Regards to the End
Composer & Musician Emily Wells Creates a Musical Dialogue Between Artists on the Front Lines of the Early AIDS Pandemic and Queer Contemporary Life
by Chael Needle

“David has a problem, he feels pain being alone but can’t stand most people.How the fuck do you solve that?”
­—David Wojnarowicz, unpublished journal entry, 1991

“I wrote ‘David’s Got a Problem’ after reading Olivia Laing’s chapter on him in her book The Lonely City,” notes musician and composer Emily Wells about their musical tribute to East Village writer, AIDS activist and artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992). “I was on tour in Europe, staying with a friend in Brussels where, on the first floor, there was a piano and a giant gothic church looming outside the windows. In the book Laing describes how Wojnarowicz would throw out grass seed inside the piers, creating a living work of art, ephemeral and gentle in its nature. I was captivated by this image and by the essence of someone who would carry out such a simple, generous act. At its heart it’s about being loved. It was one of the first songs I wrote for the album, and in a way informed my process for the rest of the album’s creation.”

Listening to some of the songs on Regards to the End, an album by Wells that pays tribute to AIDS activists and artists who were first responders in the early years of the pandemic, reminds me of the simultaneous sense of connection to what has come before and the creation of something new that is at the heart of renga—a Japanese literary practice where one writer’s haiku prompts another writer, who spins off the next poem from an image or mood from the first. In this ways, renga produces a chain of linked verses and proceeds not in linear fashion but in more of a zig zag pattern, a poetic conversation that celebrates sameness and difference.

Wells’ music creates a similar resonance. The songs are haunted by the past but strive to breathe life into the present. For example, “David’s Got a Problem” echoes Wojnarowicz’s “simple, generous act” with a minimalist composition, a powerful, plaintive melody. At the same time, the song seemingly reframes the seeding of grass within the singer’s concerns about the environment and personal relationships. As their artist’s statement notes: “My work bridges pop and chamber music and explores concepts around human relation to the natural world rooted in a love for both.”

In this way, Wells links the two eras across the album’s songs through a question: What are the ways in which early AIDS activism can speak to and energize our present-day climate change responses? According to press notes, the album is also inspired by “Wells’ own experience as a queer musician born from a long line of preachers.”

Wells is a classically-trained violinist, singer, composer, producer, and video artist. Albums include In the Dark Moving; This World Is Too____…; and In the Hot, among others. “I am interested in the ways performance and recordings influence one another and I work in both realms,” their artist’s statement reads. “My work also interacts with my video practice through projection at performances which intersects imagery of contemporary dance, extreme weather and effects of climate crisis, and protest footage from ACT UP.”

Recorded in 2020-21, Regards to the End (Thesis & Instinct via Secretly Distribution) releases on February 25, 2022.

A&U had the opportunity to correspond with Emily Wells about their latest album.

The photograph by Andreas Sterzing, “David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo at Pier 34, New York City 1983,” is featured as the single art for “David’s Got a Problem.” Fresco by Luis Frangella in the background.

Chael Needle: Looking at the single art, for “David’s Got a Problem” with David and Mike Bidlo at Pier 34, which they helped turn into a space for art while it also served as a cruising spot, made me think about the ways that queerness and art may inform each other How do they inform each other for you?
Emily Wells: I love this photo and I’m so grateful to Andreas Sterzing for lending it to us for this song. Truly such an honor to attach this image to my song, and one I don’t take lightly. The two are lying in the very grass the song mentions, and I think the thing that strikes me the most is the feeling of effortless companionship, the way in which they look to be at ease with one another and their surrounding. Queer friendship, companionship, and love are always at the center of my work because these relationships inform process and outcome alike. It is partially through my connection to the people I love that my work expands and transforms. These relationships are crucial to my work in both their simplicity and complexity. Also queer culture, aesthetic, and thought have taught me so much about being an artist and I think, and, quite simply, what brilliance looks, sounds, and feels like.

Regards to the End is inspired by visual artists and choreographers who have responded to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. How did you first decide to explore this theme through your music?
The project is born from a single question I began asking more than two years ago. “What can we learn from the activists and artists working at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the face of climate crisis?” This began a dive into the history of ACT UP and Grand Fury, and slowly became a form of communion with artists such as Wojnarowicz, Derek Jarman, Alvin Baltrop, Bill T. Jones, Jenny Holzer, and Gregg Bordowitz, among others. I turned to writers such as Olivia Laing and Sarah Schulman to expand both practical and emotional understanding of not only the beginning of AIDS but its wake, and its impression on the present.

Photo by Rachel Stern

As you mention, your songs embrace Jenny Holzer and Félix González-Torres (“I’m Numbers” is so powerful, by the way), Kiki Smith, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, and others. What compositional/musical choices did you make on the album as a whole to pay tribute to these artists? What was your approach?
Many times songs came from the experience of reading or looking. It’s not that these songs attempt to tell the stories of these artists; rather they are responding to those artists and continue to tell my own story. For instance, I wrote “Arnie and Bill to the Rescue” after reading Bill T. Jones’ memoir Last Night on Earth. The song tells the story of a day in my home with my partner during lockdown. In it I describe telling her about a passage in the book, the sun goes down, we are mesmerized by our own mortality and the grand expanse of time that holds us so briefly. And always the refrain “Arnie and Bill, Arnie and Bill, to the rescue.”
Because they were in fact saving me through their story and their absolute belief and commitment to their work and collaboration. “I’m Numbers” was the first song I wrote after the pandemic began, and I, like so many others, was obsessed with numbers. I was struck by how blank and ambiguous they were, how they were without humanity. It brought to mind Félix González-Torres’ piece Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), in which a pile of candy weighing 175 pounds, the weight of Ross in good health, is placed in the corner of a gallery. Viewers are invited to take a piece and the pile slowly diminishes. Here González-Torres places such humanity on a number. Likewise, the song borrows a line from Jenny Holzer’s Laments: “I want to lie front to back with someone who adores me.”

You have some tour dates lined up in April and May. How did you spend your time during various lockdowns? Did you connect with fans during various lockdowns? Go into creative mode? Watch TV?
I would say all of the above. For instance, I finally watched The Wire. It was a period of artistic freedom and development that I hold dear. There was no more contemplation of what to say yes or no to in terms of professional or social commitments. In that way I was able to work without interruption or the need to inhabit different brains. In this way, my companions were the artists we’ve been discussing. It was such a testament to how people stay alive and present through their work. This is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Wojnarowicz, because he is so intimately at the surface of everything he made, and through this he makes his viewer, his reader, less alone.

I did so sorely miss the ways in which the simple act of being around people could influence me and the songs both subtly and overtly. While working on albums in the past, I’ve always done little tours in favorite cities, where audiences tend to forgive me for playing new material. This gives songs a chance to grow from the experience of being performed, and responded to live. While I did have some pretty phenomenal moments of connection through virtual performance, nothing can substitute people in a room together and a good sound system.

What do you hope listeners take away from Regards about HIV/AIDS?
I hope listeners are introduced to, or are reminded of, these artists who influenced the songs and that people spend time with their work. In doing so I wish mostly that they internalize two things: collective action is power, and that making art is an act of hope and a belief in the future. Also, that AIDS isn’t over.


Order Regards to the End: https://emilywells.lnk.to/RegardsToTheEnd. Find Emily Well’s music on all streaming platforms. For more information about Emily Wells’ music, including tour dates, visit: emilywellsmusic.com.


Chael Needle interviewed AIDS activists for a feature on A&U’s thirtieth anniversary for the December 2021 issue. Follow him on Twitter @Chael Needle.