Longtime fans of Epiphone know that we’ve been waiting on–and cheering for-- Austin’s Emily Wolfe to break loose and get the national attention she deserves for a long time. Wolfe is a gifted guitarist, writer, and singer. But finding the right producer and the right career path has been a challenge in an industry that has turned itself inside out for profit over passion. After a parade of would-be producers, labels, publishers, and (to quote the late Warren Zevon) “lawyers, guns, and money,” Wolfe has released a terrific new single, “Rules to Bend”, the first from her self-titled album produced by Alabama Shakes member Ben Tanner.And though the wait has been long, Wolfe is now clearly on her way. We witnessed her in action at Winter NAMM 2019 and watched with amusement as hundreds of un-suspecting industry dudes crushed their Dixie-Cup cocktails in shock as she peeled off one ferocious solo after another on her trusty Sheraton II (‘my third arm’). Meet the new Emily Wolfe. Epiphone Guitarist, Songwriter, Singer, and finally, Recording Artist.
It’s great see you again, Emily. It’s been nearly two years since we spoke. And during that time, we kept hearing about a new album. Now it’s finally arrived. Tell us what’s been happening.
A lot has changed. After we spoke around SXSW 2017, I decided to start working with producer Ben Tanner who is also the keyboardist for Alabama Shakes, which is so cool because I’m such a fan of them. I went out to Muscle Shoals and recorded with him and he also flew into Austin and we finished the record here. The new single came “Rules to Bend” is out now and then my record will be out February 15. It’s a full length, 12-songs. I’m so glad to finally be getting it out. I’ve been waiting awhile.
It’s interesting that you chose to work with a produce whose main instrument is not guitar. How did his approach to music and your instrument inspire the sound of the album?
It was really interesting working with Ben because he knows so much about music theory and voicings. He inspired me to think about textures in recording; where to voice my chords, for instance. Voicings were a big deal and we really thought about the record as a whole. At one point he said we needed one more tune to round this album out. I had an old song, “White Collar Whiskey,” that really helped round out the feel of the album. It was great to watch him work. And even though he plays keyboards, he doesn’t necessarily think of the Hammond organ when he’s producing. He thinks of all the other details, all the different instruments that we’re using. He might say: This song has a lot going on in the midrange. I think it needs some ‘air’ in the top end. So, in the end, each song is very textured. I’m sure that comes from his knowledge of the keyboard. It was really fun to work with him. He’s probably my ideal producer because we would spend 12 hours a day recording and talking. And even for the last couple of hours, we would sit on the floor of the studio with my big pedal board and tweak knobs until we found the perfect texture to fit the song. It was great.
I think it’s also a unique producer choice for you since songwriters typically chose a “songwriter” producer and guitar players choose someone who will feature their guitar. But neither of those choices would have been an ideal fit for you.
It’s really true. I had worked with a couple of producers in the past who would just sit back and watched me do my thing and offered tidbits of advice, but I’ve never had what I’ve had with Ben which is—he’d be on the floor, tweaking knobs and having fun with pedals and amps for as long as it took. I really was craving that attention to detail. And I would love to keep working with him because I think we have basically just scratched the surface on what we can do together. And he’s a really super cool guy. Very knowledgeable. It’s hard to find people in Austin who are focused on the moment in the studio—finding what is the perfect sound for this song. Rather than: what are they going to think about this on the local radio station? It was a creative escape with him and the band.
Did this new attention to detail change the way you approached your writing?
I had all the songs written before the sessions. I didn’t change the chord structures. But there were little tweaks that he would make. For instance, I have a song called “Bad Behavior” and the chorus in the lyrics didn’t quite make sense grammatically. He changed one word of that and instantly made it a better chorus. That was exciting to see. He somehow got out of me the best version of me as a musician. And to me, that’s the best kind of producer you can have who can grasp onto what you want to be and help you get there.
We’ve spoken before about the challenges in the industry—being a woman who plays lead guitar, being an independent artist, and living away from media centers Los Angeles or New York. How has this process been for you over the last year and what are your challenges now that you finally have a great album done?
It is a rollercoaster every single day. I feel like I get thrown a curve ball at least once a week by the music industry. The only thing that I can do –I’ve figured out—is to just keep going. There are a lot of things that I’ve caught onto in the music industry that I can look out for now. One of the biggest challenges has been just getting this record out. I was with a management company for a while and the advice that I would get every week is: ‘Wait for the right time. Just wait…it’s not time yet.’
But I’ve figured out that when they say that, all that means is that they don’t have a plan (laughs). My plan now is to go out on my own. I parted with that firm and I’m just going to release the music. Because the only consistent thing in the industry has been the fans and people who have been waiting on this record. I’ve had this wall in my way: you need to wait for the bigger opportunity. But I think that’s taught me that ‘perfect’ has gotten in the way of ‘good’ for me. And so, I’m just going to put that aside and put this record out on my own and get on the road and that’s all I can do.
I have to do that because there’s so much that’s not in my control. What is in my control is putting this record out. I finally got the chutzpah to put it out on my own and not care what a label thinks. I’m just going to put it out because I’m proud of it. It really represents where I’m at musically. The single especially is something that I just have to have people hear it because I’m so excited about it. It’s one of the best songs that I think I’ve written in a long time. But yes—all of those things you mention are a challenge for sure. It’s a complete shit show, this industry (laughs), but I love the music more than I love anything else. So, I’m going to just keep going and see where it takes me (laughs).
Is that what drives you? I ask because the hype of being “the next big thing” or being touted as a groundbreaker can alter your perspective.
Oh man it’s been so, so tough. The only thing that has kept me going is –well, there’s two things. I’ve got wonderful people around me. I’ve got my partner Brittany, my band, my publisher and my lawyer. And they are the best small little team that I can think of for me. They all see the struggle I’m going through with the music industry. But they’re really supportive and they all tell me to just keep going. There’s something inside of me—innately-- that says you have to just do it. You’re going to face so many challenges so why not just keep going. So, there’s that. And I just love to play live. It’s such a release and a comfort for me. It’s like my new drug. I’ve been sober for almost four years so that’s my new addiction. Playing live is where I belong. That’s something else that keeps me going. I’m always asking: when are we going to play live next? Once the record comes out, I’ll be able to get out on the road and perform every night.
That passion that artists feel to connect to their audience still escapes the music business.
It’s true. I’ll have little moments when I’m on stage when I think—did I play this wrong? And then I’ll have to snap out of it and look into the audience and see who is really into it and then their enthusiasm will put me right back in it. I need the show just as much as whoever comes to the show. It’s a release—and so much fun. I cannot wait to get on the road and finally play for people in other cities who have been waiting for this record. It’s funny you talked about the constant drumming of here she comes, the next big thing, because there has been a lot of that for years. It seems like every interview I’ve done I’ve said, ‘hang on a minute…it’s almost out.’ I’m sure a lot of people have thought, Ok, this is never coming out. (laughs). It finally is! I’m back in the driver’s seat and I’m not looking back. My new focus is on people who have been waiting for new music. I’m just deciding to put the industry on hold and just play my music (laughs). The music industry is such a spider web and you can get trapped in it. I think I did get trapped in it for a while because it has been so long since I’ve gotten to release stuff and get out there.
And you’ll be on the road with your Epiphone Sheraton, I assume? That hasn't changed.
Oh yeah, definitely! Any time I try to pick up another guitar I think: This isn’t right! It’s not a Sheraton.
Visit Emily's website at www.emilywolfemusic.com or her Instagram account for tour info.