A 10-year veteran of the local music scene and notable Americana singer songwriter, Vicky Emerson is fired up.
Her fourth album, “Steady Heart,” was released in January. It’s a collection of real truth tunes fueled by a polarizing political climate and growing knowledge of the complexities of love. In directing the album’s creation, she intentionally involved as many women as she could find, taking over the production duties herself.
She has made a conscious decision to be a noticeable voice for women in her music, in the local community and beyond. Deep from the trenches of promoting her album, Vicky took the time to talk to us more about “Steady Heart,” how she got her start in music and how she responds to internet trolls.
Tell me more about producing your own album and the challenges it presented and why it was important to you to either have a woman producer or ultimately to do it yourself.
Sure. I’m well versed in the studio setting. I’ve recorded several albums and worked with some really great producers that are men and my studio experience has always been really great. But with the rise of what’s been happening, especially with the #metoo movement and #timesup, I just felt like it would be important to me to start working with more women. And so I started looking around and I was really disheartened to see that there really aren’t that many female producers.
You do see more and more women producing their own work, and I think the reason is because we — for me anyway — is that I have to learn by doing. I have to be hands on in order to understand what the process is. I feel that, like Mary Bragg in Nashville, she has an album coming out, now she produced it and engineered it, and I think that you’ll see more and more of that happening as women find their confidence that they can indeed produce their own material.
I was also in a situation where my band and I have been together playing this bunch of songs for, you know, a good year, so the arrangements were pretty well established, so then it was really capturing the essence of the song in the studio. I felt pretty confident that I could do that and I’m really happy with the way it turned out and yeah, it was really important to me to shine a light on the fact that women – there aren’t very many women producers but indeed they can and should do it on their own.
What does your writing process look like? Are you a lyrics first person? Melody first? Do you have a process in place?
Haha! Well, if you followed this, I’ve become a mother and before I had children it was kind of melody and lyrics at the same time and I would just grab my guitar or sit behind the piano and just work out the song. Didn’t really matter how long it took, because I had more time. Now that I’m a mom, it’s a little different.
I will say that I was a part of that Facebook challenge that my friend Sarah Morris does, where they put out a word a week. And I did that for the summer which helped yield 12 new songs, you had to write a song a week so that was a really great way to jump start my writing. I resisted it, because I’m not much of a sharer, a public sharer of new material, and that’s part of the deal with this. As soon as you complete the song, you have to take a video and put it on Facebook and that just made me really uncomfortable.
That would make anyone uncomfortable I think!
Yeah, I like to think of my songs a bit like soup. I like to put out the good ingredients and then just let it sit for a while and simmer and then see if I wanna change anything. You really don’t have that opportunity with this, but it’s a really good exercise and also what it made me do is It made me choose writing over other things. I could probably be folding laundry or I could be out doing yard work, but instead I’m gonna sit down and I’m gonna finish this song, so you’re just really making the choice to put the writing in front of other things. Once I did that, I wrote a lot of songs for this album. So it was really fun to see which ones would hang together the best.
For you, what does it look like being a working musician, having a family, having kids? I know we talked about, with your songwriting, just being a lot more deliberate about when you choose to do that, but as far as playing shows and trying to get all your family time in and I know in a previous interview you said your husband travels for work. Can you tell me what your day to day looks like?
That’s why the Facebook challenge — I’m choosing to make writing a priority, to choose to write when it’s quiet here because it’s generally not. I do need the quiet in order to write. That is essential to my process but having two little ones and a husband that travels, he still travels about two days a week sometimes three, sometimes all week and then I’ll have shows on the weekend. So I will say that the juggling is a constant challenge. The days get to be really long and then my kids love to get up early.
I mean, it’s being very vigilant about self care. It’s just so important. If you’re not feeling 100% or you’re feeling run down. Or you get impatient and things don’t go the way you want them to go. I just try to really make sleep a priority and exercise and try to take care of myself so I can take care of everybody else.
Do you say today I’m going to write songs for 20 minutes or try to get some kind of music in every day?
Not every day. Right now is weird for me. Because right now I’m in a promotion cycle for the album which is just tons and tons of computer work, which is my least favorite but it has to be done. So right now I did make some choices to practice before shows. I really try to be vigilant about making really good setlists. For instance Sarah Morris and I were on tour as The Home Fires last weekend in Texas and I made sure we carved out time to practice and plan out what we were playing. But right now I’m not writing, maybe just a little bit here and there. I don’t know if my brain just completely shuts down the creativity mode in order to go into promotion mode but the two of them don’t work in tandem very well.
I’ve been hearing a lot about your music video [for “The Reckoning”]. It seemed like it was getting a lot of good recognition. NOTE: “The Reckoning” video features a dance group, an artist and a small choir of notable local female singers, the clear message being, women supporting each other.
Yeah it did really really well and I’m really thrilled. I did get, I don’t know if you saw this, but I did get trolled pretty hard. I woke up on Friday morning and some guy had jumped on my Instagram page had left some pretty horrible remarks, including using the F word.
If you follow me on Instagram, it’s right there. I did a post about it. Then he jumped over to The Home Fires page and used the F word again and called me fat. It was bad. I was like, “Oh my goodness.” It’s just a thing where here you’re putting out something about women supporting women and, you know, the song is called “The Reckoning” and I see women finding their confidence and moving into their power. I think that makes some people uncomfortable.
I don’t think any woman can put out any female empowerment art statement of any kind without some guy getting all hot and bothered about it and making asinine comments.
The thing is I wasn’t even surprised! I was like, “Oh, it took four days for this to happen; that’s amazing.” I felt like, that is so sad that we just expect it. We shouldn’t expect it and we shouldn’t tolerate it, it’s wrong! It’s just wrong.
So when you were thinking of the idea for the video for “The Reckoning,” did you know you wanted to put out that kind of a video from the beginning?
You know, I wrote the song with my friend Graham Bramblett and I didn’t even know it was going to be on the record at the point that we wrote it. But then when we were putting the record together it was pretty clear that song was resonating with audiences. Any time we played it, that was the one, everybody loved it.
So I thought, I’m going to put this on the album and then it came time to think about doing the music video, And the lyrics, we left them open for interpretation; we did that on purpose because then people can put their own story into it that way. But then as everything started to come together, all of a sudden, it clicked.
I worked with so many women who helped create the record. I hired a radio promoter; she’s a woman. I produced it. I hired a publicist; she’s a woman. And I was like, you know what, this is women supporting other women; this is a statement. I feel really strongly that if we support each other, then our voice is louder as a group than it would be divided and trying to make a case on our own. We’re stronger as a unit.
So then I took that idea to my friends Heather Corndorf and Katie Cannon. They’re in the video; they’re two of the dancers and they volunteered to do the choreography. And it then was really natural to ask my friend Genevieve [Fabiola], because I love her art work and the wings represent that we can lift each other up. And then the singers come in. Once we committed to the idea, it just all fell into place. It was so fun to do! SO fun to do!
I was amused. A man – music blogger — reviewed your album and said that the intended audience of your album is women. What are your thoughts on that statement? Myself, I disagree. Your music can be interpreted in so many ways.
Exactly, yeah, I write songs for people. I don’t write them just for women or just for men. I’m a songwriter. It’s called Steady Heart and at the end of the day the album is a collection of love songs.
You know love is — it gets dynamically complex as we get older. As we care for aging parents and care for children all at the same time. People encounter health issues and addictions and then there’s a love I have for my husband and it’s evolved and endured a lot of ups and downs in the 10 years we’ve been married. And it’s tested and how you come through on these tests and how it takes a steadiness and an endurance and it takes commitment and I think at the end of the day that’s where this album lands.
I know you’ve been making music for a long time. How did you start making music and what keeps bringing you back to it?
(Laughs). You know my husband reminds me after every time I put out an album I say “This is gonna be the last one; I can’t do it anymore.” And then every three years, I say, “I need to put out another record.” And he just shakes his head “Here we go again” and he reminds me, “You know this is how things go.” It’s intense, stressful, kinda crazy and chaotic and I think I don’t know if I can do it anymore and then low and behold we’ve done many.
I think I started in 2000. I put out a solo piano record because I was one of the pianists at Nordstrom’s in Chicago, where I lived at the time, and that was my job. People would ask me all the time, “What are you playing?” And I said, “I don’t know, I just make it up.” And Nordstrom’s said, “If you put out an album, you can sell it here.”
So I did that and it was great and then I did a couple more of those and that was fine, but then I kinda got bored just of the instrumental stuff, cause it’s kinda, I don’t know. I was more interested in writing some lyrics instead of just expressing it with instrumental piano and doing things that are more complex and then we moved back to… I lived in St Paul and I started going to open mics and started playing shows here and there.
And then I think it was 2007, maybe then I started putting out vocal records. So there’s some early stuff, and then in 2009 I put out an album called “Long Ride” and I feel like I finally had honed in on ‘This is my sound’. And it falls under Americana music and then after I figured that out, then I knew I had a genre, cause I was really all over the place. I would write a country song and then a pop song and I think it’s really natural in early songwriting to experiment. Then finally I committed to what I felt like, “This is what my songs sound like and that is Americana music.”
I know you’ve lived in several different places. How would you compare the music scene in Minneapolis to the other places that you’ve been?
Well, I’ve lived in New York City, so that’s a hard one to compare to, but I will say this, there are some similarities to New York City that I see here in Minneapolis, especially right now. It hasn’t always been this way, but I see people willing to help each other and support each other and build those alliances that I respond to. “I can help you with this; I can give you the booking name.” People willing to help, not expecting anything in return, just for the sheer idea of we all do better when we all do better.
I believe that 100 percent, and I noticed that in New York City, and I thought that’s really refreshing. That’s when I learned this is really important, not feeling like you’re in competition all the time and just wanting to help other people or, you know, expecting something in return. Then I moved to San Francisco, and then we had a baby at that time, and I got pregnant, so I never got to explore the music scene there. And it’s not as vast or accessible as New York City is. The scene is smaller and it definitely was not like, Americana music was where it was at there.
The timing kind of worked out in my favor because I was a mother to very tiny children so my focus was where it needed to be. But then we moved back to Minneapolis, and that was good. The timing couldn’t have been better. I had my son, and then after a couple years of not sleeping, I was like, “I need to get back to music because I’m going to lose my mind here.” So then I started getting back into the music scene here and released another album and that’s when I started meeting all these incredible people. Other people, especially people in the music scene here.
Is that when you met Sarah [Morris]?
Yeah, I met her in 2016 I think?
We were set up by Ellen Stanley, she told me “You need to meet Sarah” and she told Sarah, “You need to meet Vicky; you two have so much in common.” And when we finally met, we were like, “Oh yeah, yes we do.”
We became fast friends, and then we did our radio campaign together and that was really amazing in terms of the text messages that would happen, you know, like I would make a phone call and let’s say one of the guys who would take phone calls about adding new music and how much they were spinning your record would be sitting at his desk, and I would text her and say ‘Bob is at his desk; you should give him a call.” So we would work together and we were very successful at getting on the Americana chart and getting our music played. So that solidified our friendship and we started doing some touring together.
Aside from producing it yourself, how do you feel this album differs from your previous ones?
That’s a hard question, because albums are like your children. I would say that I’m really proud of this record in a way that’s different from the previous ones and that could be because I produced it, but when you’re working with a producer, they’re going to have their sound when they help craft the album, and I was really curious, “What would I sound like if it just came from me?” This is it. And I really love the way it turned out and I really love the songs.
I think the songs tell pretty essential stories, and they’re also timely stories and things that can make you think about what’s going on in your own life. I do love all the work that I have done with Matt Patrick and all my experiences with that, but this one is special, and I’m excited to see where it’ll go.
Who would your dream collaboration be with?
I get compared to Roseanne Cash all the time, and I’ve loved her ever since someone gave me her album “10 Song Demo.” I love her. I love her voice on Twitter, and I think she’s super brave. I also really respect and love Brandi Carlile. Her performing The Joke on the Grammys? C’mon! I think those two women I really look up to and would love to do a collaboration.
Vicky Emerson’s album “Steady Heart” is available wherever you consume music.
By Sarah Osterbauer