Earlier this year I saw Emma Russack play at Fitzroy Library as part of Fitzroy Writers Festival’s Library Volumes series. As I took my seat amongst the dozen or so other audience members, I was struck by the appropriateness of the venue, with its hushed atmosphere and incongruous stage. Russack’s music has always struck a balance between idiosyncratic and tasteful, and she could pass for a librarian.
But Russack, who played a mostly solo gig equipped only with her electric guitar, appeared uncomfortable with this unusual set-up; when she sung ‘I can’t take the intimacy’, the line took on a fresh meaning. But this feeling faded as the gig progressed. Near the end of her set, Russack called her partner Dylan Young on stage to accompany her on guitar, where they performed a track from her then-unreleased album Winter Blues. As they played, she finally relaxed. Be it the setting or the players, that particular song cast the audience as voyeurs who watched as lovers played for each other.
Winter Blues, Russack's fourth solo album, sees the musician replicate this intimacy across ten tracks that capture both the tranquillity and anxiety of long-term relationships. Where Russack’s previous albums evoked intimacy through anecdotes (‘You Shouldn't’) or chronicling mundanities (‘If You Could See Me Now’), Winter Blues seems almost exclusively concerned with how Emma negotiates one romantic relationship. The candid snap that adorns the cover is merely a warning of frankness to come.
On ‘What is Love’, the first single taken from the album, Russack asks over gentle fingerpicked guitar if love is ‘reading over shoulders’ or ‘borrowing a t-shirt’, never making it fully clear whether her feelings are positive or negative. Many songs on the album occupy a similar emotional zone, exploring how personal feelings impact intimate relationships. On the title track, Russack sings about depression, but specifically about how it affects her partner. On ‘Like The Wind’ she is once more questioning love, injecting ambiguity into a song that appears self-conscious and morose on the surface. Her unadorned, colloquial vocals are reminiscent of fellow Melbourne singer-songwriter Laura Jean, but, even on the most plain-spoken songs, her lyrical voices shines through as uniquely hers.
Even when she looks beyond romantic relationships, Russack is still fascinated with human interactions. On ‘Be Real’, she tells a story about dying her hair in high school, teasing out a message of authenticity and individuality. Over lazy punk-adjacent guitars, she sings lines like “in such a big world, wanted to make my mark, thought a haircut could really sort me out” with a winking amount of sincerity. On ‘Horses’, she sings obliquely about her love for horses, with only the final lines “but I can’t make them stay, I’d ride them everyday if I could” elaborating on the possible metaphor.
Winter Blues is Russack’s first release on Osborne Again, the local Melbourne label run by members of the great, late Ocean Party, which also released her collaborative albums with Lachlan Denton. Russack’s sound has always leaned towards breezy jangle, so her recent affiliations with this scene make sense and bring out a joy in her music – something that is perhaps clearer in her live performances. There is a reinvigorated energy to the album that, paired with the plainspoken ruminations on relationships, marks a new high point in Russack's growing discography.
Hal Parker Langley