Get To Know Emma Negrete [Interview]

Kieran Kohorst
Credit: Naomi Christie

There are few tales older or more motivational than the adage of a rose through concrete, thriving despite adverse conditions, one’s potential unimpeded by harsh surroundings. This principle applies well to Emma Negrete, a singer-songwriter who has maintained through hardship in pursuit of her artistic dreams. Perhaps a better analogy for Negrete would be a rose blooming in a cornfield: born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, opportunities for her to display and hone her musical talent were hard to come by. “There were a couple summers where I did like, at least 10 or 11 different county fairs,” Negrete tells me over Zoom, joining me from her home in Los Angeles. This is to say that when there was a chance for her to showcase her talent, Negrete and her family were committed to taking advantage of what they could get. Since enlisting her in the Iowa Youth Choir around the age of seven, her parents would drive her across the state for competitions, performances, and auditions. No matter the audience, Negrete was just happy to be singing - her earliest memories of performing place her in her grandma’s living room, improvising a cane as her microphone while doing her best Selena impression. “They always just encouraged me to perform,” Negrete says, whether it was in their living room or in front of audiences of strangers. 

It's taken a lot of time and learning and miles to get Negrete where she is now. Though a long way from her hometown as she’s now based in LA, she’s much closer now than she once was. She spent time in China singing at nightclubs, disconnected from the music she loves to make - and herself. “I felt like in China, they wanted me to be the artist that originally sang that song more so than letting me be (my own) artist,” she tells me mournfully. “You kind of are just like an instrument or more like a puppet.” Rather than experiencing a total identity crisis, Negrete underwent an ego death of sorts. After picking up The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and considering the forces at play in her music, she was able to create boundaries between herself and her art. When talking about how “your art should not thrive off of your ego,” Negrete delivers her message with a hard-earned perspective, more as a proven absolute than a prospective approach. “You can't let yourself over identify with your craft,” she continues, describing her experiences singing covers as “humbling, because at that time I wanted to be ‘Emma, the star’  but I was like, ‘well, this is where I'm at right now,’ and I kind of have to accept that. There's a lot more work that I have to do in order to have people perform my songs like I'm performing these people's songs.” 

You can hear Negrete’s new perspective at play in her latest single, “Dreams & Dryspells,” which was released on November 3. It’s her first release in 2 years following 2021’s Algorithms EP, a project full of passionate and deliberate tracks that accentuate Negrete’s unquestioned talent. That same talent is still on display on her newest release, but there’s a different accent on “Dreams & Dryspells.” Negrete is more present on the track, unapologetically making it her own in more ways than one. Most importantly, she’s making music that she wants to hear: “I feel like the music I made in the past, there was still some sort of ego attached to it where I was really concentrated on what my songwriting peers would think of the lyrics, what my classmates from college in my jazz conservatory would think,” she shares. “I was trying to impress (instead of) trying to be a real artist. Now I feel like I’m having a lot more fun with it and making something fun that’s not super complicated.” Her experiences - especially her love for travel - are informing her art more than ever: “I really love Afrobeats because I had such a great time in Belize and they listen to a lot of Afrobeats there. I wanted it to be a lot more fun. It’s helped me detach the ego from (the music) a little bit, especially bringing other collaborators on it.” 

What prompted Negrete to make this shift now? For her, it just made sense. Much of the song’s architecture was informed by Negrete’s travels, which have brought her closer to herself. She’s spent some time in Mexico familiarizing herself with her roots, and has grown to feel more connected in the process. “Everything about the (Mexican) culture, I was like, ‘this makes so much sense for me.’ I always loved astrology or witchy things…When I dance I like to dance with my hips and stuff like that. I could never quite explain the little things about me, but when I went to Mexico…I just felt very at home and wanted to rejoice in that feeling and that coming of age,” Negrete monologues. It's clear in listening to her that she’s achieved a sense of self many would envy; the kind of inner peace that comes with answers. But answers only come with time, and how you spend that time helps inform your direction. Between starting her new job (she sings four times a week professionally) and sorting through her indecisions, her future as an artist was up in the air. “I felt like I didn’t really have much inspiration over that span; there were so many other adjustments in my life I was still getting used to, and wanting to go travel. I think when I went traveling, it made me realize, I was like, ‘what am I doing? I should be making music,’” she candidly explains. Caught between stability and desire for something more, Negrete made a commitment to the latter: she converted all her traveling budget to an investment into studio time and spent this past summer working on new music. Not only was she excited to share what she had learned in her new songs, but she had felt she’d outgrown her prior releases. “I got sick of people saying, ‘so where can I listen to your music?’ and then the last thing they heard was from 2021. I was like, ‘this is just so not me anymore.’” Getting back into “artist mode” as Negrete calls it wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch, but working to find the love she has for music only deepened her passion for creating. “I’m putting everything into these projects again, it's such a nice change of pace for me,” Negrete asserts.

You’ll find more of Negrete in “Dreams & Dryspells” than you would on any other song she’s released to date. The track has grown with Negrete, with its concept originating over 4 years ago. Not all of her songs take this long to mature – she wrote her previous standout single “Lost In Translation” in about an hour – but “Dreams & Dryspells” required more lived experience to reach its full potential. “I didn’t necessarily know how to expand on the idea of 'Dreams & Dryspells' but now I’m in a totally different place in life…we turned it into something completely different than it was supposed to be originally, but it took a more fun approach to it,” Negrete explains. 

The track is fun, sure, but it's just as much enchanting, with Negrete describing it as “the adrenaline of when someone you’ve been entangled with starts playing games and the communication runs dry...leaving you feeling like they’ve casted a spell on you.” Emphasizing the “spooky bruja” side of her personality, “Dreams & Dryspells” amplifies Negrete’s soft and transfixing vocals. Taking a more active role in her songs, truly coming into her own as a Chicana/Latina artist. For her, it's not only about embracing these elements of herself but also making them visible. Growing up as a mixed-race individual, she’s been active in promoting acceptance for others in their respective cultures. “Growing up in Iowa, it's very difficult to be immersed in Mexican culture. I started making it more a priority because you can get shamed from both sides,” she says, going on to explain that the experience of being multi-racial “leaves you with this feeling like you’re a disappointment, when really it's just not your fault at all.” Growing up, she was ridiculed for not being immersed enough in Mexican culture by others who belonged to that community while still being seen as a minority in the eyes of others. Often finding herself in “this place where you don’t really know where you belong,” Negrete has recently found comfort and a sense of belonging by immersing herself in her Mexican heritage. Traveling to Mexico and partaking in the culture has provided her some closure as to who she is as an artist and a person. If ever you need the proof that Emma Negrete has found her way, all you have to do is press play.

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