When Emma met Joseph

It's a night for true believers. According to our host from Spotify, "the top 100 Emma Louise fans in Melbourne" are gathered here, in a jungle of hanging ferns inside a cosy Richmond warehouse, to witness the artist's only scheduled Australian show for 2018.

It's a good thing we're hardcore because what's about to happen would test the faith of dilettantes. All blonde tresses and slim, elegant limbs, the young songwriter from Queensland is a picture of feminine grace as she sits behind the keyboard to warm applause and picks up an acoustic guitar.

Emma Louise uses an electronic voice-pitching device to change her vocal sound on the album Lilac Everything.

Emma Louise uses an electronic voice-pitching device to change her vocal sound on the album Lilac Everything.

But as she leans into the microphone to croon the first long, sighing notes of A Book Left Open In A Wild Field of Flowers, the words of Austin Powers spring incongruously to mind.

"That's a man, baby!"

It's not actually. It's an electronic voice-pitching device called the TC Helicon. In this live setting, it's employed to simulate the down-tuned vocal effect Emma Louise uses on her new album, Lilac Everything.

On the eve of its release, critics are calling the unorthodox mixing choice "daring" and "radical". She just calls it "Joseph".

"It's so peaceful singing in Joseph," she says, sitting now in a Collingwood cafe behind round, hippie-chic sunglasses and a chocolate brownie. "It's totally separate from me. It feels so good to sing in that voice. It's so thick and round and … it feels like so much space."

She identified the voice as Joseph on impulse, she says, back when she first stumbled on her dropped-octave alter ego while making her first album in 2013. Even then, "I was like, 'I'm gonna do a whole album like this one day'."

For an artist with a perfectly rapturous voice, recognisable worldwide from more than 150 million Spotify streams, it's fair to assume everyone from producer Tobias Jesso jnr to band, record company and management thought she was crazy.

"Oh yeah. Crazy!" She grins. "But I knew right away. It was meant to be. In my head it had already happened. The seed was planted and then it was fulfilled."

Impulse and destiny are closely linked in Emma Louise's world. One of the first songs she wrote for Lilac Everything was called Mexico. "So I took a flight to Mexico/ Cause I felt so lost I might as well be there," she wrote. A couple more glasses of wine later, the words came true.

"I rang up a friend and I was like, 'I've just booked this flight'," she says, twisting long fingers bristling with silver jewellery like a child relishing mischief.

"He knew a family in Mexico so I ended up staying with them and it was so magical. It was just so separate from everything. I wasn't trying to be anything other than … I was just writing songs. And they came so fast. They just fell out."

Her hosts, American musicians Joe and Manny Hadlock, were an older couple with an inspirational record collection: "Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, all that old-school singer-songwriter stuff that I'd never fully delved into," she says. "So I delved in pretty hard."

They also owned the world-famous Bear Creek Studios in the woods outside Seattle. And so another piece of the Lilac Everything puzzle fell into place, as the lost girl from Australia bounced back home, to LA, Seattle and Mexico (seven times) over the next 18 months.

"I have a very impulsive relationship with Mexico," she confides. She nearly bought a house there, until a psychic she met in the pool told her not to. The same person told her that the circles tattooed on her palms were keeping her in this cycle of relationships breaking down because of music. But whatever. It seems to yield good, sad songs.

"So sad," she agrees. "Oh yeah. I see the core of the songs, the essence is so sad, because … I went through a time when I just isolated myself so hard. I went through some dark times for a while there. Then really, when I went to Mexico, and started this whole new adventure … there was so much joy around that. And I hope that shines through."

Thank Joseph, it does.

"There is something in pitching the vocals down that alleviated a lot of pressure for me," she says. "I don't think I've ever been super comfortable with being in the spotlight. It's always caused a lot of suffering around the music, for me, all attached to my identity and my name. Something about using this voice did definitely separate me from the pain of it.

"It's me; it's still real," she adds. "With this album, I couldn't have been more myself. It's just another expression of my voice."

Lilac Everything is out now.

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