As Emily West prepares to depart for her national house concert tour, we had the chance to sit down and catch up on all things life, Nashville, and new music.
Imagine Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Patsy Cline walk into a bar together. Just as they take their seats in low back wooden chairs, peanut shells crushed under the points of their stiletto heels, the whole mood of the room changes. What was once a little rough and a little sad is suddenly tinged with a distinct hint of glamour. These women, with the weight of their cosmic tragedies and impeccable voices, change the atmosphere of the whole place and suddenly honky tonk meets Hollywood in a creative, dark, glittery explosion. Who knows which year we’re in; it could just as easily be today as 1955. Their tight fitting evening gowns and coy smiles won’t give it away. They turn their heads to the small stage as the lights dim, glove-clad forearms resting on the table; a thin film of old liquor and nicotine tacking itself to the satin covering their bony elbows. Enter Emily West; the culmination of every honky tonk angel and lost Hollywood idol wrapped up in a blonde-bombshell-meets-barrel-racer package. Were this scenario not imagined there’d be no doubt that West could her own with these women, these fallen-hero, desperate-housewife, entertainment-gold icons. With the same intensity and musical integrity, West is paving her own path in Nashville. She has her earliest influences to thank for the inspiration and courage to defy modern music marketing and transcend any genre box in which one may try to place her.
Like any good artistic story, West’s begins in a small town in the midwest; Waterloo, Iowa. When asked how she came into music, West recounted her earliest days. “I remember hearing sound ever since I was a baby; it’s one of the first things I remember. I would sit in my crib sucking my thumb and hear it. It always caught my attention. I didn’t really know that I could get people’s attention with it myself until I was entered into a pageant and I needed a talent. Little did my parents know that I had been studying Patsy Cline over at a friend’s house. I heard Patsy’s voice one day and thought, okay, this woman feels so much pain and beauty and one day I hope to know what she’s talking about. I was attracted to Patsy’s voice from the moment I heard it, so I started mimicking her tone, except, you know, to Disney songs. Disney and Patsy Cline are how I started singing.” If one has heard West sing, those mixed beginnings make so much sense; she still captures the essence and unique magic of both in her own music. From her first pageant to high school, West was able to study what she calls The Greats in the form of singing lessons at the local mall. There, in the small storefront studio, West learned about and how to sing like Bonnie Raitt, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand, among others.
West credits her early study of music as an aspect of her life that both grounded her and gave her direction in the shape of a dream. “Music was the only thing I ever felt like I was really good at. I started to hear and really register applause when I was about eight years old and once I heard that I was like, okay, I like the sound of that- that means people like what I’m doing so I’m going to continue doing it. I started to research music more, and my mom and dad were wonderfully encouraging. They saw me light up with music; I wasn’t into sports and I wasn’t great at school but music was mine. They started taking me to local car wash events, the Chamber of Commerce, anywhere I could sing around my hometown. I went to Nashville for the very first time when I was twelve and I was hit by the bug. I decided very quickly that I was moving to Nashville.”
Moving to Nashville to join the music business, however, often comes with its own set of hard lessons and drawbacks. “After I decided I was going to Nashville, I signed a really bad contract. I mean, I was fourteen years old with a guy in a leather coat telling me that I was going to be a big star, and the contract was horrible. I don’t encourage anybody to sign a contract, but that was a lesson-learned nightmare. With that, though, I did make it to Nashville and I was signed to Warner Chapel to start writing music.” West found herself in Nashville at the age of eighteen, having signed another contract without understanding many of the details. This one, however, wouldn’t break her heart. “I had no idea what a publishing deal was. I knew I was getting a check every month to pay my bills, and it was because I was hired to write songs. I knew it was the company that created Bugs Bunny, right? That’s how naive I was. I was really young when I started dreaming and a lot of luck came with that, but with luck comes responsibility. I didn’t know how to be an adult yet and also dream. It was really hard for me to be both of those things when I started and it’s something I’ve had to learn.”
Learn she has. Today, with Warner Chapel, Capitol, a run on America’s Got Talent, Sony, three albums, multiple singles, and countless live performances under her belt, West has created her own space in which to exist as an artist, writer, and vocalist. Her albums run the gamut from true-blue honky tonk heartbreak tunes to torch songs reminiscent of her earliest influences. It is not often, especially in Nashville, that one encounters an artist who hasn’t bought into the big machine that is music row, or at least tried to. “This is a question I ask myself daily; how do I remain mentally able to figure out how to pay my bills with music while always keeping the joy of music making? If you lose your joy, that’s when things start to get a little tricky. It was hard to learn that, but I really am learning that you can create your own prison with your perspective and how you see things. One thing I’m sitting with and learning right now is how to protect my ideas. Sometimes when you say hey I have this idea to make a country record, you suddenly have all these people who want to give you their advice. I don’t think you should jump into blindly following another person’s advice about your art. My process, for one, is all over the place, and I like it that way because I don’ t like to be too simple. I’m afraid of being too simple, and I love the art of storytelling. That’s the reason I’m so attracted to torch songs and to country music; the storytelling. The corporate side of this business has changed things. You need one hit, and it’s got to be simple. Everyone’s got to have simple subjects like beer and tight jeans. I love complex things and country music and theater songs and I will not be boxed in.”
True to her artistic beliefs, West has recently involved herself in a collaboration with Whiskey Wolves of the West, a band local to Nashville featuring Leroy Powell and Tim Jones, Chase McGillis (bass),Taylor Powell (Drums), and Chris Powell (Drums) . On their own, Whiskey Wolves of the West produce a Waylon Jennings meets Steve Miller Band throwback sound. Genuine Americana at its best, truly. With West in the mix their sound takes on an ethereal, almost haunting quality, which West describes on her website as: Veterans / With too many credits to count / Making music / Exactly how they want to make it. “I’ve known Leroy Powell for about ten years. He’s this long haired rock star legend who just has a heart of gold. We did a Harry Neilson show together where we played a bunch of covers. I met Tim Jones at the same show and we got together and started writing songs at my little treehouse and it all just fell together. Songs fell out of me. I would sit in the bath and I’d record myself and these melodies in my journal entries and on voice memos. Leroy heard something- he saw something in these songs and he and Tim would come over and we’d get them put together and finished. A lot of these songs cover topics I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing into the music row scene, but Leroy and Tim speak my language and see my perspective. It was a happy mistake, and a beautiful myth. No- not a mistake- but they fell out of me. When I say I would never send anyone my voice memos I mean it! If you heard them you’d think I was crazy, but I’d send them to these two guys who have become like my brothers and they would see me and understand me. Our record isn’t entirely mixed yet, but we have it all down and I’m so grateful we are making it together.”
In addition to her new music, West is currently in the midst of launching a national house concert series, where she will take her show on the road quite literally to your living room. West remarked. ‘My house concert series is a great new endeavor. I love performing for people at parties being the dinner singer.” The series, a new concept for West, is one she hopes will be a relaxed throwback to dinner parties of old. “I love the concept of sitting in a living room, visiting and chatting and hearing stories across the country. Throw me in your backyard for the holidays or a good party just for the sake of a party. I love a snack plate, I’m not a vegan, and I have no dietary restrictions.’
The new album should be out some time this year, and we at Lula are waiting on it with bated breath. With her impeccable voice, her unique style, and a heart that only comes along once a millennia, West has captured all of the good things about music in the palm of her hand. There is an undeniable joy in her eyes, generosity in her writing, mystique to her soul, and we are enamored by the fact we get to witness it first hand. To keep up with West and her current projects, follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website.
If you’re interested in speaking with Emily West about booking her for a house concert in your home as part of her national house concert tour, contact her here.