Emilie & Ogden, a potent pairing for sumptuous pop
It is all too easy to get the wrong idea about Emilie Kahn. Her band name, Emilie & Ogden, sounds like a twee boy-girl duo (or an Etsy shop, if we’re being honest). Her instrument is the harp, which has sparked inevitable comparisons to Joanna Newsom, indie rock’s reigning female harpist and songwriter.
And Kahn’s most significant online attention came by way of a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Style.” Over the summer she posted a video of herself stripping the pop song down to strings and voice, recorded in an empty, majestic theater. It has already racked up nearly 310,000 views on YouTube, and Swift herself gave a thumbs-up by retweeting a link to it.
One listen to Emilie & Ogden’s new debut — we’ll get to Ogden shortly — and it’s clear Kahn is so much more than the knee-jerk reactions to her budding career. The Canadian musician, who’s based in Montreal and plays Club Passim on Monday, recently released “10 000,” a luminous collection of pop songs steeped in classical tradition, with subtle hints of R&B and the mainstream hip-hop and rap Kahn says she likes. Impeccably arranged, they’re bathed in sumptuous strings and guided by Kahn’s featherweight but expressive voice.
“For my first record, I wasn’t going about it in a conceptual way,” says Kahn, 24. “The songs are all very introspective and honest, so my goal was to make sure that comes across, and that people are connecting with them in this really raw way.”
On the album’s title track, she encapsulates the existential anguish that often goes hand in hand with growing up and realizing you can be anyone you want to be. But who, and how, exactly?
“Ten thousand talents that you’ll never see,” she sings on the chorus. “Ten thousand talents that I’ll never be.”
“I wrote that song after I went to a show and was feeling awestruck and worried that I’m never going to make it or get to that point,” Kahn says. “I know I have inside of me what it takes to do that, but no one’s ever going to see it because there’s just too much noise [in life].”
“It was all about that struggle: Will I ever be all the things I think I am if no one ever sees them?” she continues. “The album as a whole represents my 10,000 things that I thought people wouldn’t see.”
And Ogden? That’s Kahn’s harp, named for the model of Lyon & Healy lever instrument she plays. She credits Ogden with forever changing her path in music, convinced that she discovered her voice only after she found the right implement. Kahn had attended music school playing flute and tried her hand at piano and guitar, but none of them stuck.
“The harp is the kind of instrument that if you play one string on it, the whole thing resonates,” she says. “It has all these overtones, and to me the sound is so overwhelming. I played it at my brother’s wedding outside, and the wind hit the strings and made all these beautiful sounds.”
She’s been playing harp for just five years, after falling in love with its possibilities while watching a harpist accompany her school choir. Kahn is flattered by the comparisons to Newsom, even if they’re not that accurate.
“It’s a bit of a lazy comparison,” Kahn says, “but I mostly don’t want to be compared to her because I think Joanna Newsom is an absolute genius. And I don’t consider myself on her level. I do think what we do is very different, even if it’s in the same realm.”
And only Kahn has Ogden, who goes on the road with her as much as possible. (She had to rent or borrow a harp for a recent string of European gigs.)
“People still don’t get it,” Kahn admits. “They think Ogden’s a person. We told a promoter the other day that I would be performing alone, and they wrote back, ‘OK, but without Ogden?’ No, never without Ogden.”
EMILIE & OGDEN
With the Novel Ideas. At Club Passim, Monday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. 617-492-7679, www.clubpassim.com