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Interview: Emily Wolfe

6 October 2021

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

Emily Wolfe started playing guitar in her bedroom as a teenager in Texas. While honing her skills and starting to write songs, the aspiring musician would go see local bands and take notes on what worked – and what didn’t – when it came to performing live. By the time she was ready to hit the stage on her own, Wolfe had put in plenty of practice and, from the get go, gave a professional performance each and every time she played in front of people.

Her introduction to the world came via a self-titled blues-rock album released in 2019. She put plenty of miles on the tour van, playing any stage that would have her and honing her musical and performing skills. Heading into 2020, Wolfe planned to do more touring before taking some time to start work on a follow up album. With Covid bringing a halt to touring, Wolfe immediately went to work on her sophomore album, Outlier, which was released in June 2021.

Wolfe’s guitar playing still takes center stage on the new release but she’s incorporated some pop-rock elements that should broaden her fanbase beyond middle aged guys who grew up listening to Clapton, Beck, Page and Hendrix and are looking for the next guitar hero.

Wolfe recently spoke with me while preparing for a fall tour that will keep her on the road until mid-December.

How satisfying was it to get Outlier out into the world?

EMILY: It was great, it felt like having a second child. I don’t have kids or anything, so I don’t super know what that feeling’s like but if there is anything I could compare it to, it would be that.

Was this album written and recorded pre-pandemic or did you make this album in the last year?

EMILY: I actually did it during the pandemic. I had, I’d say, 5 of the 10 songs written then as touring stopped and downtime was the norm, that’s kind of when I wrote the rest of it. I was supposed to be touring all of 2020 and was going to do the record after that so, I guess, it technically came out sooner than it was supposed to. It’s been interesting trying to navigate the industry during this and trying to time things. I kind of reached a point where I didn’t want to necessarily wait forever to put this out for when touring comes back because nobody knew when that was going to happen. We put it out and luckily touring is back for me.

When you were looking into starting to book shows, were you anxious to get back out? Did you say, “I’m going to go back out no matter what”? Or, did you say, “There have to be certain milestones hit in America before I’ll even consider booking dates”?

EMILY: I think seeing a couple of festivals actually happen, they didn’t go completely south, they weren’t bad, they weren’t making an entire city sick, I was like “If festivals are happening …” I’ve been wanting to go on the road for this whole time, it’s my favorite part of being a musician. I’ve been anxious to get out there. Was it Lollapalooza that happened where it wasn’t bad at all? I think seeing that and seeing that ACL here in Austin is still happening, that gave me hope that enough people are vaccinated and can get to the shows. At this point, we just have to get the music industry back on track because it’s been too long that it has not been normal. I think people are just ready to do whatever they can to have some sense of normalcy.

I started going to shows in June, taking all the precautions and following guidelines, and it felt like we were starting to get back to normal.

EMILY: I went to a show around the same time and I felt the same way. There were times where I was like, “Should I have this mask on or no?” I went to see an artist named Sarah Jaffe perform here in Austin and it was great. I was like, “This needs to keep happening.” That was another thing that led to me being more open to touring – 1) because I have to do it for my sanity and 2) it looked like other people were making it happen.

I saw that Joan Jett just canceled her dates for the rest of the year and you were supposed to open a couple of those.

EMILY: Yeah. It was a huge bummer but, honestly, I’m not super bummed because I’ll still do my shows. It’s all good.

What was the easiest song for you to write on Outlier, the one that you wrote and recorded quickly and are there any songs that you kept working on and working on and you kept trying to get right?

EMILY: I’d say the one that came together the quickest is “Vermillion Park.” I don’t know what it was but I had the hook and I had kind of regarded it as a throwaway song. I sent it to Michael Shuman, the producer, and he was like, “Man, you should flesh this one out. It has some real potential.” I did and it just kind of fell out of me. I don’t know if it was the pressure of time, because we were supposed to go in the studio the following week to record. It may have been the pressure of having to get that done super quick. I’m pretty sure we did that one first, because it felt like the most natural one.

The one we worked the hardest on was “Cover of Virtue.” I feel like each part is it’s own thing. The verses have that kind of Judas Priest chugging, “Breaking the Law” type chugging and then the chorus, I wanted it to open into this kind of Yeah Yeah Yeahs chorus that was half time and really kind of big. That was a little tough to figure out the instrumentation but we finally got it. That’s one of my favorites I think.

Which songs elicit the best crowd response live?

EMILY: That’s a great question. It’s probably “No Man” because I feel like people hear that and they’re like, “Yeah!” And then also people really seem to dig “My Lungs Give Out” which is a little surprising to me but that’s another one of my favorite ones to play because it’s pretty unique.

Something I like about the mask mandate at shows is that I can sing along and get all the words wrong and nobody will ever know! In the pre-pandemic times, when you’re playing live, do you look into the crowd and watch people singing your lyrics back to you?

EMILY: I do! Most of the time I’m kind of in my own world but when I open my eyes, on the rare occasion, and see people singing, it’s the best feeling in the world. You don’t have to feel bad about singing the wrong lyrics, you can sing whatever you want. I love it, that’s great.

I love that you mention Judas Priest and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the same sentence. In the ’70s and ’80s, there were true guitar heroes. I guess in the ’90s there were some – you could say Jack White and John Mayer are guitar heroes. When you were growing up, did you stand in front of your mirror with a yardstick and pretend to play guitar along with your heroes or bands that you loved?

EMILY: Yeah, I did. I had this entire imaginary set up in my room. I didn’t stand in front of the mirror but I had a fake microphone and a real guitar that I wouldn’t plug in and I would totally pretend to be Billy Gibbons. Jack White was one of them too. When I was in early high school, that one Raconteurs record came out and I was obsessed with it.

Are you originally from Texas?

I was raised here. I was born in North Carolina, but I was raised here so ZZ Top is one of my favorites.

When you were first starting out, was it difficult to play guitar and sing at the same time?

EMILY: It started off for me when I picked up the guitar. I didn’t really sing until I was 20. I was just too shy to sing. I guess I had been playing for so long that guitar became second nature and then singing on top of that was like, “Oh yeah, that’s no problem.” Playing guitar is like a language that I feel I’m fluent in and it was just natural to sing. But I started out as a guitar player first.

What about the first time you played out? Were you looking down at your fingers the entire time?

EMILY: I went to a lot of shows. My first show was in college and I think going to a lot of shows and seeing local bands play, it was like, “Okay, that is what I should not do.” So I practiced really hard to not do those things. I was like, “I’m just going to prepare so well so that I feel comfortable on stage.” I saw bands all the time and I thought, “Okay, take notes” because, as an audience member, I don’t want to feel any sort of discomfort. I don’t want to feel like I have any job to do. I just want to go watch music and have a good time. So anything I can do as a performer to make that happen for an audience member, that’s my job. I think it was just a lot of preparation and a lot of anxiety that made me a better performer.

Any particular shows you saw that stick out as completely unforgettable?

EMILY: Yeah, one time I saw Sharon Van Etten at the Mohawk and it was insane. I had never seen that many people be that captivated before. That one stands out.

Getting an album out is just part of the job. It seems like there’s a whole game to keep Instagram updated, making sure songs wind up on Spotify playlists, it’s a lot more than putting an album out, going on tour, maybe play at a few radio stations, you get in some magazines, you get on MTV and that’s how you do it. How involved are you, outside of writing and recording, in getting people to hear your music?

EMILY: It’s honestly so hard because I’m not super involved in the social media stuff or the Spotify stuff. Usually my management helps me a lot with that. It’s something I don’t have the capacity in my brain to think about. It’s basically a full-time job and there are artists out there that are really good at it and I really admire that but I also feel like for me to be the best musician I can be, I have to put that stuff to the side and focus on the songs and my playing and lyrics and performances. I wish I could be good at the social media stuff but I’m not. Now, the way the industry is, there’s TikTok, Instagram, Facebook. And during the pandemic, everybody was doing livestreams. So, on top of a social media manager, on top of writing songs, you have to be your own soundperson. My main focus is the music. I don’t know how to engage people other than writing good music and playing well.

Playing live, for you, is the way to get people’s attention and to hook them and keep them coming back every time you roll through their town.

EMILY: Exactly. When you look at it from the perspective of how it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, it’s kind of a grass roots approach. If 20 people come to the show, it’s my job to make them come back to the next one and bring somebody. Instead of, “I’ll host this cat video on TikTok and maybe somebody will listen to the song that I played.” I feel like shows are more impactful and more memorable whereas social media stuff is great but a show sticks and other stuff I’m not so sure.

When it comes to tour routing, do you try to hit the same cities, tour after tour?

EMILY: We strategize. This is going to be the third time that we do the same route up the East Coast and then down the Midwest. I know we’re going to start expanding the markets and we’re going to go up the middle of the States and then, in January, we’re going to go towards the West Coast which is cool because I haven’t played out there in a really long time. It’s both strategic and I kind of just going where they tell me to go.

There’s a couple of cities, like Chicago, where the first time I went, there was a handful of people. Next time, it was double. We’ll see what this time brings, hopefully it will be really good. It’s all about getting people to the shows regularly. I love meeting people who listen to my music, it’s super special. Pre-Covid, I would always go to the merch table after the show and shake hands and take pictures if people wanted. Getting to know the people who listen to my music is one of my priorities.

Who do you think is your audience? I know, for instance, when The Black Keys were starting out, they would play to older guys who were fans of ’70s blues rock. As their popularity grew and the word got out, the audience shifted to younger, college-aged kids. Do you find that people who come to see you are people who love guitar players? Or, is it younger crowds who are craving rock music?

EMILY: I noticed that some of the venues I’ve played on the road, there’s a lot of older people. I never really know what to think about that. At the same time, it can be really cool because older people come out and they’ll tell their kids about the show and then they’ll bring their kids the next time. I feel like that’s what’s happened in terms of what my audience looks like. When I first started, it was a lot of older people for sure because my first record was so rooted in blues. I think that’s kind of an older demographic. With this record, I wanted to steer away from that and see how I could impact the demographic of the audience with more modern sounds, see how I could bring the pop world into the rock world without it sounding like Yellowcard. Not that there’s anything wrong with Yellowcard, I just didn’t want to sound like that.

Outlier does sound more accessible to a wider audience.

EMILY: That’s totally the point. I’ve noticed the crowds are older dudes, older ladies, people my age, guitar players, gear heads. It’s interesting the type of people that I’ll see out on the road.

Scrolling through Instagram, it looks like you have a lot of endorsements from guitar and equipment companies.

EMILY: Yeah, it’s great. I just love gear, especially good gear that’s inspiring. I’ll do what I can to make it a mutually beneficial thing, for sure.

Did you play a guitar show with Billy Gibbons?

EMILY: That was at NAMM. I was so star struck but I tried to play it cool and not freak out even though I was freaking out internally. That was a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’ve always been a big ZZ Top fan. It was crazy because right next to me was Peter Frampton. His amp was right behind me and I could hear his playing just right there. I was in awe of it. And then Billy went down the line. We were all playing “La Grange” and Billy went down the line of guitar players on stage and pointed to everybody individually to take a solo. He picked me last, I think because I was hiding. He looked over and stroked his beard a little bit and then pointed at me. I’ll never forget that moment. I blacked out when I was playing, I don’t remember what I was playing. That moment was pretty awesome, it was one of my career highlights so far.

Is there a band that, if you opened for them, you’d say, “I think I can quit now. It’ll never be better than this”?

EMILY: Queens of the Stone Age, for sure. Would it fit completely? I don’t know but I would love to do it.

I live in Ohio and find that many artists I talk to have some sort of Ohio connection or Ohio story. Anything you’d like to share?

EMILY: I do! My aunt lives in Zanesville, Ohio. That was the first place I ever saw snow. I remember as a kid, I had never seen snow before and my parents took my sister and I up there. The first time I ever saw snow was in Ohio.

2021 Tour Dates

Oct 15: Little Rock, AR / Stickyz
Oct 16: Memphis, TN / Hernando’s Hideaway
Oct 17: Nashville, TN / 3rd & Lindsley
Oct 18: Asheville, NC / The Grey Eagle
Oct 20: Raleigh, NC / The Pour House
Oct 21: Atlanta, GA / Shaky Knees Late Night Show
Oct 22: Chattanooga, TN / Arts Avenue
Oct 24: Charlottesville, VA / The Southern Cafe & Music Hall
Oct 26: New York, NY / Mercury Lounge
Oct 27: Townson, MD / The Recher
Oct 28: Washington, DC / Dc9
Oct 31: Philadelphia, PA / Kung Fu Necktie
Nov 2: Hamden, CT / Space Ballroom
Nov 3: Cambridge, MA / Middle East
Nov 4: Keen, NH / Colonial Theatre
Nov 5: Albany, NY / The Linda
Nov 7: Pittsburgh, PA / Hard Rock Café
Dec 2: Ames, IA / Maintenance Shop
Dec 5: Minneapolis, MN / Turf Club
Dec 8: Chicago, IL / Sleeping Village
Dec 9: Milwaukee, WI / Cactus Club

 

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