Emily Cross's beginnings in the music industry initially sound like the stuff of legend—send your music to a like-minded record label, cross your fingers, and hope that they like it. A few months later, the label responds with gusto and a sincere, “Hey, kid, you've got real talent!” and your record has a home, your future secure, your unborn children set up with a trust fund made from the royalties of mega-hit album sales. But in reality, as the tides continue to change out of favor of small musicians and making music a full-time preoccupation becomes a less tangible pursuit for most, the plot of That Thing You Do feels like a very distant past indeed.
Cross, who records music under the moniker Cross Record with her husband Dan, released her debut record, Be Good, a year ago to Chicago's Lavalette Records, and after seeing a performance of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, she decided to pursue a bigger label for future releases. She sent her music to Ba Da Bing Records, who were as enamored of Cross's music as we've been, and Be Good, as well as a future untitled release, found a new home. But that doesn't mean that anything has changed for Cross. After a move to Austin from Chicago, the multi-instrumentalist still wrangles with her pursuit of art and music and the intersectionality between that and making a living. Her music, an unpredictable, smart host of ambient and melodically swelling tones, is completely arresting, but comes with a quality of self-awareness that can only be found in someone who truly knows what she's up against. Cross and I had a chance to speak on the phone recently, where she gave me good insight (and some sage perspective for aspiring musicians and artists alike) into what making music and making art really means.
You recently moved from Chicago to Austin. I’ve been doing a little bit of internet stalking and I noticed that you have a chicken coop at your house now?
Yeah, we moved out to an eighteen-acre plot of land. It’s huge. We have this house now in the middle of nowhere, and we have chickens, which I’ve always wanted to have, and a garden, and while you can definitely have those things in the city, I just feel better out here I guess. That’s what prompted the move—just wanting to be outside more and out of the city. But we’re close to a city, which helps.
You’re not from Chicago, right? Do you find yourself to be more of a city or a country person?
No, I’m from Florida, so it’s a whole different thing. I think I’m a mix of both, really. I definitely enjoy my quiet time, but at the same time, I can’t ignore culture and my love for it, and everything that comes with it, like music obviously, and art and people in general. But I would say I’m something of a mix of both.
How are you finding it so far, being outside of Austin proper?
We’re about thirty minutes outside of Austin. But the road we live on is ten miles long. We aren’t so far out, but it definitely takes us a bit to get down there. We’ve just been working a whole lot since we got down here, trying to play catch-up. When you move, your whole life is turned upside down, and you have no income coming in yet, and I’ve just been working a lot. In my free time, I’ve been doing very domestic things, like laundry and tending the garden and doing stuff with the chickens, so I haven’t been able to really explore Austin very much. But in terms of my surroundings, I’m very comfortable, and I’m really glad I’m here as opposed to Chicago for the wintertime.
I’m sure that’s a nice feeling. What kind of work do you do outside of the music and the art?
I have two part-time jobs. Just like anyone else trying to be an artist and a musician, I'v been working to be able to pay the bills.
Is the goal that you’d like to inevitably be able to support yourself from your music and your art?
Oh, absolutely. I think that’s a lot of people’s dreams. That’s certainly my dream. Who wouldn’t just want to do what they want and make a living from it? I would love to, but at the same time, I’m pretty realistic in knowing that it’s—it’s not unattainable—but knowing that it’s really hard work to get to that level of marketing yourself or getting lucky. It just takes a lot of dedication. I have dedication, it’s just—I don’t know how to put it—in order to make it a full-time thing, I’d probably have to quit my part-time jobs and gigs, unless I get lucky. But I’m not in a position to do that.
It’s a catch-22—in order to pay your bills, you have to work, but in order to do the thing you love, you can’t really work.
Exactly, and that’s the thing. It’s so hard to strike a good balance. Yesterday, I worked a fifteen-hour day—I worked from 8 until 11 at night. I got home and I was so dead, but at the same time, I was thinking, “I’ve been working this whole day, I haven’t been doing anything I want to do, I can’t go to sleep without doing at least something that stimulates me creatively,” and I stayed up for another three hours or something, just trying to feel like a normal person. But it’s hard, it’s really hard to do.
Do you feel like your music or your art changes when you’re going through these really busy times? If you’re exhausted, I can imagine everything manifests itself differently.
Yeah, maybe it does. I haven’t really noticed what the difference is yet. Working is actually a great thing because it filters out the crap that I don’t want to be thinking about anyway. If I’m really busy and I have no time, when I sit down to do it, it’s like do or die. I have to do this, so let’s get it done. It’s usually some of the best stuff that I get. I feel like subconsciously that it’s a weird sort of pressure to do something quality when I’m using my time wisely. Maybe that’s just because I’ve been really busy this past couple of years.
I know that you went to art school—and from my own interactions with friends who’ve been in art school, I know that there is usually there is reckoning period where they decide fully whether they’re going to pursue a life of making art and making music, or they succumb to the idea that they’ll do the art as a hobby and do something else as a full-time pursuit. Did you have a similar reckoning?
I didn’t really have a moment, I’ve just been doing what I have to do to pay my bills and eat. I’m never going to stop making art and making music. Do you mean the people who are like, “I’m seriously going to be in galleries, I’m going to dedicate my life to this right now and not work”?
More like people who decide they’ll see the art as a hobby and they’ll do a full-time job in a totally different industry.
I see what you mean. I started making music at the end of college in art school, so I guess in my last year of art school, that happened for me with drawing and painting. That part of me—I don’t want to be dramatic—but that part of me died a little because I started making music and I just felt so connected with that and fulfilled. I sort of let go of a thinking that I was going to make some sort of career out of my visual work, which I still would totally be happy to do, but I think of that as my hobby. Something I do after I’ve made music or when I have a day off or I’m trying to relax. In that way, I did have that moment for my drawing and painting. But since I’ve been making music, I’ve tried to further myself in that by forcing myself to play shows and putting myself out there and releasing stuff. And I started emailing labels and that’s how I got to be associated with Ba Da Bing, I guess that became my “career option.”
It’s a very rare story today that someone sent their music to a record label and that that record label decided to put it out. Did you have any idea that that was going to happen?
My husband is a musician, and he’s been making music in bands and touring since he was fifteen. I didn’t really know anything about the business side of things before I met him, and so I was just like, “Oh, I’ll just put my music up and then someone will maybe hear it.” I didn’t know how any of it worked or how record labels worked. But once I kind of learned, I realized how it was almost impossible for musicians to email someone—even if they did like the music—there are just so many factors that go into it. Even if they opened the email, even if they liked the music, they wouldn’t go as far as trying to get me signed to their label. I didn’t expect it at all. It’s weird, I had this sort of feeling about it, about Ba Da Bing in particular. I saw one of their roster artists play in Chicago and I spoke with her a little bit, not about the label, and that night I couldn’t sleep because something was telling me to email Ba Da Bing. Your music would fit really well with them. I was saying to myself that I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I did, and I emailed them, and I guess I was just really lucky to hit a time when they were able to accept me onto their roster.
They finished up releasing a run of your first LP, so is the plan that the next record you make will come out through Ba Da Bing solely?
How is that coming along?
It’s being written right now. It’s actually being recorded now, too. Because I live in a recording studio, it’s a little different for me right now because we have musicians coming in and recording their albums, so basically whenever they’re not here, my husband Dan and I work on recording the album. It’s happening slowly.
Do you think that being in Austin will change your sound or your songwriting process or the themes of the new record?
I have no idea. I haven’t been here long enough to effectively look at the situation and know with certainty. But everything around me is affecting the songwriting process all the time, so I’m sure it will.
One of the things I love about your releases is that they have a pretty upfront anxiety about them—though they seem very spacious, they’re also very self-aware. Do you think that being in a more idyllic, pastoral place that isn’t the buzzing metropolis of Chicago will change the presence of that twitchiness?
Oh, what a question. I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I don’t think it’s anxiety. I think what you’re talking about will always be here inside of me, so I think that quality that you’re talking about will always be here, but it won’t change. It’ll express itself in different ways.
Whenever the record does come out, do you think you’ll go on tour with the songs?
I really hope so, I don’t know though. I’d love to put my part-time jobs on hold and go out on the road. It sucks to say that, but it’s the truth for me, traveling and eating and stuff costs a lot of money. I hope that we could make that happen. I’ve never really played outside of Chicago.
What’s the Cross Record live show like? The songs themselves are very intimate, so it’s hard to imagine how it translates live.
Yeah, it’s different, for sure. I think of the recordings and the live show in a completely different way. There’s some music that I really love listening to, but I wouldn’t want to go see it live, unless I’m in a really specific state of mind. I try to think about how to translate the songs in a way that keeps the songs’ integrity, but still makes for a good show and a show that makes sense in terms of what you can do when we’re on stage. I think that I could probably make my music sound exactly like the recordings in a live setting, but I’d probably have to use a lot of computers or equipment. That’s not really me, using a lot of equipment. The shows are different every time. Lately it’s just been me and Dan. It’s kind of evolving into a more heavy, more noisy type of show, but peppered in are moments where maybe I’m playing by myself or there are more quiet moments. But we’re really having a lot of fun with making more noise. In the past, there have been four clarinet players on stage or eight people on stage, and it really just changes all the time.
That speaks to what your music really is—it can be so dynamic. I know we’ve touched on how your music intersects with your painting and drawing, but do you feel that when you make visual art, it comes from the same or a different place that your music comes from?
No, not at all. It’s pretty much the same, it’s just a different way of getting it out. In the same sitting, I’ll be thinking about something and I’ll write about it, then I’ll draw something from that, and I’ll be writing lyrics about the same thing. It’s a pretty closed circle.
Did you do the artwork for Be Good?
My friend Shane, he took that picture.
It seems that your artwork on your Etsy page intersects really well with the music you make, and going forward, maybe it’ll either diverge or only become more linear.
Yeah, it’s hard to tell, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.
Being in the remote place that you’re in Austin, do you think that nature has any effect on your music? You have a lot of natural qualities to the tones that you make.
Yeah, I’m so excited about that. It’s so amazing to have the nature all around. For real nature, not just city nature. It definitely gets me excited about it and about that subject matter and stimulating my imagination a little more than having to just imagine it. I feel really good about being here, and being immersed in all these crazy nature sounds and all these crazy stars and all this growing matter all around me. I think living around here, sort of outside the city, will have a much bigger impact on my music than being in the city itself.
The Austin music scene is obviously very well known. Do you think that you’ll aim to embed yourself within that community?
I really want to. I think a sense of community and being around other musicians is a very important part of it for me. I haven’t even made a friend yet, so I have to start there first and then build up. We’re playing shows this month at Mohawk and I’m hoping that that kind of starts up. In Chicago it was so nice, I had all these amazing people supporting me and coming out to the shows, and it just feels so nice to have that. They would come to two shows and we’d get to talk about how each were different. It’s just nice to have that dialogue with people.
Cross Record's Be Good is out now on Ba Da Bing Records.