“I Have This Urge to Rebel”: An Exclusive Interview with Emily West
Three critically well-received singles that barely dented the country charts, a finished but never released album, and eight plus years of grinding on the country radio wheel were some of the keys of Emily West’s time on Capitol Records. After “Blue Sky,” her duet with Keith Urban, peaked at #38 in 2010, there was a parting with her label and West found herself at a crossroads.
She could follow her muse away from the country radio sound that she had been trying to cultivate so long, or she could continue to try to chase another record deal and that elusive track that would connect with country radio programmers. Personal relationship issues and the frustration of losing the deal fueled the raw emotion that sometimes can be the spark of the creative light and as a result, the muse won out. West released an EP called I Hate You, I Love You that owes as much to Burt Bacharach as to Loretta Lynn. Her newfound independence and rebellious nature has reignited a passion in her music which includes a new solo project and a just-formed duo with fellow Nashville artist, KS Rhoads. She’s also been bitten by the acting bug. West was kind enough to carve out a little time to talk with Engine 145 about her recent album, her brief television career and what lies ahead of her in her musical journey.
Ken Morton, Jr.: First of all, congratulations on a terrific EP in I Hate You, I Love You.
Emily West: Thank you very much. It was an interesting experience putting it out there because it wasn’t traditional or commercial country. I was just excited about the songs and I wanted everyone to hear it. And I’m glad that everybody likes it so much.
KMJ: The songs on the record all seem autobiographical from the outside looking in. Is that accurate?
EW: Very much so. Yes. I’ve always felt, and the music I like listening to the most, always seems to come from personal experience. And I had some really tough times then. But music is my art and I wrote songs and it was therapy. So I made some money while I was being hurt. (Laughter) I guess so I can hurt everyone.
KMJ: How important is it to be that revealing as an artist?
EW: I’ve been going through this stage in my life where I think you have the ability to separate, even if I choose to or not to choose to. There are a lot of really successful people that I look up to as an artist and they don’t really put their heart on their sleeves where they let everyone know their business. And it’s really hard in this social media world where there’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and everyone knows everybody’s business. I feel like a little mystery is a good thing to have. It’s not like I want all my fans to know about all my bad business. But that’s how I feel better as a human being. For me, and my own personal experience, I have to write truth in order to feel connected. If that means that everyone knows my business, then I guess I’m going to have to reveal that it was a time where I was going through a lot.
Honestly, I’ve been so happy, the last little while I haven’t been able to write a lot of songs that I can say are truly great. I love that pain in music. I love that pain in songs. But now I’m learning to write love songs. And that’s a whole new story for me.
KMJ: Walk me through those months following your Capitol Records departure.
EW: Well, I feel like we were both heading for a goodbye. I was at the label for eight-plus years. They were really good to me. And in that time, I was struggling with who I was as an artist. And I was letting people speak for me. So being a totally free agent and getting free rein was pretty liberating. I was a little bit on a mission. Sony/ATV signed me as a songwriter right as I was dropped, but just as a songwriting publishing deal. They were wanting me to write as a staff writer for other artists, which I didn’t understand. I had no real idea what they were wanting me to do.
You don’t want me as an artist, but you want me to co-write with other artists? How does one even do that? For me it didn’t add all up, so I kind of rebelled. I said, “I’m not going to do that.”
So I decided I wasn’t going to that and decided I was going to write music that I was going to reincarnate Burt Bacharach for and for Dionne Warwick and all the stuff I really loved more than anything. In that little rebellion and in my freedom, I started writing all these quirky songs. And with that, I got a lot of attention from it. And then I released it– without asking. Oops! Sorry!
But this record, after all my years being at Capitol, and me doing it by myself, and listening to my heart, was the best thing I’ve ever done musically and it wasn’t done by being at a label. It’s a victory for me.
KMJ: Does your heart lie more in that vocal-centric side of music rather than in the stylings of country music?
EW: I don’t want to put in my voice or my artistry in a box. I feel a lot of people need that affirmation. That general question of, “What does she sound like?” is just for journalists and critics to write about. I feel that it’s just based on opinion anyway. I’m just like the fact that I didn’t have to sing about tractors and where things were boxed in for me. I feel like right now I’m being inspired by Roberta Flack and Ray Charles and Leonard Cohen. It’s always changing for me. My musical tastes are always evolving. Why wouldn’t my sound be the same?
That’s what is so frustrating for me. For this new project I’m working on, I have free range again. I can go wherever I want. I know some people sometimes need that label, but I’m not comfortable with those constraints. It’s just going to be who I am. It’s always changing for me. I’m going to make records until I die and it’s always going to be different. And that’s what people can expect for me: something different every time.
But I still love country music. I really liked the direction that country music was going when I moved here. Growing up, country music really moved me. It led me on this career. But now we’re not really getting along. (Laughter) I don’t identify with a lot of the production and the fact that a lot of people are just doing the same thing. That’s wonderful for them, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I might just be the odd girl. That might be just a matter of opinion, but it’s shaping my music for sure.
KMJ: Tell me about this new project with KS Rhoads.
EW: I started working with this amazing artist. He’s really just this independent rebel inNashville. He’s just a daredevil. He’s a rap artist and at the same time, he does this symphony sound stuff. He’s a brain is just a renaissance man. He does everything. We had a casual co-write. We got together and wrote a song, walked away from it and both thought a week later that we should do it again. And then we wrote a song called “Fallen.” And we thought, “Oh, my gosh, are we creating a sound? This is crazy!” And then it just started coming naturally.
After that, we started getting a lot of opportunities. Cyndi Lauper asked us to go sing in New York at the True Colors House. We got to sing at Charlie Peacock’s show. We’re just going to take this a day at a time. But with that, it’s really overwhelming how you can think your life is over and all of a sudden, you write a song and it’s a new journey. It’s coming along and that first song is going to be available through an iTunes holiday project for indie artists in Nashville very soon. It will be released on December 18th and showcased on that.
KMJ: You had tentative named yourself Elephant’s Gerald. Is that still your current working band name?
EW: We’re comedians. On the surface, we might look like serious artists, but when we’re together, we think we’re pretty funny. I’m sure everybody thinks they’re funny, but he really could be on Saturday Night Live. Totally. He thought of this name Elephant’s Gerald. It sounded like Ella Fitzgerald, but had a little bit of New York in it. It could have a little Billie Holiday vibe to it like a classic old jazz band name. With that, he thought of Elephant’s Gerald. But it turns out that someone else has even claimed it. We were just halfway joking at first, and then come up with some other band name down the road. We really don’t know what we are yet. We’re always texting back and forth throwing out new band names. So we don’t really know.
KMJ: Outside of the new duo, what other music projects lie ahead of you? Any additional solo projects in the works?
EW: Yes! With the all the attention the EP got, it’s got me additional relationships and opportunities. I met an incredible writer and think I’ll be headed to London in January to experiment a little. She was a huge fan of the record. It’s so funny. It seems like it’s been so much longer than just a year since that project came out. At the same time, I can’t believe it’s also already Christmas time. So much as happened with the year. It feels like five years have gone by since I released the record. I feel so many compliments were sent to me by some really great people. I don’t have a journal of it, but it’s kind of had a ton of encouragement to keep going. This record has given me a ton of additional opportunities in that aspect.
I don’t know where my batteries are for caring any more. So I’m on this new mission where I have this urge to rebel. People want to hear love in a different way. They want to hear anger in a different way and music in a different way. So I’m excited about rebelling some more and actually writing with some feeling.
KMJ: On a different note, I enjoyed your acting debut in Body of Proof earlier this year where you played a lounge singer. How was that experience and are there any more acting gigs in your future?
EW: I was a party over at Anastasia Brown’s house. I had just been dropped from my Sony publishing deal. I wasn’t really going through a great time in my life. I ended up singing for a couple of producers at this party. I sang this song, “Why Do Lovers Leave.” I sang it with no music. Two days later, I get a call from a producer who says, “Can you act? I can’t stop thinking about your voice and I just think you would be perfect for this part. She’s a drug addict and she’s a singer and she’s arrested for murdering a cop.”
KMJ: So right off the bat, you have to be really worried that she thinks you’re perfect for that role, right?
EW: (Laughter) Exactly! Perfect! I had no idea what I was doing so I said, “Sure! I’ve been in plays.” In high school. She sends me the script and I did an audition on tape. That’s what people do these days, I guess. I was reading for the part right off the screen as I was doing the video audition. And I got the part ahead of all these professional actors. So shortly after, I’m on a plane flying first class with no idea what I’m doing, trying to write a song for the end of the show at the same time. It was just a whirlwind. I can’t believe my life sometimes. So yeah, I guess I was on TV.
I haven’t had any additional acting roles, but I’m definitely up for it. If I want to do it more, I have to put a reel together for it apparently. But right now, I’m focusing on this new record. All of the amazing actors that are on the show couldn’t believe that it was my first time I’d ever acted. I kept telling them all, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” They were so helpful but told me over and over again that this just never happens. In this business, it just never happens. They were really friendly and sweet and helped me a lot.
KMJ: I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s meant to be open-ended. What does music mean to you?
EW: I get really passionate about music. When the melody or a lyric hits me and no one is responding to it, I wonder to myself if they have a soul. (Laughter) I get angry when that happens. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, did you hear that line? Did you hear that amazing melody just now?”
If they’re just smiling and nodding, I feel like someone has just insulted my kid or something. I love it so much, I hate it. And that’s because I don’t like it when it’s not done right. We’re being entrenched in an era where our ears are getting used to hearing the sounds of mediocrity. I’m going to try and stop that and put out the best record I can be moved and have others be moved. I can’t live without. But sometimes I hate it because I can’t write it and feel it like I want to sometimes. But I love it because it’s like having a baby. It’s like when you hear about someone not being into kids and babies but then when they hold their own, they won’t ever let go. Music to me is like that. When it’s got you, it’s got you for good.
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