Ember Knight Wants to Be a Cult Figure
The Los Angeles artist talks about their practice, quarantine, and what it means to get dressed.
Photographed by Bobby McCoy
Ember Knight was born on top of a Topanga Canyon mountain in a horse trough surrounded by wise men playing gongs. “My name is really Ember Knight, I did not pick that for myself," Knight tells GARAGE over the phone. "I wasn't like, This would be a cool artist name. My parents were married at dawn on the beach in buckskin clothes that they sewed themselves.”
They add, “I wish you could see me! I look like a crazy person crawling around on the floor with my laptop.” And it is true: I do in fact wish that it was not the spring of 2020 so I could see actually them scooting around on the floor, two minutes into our chat.
The thing about Knight is that they are an aspiring cult figure. They are, you might say, a jack of several trades. Knight is a filmmaker and a musician. They don’t really want to be a movie star, but if that happened, they’d like to be a Philip Seymour Hoffman type or maybe a Joaquin Phoenix. Currently, they are exercising their eccentric actor guy muscles by way of working on The Ember Knight Show, a program that revolves around a singular lesson, like learning how to tell the truth or how to be a better listener. The show is—Knight tells me—a combination of Mister Rogers and Jackass. Made alongside their artistic collaborator and romantic partner, Bobby McCoy, The Ember Knight Show features immaculate sets in primary colors, a very tiny car, and the occasional gross out. When I ask them to explain how something like Jackass could coexist with something as pure as Mister Rogers, they tell me it came down to the two pieces of media being things that they love. “I was thinking,” Knight says, “How is it that I can love both of these things? How can I love this one thing that is so safe and so deliberate and so kind and this other thing that is so jarring and so invigorating and in a violent way? The truth is that both of those things are about friendship, they're about being brave, they're about how imagination leads to fun and they're both fearless.”
Indeed, this idea of unexpected feats of bravery and kindness is a touchstone of Knight’s artistic practice—and life. This seems to best manifest itself in the form of dress. Knight tells me that there are three major shifts and iterations in their personal style. For a long period of time, they were constantly wearing a lion suit, kind of like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. “It wasn’t a character, it was just a stage in my life,” they say, “I wanted to be this force and it came right out of my early 20s, and I had a lot of anger and frustration. I felt like I had just nothing in this world to stand on and therefore nothing to lose. The person who I am when I put on that lion suit is volatile. But it comes from a place of innocence.” At the time, Knight was working at a strip club, and their relationship with this lion suit was very much a reaction to their experiences doing sex work, “I was having to be so sweet and so warm and so giving to disgusting men that I didn’t know. I was living half of my time in red velvet lingerie, just being a spring of youth and life and femininity and forgiveness. All the parts of me that were female and soft just got sold. It really defiled all my kindness and softness and turned into something dirty,” they tell me “I was going back and forth between these two extremes, [working in the club and walking around in the lion suit]. They were really compartmentalizing my soul in a big way.”
Eventually, Knight was fired and then successfully sued the strip club they worked at. With some of the money they got from the lawsuit they bought a baby blue suit. When they wear it, they look kind of like David Byrne. Knight started to wear the suit constantly, and would go to city hall in Los Angeles during the public comment section and tell city council that they were “Going to be King of LA, and that I was going to make parking free and I would read them Christopher Robin poems.” Knight is very careful to tell me this was not a performance art piece: Ember Knight in a baby blue suit running to be the monarch of Los Angeles was a genuine and honest extension of their personality. It was around this time they met their partner, Bobby McCoy, and the current iteration of Knight’s practice as an artist and performer came brilliantly into focus. McCoy and Knight started making a movie together, and through wearing their blue suit they were able to work through some incredibly intense emotions: “That blue suit character has helped me to push everything that has happened behind me. It’s helped me to try and be a hero and try to be a force of good and of imagination. And I've been working through that, what is in that outfit and what is in that mindset ever since.”
Now, Knight is getting ready to release their sophomore album, Cheryl. The record is a conceptual rock opera and is named after Knight’s mother. Taking place at the Rockhaven Sanatarium—which is a mental hospital in Los Angeles that once held patients like Marilyn Monroe’s mother—Cheryl is about “this woman named Cheryl who's like a David Lynch-ian version of my mother that is also me who gets committed to this asylum because she can't remember her favorite color and she's trying to pick between blue, yellow and red.” Knight recorded the whole thing themself, buying a bunch of mics and recording the whole thing in a local church. They also decided to record the whole thing on grand piano. “I had never played grand piano before and I just showed up [to record]. I was like I will record the whole thing on a grand piano, no problem!” Knight says, laughing, “It was a problem.” The resulting record is about as grandiose and ambitious as you think it might be. Oh, also there is a forthcoming feature film attached because why not.
But this is all in the future, because right now, Knight is stuck inside quarantining until further notice. Right now, instead of being Ember in the blue suit working on a million projects, they are Ember wearing a white T-shirt and sitting at home, scooting around on the floor and making amends. “This time has been, for me, about cleaning up on the inside and making apologies and making things right and being honest with myself. And I think I have a little bit more of that to do before I write anything new,” they share. I tell them that I agree, and that I think that, quantitatively speaking, we’re all going to come out of quarantine better people. “That's the note that I'm always trying to hit in everything I make. Joyful optimism is not pussy shit,” says Knight, “It's actually way harder and way more brutal to be good and to have good manners and to try hard and to say you're sorry, it is so much more brutal and so much more brave than being like, ‘Nah, nah, fuck you.’ You know?” I do know. From looking at any art that Ember Knight makes, you can tell that what they’re really angling for is this idea of kindness, hard work, and finding joy in unexpectedly beautiful places.