In the high water heat of a bluegrass festival, afternoon sun often sends revelers to secluded hammocks or river time, hiding places from over-stimulation: beers too early. Eye candy overload. Foot stompin’ dancing under our high desert sun.
At Palisade Bluegrass this past spring, a restive voice stole from the shaded stage between acts. Jackson Emmer’s timeless Americana rasp hovered in the heat, wrapping around guitar chords, makin’ time with the silky rustle of leaves in the towering cottonwoods above. The effect was immediate, familiar and comfortable. Like bourbon on ice, a hand squeezed lemonade, Emmer was an invitation to summer interludes: lay back on the blanket, catch up with your neighbor.
“Americana songwriters are a dime a dozen these days, but few are writing songs like Jackson Emmer.” – Rolling Stone
His lyrics hop scotch life and love, of course. Challenge, loss, joy. It’s no wonder he was recently written up in Rolling Stone as one of ten country songwriter’s to watch in 2018, and will be the opening act at Mountain Fair this month. All this in a local boy! We recently sat in the sun outside of Bonfire Coffee this month, enjoying the street life and humanity that often inspires Emmer’s songwriting.
Born in Chicago, raised in Palo Alto in the 90s, and coming into his own as a young man at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Emmer has sunk authentic roots in several parts of the country— perhaps this is why a song like My Love For You Texas is so compelling. While we might recognize the names of places or artists, Emmer has actually spent a lot of time living there. The music of Texas unleashes through Emmer in most of what he writes and sings.
The universality of his lyrics, come perhaps, from having lived all over.
“I started writing songs in Vermont. I was living with my friend Sam Moss, who’s a musician in Cambridge. He and I were always trying to collaborate— we were such different songwriters, especially at the time, that it was really hard to play our original music together. So, we also loved folk music and country music— though we didn’t know we loved country music at that time— we didn’t have as big a perspective at the time. So we were like, Okay, the original music doesn’t gel really well. We want to play music together. Let’s form a string band,” Emmer says of his musical start.
“It really became an awesome way to connect with people.”
“We played for all kinds of things! In the same weekend, we’d open for The Devil Makes Three, like, a steam punk country band, go open for them; go open for David Lindley, who was on tour with Jackson Browne and performed on all his albums; and then go play, like, a punk house concert, which might be twenty people kinda moshin’,” he says. “It was a real exercise in connecting, playing for all different kinds of audiences— and ourselves. It was a workout I’d not undergone before. But I still really wanted to write.”
Writing a good song is Emmer’s obsession.
As such, over the years, he’s developed a daily songwriting routine to which he’s deeply committed. Because of this, he’s a prolific songwriter.
“A really small percentage get recorded. Not all songs are made for everyone to hear them,” he reflects. “I don’t think that’s really the barometer of ‘good’. As I try to figure out what is good— some songs are good for a few people; and other songs are good in a way that let’s other people sing them– let’s other people hear themselves in every syllable, and it goes down smooth. But sussing out, Can you make something that appeals to more people? It tiptoes the line of pandering, or selling out. But I don’t really think ‘good’ is that. It’s just about being something that connects. That’s when it’s really, really good.”
What is that connection?
Emmer answers immediately, contemplatively, loaded in umms, pauses and ‘likes’, with the faintest hint of testing out the water—
“If it’s truthful… I think it’s gonna connect. If it’s somehow fresh, if you don’t hear it and go, Oh, I’ve heard this song a million times before… that also connects. And then, the song has to be well built— I feel like that’s way harder to define, that almost has to be genre-specific… and when you feel like you’ve made something good? You have to be willing to accept that not everyone’s gonna think it’s good. But you do have to get it as close to irrefutably good as you can. That’s what I feel like I’m chasing. Some people hit it more often,” he says. As if.
Discussing the legendary Nina Simone, “She didn’t write a ton of music. But what she did write– everything I hear– kills me it is so great.”
And that’s no surprise. Emmer studies his found genre of alt country in the icons of American roots music. For a jaunt down his blue highways of inspiration click here. It’s a set he compiled just for us readers. Give a listen while you read the rest of this; it sets you up real nice– what a ride!
Jackson Emmer is definitely gettin’ off on the hill sound, country twang and inflection. His whole face— cheek muscles, mouth, tongue and throat— make his live performances fascinating to watch. He channels pure, heartfelt query in his Tiny Desk performance, When The Lawn Gets Dark. Helpless, infatuated humor tickles out of him in Intellectual Women Turn Me On. Ain’t No Elvis — I mean, I could keep listing ’em, and like me, you’ll also probably keep clicking. His songs are infectious, and it feels good, catchin’ it.
Is it a natural thing, foolin’ around, or is all that inflection something he works at?
“I am having fun with it,” he chuckles. “I first got hooked on that from my friend Trevor Wilson, great writer, he lives in Ashville; I’ve known him since college. He sings with his whole face–” Emmer’s body curls up and unleashes, roaring punk gibberish across Main Street.
“He uses his whole body! I think it’s just great. So I started experimenting with that. How I make sound is also an act of self preservation,” he says. “Singing at altitude is a different workout than singing at sea level, especially for hours. Playing for three hours in a bar? Circulating that much air dries out in really crazy ways.”
Whatever it is, it makes for a fun performance!
What is ‘good’ to someone who, having picked up alt country in only the last few years, is just nailing it, song after song?
“I don’t know!” Emmer admits. He says he can play what felt amazing, and the audience doesn’t jive— a small house concert, too intimate for lone euphoria.
“Some people cry. But with a small group of friends, will they cry in front of them or in a larger audience?” Or he can play something that he wrote years ago, feeling at the time, “this is stupid, and then it really connects,” muses Emmer. “And I just couldn’t see it.”
Showing Up Everyday
“I wrote “Making Eggs” in like ten minutes. My dad wakes up so early every day and when you talk to him about what he’s been up to and it’s like a hundred things before breakfast! I get a lot done compared to a lot of musicians, but not some people,” he laughs. “Some people are operating on eleven sometimes, or so it seems. Seeing that contrast in my own life, I just sat down, and not even seeing that ahead of time, I just started.”
Listening to the words, is it autobiographical? Is it just a story? Is it old stuff, current stuff? Are there insecurities committing to a life of songwriting and performing full time?
“Are there insecurities? Totally. Happy to talk about ’em. Um…the song, I think– what’s cool about writing songs, and also about writing anything– sometimes you’re in the midst of writing and you’re trying to just be as honest as you can, and don’t realize ’til afterwards the scope of what you captured. I think I didn’t get that with this song. I was just like boom, boom, ten minutes, and it’s done. I think it was both luck and the habit of showing up every day and trying to, like, just be able to be a conduit for something that honest.”
Jackson Emmer released “Jukebox” this Spring, available here.
Plan on losing yourself in Mountain Fair’s opening drum circle at 4:00PM, Friday, July 27. Reground with Jackson Emmer at 5:00PM! Crossing my fingers for “Making Eggs” and “Dreamers and Fools”, a coupla sweet, Sunday morning anthems. “Hot Mess” and “My Love For You, Texas” will more than likely prove to be Mountain Fair foot-stompers. So come on and enjoy~