Interview: The art of healing: Emanuel finds catharsis through creating on ‘Alt Therapy’

Canadian-Ethiopian singer-songwriter Emanuel. (Earmilk)


Every so often, an album comes out that feels wholly complete, timeless, and magical. Very few albums are on my list of “unskippables”, and Alt Therapy by Canadian-Ethiopian singer-songwriter Emanuel is one of them. A cathartic listening experience that is moving, intentional, and worthy of being played from cover to cover, Alt Therapy is a new album from the heart of Canada’s blossoming R&B and soul scene that every music-head from the North and beyond has their eye on.

Conceived from a basement in the outskirts of Ontario, Emanuel’s music has travelled across the globe, touching the ears and hearts of millions and even receiving a stamp of approval from prominent figures in entertainment like Kardinal Ofishall and Idris Elba. EARMILK caught up with the prodigy to discuss his creative process, the album’s reception, and his plans for taking “the damn thing worldwide”.

Emanuel took us on the biggest pilgrimage of his musical career yet: the inception his first body of work. With a release date slated for the onset of the pandemic, there were both opportunities and risks in the timing of Alt Therapy’s release. Yet, at a time when he couldn’t play any events or connect with fans on tour, Emanuel was able to create an intimate listening experience that millions of fans found solace in. His very first single, “Need You” received over 6.4 million streams on Spotify alone, propelling his talents to the front and center of playlists and billboards, and marking him as an artist who needed to be heard.

A fan of both the music and the album’s seamless rollout, I inquired about how the album came to be. “Alt Therapy was an album born in 2017 in a basement in London, Ont. From that date till the end of 2019 when I submitted the project, everything was relatively spontaneous. I am always very intentional about how I want my music to sound, I feel when creating an album, you have to plan all you can and pray lightning strikes…” Emanuel details. “I’m not sure how much you can plan for. The whole thing feels like a series of fortunate and unfortunate [events] with abounding grace that leaves me exactly where I need to be.” And it seems like Emanuel is indeed exactly where he needs to be. With the kind of reception most new artists could only dream about, Emanuel has skyrocketed from London Ont.’s best kept a secret, to one of the country’s brightest musical gems.

But the come-up was anything but hasty. Emanuel and his team have been grinding behind the scenes for years. Before “Need You”, Emanuel was building up a devoted circle of supporters, sharing moody tunes on his YouTube channel, and wooing fans at local shows with his insane runs. But Emanuel wanted his words to reach beyond the walls of concert venues, and when it came down to releasing his debut record, Emanuel decided to entrust Universal Music Canada for its official debut, explaining, “I believe it became a question of growth and being able to do what it takes to reach a larger audience. I understand that it takes a village to truly do something great. and I signed in the hope of finding that village in Universal Music Canada.” And it seems he played his cards right. Within months, Emanuel became a multi-million streaming artist who was quickly picked up in the States by Motown Records.

And yet, despite his obvious successes, the numbers and co-signs aren’t what makes Emanuel a class-act––it’s the heart behind his heart. “I want the music to mean self reflection for people,” Emanuel shares. “I want people to recognize Alt Therapy as healing music. Like some of the great musicians of recent past, I want the music [I make] to mark a positive shift in the collective consciousness of the people that listen to the music.” Like the album’s watercolor paintings, each song is handcrafted with artful mastery. Highly in tune with the emotions society has grappled with in current times, Alt Therapy’s lyrics have the power to uplift and unite. Tracks like “I Need A Doctor” embody the angst that comes with navigating life’s uncertainties, while “Black Woman” is a heartfelt ode of appreciation to Black women everywhere.

It’s one thing to take in the sonic excellence of the record and another to appreciate Emanuel’s thoughtful pen game: “My songwriting process is really simple. I love to begin a song by just listening to instrumentation or a beat live off the floor. When I find something that brings me feeling, I begin to freestyle. when I hear something I like, I track it and refine,” Emanuel shares.“I think the hardest records are the ones about subjects I might not be willing to be honest with myself about. There’s an internal struggle that ensues, and a song like “Magazines” is born.” With a remarkable gift of transporting his listeners into his world, Emanuel’s ability to tap into the universal sentiments of surrender is a rarity, and perhaps that’s the reason why so many listeners have found comfort in his music.

Alt Therapy is the perfect crafting of heart, spirit and soul. When praising artists who create with intentionality, Emanuel must be in the conversation. A true storyteller, he’s mastered the art of living and creating in bold colour, and inspiring us to do the same.

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