On Florist’s third studio album, the band’s creative force, Emily Sprague, begins with an exercise in self-soothing. “Emily, just know that you’re not as alone as you feel in the dark,” she sings, her voice echoing and fraying amid a guitar line that shifts from mournful to optimistic. It’s rare for musicians to address themselves by name in their songs, so the line is jolting in its directness. Though Sprague is alone, singing a song to herself, her highly personal message is rooted in an easy-to-understand fear that loneliness and solitude lead ultimately to emptiness and uncertainty. The rest of the album orbits her many confrontations with that void. Her soft, arresting, and optimistic account of embracing her solitude is, in its own quiet way, showstopping. With its moments of powerful stillness, Emily Alone leans into the underlying social function of art as an offer of comfort and respite.
The album’s title refers to its central theme and mood, as well as its process of creation. Though Florist, formed in Albany, New York, in 2013, is a three-member indie folk band, Emily Alone was entirely written, performed, and recorded by Sprague, the group’s main vocalist and songwriter. The album, in part, revisits the isolation she encountered after she made a cross-country move to Los Angeles in 2017. The relocation, coming in the wake of her mother’s death, separated Sprague from her Brooklyn-based bandmates, Jonnie Baker and Rick Spataro. Thus she created Emily Alone in the cocoon of her home during the final months of 2018 not only out of creative necessity but also to challenge the limits of Florist as a band.
Since the group’s beginning, Sprague’s thoughtful autobiographical impulses have primarily been the momentum behind Florist’s evolution. Its 2016 full-length debut, The Birds Outside Sang, was a folk-pop chronology of her recovery from a debilitating bicycle accident and return to collaboration. The 2017 follow-up, If Blue Could Be Happiness, centered on her grief for her mother. With both albums, Florist stressed the intimacy of the home and DIY recording process as much as the intimacy expressed in the songs themselves.
This latest release takes the listener into Sprague’s isolation in a series of mental and physical snapshots. Devoid of a rhythm section, the songs billow and drift. Her reassured whispers dissipate into echo and then silence. Synths, images of the ocean, and the sounds of a single pair of footsteps make appearances, but the anchor throughout is Sprague and her guitar. She speaks directly of void and her body and of expansive bodies like the ocean and the cycling of matter and resources that makes up life on Earth.
Sprague’s hyperspecific, cinematic songwriting survives the rest of the band’s absence, as do reappearing themes of searching for life’s meaning within the merciless cycles of the natural world. But further, this latest release focuses on how music can not only recount those contemplations but also create spaces for them to happen. Underlying it all is a careful optimism—perhaps suggested by the promise of the rest of Florist’s eventual return—that even self-imposed solitude isn’t the end of insight or creation.
Such a fracturing is fertile new ground for the group, which it said was conceived as a “friendship project,” but it’s familiar territory for Sprague, whose solo work as Emily A. Sprague explores contemplative place-making through lulling, ambient compositions created on modular synthesizers. The songs on her recent solo records—2017’s Water Memory and 2018’s Mount Vision—swell and ebb like the change in tides. And while on Emily Alone she draws on the atmospheric power of her ambient work, its documentation of a specific time in her life follows her creative instincts with Florist.
“Everyone I know / Including myself / Is a hungry dog / Running toward the horizon / I leave the windows open / So I can have the breeze,” she sings on “I Also Have Eyes,” a haunting picture of existential wonderings grounded in Sprague’s experience of her home and her neighborhood. Over a simple guitar melody, these unusual lyrics catch the ear, nearly commanding the listener to give in to stillness. Akin to how swaths of pop and dance tracks can transport us instantly to a party, the melodious but bare instrumentation on Emily Alone creates an atmosphere of solitude, demanding we find a place to sit still, stare off into the distance, to better absorb the flashes of insight we may miss otherwise. In a time when encouragement to slow down and sit still feels rare, there’s something hypnotizing about an album that resists passive listening or soundtracking daily moments of mindless flurry.
That Sprague’s individualized songwriting can be so viscerally recognizable is perhaps why this minimalist DIY project has found such a wide audience: Florist’s biggest mainstream cosign came this year when Beyoncé included in her Netflix concert special Homecoming the song “Thank You,” from The Birds Outside Sang, to express her gratitude for her life and place in the natural world. In the album version, Sprague recites a spoken-word poem about finding peace and mortality; in the film her lyrics are swapped out for a voice-over of Maya Angelou reflecting on her mortality in a 2013 interview. As to be expected, when Sprague learned her song would be included in the movie, she was floored. But with optimism at Florist’s beating heart, it’s no wonder that producers tapped it for the documentary’s denouement.
That hopefulness extends naturally into Emily Alone, which ends on the sunny tune “Today I’ll Have You Around.” The closest the album comes to traditional pop song structure, Sprague’s chorus repeats the title’s softly confident resolution, a promise that connection and companionship can coexist even through isolation. On its own, as a chapter in Florist’s career, it’s a fascinating look at how a music project’s narrative extends across projects. The question is now how that project will evolve once Emily is no longer alone.
In seeking comfort, on Emily Alone, Sprague constantly returns to the idea of finding solace in surrendering to the void. “And if I lose my mind / Please give it back to the earth,” she sings in “Celebration.” And later, in “Ocean Arms”: “Some things last 100 lives / I know I’ve died many times.” Throughout, acoustic guitar arpeggios fall like raindrops in a whirl. Florist’s documentation of a member’s wandering, quotidian thoughts and world is not exactly a new thing in indie rock or folk, following the tradition of artists like Bright Eyes, Townes Van Zandt, and Phil Elverum’s Mount Eerie project. But Emily Alone, its title recalling a caption scrawled at the bottom of a Polaroid, offers a rare encouragement for the listener to slow down and look inward also. If this is what Emily found when she was alone, it suggests, what then is in store there for you?