Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Emily Wells considers the AIDS crisis and climate change in her 'Regards to the End'


EMILY WELLS: (Singing) Say something. Say something.


The music of Emily Wells, a classically trained violinist, electronic producer and composer who's toured with acts that include Japanese Breakfast - her latest album, "Regards To The End," focuses in part on the lives and works of artists with ties to the AIDS crisis. Emily Wells joins us now from Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

WELLS: Hey, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: So what inspired this album? What made you decide to make your statement this way and how?

WELLS: Well, it started with a sort of singular, simple question. What could we learn from the activists of the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the face of climate crisis? - 'cause they were so creative and bombastic and brilliant, and they really did change the course of history. So I thought, you know, these are my elders, people that I look to. And I thought, wow, we have a lot to learn from them. So I kind of started there. And then as our own pandemic settled in, I really realized what companions these artists could be to me in an isolated moment and how just, like, the very act of their art, the work that they were making, their writings, that they're just kind of saying, I'm alive, you know, in the midst of so many people dying was so potent. And they were still so alive - even though many of them are no longer with us, they were so alive through their work. So I just kept leaning into that.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about David Buckel...

WELLS: Sure.

SIMON: ...Civil rights attorney, became an environmental activist and died in 2018 in an act of self-immolation, which he undertook to call attention to climate injustice. The cover of the single version of the song is a painting of this.


SIMON: Let's hear some from your track, "Love Saves The Day."


WELLS: (Singing) I wanna go home. Seeing is alright. I'm just a fire, burn everything in sight. I wanna go home. I wanna go out.

SIMON: Tell us how you came across his name, what he did and how we hear it and get to know about him in this song.

WELLS: Sure. Like, many people in New York, I came across it in, you know, a push notification from The New York Times. And I was so struck by the act in and of itself, as I think is often the intent with self-immolation. It's like, if this won't get your attention, you know, what will? And then I just started diving into his life. And I felt just completely bereft, and also a lot of empathy for that feeling of desperation, you know, the just kind of coming to the end of, what else could he do, you know, in terms of environmental injustice. So "Love Saves The Day." I was writing the song when this happened. You know, there were fires happening out West. So I was writing this idea of the fire being this thing that burns and burns inside of us. And then this happened with David Buckel, and the two felt completely tied to one another.

SIMON: What inspiration do you take from people whose work and songs came out of the AIDS crisis and the attempt to draw public attention, and not just public attention, public sympathy?

WELLS: You know, it might sound sort of odd, but hope. People kept making. They kept writing songs and writing books and putting on dances and, you know, choreographing, like, wild shows. And the fact that all of that exists - I don't know. It just shows the resilience of human beings, and these human beings in particular.

SIMON: Let me ask about another song where we get, I think, a particularly strong sense of your your lyrical gifts. And this is "Two Dogs Tethered Inside."


WELLS: (Singing) Let me run like I did that day when I knew the love of my own body, when I knew the love of my own body. Come on hurt me.

SIMON: I knew the love of my own body. Tell us - well, just tell us about the song. Where's it come from?

WELLS: You know, the song is - in the end, it's about sort of being given a second chance or given a chance at freedom. And you know, what do you do with that? Do you just stay kind of at the length of your leash, so to speak, even though you've been set free? Or do you run the edges of the fences or gallop over them?


WELLS: I wrote the beginnings of the song as the election was coming to an end and kind of felt like, OK, what are we going to do with this - this new moment, this potentially new moment - as artists, as activists? And that own body part - you know, it's about this day of running across a bridge with my best friend and just feeling like two dogs let off of our leashes.

SIMON: That's quite an image. Can somebody just like one of your songs? Or are you trying to get them to feel something or do something?

WELLS: You know, I'm open to the full spectrum. I think pleasure can absolutely be a form of activism (laughter). And I - yeah, I want to make songs that make you feel good or move or be inside of yourself. That's the fun of music. So there's a lot of layers. It's kind of like, how deep do you want to excavate the song? It's kind of up to the listener. And also the listener gets to bring their own imaginations...

SIMON: Yeah.

WELLS: ...Which is so exciting. It's the most exciting thing about releasing a record and going on tour - is just, like, all these other lives that sort of become enmeshed with the songs themselves.

SIMON: Talked to many artists over the years who say that people come up to them and say, you know your song - it just made me realize how - and then they finished the sentence in a way that the artist never would (laughter).

WELLS: Right. Yeah.

SIMON: But that's their right.


SIMON: That's art, too.

WELLS: Absolutely. You know, it kind of doesn't belong to me anymore once it's out there.

SIMON: Emily Wells - her latest album, "Regards To The End," came out on Friday. Thank you so much for being with us.

WELLS: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Scott.


WELLS: (Singing) And if you offer me forever. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.