An oft-wigged and glittered, latex and leather-wrapped Midwestern daughter, Emily Blue is a pop star, period.
One of the first Chicago artists I’ve ever seen appear on stage flanked by dancers who not only made their choreography and transitions appear effortless, but seamlessly executed a tear-away costume change mid-song amid clouds of red and pink-hued smoke and pulsing lights—Blue seems born to become a household name, evident as the entire crowd shouted the lyrics to songs like “Cellophane” and “Falling in Love” back at her. The paltry $10 admission belied the show’s stellar production value, which included a stacked bill featuring Thair, SuperKnova, Carlile, and other artists who’ve been carving a larger space for pop music in Chicago over the past few years.
Across her two previously released solo projects—2016’s Another Angry Woman and 2018’s *69— and two LPs as part of indie band Tara Terra, Emily Blue has pulled back layers of herself and her exaggerated character to explore pop music’s most enduring trends through her own modernist lens. In 2019, she was named the city’s favorite pop artist in the Chicago Reader’s “Best Of” poll. Due this summer, her upcoming album The Afterlove—preceded by single “7 Minutes,” which hit streaming platforms February 12—feels like the most distilled integration of her music and message yet.
While her work to this point has swung between seemingly polarizing extremes—Another Angry Woman rawly examined sexualized violence, rape culture and womanhood derived from her own experiences as a survivor of assault, while *69 was a breathy, steamy reclamation of sexual agency and liberated desire—The Afterlove finds itself in another world: a planet without binaries (gay/straight, boy/girl, body/spirit), without fear; one you can only travel to by rainbow.
It’s exciting yet bittersweet for the singer, as The Afterlove marks an ending as much as it does a beginning. On Thanksgiving Day in 2020, Blue’s friend and frequent collaborator, producer/musician Max Perenchio (founding member of Chicago bands The Gold Web, Bad City and Real Lunch) passed away due to injuries sustained in a car accident in Los Angeles. Ryan Brady, Atlantic Records VP of marketing, was with Perenchio and was also killed. With the myriad safety procedures put in place to combat the spread of the virus, there’ve been no funerals. No memorials to gather with loved ones and celebrate the lives of those lost or process the collective grief.
“If I didn’t do this, nobody would hear the last few songs Max and I made,” Blue says on a phone call from her hometown of Champaign-Urbana, where she’s been hunkering down since COVID-19’s initial threat in 2020. “That’s a huge motivating factor for me, to be honest, getting through the pandemic. Having him be part of this album, and even continuing it with songs he isn’t a part of but wanting to make something with that inspiration—that’s important.”
“I really view Emily Blue as having started with Max,” she continues. “He and I dug really deep into pop. That was always a dream of mine. I just never had the tools and the person to team up with, you know what I mean? We’d pull so many all nighters.”
The pair would pour over hyper-pop works by Charli XCX and the late revolutionary SOPHIE; Madonna and Prince; the big balladry of rock band Heart’s 1980s offerings. They shared an affinity for glitch and hair metal guitar, as well as the fantasy of the pre-(and possibly one day, post) social media world. It was Perenchio who came up with the name for the space they wanted to create: the afterlove.
Before the loss of Perenchio, Blue—born Emily Otnes—was finally gaining traction she’d been building upon for years: steady bookings for her See the Future Tour across the United States, placement on Spotify playlists expanding her audience, fan mail from Mexico, the U.K. and Israel. Referring to herself as a “productivity machine” at the beginning of 2020, she launched her Artists for Global Giving initiative at the start of the pandemic, which challenged musicians in lockdown to write, record and mix tracks in 24 hours. Proceeds from the mixtape, which includes the talents of NNAMDÏ, Troigo, and Flora to name a few, went to various COVID-19 relief funds.
Then in March, she was diagnosed with the virus. Forced to slow down, she found the required rest a blessing in disguise, in some ways. “I was running on a body I didn’t take care of. My mental health was bad,” she explains. “I really took some time to work on myself. The balance in shifting my priorities toward love and relationships that matter most to me—it put so much into perspective.”
The time for reflection included revisiting songs she’d been holding onto. Finding a sense of groundedness through her physical and mental healing, Blue—who admits to once viewing pop as the most explicitly “people-pleasing” genre, lacking in authenticity and point of view—focused on what resonated with her the most. “I was like, oh okay, I love the 1980s. I love classic rock. I want to sing about romance and bisexuality. That’s where I’m at right now,” she says.
Dropping singles “Aperture” and “Trump”—which dances toward death metal—and a bass-driven rendition of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s smash “Rain on Me” (featuring Thair) throughout the year, Blue inched closer to honing her sound and aesthetic, all the while teasing what she feels is her “best music to date.” On forthcoming singles from The Afterlove, Blue sounds like a musical lovechild of Paula Abdul and late ‘80s pop-rock outfit Roxette or even Vixen, experimenting with different facets of her vocal texture and inflection. In the grandeur—and kitsch—of the era, from fashion and décor to larger-than-life personalities and pumped-up production giving way to new musical frontiers, Blue found a palette for her re-emergence.
Now, on the heels of the music video for “7 Minutes”—an ode to the kissing game that subverts the idea of what it means to be “in the closet” (literally and figuratively)—and already mapping dates for future singles, Blue finds herself at the helm, and on the precipice of something special.
Though Tara Terra remains active, and the singer-songwriter recently dipped her toe into roots rock alongside pal Mariel Fechik in under-the-radar country duo Moon Mouth, Emily Blue is her career’s ambition fully in motion. From dance classes at a young age and bouncing between acts formed with friends as a teen, to Greyhound-bussing herself from Urbana to Chicago and back every weekend to make music, she’s now at a point that she’s prepared for her whole life.
“A lot of pop music, but especially pop made by queer artists, is about providing that space where people can dance and celebrate life and find joy and togetherness rather than always focusing on the trauma of our lives,” she observes. “It’s a fine balance—it’s about love and loss and queerness and identity, but these songs have just poured out of me. I don’t even question it. It’s been empowering.”