Document premieres the “Perfect Brain” music video from upcoming album ‘Clanging,’ picking the lyricist’s brain on e-girls and jealousy in Tompkins Square Park

Emily Allan is a haunted and haunting performer. This duality shone as I watched her sing “Perfect Brain” and “Steps to Destruction,” two singles from her forthcoming concept album, Clanging—in reference to the arcane and archaic psychiatric symptom of uncontrollable rhyming—in St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery a few months ago.

I had heard moments of the music digitally, and seen snippets of Allan performing live around town in various Instagram stories, but none of these fragments could accurately gesture at the otherworldly experience of watching her on stage, in person: ethereal and New York; earnest and deadpan; reverently howling and glacially detached; in on the joke, but undone by the punchline. Allan is, in real time, “draining libidinal energy into the rabbit hole of figuring it all out,” as she puts it. Her work encapsulates the experience of being not just in the panopticon, but of it.

I met Emily years ago through a dear mutual friend, and have always felt toward her both a kinship born of intimately knowing and loving the same person, and a crazy-girl-recognize-crazy-girl vibe—as though, behind all of the lol-but-what-if, there were a mutual understanding of, Okay, but really, what if? We sat on a bench in her childhood neighborhood park, Tompkins Square, in May to talk about 9/11, rapping e-girls, jealousy, and the making of the “Perfect Brain” music video, premiering here.

Sophia Giovannitti: I know Clanging is a concept album—can you talk about what ‘clanging’ is?

Emily Allan: Clanging is a somewhat outdated psychiatric symptom which basically means compulsive rhyming while in an extreme state of psychosis. It was this specific, mysterious experience I kept having, or seeing, over and over. I was shocked to find out there was a word for it.

Sophia: So, you were having the experience of clanging?

Emily: Well—what really gave me the impulse to look it up, years ago, was that I had a good friend who had a very explosive, manic episode and ended up in the psych ward, and then later showed me her hospital report. There was all this documentation of her when she was really high on her own supply, and all these details—she kept running around the locked ward, chanting over and over, ‘I’m young, dumb, and full of cum,’ and she was obsessively listening to Mos Def’s ‘Mathematics,’ and getting obsessed with rhyme. I had the experience of reading that, and instead of feeling concern for her, I felt jealous.

Sophia: Jealous of what aspects?

“Using the concept of clanging as a structure for the album makes it so that I don’t feel as much of a responsibility to the ‘I.’ The beats are the structure of the consciousness, and then everything comes in, and I’m a filter.”

Emily: Jealous of that thing, which I think I have experienced: being in an extreme state of consciousness and using rhyme as a container for your thoughts. Or—if you’ve ever seen someone online who seems like they’re a little bit manic—they’re writing and they’re using all lowercase and then all capitals, and they’re drunk on language, and they often start rhyming. I read that stuff and I feel for the person, because I feel how they haven’t slept in so long. But then also—there’s so much freedom in that writing, there’s so much saying shit that you can’t really say, things outside of the social contract, and everyone is reading it like, They’re a little crazy right now, so we’re not going to get mad. I know it’s a little fucked up to feel jealous of that, but I do sometimes.

Now, I feel like I’m actually very controlling and in control of my mental states. And I have a lot of nostalgia for times where I’ve felt more out of control, though I have a fear of it for sure, and probably a romanticization, too. It’s uncomfortable to feel that way. But in answer to your question, and even in less dramatic instances—if I haven’t slept a lot, or if I’m in a stressful state—I often get hooked on a rhyming pattern, and I think a lot of people do. Either stuff that I’m making up, or a song hook that I remember. So I Googled it at some point—why, when people are manic or haven’t slept, do they start rapping?—and I was shocked to find the ‘clanging’ Wikipedia entry. That there was a word for it, that it’s an early psychiatric condition. I have a fascination with the weirdness of diagnostic language, especially stuff that’s outdated or archaic. It’s easier for me not to think it’s evil if it’s older, to find it kind of funny, and even to have some sympathy for this attempt to categorize this, you know, mysterious and mercurial realm of human experience. In the original definition of clanging, they have to specify that if you’re a poet and you’re rhyming, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything—it’s more that if you’re someone who’s not supposed to be rhyming, and you are, then you might be manic. And I latched onto that for the album.

Sophia: Is the ‘I’ in the songs on Clanging a character within that concept, or simply you, Emily Allan?

Emily: I think it’s me and it’s not me. There’s no alter ego, and I’m not writing about someone else. But I definitely used the beats to free associate, so there are things that come out that aren’t necessarily from my direct experience. And using the concept of clanging as a structure for the album makes it so that I don’t feel as much of a responsibility to the ‘I.’ The beats are the structure of the consciousness, and then everything comes in, and I’m a filter.

My friend was like, ‘Don’t say that you wrote it in COVID, because everyone says that about their albums.’ But it obviously was written in that lockdown time—I was totally isolated, so paranoid, and there was so much pent-up desire for life, while being immured in the internet, in networks. So I think a lot of that is coming through in the music.

Sophia: Your work feels extremely post-9/11 to me, as a genre or even as a medium. And then specifically, there’s the reference in ‘Perfect Brain’ to the towers—‘I saw tower two fall’—and you shoot the video at the memorial. What was it like to come up in Lower Manhattan during and after 9/11?

“I am someone who gets a lot of pleasure out of going down the rabbit hole with certain things… You get some comfort out of feeling like this is the closest thing to political engagement in a way, in a world where you feel like none of it matters.”

Emily: Well, I was there when 9/11 happened—like, a few blocks away. I was newly transferred to a District 2 school, in a new building a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. I think I was nine. On that morning, we were sitting on the radiators by the window, and then we saw a plane, like, drive by the window, and we were waving—it felt like we could see the people on it, and we were waving.

Sophia: You could see the people on the plane?

Emily: That’s my memory.

Sophia: Oh my god.

Emily: Yeah. Ten minutes later, someone came in after the first tower had fallen, and we all had to line up and go outside. And they just said, ‘Okay, run that way.’ I have this memory of looking back and seeing the top of the second tower explode, and start to fall, which is what that line in the song refers to.

Sophia: You were just a baby! That’s so young to have that experience. Did you run uptown?

Emily: Yeah. The class stayed together and we ran to this school called PS3, which is in the West Village. And because this had happened, we were at this other school for most of the year, and we got so much attention—pen pals in Japan, people sending us teddy bears, a piece of my writing is published in the New York Times, like, ‘Children of 9/11.’

Sophia: So you’re kind of like, Okay, I’m an artist now…

Emily: And then one day we were in class, and they said, ‘We’ve got a really special guest for you guys. Someone who came a really long way to meet you.’ And it’s Hillary Clinton.

Sophia: Are you serious?

Emily: Yes. And in my memory—which I feel like is probably a little bit not totally right, but pretty right—we’re all sitting on the rug, and she’s on a stool, and we’re having this talk with Hillary where she’s going, ‘You guys are such brave Americans.’ And, ‘How are you feeling?’ Like, ‘Let’s just talk,’ you know? And everyone is really hamming it up, crying, tears, ‘I’m scared.’ And I’m really angsty and not crying, although I’m sure I was participating in some ways. But I just remember looking at everyone and thinking, You guys are faking a little bit. Which like, whatever. But we’re having this time with Hillary where she’s going, ‘You don’t have to be scared, but any way you’re feeling is okay.’ And everyone is going, ‘Is there going to be another terrorist attack?’ and crying. And she says, ‘You guys, I’m so proud and honored to have met you, you’re all such incredible Americans. And there’s someone else who really wants to meet you today. My husband, Bill.’

And then all the kids… It went from full tears and feelings-time for Hillary to immediately screaming like Beatles fans for Bill. And Bill walks into our classroom, flanked by Secret Service: ‘Hey kids, what’s up? Nice to meet y’all. Hillary’s told me so much about you.’ Like, how? And then Bill says, ‘I’m on my way to a meeting about designing the new World Trade Center. And some people think we should build it back to look exactly how it looked, and some people think it should be even bigger. But I want to hear from you guys. If you have any ideas for what the new building should be, tell me, and I’ll bring it to this meeting.’ And my hand shot up in the air, like, This is my chance. I’m going to design it. And I said, ‘I think it should be an obstacle course, and an old growth, rewilded forest, and a building that’s connected to a river—like an elaborate treehouse.’ And he says, ‘Great idea,’ and I was like, Oh my God. And then for years, when they built what they were calling the Freedom Tower, I was just like, Fuck you, you betrayed me [laughing].

I’m part of this 9/11 public health study out of Columbia University, where if you get certain cancers or mental health conditions that could be connected to exposure, they will supposedly help cover the costs. But I’ve had really weird experiences with them, doing long interviews that they pay me for that seem really—

Photo by Max Lakner.

Sophia: PSYOP-y?

Emily: Yeah. They came to my house one time and they paid me $300. This was when I was in my early-20s. There’s this whole part where they give you different gambling exercises, and you have to choose all of these shapes and do these card games, and you have to do them really fast. ‘Would you rather have $80 today or a hundred dollars in two weeks? Would you rather have $300 in two weeks, or $350?’ And you have to keep choosing, and at the end, it randomly selects one and you get that amount of money. Like, that’s so weird. I didn’t want to do it again, but they’re so persistent. I agreed to do it another time because I was so broke—at one point, they have you describe the most traumatic experience of your life into a voice recorder so that they can study it. I dissociated in a more extreme way than I ever have. I was above my body looking down. I went like that on the table [slamming gesture] and I said, ‘Okay, you need to leave my house.’ The interviewer gave me an envelope of cash that had $100, and I said it was supposed to be more. She said I would get the second half when I came to Columbia to do the physical—run on a treadmill and get an MRI—and I’d get another hundred if I gave a sample of my DNA, and say they can use it in any other study. I’m not giving the 9/11 study my DNA.

This is in the album, too—there’s this dialogue between narcissism and paranoia. There’s an element of the album which is giving lockdown, having too much time on your hands and spiraling through the memories of your own life. I am someone who gets a lot of pleasure out of going down the rabbit hole with certain things, and I was reading all this stuff—like Chaos, the book about Manson and the CIA mind control experiments, and about the elder generations of the Bush family. You get some comfort out of feeling like this is the closest thing to political engagement in a way, in a world where you feel like none of it matters. And then you can say, This is what’s really happening. But it also can be dangerous if you’re going at it alone, and you can get really lost and really cynical—you’re learning about these horrible deep state secret governments, and part of it is that, by design, it’s supposed to make you feel and sound crazy. You start seeing these connections, and making associations, but then you can’t really add it up.

That’s the crisis actor thing of: I was there when this happened, and I was in 9/11, and then this study is run out of Columbia, which was part of MKUltra. And then I’m reading about this, and then maybe I did this other thing, and then I’m getting into family history. And part of that is just a narcissistic tendency to see oneself at the center of everything, and think I was a mind-controlled courier, and maybe I was supposed to be there at this time, and maybe I was sending messages. I was going through that when I was making Clanging, because I had all this time to be reflecting on my life, and I was in a paranoid-association frame of mind—but I also kind of made it into a joke, and I think that’s in the music, too. I hope there’s some humor in it. Like, saying all this stuff, and then just riffing on, ‘My mother, she’s so crazy,’ for a whole bridge. It’s just getting really stupid. You can go really far—let yourself go—and then sort of bring it back.

Sophia: You’ve done so much work in collaboration, specifically in a kind of two-person authorship unit of you and Leah Hennessy, through your play Slash, among other pieces. What is your experience of working on a solo project, having sole authorship?

“But things that feel like specifically feminine evil—in the ways that people have written about the feminine… what about glorifying that in music?”

Emily: The reason why I have these songs isn’t because of an act of individual willpower—it’s because, during lockdown, Leah and I started this songwriting group and we would meet once a week on Zoom with five people, and we would all share a song that we’d written. We did it for three years, and we’re still doing it, but not quite as regularly. But that’s where all of these songs came from. All of them were basically writing for other people, so I didn’t have the feeling of, I’m breaking away, I’m doing my own thing. Because it was more that I wasn’t seeing my friends, and so then I was writing for my friends.

My friend E.J. O’Hara produced the album. He made all the beats except two, which were collaborations between us. I think his beats are a big reason the album feels post-9/11. It’s playing with the sounds of early-mid-2000s music that he loves. He loves Timbaland and Nelly Furtado and Missy Elliott. Clanging is in the genre of all the music EJ makes—he calls it intellectroclash. It’s appropriating the sounds of mid-aughts electroclash influences—DJ Hell, and I-F—this music that’s great, really fun to dance to. But I think he sees a lot of the lyrics in hipster electroclash as really stupidly decadent and shallow, this post-9/11 Bush-era lyricism that’s just, Let’s party, let’s fuck, and it’s really surface. He wanted to appropriate those aesthetics, but have something to say beyond let’s party. ‘Perfect Brain’ was the first song I wrote because he sent me this beat and was like, ‘This isn’t done, but see what you think.’ I was listening to it over and over. I would walk around and free-associate-rhyme to it, and then stuff would stick. When I sent him back what I was singing over the beat, he was like, ‘Okay, actually this is just done,’ and he started sending me more beats that were leaning into the mechanical side of the music —weird clickings and machine sounds, not quite right. The beats are paranoid.

Sophia: I think you write incredibly well of the kind of mentally ill, e-girl archetype—the one who is both destroyed and also maybe destroyer, a somewhat hysterical and cannibalistic femininity. But you also use the phrase ‘ungendered’ in this song, and your gender itself is ambiguous to me. What is happening with gender on Clanging?

Emily: When I’m songwriting, I do think in terms of masculine and feminine for some reason, and I do feel like this is definitely from the perspective of a girl, even though there are things in it that are kind of macho. I feel like so much of music is men romanticizing doing fucked up things—and I love that music. But things that feel like specifically feminine evil—in the ways that people have written about the feminine, in the literary way, just being manipulative and fickle and deceptive and self-destructive, and doing mutual destruction—what about glorifying that in music? And making that sexy.

Sophia: When does the rest of the album drop?

Emily: September.

Sophia: What kinds of contexts do you want to keep performing it in?

Emily: I’d love to perform it somewhere where people were really dancing, and I’d love to do it with backup dancers.

Sophia: How did the video for ‘Perfect Brain’ come together?

Emily: My friends—Leah and E.J., the people that I was thinking about music with, in relation to—they helped me make the music video, and they’re music video wizards. They have encyclopedic knowledge of them. And I have a secret Boomer-ish quality where I’m like, But you see the video in your imagination! So I didn’t know what I wanted the music videos for Clanging to be. I was watching all these music videos of the legendary Detroit producer, Omar-S, and he made these two videos with another artist, John F.M., where they’re filming on a phone or camcorder, following each other around, walking down the street, going to a liquor store—just singing the song, singing along. It’s really cute and they’re having so much fun and it’s so ballsy, just being like, This is the best song ever, it doesn’t even need a real video.

So I wanted to make one that was me walking around somewhere and singing the lyrics, but because all of my friends got involved, thank god, it’s not just me walking around singing the lyrics. I think it looks really high quality and pro. Zachary Treitz, who directed the ‘Perfect Brain’ video, said, ‘You could just do it at the World Trade Center.’ So we went on a scouting trip and he shot me doing it in the elevator, and it was really funny because both of us were so scared. I had one AirPod in, I’m listening to the song. You can see it in the music video—I’m acting like I’m about to get arrested for singing my song, and everyone around me doesn’t care at all. We went back to shoot the whole video and we had this plan to say we were architecture students shooting something. And it was just this really sweet thing where no one cared.