Survival Guide – ‘I had the freedom to expose my true feelings about certain situations’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Last year, we caught up with Emily Whitehurst as Agent M, to talk about her, at the time still relatively newly-solo project Survival Guide, and the ‘Request Hotline Volume 2’ – a cover album she created together with her fans. At the time, she was at a new beginning, opening a new chapter in her career, finding and reinventing herself. This time, things are a tiny bit different as she is back with deathdreams,’ a first-ever full-length album that she wrote completely by herself, finding her own voice. It was just a perfect time to reach out once again, and talk about this experience, process, and much more.

Survival Guide / Photo: Kat Carey

Hi Em! Thank you for the time to do this with us! The last time we spoke was just after the release of your project ‘Request Hotline,’ but now you’re back with something even more special – your brand new album ‘Deathdreams.’ How does it feel to finally have it out in the wild, and see all the reactions to it?
Emily: Yes, thank you! (laughs) The new record is called ‘deathdreams,’ and it’s got 11 songs on it. I spent the last few years writing, preparing, and recording the record, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s on Double Helix Records, and it’s pressed to vinyl, which I love and am really excited about. I am super happy with the fact that it’s finally out there and that people are able to listen to it. People who were already listening to my music seemed to be really enjoying it, and that’s the most important part.

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Can you tell me more about the writing process for this one? I believe you tried quite a few different and unique things on this record.
Emily: This was the first music that I’ve ever written by myself. I have always been a vocalist, mainly in a band. I’ve been a musician for a long time, but I’ve never sat down to create an entire song, start to finish. I’ve done a lot of writing – I always write my own lyrics, vocals, and melodies. When I was in The Action Design, I wrote all my keyboards. I’ve written pieces of songs, but being the sole responsible person for every single piece of a song is new to me. Which is, kind of, weird considering I’ve been a musician for so long. So, it did take me a lot of time to build my confidence and to build my skillset to be able to do this.

Survival Guide started as a two-piece. I used to have a guitar player named Jaycen [McKissick], and we wrote everything together. So, when he left the band and I decided to write on my own, I realized I needed to learn how to do some things. I didn’t know how to demo myself. He always did that when we were working on the first record, so I had to learn how to get some basic recordings of myself going. I took some online classes on the different recording software that I use, which is now Ableton Live. I took a couple of songwriting classes, which actually resulted in a couple of songs on the record. I also started a Patreon, and that is when I really started to succumb to the inevitability of being vulnerable with music. Because I didn’t have anyone. I think that was the biggest thing – I didn’t have anyone to turn to, to be like – “Oh, that was his idea.” You know? Everything was me. (laughs) So, I had to accept the fact that I was gonna write songs, make mistakes, and do some stuff poorly in the process. I did the ‘Request Hotline’ project where I recorded a bunch of cover songs, and it took a really long time. For months, I’d record people’s requests and learn more and more about how to record myself.

During that time, I also learned a lot about deconstructing songs and how different musicians piece songs together. Song structure, changes on bridges, all kinds of stuff I gathered over those few years before really diving into writing ‘deathdreams.’ And when I did it, I definitely gave myself the freedom to just start writing and not really worry too much about whether it was good or not. Everyone says to do that when you’re trying to build confidence and become a better songwriter. And somehow, I was able to do it. Somehow, I was able to be like – “I’m just gonna write something. It might be terrible, but I don’t really care. I’m just gonna do it.” But even though I wasn’t super concerned about those songs, I worked on them enough to where I was really happy with them. And that’s what I ended up taking into the studio to work with Bob Hoag, who produced the record. And he enhanced them even more, made them more awesome and more wonderful than I could have imagined.

On one hand, writing all by yourself can be freeing, or even cathartic, knowing that you are in absolute control of things, but yet, by doing it, you know that all the eyes will be on you, with no one, and nothing to hide behind. Did you feel any additional pressure during the writing process, knowing that the spotlight would be on you, and you only? How hard is it to strike a balance between the two?
Emily: It was definitely a challenge. I flip-flopped between feeling stressed about it, feeling concerned, and assuming everyone was gonna dislike everything I did. Then, there were times when I noticed that I would write something that, if I had a band with me, I would’ve hesitated to include. Things that I thought maybe were a little too silly or a little too dark. Or just too much of something I wouldn’t have presented to a band. And it was cool to be like – “Oh, I can rhyme “make it so easy” with “kiss my feetsies” if I want to,” and there’s nobody to be like – “Did you just make that word up?” (laughs) So those moments were really fun. 

I also felt like I had the freedom to expose my true feelings about certain situations. As a listener – if you listen to one of the earlier songs, you might not hear it and be like – “Oh, I feel like she really could have said more and opened up more about this.” And if you listen to ‘deathdreams,’ you might not think – “Wow, that was really vulnerable,” but for me, it was. And I feel like, even though it might not be something that you, as a listener, notice consciously, you might have a better connection with the songs because I really let it all go on some of the lyrics.

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For this record, you decided to go with a somewhat different approach visually. From the artwork to promo photos, it seems a bit less dark, a bit less horror imagery-inspired, and a bit more dreamy. What brought the change, and was it a conscious decision all along?
Emily: I feel like a lot of it was influenced by the idea of death dreams. A couple of the songs on the record are about dreams that I had, where I died. And that’s a very, very dark subject. The idea of experiencing your own death is among the darkest things that exist. (laughs) And I didn’t want to push that darkness on people. But also, the dreams that I had were not scary.
That was one thing that really struck me about them – in all of the dreams I experienced my own death in, I was very accepting of it. And it was such a weird, profound feeling, almost hoping that this is actually what death is like. What if we could see it coming, and we’re not scared or sad, we’re just remembering our lives? The ‘Lady Neptune’ dream was a little strange because I had an objective that involved my death, but overall, these death dreams were really positive.

And the tone of the record, I wouldn’t say it’s exceptionally heavy, although some of the subject matter and some of the songs are dark. So, with the artwork, I felt it all went together well. I took the photo for that cover just outside my house. It’s just a cloudscape that happened that I was really amazed and blown away by – the beauty of it and the extremeness of the dreamy color versus the crazy dark storm. It seemed like a double feeling – just like deathdreams. The single word “deathdreams” – being something dark, yet dreamy and soft. It’s like a duality, I guess, the artwork, the album title, and the concept behind the whole thing.

Survival Guide / Photo: Kat Carey

While there might be a bit less death and horror in the album art, your videos certainly don’t lack them at all. It seems like with every single one you did for this record, you’ve transcended the music video form and gone deep into short film territory. What made you go all-in on your videos like this, and how did it all come together?
Emily: I am so fortunate that I had the opportunity to work with a video team called Motivated Mind Group. We just hit it off as a team, and they were enthusiastic about creating some really fun music videos for me. So, we did four videos together, and each time they would give me a couple of concept ideas. They would listen to the song, and they would be like – “We’re feeling that it could go in this direction or in that direction. Which of those are you leaning towards?”

So, one of their ideas for the ‘Blood Perfume’ video was to make it a short horror film, and I love the idea of tying ‘deathdreams’ and Survival Guide to more of a cinematic theme. That’s, kind of, what I did with my writing, too. I’ve got sound effects. I’ve got songs I feel could be from a movie soundtrack, and they picked up on that. So, each time they presented me with the idea of doing these short films, I was excited about doing some stories and acting. I let them have a lot of creative freedom. They would listen to the song and come up with ideas, and then I just had to tell them what I liked or didn’t like about them. And we just connected so well together that it wasn’t often that they presented an idea I wanted to change. I was super excited about their interpretations of my music and the fact that they also thought it was cinematic. So, we just kept going that route for each video, and it was a ton of fun.

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You’ve been tasked with quite an acting role in all of them, and it seems like it suits you very well. You mentioned that you had lots of fun, and it sure does look like it, but it also looks like lots of work as well. Can you tell me more about the experience, and how challenging it was?
Emily: I feel like the first video was the most nerve-wracking because I had not worked with this team at all before. And I haven’t done a lot of acting. I’ve been in a number of music videos, but these were more demanding on the acting side. I knew that was the case, so I was a little nervous about having to act. But the director, Bryan [Heiden], was just super cool and fun to work with. I haven’t done enough acting to know various types of directors, but he made it really fun and easy. And I think it’s because he was not super rigid.

He would be directing me as we go, like – “Okay! Now look to the left! Look confused! Look a little more confused. Now look back all the way to the right!“ (laughs) He was just telling me what to do, and his attitude kept me from feeling stressed about it or feeling like I was doing anything wrong. And if I was – he would just make a joke about it, we would laugh, and do it again. You know – “Let’s try this way,” or “That isn’t working for you, let’s switch it up a little bit.” And it was just so much fun. I would love to do more with him, and that whole team. Energy-wise, it did take a lot of energy to film these videos and act in them, but it was just super fun.

And do you think we could see you taking on more acting roles in the future, regardless of your music?
Emily: Well, one thing that is very different, from what I’ve done to regular acting, is that I didn’t have to say any lines. All the lines are in the song. I didn’t have to be good at being convincing with my voice, or with what I was saying and the way I was saying it. So, I think this was a halfway step between never acting and actually acting. It was the music video version of acting. (laughs) But I have told Bryan, if he were to do a short film or something, I would love to try being in it. I think it would be just as fun. So, I guess, the answer is – yes, I would love to do more, although I’m not necessarily pursuing life as an actor.

Survival Guide has now been on the scene for some time, and to me at least, it seems like it’s in a very unique position. It seems like you are yet to break out and reach a more mainstream audience, while at the same time, with your streams and Patreon, you were able to build a very devoted and dedicated audience that closely follows everything you do. How do you feel about it and how challenging is it to navigate a landscape like that?
Emily: I have a really awesome community. I have a strong core of people who appreciate what I do and want to hear more from me, which I didn’t fully realize until I started my Patreon. I’m so fortunate to have these people who have followed me from previous projects, and they followed me throughout Survival Guide, before ‘deathdreams’ was started. I had a period of time where I really wasn’t sure what I was doing and whether I was gonna continue to make music, once I was solo, not by choice, basically. So, I created my Patreon, and people came out of the woodwork and showed me how much they wanted me to continue. And it worked! (laughs) It made me feel very appreciated as a musician.

I really enjoy the relationship that I have with them. I haven’t felt very, under a microscope, because they have allowed me to feel comfortable. I can be myself. It’s a small group in the grand scheme of how many fans a musician can have. So, I have done all these chat streams with them since the beginning of my Patreon, and I would tell them my feelings about what it’s like to be a solo artist, all my uncertainties, and just lay it all out there. And I think they appreciate me for being human, and for being approachable. For being, basically, a normal person who is also a musician that makes music that they wanna hear. So, fortunately, I haven’t felt super scrutinized by this group. I also feel like, if they were scrutinizing me, then maybe they weren’t paying attention to the parts where I was just being a normal person. (laughs) I would like to expand the size of this group, that would be amazing. But I’m not totally sure how to do that. It does take a lot of energy to connect with all of these people on a personal level.

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Speaking of your fans, now that the record is out, do you have any plans on getting on the road and touring? Possibly outside of ditches and dry riverbeds across Texas?
Emily: Yes! (laughs) That is one of my goals for this year – to do a lot more in-person shows. Because of the way my path has gone, I don’t have a booking agent right now, and I feel like I’m not very good at it myself. So that’s an area I need to improve. I need to work on booking and getting out there. I would love to tour, but booking a tour, and setting up a tour on my own – I have done it before and it’s really hard. So, I’m kind of preparing. I probably just need a kick in the pants to get going! (laughs) But I am, for sure, gonna be playing more shows this year than I was last year. The hope is that I will tour, and get out and see as many people in person as I can. I love touring, I just really don’t like booking myself. I need to overcome that hurdle. (laughs)

Well, I actually like this answer much better than the one in our last interview when you said that you didn’t really know yet how would you play your songs live. So, I’m glad you have that sorted out now!
Emily: Yeah! (laughs) I played a couple of record release shows. I played them with a local drummer and a bass/guitar player who both joined me on stage for the record release show here in Texas. At that time I was probably just much more unsure in general. But now, I have decided that I have to. If these guys can tour, and play shows with me, then awesome. And if they can’t, then I will be on stage solo. I’m just gonna deal with it. (laughs) So, I’m making it work.

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*Interview edited for length and clarity

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