clear feeling from it. I did record it myself, which was–time is so weird right now, but I think I had maybe already recorded some stuff with Brad at Big Nice, so I was feeling empowered to do my own at-home recording. It just was an easy song to write because her stuff is so beautiful and very whimsical–a joy to write to.
What was it like coordinating with the other musicians around that?
It was really good. I had actually done this once before; we did a fundraising album for RAICES in Texas, so we’d worked with a few of the people on it and had that experience of just this big Google folder of people uploading things. Providence has such a wonderful and warm scene, and I miss it a lot. I mean, very happy to be exploring opportunities in Los Angeles right now, but really, really love the community in Providence. It’s not like it was a piece of cake, but when I think about coordinating other things, or even my job right now, coordinating all those people to contribute was really not that much of a challenge because they were just so willing and also really inspired by her stuff as well. It was just an all-around really positive experience.
I love doing that sort of stuff with other artists, and actually, right now my partner and I have something we’re running called SATAT, which is show and tell and tell. Every couple weeks, someone in the group uploads something that inspires them, and we all have to write a song or create a piece of visual art around it, so, same thing–big ol’ Google folder [laughs] filled with music and art, and that’s the stuff that makes me feel good about being human.
That’s so cool–how did that show and tell and tell project come to be, and what has it been like working with prompts that way?
Yeah, I think it just came from missing the Providence community. One night, I just said, “Can we do something like this?” We sent out an email, and people responded quickly, ’cause it’s just a very–I mean, I guess some of the community has also now left Providence too, so it’s people all over at the moment, but yeah, just on a bit of a whim is how it came to be. Our next assignment is on The Carrier Bag Theory by Ursula K. Le Guin, so we’re all writing about that right now. I’m really excited to see what everybody contributes. [laughs] It’s sort of funny because no one’s ever gonna see it except the group, I think, but it’s just great to have an excuse to create.
Maybe that answers the question, but I was going to ask you: this EP has been out a couple weeks now, so what have you been up to since then, and what has it been like to finally have some space from these songs?
It’s been good! I mean, real talk, with the winds and everything, the internet keeps going out, so because I can’t perform or connect with people any other way, it’s out, but I don’t really have this sense of–and again, because of my own internet inadequacies, [laughs] I feel just a little–not disconnected from it, but I miss that community feeling of putting something out and the physical-ness that can exist with that. But I do feel a sense of relief because now it’s out there, and it’s not mine to carry anymore, so–yeah, I think overall, feeling pretty good, and just keeping as creative as I can in these weird times.
You mentioned that there was a sense of the kind of songs that you wanted to write when you started putting together this EP. Do you have any sense of what the next move is?
Yeah, I want to keep writing things that are empowering. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to write a sad song, because I love me a sad song [laughs] and I can pull that up real easy in myself, but I think it’s more of a challenge for me to have to find other places to write from, and I also want to keep writing things that I feel maybe are more of a string to connect to other people’s experience. I think that’s the best part of music, is how we connect through it, and I’d like to be a part of that.