“My whole thing is that all of my friends are married and having children, and I’m just living this topsy-turvy life,” Emily Fairlight says when we meet in Wellington, on a sunny autumn morning. “I don’t know; I feel like I’m cheating time a bit, just by being where I am, and doing what I’m doing.” The emergent poet and songwriter and I are sitting inside an inner city craft beer brewery and restaurant where, aside from us, families and married couples are busy brunching. Instead of food, Emily orders a bloody mary and a coffee. She asks me if I can mention the sauce stains on her jeans, and we start talking about the events that led to Mother Of Gloom, originally titled Private Apocalypse, the intimate - and yes - very apocalyptic album she self-released at the start of May.

Emily is 35, with wavy hair, and eyes that look haunted on stage, and mischievous off. As they enter their thirties, people often make comments like “Where did the time go?’ and ‘What have I done?’ But Emily as she puts it, “knows exactly where the time went,” and alongside the usual dose of woes that assail most us as we age, she had a hell of a lot of fun as well.

As a reference to her feeling that she’s cheating time, Emily titled the first single off Mother of Gloom ‘Time’s Unfaithful Wife.’ But before she was Time’s Unfaithful Wife, she was a teenager who ran away from her hometown of Christchurch in search of adventure in Australia and India. A circus school student who, on a whim, sung naked at a burlesque night. A retail clerk at a women-friendly, pornography-free sex toy store. A young person who wrote (and still writes) poetry in a paper notebook. A dreamer who dreamed up delicate pastoral folk songs and sea shanties on a cheap guitar. A barista who served up shit hot coffee with even hotter banter. A runner turned jack of all trades at a digital visual effects company. She’s been all of these things and thousands more. We’re venturing into hyperbole now, but you get the drift.

Emily started releasing music around 2011, while living in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. She kicked off with a few loose singles, and not long after, an independently released self-titled album. If you wanted to, you could have draw connections between what she was doing and the 60s/70s British folk-rock scene - as reframed within the quiet acoustic/lo-fi singer-songwriter music that was dominating the more commercial side of the underground music conversation at the time. Delivered with an olde time lilt, her lyrics and vocal melodies had a spare and calming poetry, equal parts magic realism and urban modernity. Although she continued performing live around the country, either solo or with different backing bands, we didn’t really hear any recorded material from her again until 2017. So, the question begs itself, what has been going on in her world?

There was a difficult second album that never saw release. “I binned it because I didn’t think it was good enough,” she admits. There was movement back and forth between Wellington and Christchurch, or more specifically, the nearby port town of Lyttelton, ground zero for a generation of internationally recognised New Zealand folk and country singers and songwriters including Aldous Harding, Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams, and Nadia Reid. There were also personal things, little things, big things, those things the mundanity and beauty of life is made of. Then, a couple of years ago, there was The Accident, her very own Private Apocalypse. “It was just so dumb,” Emily reflects. While walking in the dark outside a house in the Christchurch suburb of Mt Pleasant, she missed a step on a drop. Emily spun, her body spiralling out of control before she hit the ground head first and blacked out. “I came too after two minutes or so, my friend was pressing on my head, and there was a pool of blood.”

In New Zealand, there is a lingering mentality best described with the phrase “She’ll be right.” It implies a sense that nothing’s really that big a deal, or a cause for concern, even when it really is. Emily’s friends called an ambulance, and when she regained consciousness; she almost convinced them to cancel it. She’ll be right, mate. “I was confused, and I hadn’t fully realised what was happening,” she says, pausing before continuing. “She was not right. She was not right for ages. She’s still not completely right. My friends say I’m still not the same as I was. I will probably never be the same. She was pretty wrong for a long time.” Emily has a scar from that fall on her forehead and what looked like a head injury at first, ended up being a brain injury. Sometimes people compliment her on it, which she laughs about, but it must be a harsh reminder as well. “After the accident, I went to darker places than I’ve ever, ever been,” she admits. “It was frightening, and it made everything rawer.” The rawness bled everywhere, and as she grappled with recovery and readjustment, something began to change in her songwriting. “I could always sit down and write a song, that was just kind of a thing I did. I think it was more of a thought than felt process before, and I still think about it, but it’s more led by feeling now.”

Six months after The Accident, Emily flew to Texas to go on tour with a Christchurch-based Americana band called The Bristol Dollar and some of their friends. They spent the next few weeks cruising around the state playing shows. Most of the group were older than her, so when they had downtime, Emily broke away, dropped past local music stores and bars, and made new friends. As she remembers, “All the people I met over there were musicians, and a lot of them were living as such. There was this camaraderie, this support and belief you don’t get as much back home.” Day by day, night by night, and show by show, her personal belief started to grow. In the same manner, the landscape, people, culture, and sounds bled into her music.

After she returned home to New Zealand, the reality of how much her head injury was still affecting her really set in. “Everything got quite real, and I realised I could only focus on one thing, and I wanted music to be the thing I focused on,” she says. “I used to be really good at multitasking, but I can’t multitask anymore.” Emily began to redraw the horizons of her life, and a new type of song began to come out when she was writing. Half a year after that first trip to Texas, she went over again by herself and played a bunch of small bar gigs, travelling from city to city by Greyhound buses. In Austin, she befriended record producer Doug Walseth, with whom she would eventually lay the foundations for Mother of Gloom at his Cat's Eye Studio on a third visit to the Lone Star State. “I woke up one morning, and recorded a video of myself playing a new song [‘The Escape’] in my pyjamas, and posted it on Facebook,” Emily remembers. “Doug messaged me straight away and said, ‘When are you coming to record?’”

Without a record deal behind her, Emily ran a campaign on a local arts crowdfunding website called Boosted to help finance the recording and release of the album. She also scrimped and saved at her end as much as possible to cross the line. Despite having some initial reservations about asking for financial support, financial support was what she got. “The idea of crowdfunding freaked me out, because I’m an introvert, and I worry about expectations and obligations,” she admits. “But there was this belief in me from all these people I didn’t even realise believed in me.”

Doug and some of his session musician friends helped Emily shape the skeleton and muscles of Mother of Gloom, before giving the album skin and hair back in studio sessions at home. From there, the final mixes were completed at record producer/engineer Ben Edwards’ The Sitting Room studios - the same space near Lyttelton harbour where aforementioned New Zealand folk and country sensations Aldous Harding, Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams, and Nadia Reid created their breakout works.

The twelve songs on Mother of Gloom draw on the experiences and emotions Emily collected on her journey from brain injury to recovery, memories, and metaphors drawn from an earlier life, and the reality that recovery can sometimes mean establishing a new normal for yourself. All the while accepting that some things might never be the same again, and that’s okay. Set against accordions, mariachi horns, banjo, violins, and folk-rock instrumentation Emily’s voice ranges from a whisper to a howl. Traditional folk music, and Texan-Mexican Americana motifs sitting as part and parcel of songs that are often closer to battle cries than the enchanted woodland dreamscape tropes often imposed on folk singers. A friend once commented to me that most of his favourite singers seem haunted, like they’ve got something rattling around inside of them that’s struggling to get out, and sometimes, against all odds, it does. This is the feeling at the heart of Mother of Gloom, a record that Emily, entering her mid-30s, put everything on the line to create and release, and if you’re willing to give it a spin, your listening life could be that much richer for it.

The day she released her album, Emily put a candid post up on Facebook. “I’d slept in a single bed with no linen, covered in cardigans because it was fucking cold,” she laughs. “When I got up, everything was wet, and on the line, so I had to use my bathmat to dry myself, but hey, I released this album. I’m just not doing very much of the grown-up shit people my age are supposed to. Look, I’ve got tomato sauce on my jeans from last night. Don’t forget to mention it in the article.” She was not right, she might still not be completely right, but she was right. It’s a funny thing.

Mother of Gloom is out now.