Strawberry Runners: Emi Night on Punk, Sexism, & Freaky, Beautiful Performances

By: Deana Morton

Strawberry Runners are the Denver indie project that you need to listen to right now.

It’s only a matter of time until Strawberry Runners will be your new favorite band. Their cool, ambient-indie sound is so catchy and enjoyable to listen to that you’ll be telling all of your friends to check them out. But don’t be surprised if they’ve already heard of them because the Strawberry Runners are gaining well-deserved media attention faster than I can write this intro. Wired Magazine listed them in These 10 Bands At SXSW Are About To Blow Up, NPR put them on their Austin 100: A SXSW 2015 Mix, and they will be on Colorado Public Radio’s Open Air session May 21st at 6:00pm.

Recently, Emi Night (founder and singer of Strawberry Runners) and I discussed Strawberry Runners and all things musical leading up to the formation of the band:

Emi, it’s pretty interesting that you went from singing church hymns to integrating yourself in the DIY punk scene in Bloomington, IN. How did this transition happen musically?

It was a pretty long transition, honestly. There was a small close-knit punk/diy/folk music community in my hometown, Madison, Indiana. I think I went to my first local show when I was 12 or 13, and for several years I would go to shows whenever I could, but I was pretty shy and mostly just curious to learn about how the music and the social structure worked. So when I went to shows for those years, I’d mostly watch people and listen to the music without interacting too much. I got a sense of who was making the music and doing the work that I liked. That inspired me and I started working on music and art at home as a sort of private response to what the folks around me were doing.

So when I was 15, I went through some big/heavy life transitions including leaving my church. I decided it was time to jump in and share my music. I pushed aside my reservations about talking to all the rockstars, and I made a bunch of friends in my community. There were a couple of people I got to know who had connections with folks in Bloomington, the most influential of which was my friend Daniel Gruner. He introduced me to Bloomington and the music community there when I was 17, and he actually helped me book my first tour that summer. It was a two-week tour. We went out east from Indiana and played in Pittsburgh and Philly, New Paltz, NY, NYC, New Brunswick, NJ, Richmond, VA, Athens and Atlanta, GA, Tallahassee and Pensacola, FL, Memphis, Little Rock, AR, Bloomington, and probably a few other places I’m forgetting.

This tour was my first introduction to the east coast/midwest DIY circuit. It was a totally life-changing experience. I mean, there were people all over the place who were kind of like me! And people who were doing things I had never dreamed were possible. Even if that was just living as young adults in a beautiful house with 10 people and art all over the walls. Or having Christmas lights strung up around your whole house and having shows in your basement. Or making breakfast with all your friends. To me, the DIY community looked like paradise. And to this day, I’m still smitten and totally awestruck by the beauty of it. I continue to run into people I met on that first tour who are still involved in the community in all sorts of new ways and places, and it’s unreal. That was almost 10 years ago now!

Emi Night, founder and singer of Strawberry Runners. Photo Credit: Matt Hogan

Emi Night, founder and singer of Strawberry Runners. Photo Credit: Matt Hogan

So speaking of the punk scene, what did it teach you about putting a band together?

Well, the punk community taught me how to put a band together. For me, that involves going to local shows and other events, making friends, and starting bands with them. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by strong communities of musicians most of my life, and that makes starting a band easier. If you aren’t surrounded by folks who are eager to play music, it’s not as easy.

I could definitely see that. What challenges have you faced being the female lead singer in a male dominated scene?

I love this question.

Sexism is so insidious and pervasive in our culture that in order to focus on producing creative work in the way that I want to, I can’t think about it all the time. When I read your question at first I was like, “Well I don’t know, I try not to think about it and I haven’t had to deal with [it] too much!” And that’s partially true.

I’ve heard stories from lady friends who play in bands, and they can be pretty revolting. But in my experience, nothing super abhorrent has happened to me as a woman leading a band. I’ve never been cat-called from the audience, no one has written a review about my body or my looks [versus] my songwriting, and no one has offered professional favors for the band in an attempt to sleep with me. These are experiences female musicians I know have had, and they’re not uncommon.

So trying to answer your question, my first reaction was to say, “Well, I don’t have it as bad as that, so I don’t have anything to complain or talk about.” But I’m gonna be honest, this attitude is sexism at work, and it took me a little while to recognize that. To trivialize my own experience is a small way I perpetuate sexism and oppression in my life. So with that in mind, I’m going to share an experience that I tend to overlook as “just a little thing” that “doesn’t bother me that much.”

My band has multiple singers. Two of the singers are women; two are men. And it’s pretty common that people just don’t buy that I’m the leader of the band… Some people take a look at us on the stage and they have a hard time believing that I wrote the songs, [that] I organized the band, and [that] the men on the stage aren’t in charge of it. Recently, someone referred to me as “the singer” and they couldn’t remember if I played an instrument or not. But they assumed that one of the men in the band was the songwriter. I try not to get all bent out of shape over this sort of thing. I’ve played in other bands who performed with multiple singers, and multiple songwriters, but were led primarily by men. And I don’t think we ever had to have a discussion about being really intentional on the stage to make sure the audience was aware whose band it was… That was just never, ever an issue, or topic of conversation, or something anyone probably ever even thought about.

I imagine part of my sense of conflict and bewilderment around this comes from my experience growing up. I was the oldest of my siblings, and I was a leader to my brothers. So I’ve always felt like a leader… But I’ve been aware for a long time that outside of my home, and especially as I get older, there are these attitudes everywhere that intend to undermine women’s authority as leaders based solely on the invisible conviction that a woman just doesn’t hold the same power or presence as a man. These attitudes are subtle, and most people wouldn't admit to them or aren’t aware of them, and it’s especially unlikely that someone would consider these reactions as a product of sexism.

So, honestly, I don’t know how different my challenges are from a woman working in almost any other field. I’ve heard horror stories from women in almost every other discipline, whether it’s writing, art, teaching, sports, physics, or farming- seriously anything. When it comes to ownership and receiving credit for our work, women have to be outspoken about what’s theirs, or else it’s likely to be credited to someone else, and more often than not, [that someone is] a man.

Strawberry Runners: Bamboozled.

Strawberry Runners: Bamboozled.

Absolutely. So you mentioned the different singers in the band. How did the current members of Strawberry Runners come together?

Right now, Davy and I are the core members of Strawberry Runners. We used to play in Mega Gem together and when I started the last formation of Strawberry Runners, he jumped on board.

One of my favorite Strawberry Runners’ songs on the self-titled album is “Garden Hose”. The lyrics “you wanna pick a fight/you wanna stay up all night/wanna see me cry” are particularly great. I love the pairing of the emotional lyrics with your dream-like vocals. What was the writing process like for this song?

I like to hear what other people notice about my songs. Because usually it’s something I take for granted. Like, I don’t think of my songs as dreamy, but that’s how lots of people describe them.

The process for writing [Garden Hose] was pretty straightforward for me. When I write songs, I usually start with a guitar part [that] I’m diverting myself with. And I’ll weave a vocal melody that follows or plays off of the guitar melody. Writing the lyrics is a process that’s less directly related to the music composition. The mood is inspired by the music, and that will influence the content of the writing. But overall, the lyrics are derived from whatever is dancing or trudging through my thoughts at the time.

I wrote [Garden Hose] in particular as a response to some of the destructive interactions I’ve had with the people I love, and with myself. And thinking about how difficult it is to recognize and to curb the internalized patterns that perpetuate those digressions from the way we’d rather be: whether it’s negative self-talk, desire for control, sexism, competition, ego, ignorance, inhibition, etc. So this song is about the common presence of hostility in romantic relationships amid this longing for a heedless, exhilarated experience of love that’s beyond the destructive patterns.

The juxtaposition of the dreamy, upbeat music and heavy subject matter in the lyrics isn’t totally intentional… I write music to share my experience in a way that makes it accessible and potentially more relatable. So lightening it up is a part of that. It isn’t to diminish the power or gravity of that event; it’s to make room for these subjects in a social/political/cultural sphere. I’m not trying to put my experience on display. To me, the song’s ultimate intention isn’t to tell my story specifically. I’m trying to open a conversation. This is just where I’m at in my process of figuring out how to do that. And maybe it feels a little awkward. And maybe this process will teach me that pop music really isn’t the appropriate context to talk about domestic abuse, or rape, or loss, or any of these painful, messy, confusing feelings in a meaningful [and] beneficial way. But maybe this is the only way for these messages of strength to reach the ears of someone who needs to hear them. It’s dreamy because that’s what I like, and it’s dark because that’s what I need.

Also, last September you released Moth Mender. Is there a story behind the album name?

When I was a kid my dad had this giant moth pinned in a framed glass case on the wall of his studio that I would admire and study every day. It was something pleasant and beautiful and mysterious [that] I remember about my time with him. I got to know its patterns, its ashy wings, feathery antennae, and the tiny hairs all over its body. I thought it was exquisite; perfect. I never touched it, but sometimes I would find dead moths around the house and I’d collect them in little boxes. They always fell apart, and I would try to fix them with glue or tape. I was never successful, but I wanted so badly to someday have such delicate, agile fingers that I’d be able to mend the tiny broken moths and keep them beautiful and whole forever.

That’s beautiful. Speaking of your youth, in “Hatcher Creek” you sing, “this is where I got grown up/it’s where I skipped school/it’s where everything’s cool now.” I tried looking up where Hatcher Creek is, but I came up empty handed. Can you tell us more about Hatcher Creek? Is it a real place?

Yes and no. The story is real, and there is a creek I spent a lot of time in and around as a kid. Hatcher Creek is a creek that ran down Hatcher Hill in my home town [of] Madison, Indiana. But you won’t find it on any maps. I made the name up as a kid because I didn’t know what the creek was actually named. I looked it up recently because I was curious and I thought someone might ask me about it some day. It’s actually called Crooked Creek.

SR photo for their SXSW adventure this year.

SR photo for their SXSW adventure this year.

With a couple of albums under your belt, Strawberry Runners have been receiving a lot of well deserved recognition, such as the NPR and Wired Magazine articles. It has to be amazing to receive that praise, but it seems like there would be an added pressure. How do you keep level headed and focused on continuing to make great music?

I try not to think about it too much. I can’t say I’ve kept a level head the whole time. It was so, so, so exciting when we received the news, and I didn’t really believe it. I still don’t totally believe it. Mostly because I don’t understand how it happened. For a few nights I had trouble sleeping because I was afraid it meant my life was going to drastically change or something. And when that happens, I talk to Rachel. She’s my friend and manager who works with me on a pragmatic level to figure out what to do with the new press and how to move forward.

Once I chilled out after the initial excitement, I settled into the idea that people hearing my music is a good thing, and it just means I’ll have a few new opportunities to do the things I love. And I guess I just don’t really buy into the idea that press or attention or any of that could or should change my life. My life’s pretty much the same as it was before, so I still have plenty of time and energy to write and play and sleep and eat. Only now I just feel like there are more people who support what I’m doing.

Definitely. What bands are you listening to these days and how do they influence the way you have been approaching performing and writing?

Most of the bands I listen to are my friends, or friends of friends [whom] I hope to meet. I try to pick up something from everyone I see play [live]. So if we’re talking Denver bands, I just set up a show at my house for some folks: Anna Smith of Ancient Elk and Grease Pony, and Micah Bontrager and Jacqueline Cordova, who make up Meeca.

What inspires me most about musicians is the way their personalities manifest as performance when they play. I don’t like to see someone putting on a show as much as I like to see someone at home with their idiosyncrasies…

So, looking at this particular show, Anna is an incredibly graceful, subtle, and humble person who doesn’t shy away from places of vulnerability and grit. This comes through in her approach to performance, especially when playing alone. Micah plays in a more introspective manner, feeding off of the energy of his surroundings, and reflecting back what is needed. Jacque is more extroverted, offering listeners gentle and playful guidance through her performance. I guess what inspires me most is when I see people just being real in their own freaky, beautiful ways. It’s not like I see something I like and I start trying to do that thing exactly, it’s more that I see people doing something they love, and it makes me love what they’re doing, and it makes me want to do what I love even more. Does that make sense?

It does. So what can your fans expect from Strawberry Runners this summer?

This summer is going to be so exciting! At the end of May we’ll be releasing two new singles from our upcoming full-length [album]! We’re releasing on tape and digitally- so cool! Later this summer, we just got word that we’ll be playing Red Rocks for the Film on the Rocks series on May 23rd! We’re playing UMS in Denver as well…  we’re super excited! We will also have a few music videos coming out in July/August, and our full-length [album] is due out in late summer/early fall!

You can listen to the Strawberry Runners here. See them live at Film on the Rocks May 23rd and at Larimer Lounge May 24th.

-Deana

Follow Deana on her music blog and Twitter.

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.