Playing alongside Phoebe Bridgers, BOCC, Fiona Apple, and Shirley Manson, Emily Retsas has found her calling as a first-call touring bassist.
At this point in her young career, Emily Retsas can most often be found on festival stages, packed venues, and late-night talk show sets, which is a far cry from her upbringing. Growing up in a remote town in Southern Australia called Smoky Bay, Retsas always had a deep passion for music, but her access to it was severely limited, given her lack of resources among a population of only 200 people. The music she did get her hands on influenced her deeply: the grunge, alternative, and punk music coming all the way from America that was filling her headphones and fueling her musical dreams. At age 14 she bought her first bass and immediately started a band. Once she graduated from high school, she moved to Adelaide, with its larger music scene, where her musical voice continued to grow, as did the demand for her playing. After a vacation to Los Angeles in her 20s, Emily decided to make the big jump, and she immediately packed her bags and moved to California.
Submersing herself into the unfamiliar L.A. music world as much as she could, Emily started getting noticed, and before long she was landing gigs that increased in profile. In only a few years after her move, Emily had performed with Shirley Manson of Garbage, Fiona Apple, Death Valley Girls, Boygenius, and Jennie Vee. Emily’s longest-tenured gig has been with indie-rock phenom Phoebe Bridgers, and Bridgers’ side project with Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Better Oblivion Community Center. Her roles with Phoebe and BOCC have taken her all over the map and featured her on almost every prominent late-night talk show. She recently wrapped up recording on Bridgers’ upcoming album, and Emily is soon to hit the road with her again for a long stretch of tours. Retsas’ ability to generate both gentle rhythms to accompany Bridgers’ delicate, crooning voice and aggressively powerful riffs when the songs call for it are just one reason why the diverse player from down under is getting so much attention for her playing. Much like her transition from a sleepy town in Australia to the buzzing city of Los Angeles, Emily enjoys a little contrast.
What was your musical upbringing like in South Australia?
There wasn’t a lot of music going on locally at all. My best friend and I bonded over Sonic Youth in our early teens, and we started a band, and that was it for me. When I graduated high school and moved to Adelaide, the much larger music scene there was an important experience early on for me.
Did you have any musical experience before picking up a bass at 14?
I grew up playing piano and guitar, and when I wanted to start a band, my two friends both played guitar, and they said that someone had to play bass and that I was the worst guitarist [laughs]. It was that age-old story on how most people become a bass player. But I was like, you know what, Kim Gordon plays bass and she’s the coolest, so I’m gonna do this. I finished school playing guitar, and then when I graduated, I went back to playing bass in punk bands. It always felt like my instrument. I never felt like a guitar player.
What was it like moving to the U.S. and transplanting to the L.A. music scene?
I was in my mid 20s when I moved to the States. I had visited here before then, but never in a touring sense or to play gigs. I always knew that I wanted to play bass, and you can’t tour in the same way in Australia, because it is so vast and it takes so long to get everywhere. So to play bass and get into bands, I knew I had to be where the industry was, so I decided to move to Los Angeles. I came over for a holiday, and the day I got back, I hired a lawyer and started the visa process to move. Once I got here, I said yes to every gig that was offered to me, as a way to meet people. So much of L.A. is word of mouth, and the more people you meet and know, the more gigs you land.
How did you land the gig playing with Phoebe?
I was suggested for it. I got the call to come audition for her band, and I got the record, and there was no bass on it. I watched a lot of her live videos with a bass player and that helped a lot. She’s such a great singer and a phenomenal guitar player, so I was respectful to appreciate what was going on in her songs. There are a lot of soft, melodic lines that are always happening, and everyone has their own specific place within that to blend it all together. Everyone is always doing something, but there’s a lot of intentional space in there that really makes it. The set can start very quietly and then end up really loud and grungy as it progresses.
What was it like recording on her latest album?
Phoebe always knows what she wants, so she’s great at directing in the studio. For one song, she said she wanted it to sound like Nirvana, and I said, Yep. Can do. I was born for that. We played that album live in London, and it was nice to see parts I came up with make it onto the record. The producer did a cool thing where I was doing a slidy bass line and he tuned it down and recorded it twice, and the two parts are slightly out of tune and it sounds amazing.
Do you feel pressure playing such gentle music, where every little thing you do is noticeable to the listener?
The playing has to be very precise, down to the timing of your slides to a note to the placement of everything you play. She has a lot of slides in her music, and I love playing those. I think all bass players do. I make sure I’m always prepared for those performances, which takes the pressure off me onstage.
What’s it like playing with Conor and Phoebe in BOCC?
It’s been so much fun. I’m sad that it’s done now, because every gig was a blast. Their fans are so loyal, and they’re both such amazing artists. People are there to see them and have a good time, and you don’t have to worry about winning the audience over, which can be a weird experience for new bands. We threw in a few covers and brought in some guest musicians, so it was always exciting to play those shows. I don’t want to say it was a party, because we definitely didn’t party. It’s so far from a party band, but it was like being onstage with your close friends and hanging out every night.
How would you describe the bass playing in that music?
It was really different from song to song. Phoebe has a lot of upright on her records, some heavily distorted pick playing, and some beautiful fingerpicking parts. I didn’t play any upright live, so I was translating those lines to electric bass. I tried to best serve that song and that style in the live setting. The songs have a lot of melodic, pop-sensibility bass lines, which are what I love. In learning those parts, it was a fun record to sit down and listen to on repeat.
How do you cop an upright sound on your electric bass?
Depending on the line, sometimes I play with my thumb, or I’ll focus on the line I’m playing and I’ll pick and choose which notes sound best for each part. She’ll change her arrangements a lot from the record to the live show, so that gives me some freedom. [Plucking] closer to the fretboard helps with that, as well. I have an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG that gives me more elongated tones and the lower octave, which helps give it the upright feel, too.
What’s your playing technique like the rest of the time?
It all depends on the artist and the song. I’ll tailor whatever it is I do to what the artist wants. That always starts with me listening to their records a ton. Phoebe’s stuff is almost exclusively fingers. You can hear a pin drop on that stage; that’s how quiet it is. Better Oblivion is much closer to the punk stuff I grew up on, so I use a pick for that band. I’m usually a little more aggressive with a pick, especially if it fits the music. There’s a lot more to push through and hide behind in louder music like that, whereas with Phoebe she has such a unique, beautiful voice, and the music is more delicate.
What is your ideal tone?
When I was buying my first real bass I remember listening to Siamese Dream and Gish by The Smashing Pumpkins and hearing the bass tone on those and knowing I wanted that sound. I did a bunch of research and learned that D’arcy Wretzky played both Jazz and Precision Basses. I tested a bunch and got set on the sound of J-Basses with maple necks through a Fender amp or Ampeg SVT. I don’t think you can plug right into those and have them sound bad at all.
What was it like playing with Shirley Manson and Fiona Apple for the Girl School music festival?
I still pinch myself that that happened. I found out that it was going on, and that they had a drummer and not a bass player, and I said, What? So the musical director asked me to play it, and I was shocked. I was the last person added to that lineup, so I got all of the material just days before the show, and I had to learn it in such a short amount of time. Shirley Manson is, by far, the sweetest human I’ve ever come into contact with. She knew my name before I even introduced myself. I grew up listening to Garbage in my tiny town and I was such a fan. To play with her and Fiona Apple was surreal.
Who are your greatest bass influences?
My biggest one is Paul McCartney. I love how melodic he is. You can get the stems [isolated tracks] of his bass lines and the Beatles are still great just by those. I grew up idolizing Melissa Auf der Maur, Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, and Darcy Wretsky. Seeing other women play bass growing up made it seem more realistic that it was something I could do someday. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Colin Greenwood’s work in Radiohead — that’s my thing right now.
What’s your pre-show routine?
I always run through the full set before the set, which I know might sound like overkill. I recently read that St. Vincent does that as well, which makes me feel better about it. People always say that you know the songs already, and you are well rehearsed, so why do you do that? But it’s more to build the muscle memory and warm up my fingers. I also listen to the songs the day of the show and sing my harmonies along with them.
Has singing while playing bass always been natural for you?
Depending on the music, the difficulty definitely varies. Playing punk music or ’90s grunge is much easier to sing and play, because you’re almost playing the bass like a guitar in those instances. But I’ve played in some bands where a lot of things are going on and it’s more offbeat and groove-driven, and that’s not always instinctual to sing along with. With some bands, I have no idea how players sing and play at the same time. Les Claypool blows my mind every time I hear him sing and play like that.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about playing bass?
Always be prepared. People are always shocked at how prepared I am. Don’t go to a rehearsal to learn the songs — those are to rehearse. I learned that really early on, and it’s helped me a ton. And, be a good hang. People have to want to hang out with you on a bus for three hours, three weeks, three months, and three years. Be someone people want to be around. –BM
Bass Fender American Original ’70s Jazz Bass, 1983 Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Mustang
Rig Fender Super Bassman Head, Fender 4×10
Pedals Electro-Harmonix Mini POG, Devi Ever Wolf Bass Fuzz
Strings D’Addario Mediums
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