Classically trained pianist Vicky Emerson goes old-school country

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Vicky Emerson

Found sounds pulled from dusty locked drawers, memories from another life, warm radio crackles from the other side of the world: Vicky Emerson channels all those feelings of wide-eyed fascination into reality. Then, the Twin Cities singer-songwriter smashes them back into a thousand little fragments on her new album, Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down. Emerson, who wrote Wake Me after a visit to Montana when a fierce wind followed her the whole of her visit, finds inspiration in old-school country ladies like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

City Pages caught with Emerson before her album-release show Sunday at Icehouse to see how she captured her live show in her latest album and why — despite being a classically trained pianist — she abandoned the instrument on her record.

City Pages: You spoke about a pivotal moment when you were in Montana that influenced a lot of what went into this album. What were you doing in Montana that you felt this noted moment in your life?

Vicky Emerson: I was the personal attendant for a wedding of one of my dear friends. She moved to Montana, and I hadn’t seen her in almost five years. My husband stayed back in Minneapolis with our children, so I was by myself, which doesn’t happen very often.

I feel that when I am alone that my senses are now heightened in a different way; I become more introspective. I had never been to Montana and it is incredibly beautiful, but the wind was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I thought it was going to pick me up and carry me over the mountains.

On the plane ride home, I made the connection between the physical sensation of the wind on my skin and how I had been feeling internally — that my life was out of balance, I realized that I needed to let go of the superfluous and let music back in — stop resisting the wind and the chaos. It was actually liberating to make that connection.

CP: When did you start writing for this album? 

VE: I started writing this album two years after the birth of my son, and he is almost three now. My daughter is five. The first song that I wrote was “Silhouette” and it took about eight months after writing that song to get the others to start making their way to the surface.

CP: How do you think your producer Matt Patrick changed the album when you brought it to him?

VE: Matt is a phenomenal producer and musician. In fact, he produced my last two albums. This is the first album that we recorded when I actually lived in Minneapolis. The first album [Long Ride], I lived in New York City. The second album [Dust & Echoes], I lived in San Francisco, so we did our pre-production over the phone, email, and Skype.

This time, we were able to sit down together, listen to music, talk through the songs and consider the tone of this album. I feel there is a very cohesive thread and vision for this album. I attribute that to the fact that we were able to share that crucial time of pre-production in the same room.

CP: What do you feel you were able to tell on this album that you weren't able to before?

VE: I’m not sure if anyone has noticed yet, but I didn’t play a single note on the piano on this record which is a first. I am a classically trained pianist, and even though some of the songs started on the piano, they eventually found their way to the guitar.

I feel that this album is as close I have come to the Americana vibe that I love so much. Lyrically, the themes are about love, desire, and one song is about a convict. I will say I feel that I ventured into new ground musically this time around by stepping away from the piano.

CP: You say motherhood has made you braver. How so? 

VE: Indeed, motherhood has made me brave. It has stripped away the self-doubt that used to cripple me in ways that made me limit what I thought I could do. I simply don’t have time to second guess myself anymore. Now, I go with my first instinct.

I think the video for "Long Gone" is an excellent example. I’d like to say I could have pulled that off before children, but there is absolutely no way. Honestly, I just didn’t have the confidence. When Jeremy Krzmarzick, emailed me the synopsis for the video, I stood in my kitchen reading it and yelled, "YES!” at top of my lungs. I immediately knew the story was a perfect match to the song.

CP: Tell me about the song "Under My Skin." 

VE: I came up with the first verse and the chorus in my living room. I could not stop singing the chorus, but for some reason I couldn’t shake loose any more verses. Songwriting for me has evolved in a way where if I know I’m onto something good, I will chase it down until it is finished.

I brought it to Matt at one of our pre-production meetings and asked him to co-write it with me. We finished that song in about 20 minutes. I think writing the bridge was my favorite part. I had a bunch of lyrics scribbled on a piece of paper and he said, “What does that say?” I looked at it, trying to decipher my own handwriting and said, “something about pulling at a collar, a chain and howling at the moon.” He looked up and said, “THAT’S THE BRIDGE!” It was a great moment.

CP: What other songs on this album are special to you?

VE: I love "Silhouette" because after writing that song, I knew that the artist voice I had been ignoring hadn’t left. It was just dormant and that someday, I would find my way back to music. I also love "Lyndale." A good friend asked me to write a song for her grandchild.

I think she may have thought I was going to write a lullaby but instead, it became an uptempo song. In order to write it, I had to think about the kind of message I wanted to share with my children. The theme became that sometimes the best gifts we can give children is the confidence to try something new, to indulge their curiosity, and be there when they fail.

CP: What are you excited to share at the album release show?

VE: Well, the full band will be reunited for the first time after recording the album over six months ago. Plus, I am excited to share the electric energy that for me, is exclusive to CD release shows. There really isn’t anything in the world like it.

Vicky Emerson Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down album-release party

With: Annie Fitzgerald

When: 5 p.m. Sunday, January 24.

Where: Icehouse

Tickets: $8-$10; more info here.


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