guitarist Emily Wolfe (11 May 1990),
who has just released her eponymous debut album, is light, warm, and open in
conversation; but there is also a darker side to her personality. And these two
extremes are strongly expressed in her music, to powerful effect.
If you haven’t heard her yet, take a moment now to listen to her moody and aggressive track Atta Blues, or the fantastically sensual Swoon.
Wolfe has been touring her solo show regularly since 2012 and has opened for The Pretenders, Heart and The Toadies.
Guitars Exchange catches up with her at her home in Austin, Texas, surrounded by packing boxes, as she is about to move home. It was raining earlier but it is sunny now, and as her dog barks, she is happy to open up about how she is striving to create a new genre of music, her struggles with alcoholism, and the excitement of releasing her debut album…
GE: How would you describe your new record?
EW: I’ve been working on it for a while; I’ve had EPs and stuff out before now, but this is my first full length.
There are a lot of different categories of inspiration for it. On the music side, one night I just couldn’t sleep and so I ended up down this rabbit hole rediscovering bands from the 70s, and I fell in love with that music. I listened to Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and UFO and all those bands, and I thought if I could play that music on my guitar and then put my vocal on it, I think it could be pretty unique.
As far as my inspiration for getting it out, I have been trying to release it for something like three plus years. So many people said to me: ‘wait, it is not the right time to put it out’ and I never understood why. I guess these people were trying to get me to release it when rock was on top of the trend, and I just didn’t want to do that. I waited but then I just said ‘fuck this!’ - and I just put it out! [Laughs] It’s such a relief because I have been dying to get it out of my soul, and now that it is released I can finally get on with other stuff.
GE: Can you now think of a story attached to a particular song?
EW: Yes, a song called White Collar Whiskey. I actually wrote that song at a desk, while I was working as a receptionist at a construction company. So the lyrics are about my job and how much I didn’t feel like I belonged there. It wasn’t were I wanted to be. So I got home, poured a glass of whiskey, and put the music to it. I released it previously but it wasn’t the right arrangement, but I paired up with the producer Ben Tanner who brought it back to life; so I would say that’s my favourite song on the album.
GE: Is ‘Atta Blues’ the first single release from the album?
EW: Yes. I had the most fun playing that song. I was going for a dark love song. It’s like when you love someone so much you just want to grab them, you know [Laughs]… that animalistic type of love. It is just so raw.
GE: Then on ‘Swoon’ your voice is very sensual, it reminded me of Goldfrapp…
EW: Yes, I agree, I love Goldfrapp. I actually wrote it on the piano, which is not normal for me, but one day I came across this weird chord change and I was there for two hours trying to figure out what it was. I felt there was a melody there, and I just had to access it. I wanted it to be very sensual; that is where I am going in my music. I am sure my parents felt a bit weird about that, but you know… [Laughs]
GE: What about ‘Hazy Days’?
EW: That one is about an ex who moved to a different state and really I was hoping that she would move out of the country [Laughs] because I didn’t want to deal with her, but I kept running into her. If you were to picture a relationship with two people laying in bed and one is wishing the other one would just leave; the song is about that.
GE: …and ‘Violent Veins’?
EW: I wrote that when I was drinking heavily and in the midst of a horrible addiction to alcohol. Alcoholism has run in my family for generations, so it feels like it is in my veins. It felt weird to write it because it was so honest and I was concerned that people would think ‘she is violent when she drinks’ - but it is the truth, so I figured I would put it in the song.
GE: Going back to your childhood, do you see it as fortuitous that you were born in Austin, the city of the blues?
EW: Perhaps. I’ve always had this connection with Stevie Ray Vaughan so maybe that is something.
GE: Are you buddies with other Austin regulars like Jimmie Vaughan, Eve Monsees and Sue Foley?
EW: I wish I could say I was, but they are kind of out of my reach. Jimmie does play C-boys in Austin; I think it is cool that he still plays very small venues.
GE: You once said that you wanted to create your own musical genre – how far are you down that path?
EW: I think I am on my way; it is a dream of mine to do something that no-one has ever done before. I don’t know why I have the need to do it, but it is deep within me.
GE: What are the elements of that new genre?
EW: I want to do heavy rock guitar with a female voice. I don’t have a rock voice but I want to blend the two together. I want to show the aggression, the anger and the dark side of me in my guitar playing, and then the lighter happier side of me in my voice.
GE: You made a powerful Youtube video called ‘From Addiction to Rebirth’; I am wondering how that video changed your life?
EW: Out of the blue I was approached to make that video, and I thought ‘awesome!’ but I didn’t realise how big that platform was. In the video I opened up a lot and was very vulnerable, but it is important because I have received a lot of messages from people saying that my story has made it possible for them to overcome addiction and to keep on going, especially as a musician.
The interesting thing about that video is that it is in front of so many eyes it is almost a factor why I am still sober, because I never want to let the people who saw that video down. One of the main reasons that I play music is to help people escape from what they are feeling at a certain moment in time.
GE: Is there a limit to how far you are prepared to go in terms of openness and honesty?
EW: There is a limit. There are certain things I wouldn’t be open about, but as far as being ‘out’ and a female musician; the fact I struggled with addiction and I am sober now; and my struggles with the music industry – I am totally willing to talk about that with anybody; but only if they ask, or it is an interview. The only limit would be if there is a safety issue, but that hasn’t occured.
GE: Moving on to guitars, I read in one of your interviews that since you came across the Epiphone you haven’t played anything else; is that still true?
EW: Yes, it is funny because I am endorsed by Gibson, and I love Gibson, but there is something about the Sheraton that I just cannot get away from. I think it is the pickups; they are dark and moody and sound so good through my rig; it is the best guitar that I have ever played. It is like a part of my body.
GE: I understand you make your own pedals; can you tell us about how that came about?
EW: When I was first getting sober I needed a new addiction to keep healthy; pedals filled that space and now I will never go back. I also make my own patch cables because I want to be self-sufficient on the road and not have to rely on a Tech or someone to fix my rig. I bought myself a solder, I researched everything I could about making boards, including what the best power supply is and the best pedals for the tone I am looking for. I opened a lot of pedals up to try and figure out what makes the sound; I am just obsessed with it.
GE: What is the pedal you can’t live without?
EW: My favourite pedal ever is the Fulltone OCD– it is the most incredible Overdrive distorsion pedal ever. It is the exact sound I hear in my head. I went through a bunch of Overdrives and I couldn’t find one that I liked – or the one that I liked would just compress my amp so much that the sound would just disappear on stage. I was looking for the right gain structure but also how to stick out, so I basically stacked two OCDs and then EQ’d that, so I could always be heard. I also love the MXR Six Band EQ, which isn’t the sexiest pedal, but it is very potent.
GE: You have an analog clock on your board – do you know anyone else who has that?
EW: I don’t! Everybody always mentions that! [Laughs] I just have got to know what time it is, I gotta know!
I put it there because I do a lot of support slots and the last thing I want is to go on longer than the time allotted and then the headliner gets mad; so now I never have to question ‘how much longer do I have?’
GE: How do you stick it to your board?
EW: I use very heavy velcro; it is called dual-lock velcro.
GE: Are there any new guitarists on the scene you particularly admire?
EW: James Nichols performed recently at NAMM, he’s a real bad ass, really fun to watch; he’s not new but he is a legend. I love John Mayer’s playing and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age - he is an incredible guitar player, he plays the most unique notes in his solos – and I love Jack White’s playing. Those are the top ones.
GE: At the other end of the spectrum do you have any message for struggling guitarists?
EW: The main thing is to keep going if you know you are supposed to do it. Another important thing is to figure out what ‘making it’ means to you – and then strive for that everyday. Rock music isn’t all over the radio at the moment, but just keep going because the music industry ebbs and flows, and it is bound to come back eventually. You could be the person to bring it back!
GE: What are your plans for this year?
EW: In 2019 I am going on a couple of tours in April and May, then I’ll do a couple of festivals before going on the road to promote the record. I do plan to tour overseas; it is going to happen but I don’t know when.
Guitars Exchange’s interview with Emily Wolfe closes with a focus on gigging in Europe and specifically the special reception that Spanish audiences give to artists playing live. “Absolutely, I have heard that from a lot of people…” she says, “I have got to go there; it will be my first stop!”