I remember when I first moved to New York, it was as exciting as it was intimidating. I learned quickly that the only people who can survive living here are people can look at all the overwhelming odds and greatness around them and say to themselves, "I'm going to conquer that."
Meeting up with Emma Witmer, the mastermind behind local act Gobbinjr, in a small coffee shop in Bushwick called Little Skips, I immediately recognized a person who had recently come to the same conclusion. Between sips of coffee we talked about how she got started in music, what an intimidating place the New York music scene can be, and the surprise success of her self-produced debut solo album manalang.
ThrdCoast: Hey! How are you?
Emma Witmer: Good, good. Pretty relaxed day.
TC: Sorry if I seem frazzled, I just ran over here from a gig.
EW: Oh, no problem! It’s totally fine.
TC: Great! Well, I guess let's just jump right into it then. Could you tell me a little bit about your childhood and how you got into music?
EW: Alright! [Laughs] Um, my parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was four. So that’s how it kinda all started. I stuck with that for a while, and then when I was nine I started taking drum lessons as well. Then at thirteen I started teaching myself guitar, fourteen was bass, and at fifteen I started taking vocal lessons.
TC: That’s a lot of lessons.
EW: Yeah, but I think I realized that with those things I could do whatever I wanted, you know? [Laughs].
TC: Yeah, those do cover all the basics.
EW: At fifteen I started my first band, and ended being pretty much the primary songwriter for it.
TC: Is that when you first started getting into songwriting?
EW: Yeah. Fifteen was definitely it. I started writing some songs that just wouldn’t work out with the band. Whether it was my vocal range being different than the singers, or instrumentation, or just vibe. So then I just started collecting all these songs from when I was fifteen to now, and that’s what became my album.
TC: Awesome! You said that the vibe sometimes didn’t match between you and the first band you were in. What were the musical interests of the people around you in comparison to your own?
EW: In general I would say I was a bit more pop oriented. A lot of my friends were into grungier stuff. A lot of the people in the band wanted to go for a harder sound with the music and I just wanted to go more melodic. I’m really into melodies and stuff, so...
TC: Melodies are great things.
EW: Yeah, right! So I didn’t really pay attention to the chords or drum fills or things like that and that’s what the other members of the band wanted to focus on.
TC: So what drove your interest in songwriting early on?
EW: I think it was mainly me wanting to start a band. I wasn’t really good at anything else, music was pretty much it for me at that point, and someone had to write the songs.
TC: That’s a good way to look at it. Were your parents musicians?
EW: No, actually! Well, my mom was when she was a teenager, but not any more. My dad never was. I always said he should learn to sing but when he was younger his mom actually told him to not take music lessons, like, he wasn’t allowed to. His music teachers in school were like, “This guy's got a really nice voice. He should take lessons,” and his mom was like, “Nope.” [Laughs].
TC: Just shot that right down, huh?
EW: Right! Yeah, so I’m happy she wasn’t one of my parents.
TC: Did you ask for lessons initially?
EW: No, they just signed me up.
TC: Any idea why?
EW: They did it with me and all my siblings. I think it worked out. They saw studies showing that musical training from a young age improves schooling.
TC: Unless you become obsessed with it, in which case you forget school altogether and just become a musician.
EW: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, I was good at math and stuff in school, so maybe there’s something.
TC: Oh yeah, for sure. So at fifteen you start writing a bunch of songs with no one to help you play them. You get to the end of high school with all this musical material. What was your next step?
EW: The end of high school was kind of tough. I had gotten into NYU, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to go yet because the band that I was in wanted to continue as a band after high school and just do that full time. So I had to decide whether I wanted to move to New York or stay with the band. Obviously I decided to come to New York. There was one other member of that band who also left for college, but the other three got another drummer and went on as a four-piece.
TC: Are they still playing today?
EW: They’re still playing but they're scheduled to break up.
TC: A scheduled breakup. Nice.
EW: Yeah, it's pretty strange to me. They have like, four more shows I think. But yeah, I decided to come here and kind of put music on the shelf for my first year of college, I just didn’t do anything [laughs].
TC: Any particular reason?
EW: A lot of it was that I didn’t have the privacy to write. I write by myself, I can’t really collaborate—I'm just not that good at it. I was sharing a room with two other people so I never had any time to myself. Also I was just really intimidated, because everyone here is so good. In Madison, Wisconsin where I grew up, there was no other band doing rock music really. There were like three bands when I was there. Here it was scary, I kept thinking, “How am I going to match up to these people?”
TC: When did you have that first overwhelmed moment?
EW: I think the first time I went to Shea Stadium. It was the first week I moved here.
TC: Yeah, I could believe that. Shea Stadium could be a lot your first time.
EW: I love Shea Stadium. I actually intern there now.
TC: Oh, really? That’s awesome.
EW: Yeah, I love it a lot.
TC: What are you studying at NYU?
EW: I'm studying music. I’m in the Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music.
TC: Great school. What’s your area of focus?
EW: I don’t know! I want to do it all. There are seven different tracks you can choose from. Performance, songwriting, producing, technology, business, social—which, I don’t know what that is.
TC: PR, I’m guessing?
EW: Yeah, I guess? They made it seem like social media and stuff. I think actual PR goes into the business part. I’m not sure [laughs]. And then there’s journalism. I don’t really want to do social or journalism, and I’m not super into the technology thing, but I do want to pursue business and performing and songwriting, so...
TC: Just going to try and tie them all together?
TC: So when did you finally start working on your solo music?
EW: Well, that just started this past summer, really. I mean I had songs that I had produced in high school but this last summer is when I decided to go completely solo, solo name and everything.
TC: How do you say your name?
EW: Gobbin Junior. Everyone always asks how you pronounce it [laughs].
TC: It’s pretty nonsensical. I like it.
EW: Yeah, that’s exactly what I like about it.
TC: So you started Gobbinjr after that initial year in New York where you were adjusting to a new place and the intimidation of the New York scene. What got you out of that funk?
EW: I don’t know? I wanted to do my Shea internship over this past summer but you need to be either 21 or getting class credit to intern there. I didn’t want to pay for class credit, so I went home because staying in New York without an internship would have just been not really useful. Just a waste of money. So I went back to my parents house.
TC: It’s also good to just get out of New York from time to time.
EW: Yeah, definitely. Actually seeing the color green is really nice [laughs]. Anyway, my parents moved from Madison to Champagne, Illinois when I graduated high school. I don’t know anyone there so I think I pretty much started this just to keep from going crazy over the summer [laughs].
TC: But how did you escape that creative down-period?
EW: I was just kind of sick of it.
TC: Tired of not doing?
EW: Yeah [laughs]. I needed to do something.
TC: So you went from, “Oh my god, everyone is so good! What the fuck am I doing?” to “Oh my god, why am I not doing anything?”
EW: Yeah! I think a lot of it was that its really daunting to put out an album. I did it all myself, recorded it and produced it myself, and it’s a lot of work. I really like performing a lot more and think that was a big motivation. I was thinking once I got an album out I would have something to show people and could start booking shows. That’s all I wanted really.
TC: Was all the material on the album written during your high school years?
EW: About half. I’d say fifty-fifty.
TC: The range of styles on the album is very impressive. What kind of music do you find yourself listening to and gaining inspiration from?
EW: I never really know what to say when people ask for influences. It’s usually just whatever I was listening to at the point I was writing the song. At fifteen when I wrote about half of these I must have been listening to Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, all the, like, intro to indie stuff. Then Oberhofer, Tame Impala. And then the songs I’ve written most recently were more influenced by bands around Brooklyn like Mr. Twin Sister and Ava Luna, those are the big bands for me.
TC: How was it blending material you had written so long ago with new material?
EW: I was scared to do it at first, really scared that it wasn’t going to work out. But then I played it for a couple of my friends and my family and they said it was pretty cohesive, so that was good.
TC: Did you record them separately as well?
EW: Yeah. I think I re-recorded a couple of the vocal parts from the older songs, but all the music was recorded way before.
TC: What did you use to record?
EW: Just, like, my laptops. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had a PC and started recording on MixCraft. Do you know what that is?
TC: No idea.
EW: [Laughs] It’s an old DAW. Kind of a cheap one, when I ask people if they know what it is they usually laugh at me when I said I used it. It worked out really well though. I think the recordings sounded really good. I actually think I like the songs I did in MixCraft more then the songs I did later on my Mac with ProTools for sure. Like, all the big songs I did were on MixCraft. “bb gurl” was on MixCraft.
TC: Was it the interface or the quality of the recording?
EW: I would say interface. The quality was about the same for all of them. I just had a twenty-dollar mic I was recording everything on, guitar straight in, and fake drums and everything. But yeah, I think it was just the interface.
TC: When you started putting the album together, were you trying to create some overarching theme or were you more focused on experimentation?
EW: A lot of it was just experimentation. I realized it ended up having some themes just because it was a lot about my adolescence. Like, the teenage years of Emma Witmer. That’s what the album is. It’s kind of angsty, I feel like.
TC: It also sometimes feels pretty sarcastic and witty.
EW: Yeah, it’s definitely a little goofy for sure.
TC: That’s the perfect word.
EW: I think that's just my general humor seeping in. I didn’t really think anyone listened to lyrics before, so I kind of just wrote whatever.
TC: Yeah, I always wait to the last minute to listen to lyrics in most of the music I listen to.
EW: Exactly! That’s me. So the first time someone came up to me after a show and said, “I love your lyrics!” I was just horrified [laughs]. I was like, “You’re listening to my lyrics? No!” [Laughs].
TC: Oh god!
EW: What have I done!
TC: So why did you decide to release an album instead of two EPs of older and newer work?
EW: I feel like if I was going to really do this thing I would do it all out. I don’t really like EPs [laughs].
TC: They just don’t make sense to you?
EW: Yeah, exactly! Why not just make an album? Well, my professor did say last week that, “If the worst thing that could happen is someone wanting more from you, that’s not a bad situation to be in,” which makes sense, but I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that. I like putting it all out there at once.
TC: All or nothing?
EW: Yeah. I think it's just what I would want as a fan. I’d rather have a full album than an EP.
TC: That’s fair. So being a person who doesn’t usually focus on lyrics, how do you go about writing yours?
EW: It’s just mainly goofy things that come into my mind. A lot of them are just little inside jokes. People have been really hooking onto the opening line of “bb gurl,” which is “Last night I dreamt your girlfriend died.” I never dreamt that, it’s not a real-life situation for me, its just something that popped into my head that I thought was funny. It’s like, I can’t write anything better, so I might as well just put that in there [laughs].
TC: Where did the album's name come from?
EW: It’s just another stupid little joke, honestly. There were these health senate text from NYU that went out to everyone last year, and they would just keep sending these texts to everyone saying, “This is a test.” And that’s it. Super weird. On, like, the third in this series of test texts, at the end of it it said "manalang," and no one really knows why. People thought it was really funny for like a week, but I held onto it [laughs].
TC: Do people at NYU recognize the name?
EW: When I posted it online no one was like, “Oh, that!” But when I tell the story people remember it, and then they get excited. But without the story it doesn’t really spark anyone's memory.
TC: What was the reception like when you released the album?
EW: It was pretty good. I mean, I just expected to put it up on Bandcamp and have nobody listen to it, and then Hunter at Infinite Best sent me an email. I don’t know how he found the album, but he found it and wanted to put it up for digital distribution, which was awesome.
TC: People just find things in New York.
EW: Yeah, right? It’s insane. But yeah, so I put it up for digital distribution with Infinite Best, which is exciting since Mr. Twin Sister and Ava Luna are two of my favorite bands. It’s cool to be somewhat affiliated with them. Then someone over at Gold Flake Paint found the album, Trevor Elkin, he found the album and wrote this really nice review of it which blossomed out into other things. Gold Flake Tapes picked up the album for cassette, which isn’t done yet but it will be soon. In all it was a good reception, a lot better than what I was expecting. I just saw it as a tool for booking shows, so it was nice to see people actually liking the record.
TC: Did you start booking shows immediately after the release?
EW: Yeah, people started asking me pretty quickly, but I was still in Champagne when it came out and I didn’t have a band put together. I didn’t even know who my keyboardist would possibly be, so it was kind of a rush when I got back to the city. I had to get everyone together right away, they had to learn all the songs, I had to make sheet music for the keyboardist.
TC: How did you find your musicians?
EW: My guitarist and my drummer are two of my best friends. And my keyboardist was kind of a mutual friend, but I had hung out with him before and now we’re pretty tight.
TC: Was it interesting translating this solo project into a more collaborative band environment?
EW: Yeah! It was really weird. It was really stressful, because some of the songs are pretty complicated, there just a lot of things going on. It’s pretty much impossible for only four people to play them, so the arrangements turned out pretty different from the record to the live show. But it worked out, and I like how it sounds live a lot! It’s a really fun album to play live, especially with my friends. I’ve never been in a band before where I was really good friends with the people beforehand.
TC: Where do you guys rehearse?
EW: We rehearse at The Sweat Shop.
TC: How were the early rehearsals?
EW: The first one made me a little nervous. I didn’t have the music written out for the keyboardist yet, and he was also kind of a wild card at that moment. Yuki is his name. He had never been in a band before and was pretty nervous about it, he wasn’t sure it was going to work out. When your band member doesn’t even know if he’s going to stay in the band it’s a little stressful [laughs].
TC: I can imagine.
EW: Yeah, but it did work out, and once I got the sheet music it came together pretty quickly. The guitarist Haley and Santi the drummer have both been in different bands and are really good musicians.
TC: Haley from Human People?
EW: Yeah, exactly!
TC: She’s awesome. I’ve never actually met her in person, but we got some cool photos of her at Trans Pecos a while back. She has a great stage presence.
EW: Yeah, she’s so cool!
TC: So when was the first show? How long did you have to put it together?
EW: First show was during CMJ, October 17 at Muchmores. It went well and is the only show we’ve played as a full band so far.
TC: What’s your solo set up?
EW: It’s just me and a keyboard with a drum machine. It’s kind of funky, but I think it sounds alright. It’s definitely vibey. I don’t like it as much, though, because it’s not as fun playing by yourself.
TC: Are you starting to think about the next record?
EW: Oh yeah! I’ve already started recording it. I have some demos now, but I’m too scared to show them to anyone who might want to put it out [laughs]. Only family and best friends currently. It’s sounding good though, I think it’s going to be really fun.
TC: Are you bringing in some of your band members to help during the writing process?
EW: Nope, still all me. I’m kind of selfish when it comes to this music, the recording of it at least. I just want to keep it to myself.
TC: Is it a meticulous thing or a zen thing?
EW: I would say meticulous. I trust my instincts more than I trust others when it comes to the vibe I want to create.
TC: Do you think you’ll ever bring in another producer?
EW: Yeah, I was thinking about maybe having someone else produce it at some point, probably not this next record though.
TC: It’s hard to find the right producer, especially if you have strong opinions aesthetically.
EW: Definitely. When I was in my old band we had a producer who’s vibe really didn’t work with ours, at least with mine. We really butted heads, which is probably a big reason I decided to do manalang by myself. I was running away from producers at that point, but I think there are a few out there I would love to work with one day.
TC: So what’s next?
EW: Well, I want to shop the record around and release it through a label. Do it for real this time [laughs]. Besides that, I’m going on a solo tour this winter.
TC: Oh! First tour?
EW: Yeah! But it’s just a mini-tour around Midwest states. It will be more than a week of consecutive shows, I think that’s a tour [laughs]. It’s going to be scary! Really cold. Really slippery. But I’m excited.