Emma Hern is as grounded as they come. As a young musician, some might expect a bit more hesitation in a debut EP. Hern’s self-titled freshman effort is slick and satisfying, drawing its inspiration from traditional rock and blues.
“Then you held me tight / Almost every goddamn night / You whispered in my ear, only the midnight train could hear me coming undone.” Simplicity is underrated. Songs like “Fool Who Should Have Known” showcase so clearly that direct lyrics and a powerful voice can move a listener. It’s an album of familiar themes, love and loss, yet on repeated listens it resonates with a crisp flavor all its own.
We talked with Emma about going to Berklee School of Music, her move to Nashville, and how she finds the “fresh” in retro rock.
AF: You grew up in Richmond, Virginia. What’s the music scene like in Richmond?
EH: Richmond has an extremely diverse music scene and is home to some wonderful festivals like Friday Cheers or River Rock (think music festival + extreme sports + a beautiful river) The town is really supportive of live music.
I was pretty young when I first started playing in Richmond. Actually so young that often times I had to have my parents with me to get into the bar or venue I was playing at that night. I was around 14 and was in a band with some older guys and teachers, mainly doing covers, sometimes until 1 a.m. on a school night. My parents were so supportive during that time – as long as I finished my homework. Now that I am older, I love to go back to Richmond whenever I get a chance and see who is playing or what new venues have opened up.
AF: Who were your earliest musical influences and what about them inspired you to start writing?
EH: I asked for an Aretha Franklin CD for Christmas when I was five… so she was certainly my earliest musical influence. I used to literally scream “Chain of Fools” and “Natural Woman” in the shower. Again, my parents were very supportive during this time of “creative exploration.”
I honestly didn’t start writing until I made it to college. Patty Griffin and Lori McKenna were huge influences for me at that time of my life. I learned a lot from their styles while I was trying to find my own voice as a writer.
AF: Graduating from Berklee is no small feat. What was your college experience like?
EH: When I first showed up it was really difficult for me. Although I had been performing for years, I had never taken music lessons growing up and found myself thrown into the deep end with kids who were years ahead of me in music theory. However, I learned a lot while at Berklee. It provided me with a safe environment to experiment with my sound and for that, I am grateful.
I really struggled finding a balance between my love of simple blues and soul lyrics and being taken seriously
[by my songwriting peers] as a lyricist. For some reason I had it in my head that if my lyrics were not earth-shattering metaphors posing the ultimate question by the first chorus, I was less of a writer. It took me a while, but I finally realized I am who I am. I write and sing in the style that I grew up listening to and that shaped me. I love it and there’s nothing wrong with simple. Of course, as an artist you always want to be pushing yourself to be a better writer, but I’ve found a happy medium.
AF: What is it about Nashville that made you want to move there over NYC or Los Angeles?
EH: I was SO against moving to Nashville. I really wanted to branch out and head out on my own to NYC or LA. I was visiting some of my bandmates in Nashville the summer before I was planning to move, and they took me to this dive bar, Dino’s. Flash forward three months – I was packing up all my things and making the drive to Nashville. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I am blown away by the music community in this town and have never felt so supported in my music. (Dino’s is still my favorite dive bar.)
AF: Nashville is a breeding ground for talent, yet it’s also a very saturated space. What was your strategy in terms of standing out from the crowd when you first arrived?
EH: Whew. I don’t think there is a right way or wrong way to do this whole music thing.
When I moved down here I just hit the pavement running. I said yes to every opportunity. I worked REALLY hard and heard so many nos.
I think maybe I got lucky. When I first started playing out in Nashville, the band and I were just trying to figure out our sound and having a blast doing it. Everyone was smiling and laughing on stage while I was dancing around. I think in a sea of acoustic guitars, that may have helped us stand out a bit.
AF: Your self-titled debut EP has a familiarity to it that feels really good. How do you balance writing within such a distinctive genre (retro rock / soul) while also keeping your music fresh?
EH: I think that rock and soul sound is what naturally comes out of me when I sit down to write. It is ingrained in my heart, so I focus really hard on trying to add some pop sensibilities in my choruses to make it more current. It’s always a battle, but I try to think about making blues and rock and soul accessible to a mainstream audience. Most of the EP was tracked live. The band and I were all together in one room doing full takes of the songs, so the arrangements and mixing process were really vital in keeping it fresh. I think where we placed certain things in the mix really helped to make it more current. Kyle Dreaden did a great job of working with me on that.
AF: What current artists are you listening to on the regular?
EH: Anderson East, Lake Street Dive, Theo Katzman, PJ Morton, Phoebe Bridgers, Tedeschi Trucks are on repeat and I’m always listening to my mom’s old vinyl.
AF: Do you have any plans to tour in the near future?
EH: Of course! Keep your eyes peeled for summer dates.
Ashley Prillaman is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. When she's not living that #FestivalLife, you can find her walking her pug Wednesday, listening to This American Life, or chowing down on street tacos. Follow @AshleyPrillaman on Twitter & check out her interview series #LetsTellAStory on her blog www.ashleyprillaman.com.