Advertise with The Big Takeover
The Big Takeover Issue #94
MORE Interviews >>
Subscribe to The Big Takeover


Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs

Follow us on Instagram

Follow The Big Takeover

Interview: Sam Emerson Bodary (Hello Emerson)

14 April 2024

A little over a year after releasing Hello Emerson’s debut album, Above the Floorboards, Sam Emerson Bodary’s world turned upside down. While driving home to Ohio from Michigan, Bodary’s father, David, was involved in a serious accident. Trying to clear a fallen tree, David was knocked unconscious and rushed to the hospital. For nine harrowing days, the Bodary family held vigil, unsure of David’s fate.

While songwriting wasn’t an immediate response to the trauma, it became Bodary’s way of processing the experience in the years that followed. By day, Bodary found fulfillment working with children and teens at a local library. But after hours, he poured his energy into crafting a narrative around his father’s ordeal.

The result is To Keep Him Here, an honest and unflinching collection of 13 songs. Bodary’s lyrics offer glimpses into those hospital days, interspersed with snippets from a StoryCorps interview he did with his father about the accident.

Thankfully, David has made a near-complete recovery, though he has lost his sense of smell and experiences some social awkwardness.

In a recent Zoom interview, Bodary and I discussed his time in Nashville, the seven-year gap between the accident and the album’s release, the realities of success in the music industry, Hello Emerson’s upcoming German tour, and the unexpected inspiration he finds in his library work.

When I interviewed Danielle Durack, she said she had met you in Nashville. Were you living there at the time?

SAM: I was just there. I was doing photos for an event when I got word from some friends that there was a cool jam night that Cory Wong sometimes shows up to. So, I went there, had a cocktail, read my book and listened to the jam. And Cory Wong did indeed show up. That’s where I met Dani.

I went to the wrong college for about a year. I went to Belmont University in Nashville so I lived there for a little bit, but it was college. My main experience there was interning at Third and Lindsley and I was a runner for the Goo Goo Dolls, running around getting groceries, buying them a grill for some reason, and selling merch for Brett Dennen when he was coming through. It was really sweet of them to have me as an intern at the venue.

But then most of the music that I saw was punk shows in houses. When Diarrhea Planet was super big, I remember there was a big show with a whole bunch of bands and then all the guys from Diarrhea happened to be there and played a set. We were all jumping around listening to “Ghost With a Boner” and loving every second of it.

The best sounding music I ever had was in Nashville, I saw Tower of Power and then Daniel Johnston and then walked across the street to see Titus Andronicus the night that Lou Reed died. They ended with a weird 20-30 minute set of Lou Reed stuff. I think I still have tinnitus from that night.

Was any of that stuff an inspiration to what you’re doing now?

SAM: I don’t think that I was thinking of that personal scope at that point. I knew it was really cool. I knew it looked like a logistical nightmare, but then everything also had its place, which is incredibly compelling to me. I don’t know if that would be a specific inspiration. I think music, not in a live music context, is the biggest inspiration to that stuff.

When I was at Belmont for a year, when I quickly realized I shouldn’t be there, San Fermin’s first record came out which was the perfect record for me at that time, songwriting wise but also arrangement wise, how it was interweaving some real poppy songs with this chamber orchestration and letting that shepherd you along song by song. That was really, really cool and got me to think bigger and think longer in terms of how do you facilitate somebody’s attention over 40 minutes or so? I’ve been driving around listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a whole bunch on CD from the library and that record does that too. A whole bunch of Sufjan’s best records do that. The Decemberists’ The Tain does that, The Hazards of Love does that, to some extent, The Crane Wife does that. So many of those records, I loved them so deeply because they were really coherent from song-to-song-to-song and really thoughtfully arranged. It raises the bar. I love a really amazing song but can you make it an amazing experience? It’s this strange puzzle to then solve in a live context which might explain why we only rarely try to throw 7 to 13 people up on stage.

The accident that your dad was in that inspired this album happened in 2017. The album is coming out seven years later. You put out How to Cook Everything between the accident and To Keep Him Here. Did you know in the aftermath of the accident that you wanted to write about it? Did you need some time to process and come to terms with everything?

SAM: No, I think I was just probably paying attention. It’s weird. A really close friend of mine and I realized we were really on the same page because we both just love paying attention. It’s as simple as that. Regardless of what it is, there’s so much that opens up when you do that. When that sort of event happens in your family, you realize, “Oh, I am not a nurse or a doctor. I’m literally useless here, so I am going to sit in this hospital room and just pay attention.”

In those days, that’s not what you’re thinking about. I am thinking, is he gonna be here? Are they gonna have to do surgery? If they do surgery, is he going to make it through surgery? If he does, how many more times is he gonna ask the same question every time that he wakes up? Is the swelling going to go down? Who’s getting lunch? Is somebody going to run out to get fast food or are we going to have hospital cafeteria food? Everything stops and you have to figure out the basics but then you’re just left in this lurch.

I remember my mom sharing with one of the nurses that I made music and giving them our first CD and having that feeling of, “What are you doing?” And also, “This is what you do? What else can you do here?”

Outside of this specific event, generally, it’s going to take two to three years for most things that actually happened to me to ever end up in any piece of art. It’s not really on the table for a while because I don’t really know what that means. It takes time to be on a crock pot on low for a while. Not everything that I write about is terribly autobiographical, like maybe a third, maybe half, but this record entirely is.

If you’re writing about something incredibly formative that happened in your life like this, I wanted to take an incredible amount of care to make sure that this was not cheap because there’s a fear that if you write about a pretty serious event that is pretty dramatic and has some moral consequences, it’s going to look like you’re just cashing in. “This big thing happened and it was a great PR opportunity” and I didn’t want that at all. I think one, because that’s cheap, but two, I think it becomes really transparent about what art is made to capitalize on an event, and what art is made to provide comfort to the people who make it and the people who listen to it. I think ours falls into that second category. I don’t see an odd ornamental Americana/spoken word/chamber folk/ indie folk record from Columbus, Ohio blasting to the top of the charts so there’s not a risk there.

It took two years to get into the Airstream trailer to record an interview with StoryCorps. At that point, I did have a draft of a song that was about that event, but it was the only song about the event. I walked away from that conversation thinking about what it’s like to try to build a story where the person at the middle of it has no recollection. That became the mission of the record – can you put something together that represents the event as well as it can, what those nine days felt like, with the tools I have at my disposal? I’m a songwriter, so that’s what it was.

As you were writing the songs, were you sharing them with family or did you want to wait and present them all at the same time, as one complete package?

SAM: I don’t remember sharing the songs with the family ahead of time. I remember showing dad “Tough Luck”. We actually recorded a whole version of it for the second record, with entirely different instrumentation, an additional singer, the whole shebang. But I don’t remember sharing the record with my family until we sat down and listened to it all together. That is not something that I would like them to be in the creation process for. I’m really happy that they accommodated me making it in that way. They seem grateful for that and proud.

Have you and your dad always gotten along or did it take this accident to bring you closer?

SAM: Dad was the guy that would put us on the bus and he was the guy who would be home when we got off the bus. He taught at Sinclair Community College and was able to make his schedule so that he could be at home when we got home. He was the primary laundry guy, primary homemaker, food guy, primary cook. Mom was the one who was out with the more time intensive job. She was commuting back and forth to Columbus from Dayton for a long time and that’s hard.

I grew up in an incredibly loving home with a really amazing example of a partnership with two people that worked really well together. That doesn’t mean it was always great and amazing, but it did mean that I had a good model for how to work through a disagreement, how to maintain a sense that everybody loves each other even if everything is not hunky dory all the time.

I am close with my parents. I’m really thankful for that, but that did make it hard. I think, in a strange way, it makes me think that it’s a privilege to be able to lose your parents because that means that you had a strong relationship with them to begin with. Even in this really difficult moment of being with my dad and we didn’t know whether or not he was going to live, it was still a gift to be able to show up. Even with him having a little bit less of a filter, he is just still a damn angel. I’m really lucky to have him as an example of the man in my life who took on so many of those more like normatively traditionally considered feminine roles. And I got to benefit from bathing in that as I was growing up.

You’ve released an album that is getting noticed and talked about. And you’ve got a day job. How do you balance the want and need to promote the music and your day job?

SAM: I can definitely feel that my day job is certainly constricting how well I can promote this release and I’m coming to some sense of peace around that. I’m just like, “That thing I need to do for the record is not going to get done.” And you know what? It’s okay because I don’t make my money this way so I can’t expect it to be a full-time result.

You’ve got a tour in Germany coming up soon. How did you manage that?

SAM: It’s a lot of saving up PTO (personal time off) for sure. Touring Germany for two and a half weeks sounds pretty amazing. Sounds like the best vacation ever. It does not feel like a vacation but it feels incredible. It’s just a weird combination of an incredible amount of work that then just puts you in these amazing rooms of people who are willing to listen and people who are willing to host you for the night and making home cooked meals. I’m thankful to be able to have that opportunity. And yeah, it’s a lot of PTO to save up.

Have you been to Germany before?

SAM: This will be the fourth time. I went over the first time quite soon after dad’s accident in 2017. Then I went back with Dan (Seibert), who joined me part of the time, and then me playing by myself part of the time. And I then went back with Dan and Jack (Doran). We’ll go back as a trio again. This is all happening because of a goofy little random connection at Kafe Kerouac (a coffee shop/bar in Columbus with live music and poetry) where I met Lars (Hiller) (of K&F Records), who was living here because his wife was doing postdoc work at OSU.

Do people know the words to your songs in Germany?

SAM: I have been in a city I’ve never been to in Germany that mostly speaks a language I don’t speak and I’ve been like, “Oh, there’s four people singing along to the song with us.” That’s crazy. It makes no sense. And it is one of the most incredible things that I’ve experienced.

A co-worker gave some of the teens I work with the Columbus Monthly article. I made a joke out of it. I’m like, “That’s my twin. He does music and stuff.” Another kid circled back to that later and said, “Mr. Sam, are you famous? You’re in a magazine.” I’m like, “No, I’m not famous. But if you do something consistently for almost a decade in a relatively small town, sometimes somebody writes a really nice article about you.” I think it’s similar to Germany. We’re not famous in Germany, probably the same amount of people listen to us in Germany that listen to us across the U.S. We were successful enough that the guys at K&F Records can put in a shitload of work to book a tour. And enough people will show up that we can all make money and we can all pay for a plane ticket home, we can all end up with a couple hundred bucks to put in our pockets and have this amazing couple weeks.

You’re not going to sell a million records but I have a feeling that people that do find the album are going to love it and will tell other people about it.

SAM: I’m getting messages from people who’ve had similar experiences that I sing about on the record saying that they really connect with the album. We did an interview on WAMC, an NPR station in Albany, New York. The host of the show had some really incredible things to say about the record and they devoted a 22-minute feature to it where I took the interview from my lunch shift at the library. They cut in all of the songs so beautifully and let things breathe. Some people have reached out from finding out about it that way.

People have reached out online through finding out about it through our strangely popular journaling approach and our social media shenanigans. There is something really poignant about making music for dozens of people and that’s to build a sustainable life, saying yes to some things and no to other things, so that I can devote as much time, space, and energy towards making art that will be very important to literally dozens of people. It’s this big and small thing. Dozens seems quite small in the era of metrics. When it comes to the records that help you understand the world and you carry with you in your subconscious every day of your life, dozens is enormous.

Is selling a few dozen records to people who really appreciate the music the dream?

SAM: I think that is probably an incredibly healthy version of the dream. I don’t know if it would be good for me to have my living, my livelihood, my health and safety tied to how much emotional resonance I can ring out of a personal record. That sounds like a recipe for absolute disaster. If I get to make my living being a good neighbor and doing challenging work with people who are in a really tumultuous period of life going through middle and high school, that seems like an incredible way to make a living that also allows me to make really meaningful art that impacts several dozen people.

You’re a great storyteller and I think it’s very impactful that the story you’re telling on this album is personal and real. There will be people who may not be fans of the style of music you play who will feel a connection because of the words you’re singing. That’s powerful and it’s going to be a very important album for those dozens of people.

SAM: What else are we here to do? That’s literally all I’ve got to give to people. The eclipse day was big and small to me. This is an incredible coincidence that everything lines up for this strange moment. And I get to be at the library with the people I work with and the kids that I support and we get to watch the parking lot lights come on in the middle of the day. And I get to feel like we are all just floating in space, doing our best. That’s the point. We’re here. We’re alone. We’re going to try to make each other feel less lonely by making representations of the world and holding it up to each other and being like, “This is what it’s like for me. Is it like this for you too?”

Before the article in the magazine, did people at work know you were a musician?

SAM: I’ve got a poster up on my locker that’s inviting people to the release show. So it’s out. I try not to be annoying about it, but I put out the magazine in the break room. If anybody wants a little window into this stuff, feel free. People know that I’m going to be out for a couple weeks in May, because I’ll be on tour.

I think something that has been fun recently is I was able to write a song with a nine-year-old at the library because she had put down some lines. We wrote the song and recorded it. It was very cool. And then she made me this songwriting journal that now I’m going to write some songs in. The next day, a coworker showed her that article. The co-worker was like, “Mr. Sam said he writes songs. This is what Mr Sam does.” Her response was just, “Why does he look so serious in that photo?” One thing I love about working at the library, and one thing I love about working with teens, is kids will say, “Oh, cool. Anyway, I saw a worm today.” And then teens will be like, “Okay, anyway …” They will not give a shit that I’m a musician, which is amazing.

When you work with kids in a library, you are either doing programs or you are, in my case, de-escalating tensions and potential fights. It’s intense. You’ve got to collaborate with staff and you have to rely on the relationships with the teens to make sure the conflict is resolved and ends safely. There’s no space for ego or me as a musician in that, which is an absolute gift because who I am and what I do just distills down to how well I know the kids in the library and how much they trust me.

Does your day job and working with kids ever influence lyrics?

SAM: There is one situation that I may have picked up, but I don’t know what form that will come out in. I don’t know if this is a hard and fast rule with myself, I don’t know if I’ve said this out loud before, but my feeling right now is I’m not writing songs about the kids in the library. That almost feels like crossing a professional boundary to me. I think it can be informed by that but there’s so much in the world to pay attention to. I am transformed by the work because it requires me to have to be a really good listener and be incredibly attentive to nonverbals and I think that all makes me a better songwriter even if I’m not writing about things that happen at the library. I did have a passing thought that maybe I could make a whole project that would just be songs inspired by children’s books. I think that’s maybe as close as I’ll get to writing songs inspired by the library.

Do you get lyrical inspiration from hearing conversations in everyday life? Like, maybe you catch someone on their cell phone while waiting in line at Starbucks or you overhear a couple talking at the grocery store.

SAM: I wrote a song on the second record based on a conversation that I was overhearing on an airplane. This woman was telling a story about how she had never been on a plane before, she’d never left the state. She was very nervous and she was telling this to a stranger. Then she shared that she was flying entirely across the country to go see this man that she’s been dating online for several months. It’s incredibly inspiring to have somebody who’s wearing it on their sleeve so much that they are like, “I’m taking all of these risks and I am being open to a stranger.” I found that incredibly brave and inspiring in such a chaotic way. And that’s amazing to me.

I read a lot. I mark up my books with these little book darts. And then I have a huge text file where the name of the book is at the top, and then page numbers and quotes are all the way down. I’m building a repository of passages and things that I think are thoughtful, but also just words and phrases. I have a song web on my wall, which is just a bunch of printed out or written down phrases or song scraps. This stuff hasn’t become songs yet, but I know that it’s compelling in some way so it gets to live up there and it’s not going to get forgotten. When I go back into writing mode, that’s where I start from.

Being consistently open to art and paying attention and reading and listening and being willing to be moved I think is the biggest avenue towards writing songs for me. The capacity to pay mindful attention and be willing to be moved. I’m so lucky to work at the library where I am rewarded for that as well. Working at libraries is curious because I know that I can be replaced. There are plenty of people that can do amazing things at a library working with kids, working with teens. I am not special in that role but I can do what I do better than almost anybody. There’s a combination of humility and confidence that kind of comes with that in the library and in music as well. I know that it’s not going to be the next record that we put out, or this record, that’s going to make it so I don’t have to work ever again. But I do know that it’s a pretty amazing representation of that experience for me, and I’m so deeply proud that I got to do that. I turn 30 in August and hopefully I can make a whole bunch more records in my 30s.


More in interviews