Can’t Slow Her Down
by Jay S. Jacobs
When you’ve spent most of your life working to make a name in one field, it takes a certain leap of faith to put it on hold to try something different, just when your career has taken off.
Emmy Rossum has taken that leap.
At only twenty years old, Rossum has put together a diverse and interesting body of work in film over the past seven years. Starting with a supporting role in Songcatcher, she quickly graduated to playing lead roles in the respected but little-seen films Passionada, Happy Now and Nola. However, her career jumped to another level since she played the hugely important supporting role of Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in the acclaimed 2003 drama Mystic River. Since that film she has played the female leads in The Day After Tomorrow, The Phantom of the Opera and Poseidon.
It was scary to put her film career on hold for a while to concentrate on her music, but it was something she felt she had to do.
“I took off for an entire year from film and threw myself into lyrics and music and really tried to focus on it 150%,” Rossum says. “I really think that’s the reason that it’s so developed and rich and layered sounding. It’s because I could give it that much time and focus. It’s interesting, because going and playing so many different characters for years, you kind of lose a little bit of yourself. You’re so busy trying to portray other people that you don’t really have time to develop as a person. So, it was really nice for me to take this moment and just kind of figure out who I am. At the same time… I’m always a little press shy and this is the first time I feel like I have the safety of exposing myself and being honest and bare emotionally in that way. It’s the safety of having it be through music. It’s not just talking about it.”
Not that it is a total surprise that Rossum would gravitate towards music. She was a child prodigy, growing up on classical music and opera. She started playing piano as a small child and singing at the world famous Metropolitan Opera by seven.
“I was singing in the chorus in the second grade in my regular school,” Rossum recalls. “My second grade chorus teacher pulled me aside one day and said, ‘You know, I’ve been listening to you in class and I think that you are talented. I’d like to set up an audition for you at the Metropolitan Opera. To go over there and sing for them, because sometimes they take a select group of young people and take them into the chorus and train them there.’ I knew that I loved singing, but no one in my family was musical at all, so I was kind of surprised. She set up the appointment for me and I went over and auditioned and they took me. That afternoon I was in rehearsal. Then, it just all kind of spiraled from there.”
However, just because she was a prodigy and singing at the Met through her childhood, don’t assume that she had a silver spoon in her mouth. In fact, Rossum and her mother had to struggle every step of the way to achieve everything she was doing.
“People think I’m from a privileged background, because I haven’t really talked much about my life,” Rossum acknowledges. “They’ve only seen me in these big, glamorous movies and the big, glamorous red carpet. They know that I went to this kind of tony private school. What they don’t know is that I should have been a scholarship kid. I was raised by a single mom who was working around the clock to put me in private school. We were too proud to ask for a scholarship. I guess the reason I love music so much is because when I found the opera – when my second grade teacher sent me over there – I really felt like I found my place in the world. I found a bunch of people that were interested in the same things that I was and who loved music. I could throw myself in that and find a family there. I think I was really lucky to find that so young. A lot of people search their whole life to find something that they really love and something they are good at. I found it when I was really young.”
She was a little older when she found out about popular music. However once Rossum did, she was hooked.
“After I left the opera when I was twelve, when I got too tall for the children’s costumes,” she chuckles, “I was exposed to so different many kinds of music… I learned that there were such things as guitars, which they didn’t have at the opera.”
At that point, Rossum was traveling a lot as she had started working on films. Being exposed to a lot of different kinds of world music, whether it was like Icelandic bands or European music or pop from all over the world, Rossum became increasingly influenced by the radio and different styles and genres. She got hooked on other kinds of music, devouring the catalogues of artists such as Jem and Elliott Smith.
“[They all] influenced me and I think are still present in my work,” Rossum says.
However, at that time her work was revolving around film. She was able to sing in her first movie role in Songcatcher, even doing songs solo and as duets with Dolly Parton on the film’s soundtrack album. Soon, though, the acting roles were coming so fast that the music took a back seat. Particularly once she snagged the role in Mystic River, which was directed by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood and starred Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon.
“It was thrilling,” Rossum recalls. “I auditioned for that. I sent Clint Eastwood a tape of me reading the character’s part on a little video camera. I got cast off that. I didn’t meet anybody until I walked on the set the first day. It was very surprising and exciting. The same day I got that call that I got Mystic River, I got the part in The Day After Tomorrow as well. I was flying back and forth between the two projects and everything had just taken off. It was very exciting being a part of a small film like Mystic River, which I really felt was such an important cast and such an important learning experience for me. Also to be part of something like Day After Tomorrow, which was, I felt, so ecologically important… I always have tried to really take the jobs that I really believed in and never tried to do something I didn’t really want to do.”
Rossum did get to indulge her musical talents again when she was cast in the role of Christine in the big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Even more than in her earlier experience in Songcatcher, her total immersion in music and singing ability was vital. Again Rossum also spent a good amount of time working on the film soundtrack. Rossum acknowledges that making these movies provided her with some of the best times she has ever had on film.
“It was the most exciting thing ever,” she says. “I am most proud of those two films because I got to do everything that I love the most. If I can combine those in any way in the future, I’d love to as well.”
After Rossum made the film Poseidon with Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas, she knew it was time to finally seriously try to harness the music that was bursting to get out of her. She decided to take some time off of her acting career to work on her debut CD. Still, as much as she loves music, she does not expect to abandon her film career.
“I hope that I can do both,” Rossum says. “I enjoy both tremendously. I love doing films. I love connecting with people in that way and I love telling stories. I also love live performance and I love this music and I want to share it with as many people as possible. I’d love to tour. I think the music is unique and I’d like to share it with people. It’s got this rich, layered sound that is sometimes 150 of my vocals on top of each other. It creates this kind of sound that is very warming and very, very beautiful and I hope that I can share that live with people. I came from live theater and there is really nothing more exciting that to be able to connect with people on a one to one level. You can’t reach through the movie screen and touch them. It’s easier to do that live.”
While she is finishing her debut disk, the first fruits of Rossum’s time off the set were released in August of 2007, in a somewhat novel way. A three-song EP called Inside Out was released exclusively through the iTunes download service. As an additional bonus, the songs are bundled with a 19 minute documentary about the making of the album. It was an immediate success, debuting as the fourteenth most downloaded title on the site. The full length CD – including the three songs pre-released on iTunes – is expected to hit stores hot on the EP’s heels in the fall.
“They are going to be part of [the album],” Rossum says. “This is kind of like a little teaser trailer.”
It is an interesting tease. The three songs – “Slow Me Down,” “Stay” and “Falling” in some ways bring to mind such diverse artists as Imogen Heap, Enya and Kate Bush – and yet they are not derivative. Rossum is offering a unique artistic statement.
While it is definitely accessible music – particularly “Falling,” which actually could be an out-of-left-field dance club hit – you also do capture glimpses of her classical background. Rossum says that it is just one more color from her musical palette from which she can draw.
“In terms of finding the right harmonies and just finding different ways to sing,” she acknowledges, “different tones of your voice to kind of round out the richness of the sound. I think absolutely my classical training does help. But, pop music is much more about connecting to people emotionally. It’s not really about technique as much. You don’t really have to think about that quite as much.”
One thing that is really striking about Rossum’s music is how the vocals are layered, often in rather unexpected ways. Her vocals swoop in and out over each other, dozens abetting and contrasting with each other and giving the music an ethereal airiness. This was all part of the plan. Rossum was very involved in the arrangements of the songs.
“We would sit by the piano, me and the producer [and co-writer Stuart Brawley] sometimes for days trying to figure out which harmonies were perfect and which were just close together and rubby enough and which were not,” Rossum says. “There is a certain amount of dissonance that is beautiful, and then there’s just too much.” She laughs. “So, it was a lot of layers and a lot of trying things and experimenting. The whole process was so organic and so fun that it was really very fulfilling, I think, to everyone involved.”
She does recognize that all of this studio work could make performing them live an interesting challenge – but it is a challenge that she looks forward to facing.
“In terms of live, I think there are a lot of things you can do,” she says. “I actually recorded my own voice and backing vocals onto a piano so I can play my own voice when I can sing live. Or, I was thinking of doing some kind of video installation where I photograph myself singing every other different part. It’s very important that people know that I sang all the parts. That wasn’t just background singers. Then I also think the songs are really strong enough that they can be done piano-vocal. So I think that you can really pare down or I think you can do more towards what it sounds like on the record. Obviously I can’t sing 150 of me at once,” she chuckles.
The three songs on Inside Out, while different in many ways, do have a similar theme lyrically – trying to find the bravery and trust to open oneself up to love.
“I think that’s, especially in contemporary society, one of the hardest things to do,” Rossum admits. “Everything in the world moves so quickly that it’s hard to slow down for a second, to reach out to someone in a real way. I think that falling in love and finding someone to trust is difficult and scary. Even opening myself up to listeners in this way is scary – but also thrilling. It’s kind of about the rush that is. You don’t know if you can trust somebody. You don’t know if you can trust them to love you. What I mean by trust is trust them to love you for who you really are. Because everyone has scars. I’m human. I have faults. I think in contemporary society where people in the spotlight are held on such a pedestal, it’s hard. I really want to show people that I’m human. I’m a real person.”
So what should we expect from the rest of the debut CD?
“There are some up-tempo songs,” Rossum says. “There are some songs that are just more piano-vocal. There are songs that are a capella. It’s really a whole mix and I hope that it will be a whole experience for people. I touch on issues that I hope that people can relate to. I try to sing about things that are personal, but also much bigger than me. I think everyone goes through the same feelings and the same journey and fears in life. I hope that I can speak to that. And I hope that I can express from a woman’s point of view a different kind of woman in this society. I feel like in a lot of contemporary music, women are really objectified and sexualized. I think that women can be strong and sensual and vulnerable and intelligent and sexy all at once. They don’t have to be just sexy or just vulnerable. So I want to stand for women that are the whole package.”
Outside of her work in music, she is also standing for other people. In recent years, Rossum has been very active in AIDS charities. As a celebrity, she feels she has a unique forum to open people’s eyes to certain issues she is passionate about.
“I feel a responsibility to use that in any way that I can for a greater good,” Rossum says. “My friend Josh Lucas, who I worked on a film [Poseidon] with, is involved with youth AIDS. He brought it to my attention. I’ve since become pretty active in that. I went to a few schools with a guy who’s involved with it, too, who is a singer – Ludacris. He sings a little different music than I do,” she chuckles. “But we went around and talked to a bunch of schools and did AIDS awareness. The reason it really spoke to me was because when I started reading the statistics and learning more about it, I found out that the group that’s being most affected right now are girls my own age. It’s not just homosexual. It’s not just lower class. It’s not. It’s everyone. It could be me. It could be my best friend. The way to really protect ourselves is correct and consistent condom use. So I try to raise awareness for things I think I can help with. Things that are affecting people like me.”
This experience – like all other things in her life – fuels her muse. Song ideas come to Rossum from all around, and she has decided that she must be open to them.
“Inspiration comes from everything,” Rossum sums up. “It could come from a stranger I that I see walking down the street. It could come from an argument that I’ve had with someone from my family. It can come from falling in love. It can come from pain that I’ve had from stuff that happened while I was a child. It can come from walking down the beach and thinking about how long the beach has been there. How our life is like a blip on the radar. It can come from anything. And to me, it comes from everything.”
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 22, 2007.