Years from now, this decade will likely be remembered as the era when Gary Clark Jr. and Emily Wolfe inspired a new generation of Austin musicians to focus on their musicianship instead of admiring their own reflection. Austin, like Nashville, has suffered from fame and fortune. Everybody wants to live in a cool city where there’s music to be heard every night. But the hard labor of developing a sound, finding your voice, and making fans still requires a lot of sweat and blind faith. And Emily is a true believer—a tireless worker and an inspired one, too.
We would have loved Emily just for her sterling musicianship, her devotion to her heroes, and her steadfast support of her band. But she especially won our hearts for her modesty. We were more than halfway through the interview before she mentioned she’s recording her first full length LP with superstar GRAMMY winning producer Rob Cavallo (Gary Clark Jr., Green Day). Whereas most artists would have bragged about the good news in the first few minutes of the interview, Emily kept the focus of our conversation on the music. Emily even asked if the interview could go on for a few more minutes so she could thank her favorite players. Epiphone caught up with Emily as she prepares for the 2017 South By Southwest Festival with her “third arm," her Epiphone Sheraton II.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone, Emily.
Oh thank you. I’ve been a huge fan for a while. The Sheraton II is my all time favorite guitar, no joke.
Strats and Teles have been the “Austin guitar” sound for so long. What’s the story of how you chose an Epiphone Sheraton II?
I’ve actually been a really big fan of B.B. King since I was little and six or seven years ago I went into a Guitar Center-- walked in, I had a budget, and I saw that guitar and it was the most-like a B.B. King guitar that I could find. At first I was kind of hesitant—I thought ‘man this is kind of big
.’ But it’s totally now like my third arm. It’s kind of part of me now. And it’s really been a huge guitar in defining my writing sound. It’s basically my brand now. No one in Austin plays a Sheraton so I feel kind of cool (laughs). I was 20 when I got it—I’m 26 now.
I really started playing a lot in college and a lot of the people around me were playing guitar. So we kind of traded favorites: listen this guy or listen to this girl
. And one of my friends said, do you ever listen to B.B. King? Once I did and started watching videos I instantly connected to him. Watching him, you can tell that he gets lost in his playing. And that’s really what I want to do. He was such an idol of mine. When he passed it was super sad for me.
B.B. arranged his music so the focus was on his guitar and his voice. But you’ve recorded several EPs where you’re in charge of the entire arrangement including bass and drums. Does guitar always come first in your writing and then you fill in the other pieces?
Actually it’s interesting you ask that because the way I write is often a riff will pop into my head. And then--I don’t know if this is common or not--but I’ll do the riff in my head then I’ll play drums with my teeth. It’s hard to explain but it works! It’s hard for me to hear in the frequency of a bass so I actually have to play bass to hear that part of a song. But everything is basically centered around guitar. That’s kind of where my writing comes from.
I think honestly, one of the reasons why I like the Sheraton is that you can make it sound like anything you want. I can make it sound like a rock guitar; I can make it sound like a spacey guitar. The frequencies of that guitar don’t get in the way of any instrument but it’s also really prominent. I think the versatility of that has an effect on the way I write.
B.B.’s best bands were known for having a distinctive tone. The horns never dominated the rhythm section, and the rhythm section was never so heavy that it distracted from B.B. He directed them with an eyebrow or an elbow. They could roar and then go to a whisper within half a bar. How have you developed your band sound?
It took me awhile to get there because in Austin, there are so many kinds of musicians and I’ve play with a lot of different people. I used to play with a lot of jazz musicians –jazz drummer and a jazz bassist—but after awhile, I realized I’m not jazz. I’m a rock guitarist. I think a lot of keeping-the-focus-on-guitar comes into play with picking the right musicians. For instance, my bass player is really amazing at playing as little as possible but as powerful as possible. And my drummer is just a monster drummer. The guys that I play with know to not get in the way of the guitar because it’s the point of the song and the music. I think that’s a big deal. And it’s also about having people who really understand my vision. I want to be known as a guitar player that sings really well and they understand that and support it. So, it’s kind of a natural thing, the three of us. I think they totally understand what I’m trying to do and what kind of career I want to have. So they definitely keep that in mind. Once I get to where I really want to be in this music vision, I think they understand that will have paid off.
Was it difficult to communicate with other musicians when you were starting out? After all, not every 20-year old guitar player is a devotee of B.B. King?
It was definitely hard starting out because I knew that I wanted to do something that really no one else was trying to do. Instead of “look at that bass player” or “look at that guitar player,” I was interested in the big picture. So many people would come up after shows and say: you were so unsuspecting like I didn’t realize you were going to be good!
(laughs). I could have taken it as offensive but I thought: you know they’re right. Because I’m not walking around as a flashy guitarist—look at me. My style is more deliberate and if I want to have a section in a song that’s experimental, I’ll do that. It’s organized. I think it’s definitely gotten easier now that I’ve met the right musicians that I play with.
You’ve recorded quite a few EPs. Now that you have your band sound, are you thinking of making a full-length LP?
Yes, very much so. I feel like I’m most comfortable in myself and in life when I’m on stage or in the studio because it’s just this total creative space. I think for a lot of artists who are super quiet off stage, the reason they are is because they’re meant to be on
stage and everywhere else is so weird.
I love being in the studio and I love being on stage. I can’t wait to make a full length album. It’s been a matter of funding in the past. I worked and saved to do those EPs because that’s all I could afford to do. I did record a 12-song LP last summer and I was going to release that but I went on tour and a management company scouted me and so now they’ve put me in touch with Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Gary Clark, Jr.) so I’m super excited. The plan is for him to produce a full-length LP and next step is to get a label on board. I’m hoping this year’s SXSW will be the catalyst for that. Can I mention my favorite guitar players? Is that all right?
Well I love Stevie Ray Vaughan so much. I love Billy Gibbons and Robin Trower. Jack White, Freddie King. John Mayer. Barney Kessel.
You might be the first person in their 20s we’ve heard mention Barney Kessel! Were you parents jazz fans?
My parents love music. My mom sang in church and my uncle, who passed, was in a bluegrass band. So he kind of taught me mandolin. I’m not a mandolin expert but he gave me a lot of guidance. But I always loved the way a guitar looks and I’ve always played. I was instantly attracted to guitars since I was little. So I think it’s what I’m meant to do. I was in college when I started exploring on my own and just listening to guitar players and singers. When I’m not writing, I love listening to my favorite players and thinking about their tone, how they might have eq’d things on stage, fuzz and overdrive—I love it all.
What is the environment like in Austin for musicians? At one time Austin was a tough proving ground for guitarists and songwriters.
I feel like I’m in a different direction than a lot of players. There are a lot musicians who are doing it for the social aspects and not for the genuine love of music so I kind of feel like I’m a different breed of musician. I’m more in the camp of someone like Gary (Clark Jr.)
who has a genuine love of music. It’s kind of a weird scene at the moment. Austin is a very forgiving city in terms of artistry and music. Anyone can get up on stage anywhere. There are so many shows every night of the week. I practice every day because I want to be the best. That’s where my heart is.