Pop music is malleable; it is fluid and carries with it a sense of emotional elasticity. Through our collected experiences, we connect with music on a primal level, with perceptions and associations both tangible and dream-like. While most musicians opt for a superficial understanding of these musical correlations, there are those who realize these innate forces and their ability to transform and sustain in equal measure.
But for singer-songwriter Merry Ellen Kirk, music is even more wide-ranging than this rather inclusive set of descriptions would have you believe. Having spent her early years in Mongolia—her parents were missionaries—she developed a diverse awareness of the world, and of what music can be when experienced through a different cultural lens. As a child, she began making up little ditties and developed an inescapable desire to create music; after a time, when her family returned home and settled down in Nashville, she came to realize that writing and performing music would have to be a large part of her future.
Described by Kirk as sitting “somewhere between Christina Perri & Ingrid Michaelson,” her music has slowly evolved since she released her debut record, “Invisible War,” back in 2009. Posited as an “introspective exploration into spiritual battles in our lives,” this album gave Kirk an outlet for her impressionistic impulses and began the process of pop acclimation that would go on to direct the trajectory of her music. Full of the bright emotional releases that would make their presence more fully known on her subsequent albums, these songs were the beginning steps that would lead her to “We Are the Dreamers,” her latest collection of emotionally-incisive pop songs.
Helping her realize this project is Aaron Krause, a musician and producer whom Kirk met back in 2010. She had written a duet called “Tonight” that was waiting for the right voice to complement her own, and she stumbled across Aaron at a concert where he was performing as the opening act for a friend’s band. They subsequently recorded an EP together as The Shakespeares. Shortly thereafter, she asked him to produce her sophomore album, “Firefly Garden,” and the two struck an immediate and lasting musical connection that would follow them in the intervening years.
Over the course of the last six years, her pop adaptation has served the needs of her records perfectly. Bits of piano, organ, synthetic melodies and rhythms and a love of the pomp and orchestrated theatricality of ‘80s pop music has given her songs a vivid and vibrant life all their own. Channeling the spirits of artists such as Tori Amos and Imogen Heap, she undermines listener expectation even as she provides a familiar foundation on which to build a unique pop-centric aesthetic.
With “We Are the Dreamers,” Kirk is looking for something far more communal and emotionally associative than has been indicated on any of her previous albums. There’s a sense that she is simply passing through each of her listener’s lives, giving each moment its own specific soundtrack. At times bombastic and euphoric and still far more reserved at other times, these songs cling tightly to a certain mid-‘90s nostalgia and wring it until the notes fall off like autumn leaves.
With Krause’s fluorescent production highlighting Kirk’s expressive voice, the songs on “We Are the Dreamers” develop split personalities. They are well aware of the heartache and suffering that can come from love and companionship, but they also want to believe in the transformative nature of music—and so does Kirk, and so do we. Moving from the more abstract associations of her earlier work to something slightly more accessible (while still maintaining a firm creative hand), she forms complete worlds of emotional instability and guides us through the hazardous terrain, leaving us whole but slightly battered on the other side.
Kirk turns all the tired clichés about love and lust and desperation inside out, allowing us to see how each affects the next in ways that are as unexpected as they are devastating. But there is hope too—the world is not always the dark and bleak world people make it out to be, and Kirk finds ways in which to shed some light with her songs through a selection of gorgeous harmonies and intricate arrangements. Kirk has commented that she wants her music to “make an impact on people’s lives...to encourage the next generation of dreamers to keep believing.” And across the ever-shifting landscape of “We Are the Dreamers,” it seems that she has done just that.