Armed with a powerful voice and big-time songwriting talent, new Capitol Records artist Emily West is currently soldiering up the charts with her debut single “Rocks In Your Shoes,” co-written with Nashville heavyweights Dave Berg and Annie Tate.
West recently sat down for an interview with American Noise–an exclusive conversation that finds her contemplating the healing powers of chocolate, the viability of ‘chick singers’, and the important influence of her mother.
Jim Malec: Congratulations on all your current upward momentum, Emily. I thought we’d start this Q&A with a question sent in by one of our readers. Barbara, in Winter Haven, wants to know about the status of your album; have you finished writing it? Also, a little birdie tells me you finally have a release date.
Emily West: Yes! The little gossiping birdie is right! I have finished the record, and it is set to be out on record shelves in the fall of 2008! The album will be self-titled. I racked my brain trying to think of a cool title for the album, but the only thing I thought up was cheesy and too over-thought. It’s my first album ever, so I am pretty certain having my name sprawled out on the cover of the record is hands-down the best title to go with. (Plus, It’s old-fashion kinda… and ‘old-fashion’ is the ‘new’ ‘new-fashion’.)
Malec: In August, you wrote a blog post in which you said you wanted to:
…make an emotional wreck of a record. I want to have the listener laugh, smile and be tappin’ their fingers on the steering wheel while driving…I want them to push the track button over to number three and have to pull their car over while they sit sobbing…I want to move the needle point and make country music interesting like it was when artists like Loretta and Tammy were singing on the radio. I want to be a part of a genre of music and make it timeless and real again.
Did you manage to accomplish all of that?
West: Wow. I had some high expectations for myself, didn’t I? Back then, I was so focused on making a record that was real and authentic. I didn’t want there to be any emotional crumb left out of what I was going through, musically and emotionally. I didn’t want to be a clique and sing about something or someone I knew nothing about. I was hard on myself to make a record that made sense to me and to my emotions. I wanted to be the one who could listen to it and relate with it enough to pull my own car over and sob (or laugh). I wanted to be able to do that with my own music. Not even in a vain way, either. As an artist, you could say that there were times of me growing impatient with the record process, but now I am so thankful that it was not rushed and put on the shelves just to be put on the shelves.
I also didn’t want to grow old one day, look back in the archives of my music, and be too embarrassed to let my own grandchildren listen and appreciate the songs I chose to write, cut and eventually be performing in casinos. I can honestly say that I have worked so hard on this record, and I am proud of its debut. In fact, I look forward to my grandchildren (and the fans of country music), hearing this one day.
Malec: Tell me, in more specific terms, about your approach to recording your debut album. What can we expect, artistically? Was there a specific sound or feel you were aiming for in the studio?
West: What can I say? I am a super fan of anything melodic. I am lyrically driven as well. I just really worked closely with my producers and writers to create real, honest, uninhibited music. As a writer, I tend to work toward a good haunting, strong melody with words that say something different than how the next broad would say it. I’ve always loved classic oldies and contemporary rock. I guess you could say I have my honky tonk moments, with a little bit of emotional rock moments a la carte. It’s all real, and very melody-driven with strong lyrics. It’s not worth wasting my vocal nodes on something that doesn’t speak back to the listeners and rock at the same time. My producers (Jeremy Stover and Mark Bright) knew what they were doing, too. And the musicians, they were key. I wanted to marry all of them.
Malec: Of all the songs that made it onto the record, which is your favorite?
West: Last time I checked, my name wasn’t Sophie. This isn’t Sophie’s Choice, and I can’t answer that question. Either way, my favorite song changes on a regular basis. It’s like mood swings with girls; I will change my answer by the time I am through answering it. Plus, it’s like picking between babies. I’m a good mama, and I don’t play favoritism. Although, I will say that “Blue Sky” may one day get me out of renting and actually have me owning.
Malec: In another one of your blog posts, you wrote about spending four years “…developing, waiting, holding [your] breath.” Was there ever a time during that period when you just felt like packing everything up and going home to Iowa?
West: Hell no! I was just feeling sorry for myself and wanted some blog attention. That blog was written before my mom had the infamous “big-girl panty” talk with me, which was the inspiration for my single, “Rocks In Your Shoes.” Ironically enough, that talk–when my mom told me to “put my big girl panties on and deal with it” (and I guess I did)–got me out of the pity phase and got me on the charts!
Malec: When you first signed with Capitol Records, did you have any idea it would take so long for things to start rolling?
West: No. But the wait was worth it.
Malec: In your “storytellers” blog about the song “Annie Gonna Get A New Gun,” you wrote that, after a breakup, you sometimes like to “eat chocolate and MySpace all night.” Which is better for a bad case of the blues, chocolate or MySpace?
West: Hips? MySpace. Heart? Chocolate.
Malec: As I read through your insightful, candid, frequent, and usually hilarious blog posts, I sometimes found myself thinking, “Emily West might be completely crazy.” Are you, in fact, completely crazy?
West: Yes, but only the good kind.
Malec: Your given name is Emily Nemmers, right? Why did you change it to Emily West? Was that at the prompting of your label, and did you have any reservations about the switch? Did you ever feel like you were sacrificing a part of your identity?
West: I changed my name right before I made the big move to Nashville. I just felt like it needed to be done. I debated with myself on whether or not I was going to keep it on the DL or not, but I am such a loudmouth, my plan of keeping it on the DL didn’t pan out. In the beginning, I guess I felt a little guilty for changing it, but not anymore. I’m still, and will always be known as Nemmers to my friends and my family. Heck, I’m kind of like Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana, without the wig change!
Malec: Recently, you were invited to perform on the Opry. What is more overwhelming–hearing yourself on the radio for the first time, or hearing yourself being introduced by Little Jimmy Dickens?
West: Hearing yourself on the radio will never get old. I’ve only heard myself on the radio once when I was in West Palm, on WIRK, and I’ve only been on The Grand Ol’ Opry once. A girl can only experience so much. To process that all of this is happening in my life now is ridiculous. Both are twisted, surreal dreams that have come true for me. Little Jimmy Dickens kissed my hand, and I was invited back. I am in Heaven and I can’t choose between the pearl gate and the singing angels. All of this is too much. Don’t do that to a girl.
Malec: Country music hasn’t been especially friendly to new female artists in recent years. Why do you think that is, and what do you have to do to compete in this male-dominated format?
West: There are a lot of new females coming out and I can’t wait until the day we start proving people wrong about ‘chick singerism’. I just think that it’s all about entertainment, great songs and having the “it” factor, which leads to staying power. It’s easy to be a trend and have a nice run for a couple months with a hit single, but the staying power for women seems to have slacked a little in the past years. It’s been depressing. We haven’t seen anyone rule since Faith, Reba, Martina, and The Dixie Chicks. These women have made it and are already fabulous. I want to see someone break though like these amazing women did, and keep their bullet, enough to become a “high status” act. I am proud to be a chick singer because I know who I am as a woman, and I know that I am more than just a trend sporting a new set of blocks on my chest, posing. People want to be entertained in music. The male acts out there are unbelievable, but they can’t compete with us, just like we can’t compete with them. If you ask me, it’s not about if you are a man or you are a woman, it’s if you are bad-ass enough to bring it. I think the industry might have forgotten what the word ‘entertainment’ means for a while. But no worries–we girls are starting to ‘Barbara Mandrel’ our way back into show business, and I am so excited! My emotional batons are ready and waving. Bring it.
Malec: What is the hardest part–personally, professionally, or creatively–about being a major label recording artist?
West: I don’t know yet. I am just starting out. But my first thought, from my experience so far, would be getting homesick for the simplicity of running errands with my mom in Bellevue. Those times are getting fewer and far between lately.
Malec: You’re earning quite a reputation in certain circles for your impersonations of artists like Cher and Celine Dion. Personally, I think your Reba is amazing. Is there anyone you can’t do?
West: Matt Lauer.
Malec: Speaking of “Dos” (and “Don’ts”), you were recently called a “Don’t” at the CMT Music Awards. I have no idea what that means. But my question to you is this: When you were a “struggling artist,” you enjoyed anonymity. Has it been difficult adjusting to being in the public eye and opening yourself up to criticism?
West: No. High school would have eaten me alive if I let it. So I am going to be just fine dealing with the gossip-talk in this business. I was called a “Don’t” by some irrelevant fashion critic that obviously doesn’t know style, because I felt pretty that night. And I don’t care who said what about me. All that is just ‘fun famous people gossip column buzz talk’. You can call me the Bjork of Country Music Bad Fashion–as long as I am not on the “Don’t” list for records, I am floating on a highly-fashionable first-class cloud, sippin’ on gin and juice.
Malec: Vocal impressions aside, if you had to pick one artist to model your career after, who would it be?
West: Linda Ronstandt with Bette Midler on the side. Linda, because her voice was so versatile. She took adventurous chances and cut records that were so different from each other. She sang traditional country, made a ton of rock records, folk, rocked a couple Spanish records, wore roller skates on the cover of one record and sang duets with Aaron Neville! Bette, because she is ‘Bette’. She was “Every Woman” before Whitney was singing about it. She’s so talented and has always been innovative. She’s taking Celine’s stage on Broadway this year, too.
Malec: Artists are often defined, at least a little bit, by the company they keep. Who do you hang with? (Here’s your chance to plug one of your friends–give me the name of a singer or songwriter who you really dig that our readers might never have heard of).
West: I have a mixture of friends. I have a fish tank full of people that I enjoy writing with. As I brag and name them, feel free to stalk them on Myspace: Kelly Archer, Kate York, and American Bang… I could go on, but my butt hurts and I’m tired. If you go on my Top 18, you will see a lot more! Go friends!
Malec: What’s the single most important thing that the world needs to know about Emily West?
West: I have an overbite that I adore. I also love to sing Patsy Cline in the bathtub because of good echoing acoustics chiming off my Bellevue tile that’s starting to rust. I love my family and my dogs in a very huge way.
Malec: That was three things, but I’ll let it slide. This time. Next question: What is country music?
West: Shut up.
Country music has been, for a long time, the only genre of music people have felt a need to protect, and to set boundaries on how far a newcomer can go with it. It’s almost like defending your little sister, or not letting anyone mess with your brother. People are proud of country music and are a little hesitant to let anyone take over and change it. But, just like everything else in the world, things evolve–songwriting evolves and production evolves. I am proud that we stay so protective of country music’s integrity, and I do feel that there are different kinds of country music. We are now not afraid to admit that. As far as my definition of what I think country music is, all I can say is what I know–and all I know is that country music, if you need it to, can stab the emotional vein right when you are needing it to bleed. And it’s the only music ever to be able to hit people like that. That’s why I think people are so protective of it. It’s the best music out there. In a world compacted with artificial, plastic emotions, country music still holds up (even with its changing evolution) as being the ‘big brother’ that never lets us go through our heartache alone.
Malec: Your personality is infectious. How do you stay so upbeat when launching a career is so difficult and stressful?
West: First of all, thank you. Secondly, I am my mother’s daughter and she has taught me a lot. I always remember my mom having a smile on her face. Even if it was in the middle of a crowded room, where no one was talking to her, she would still be smiling. Even if it was at a wall. I would walk up to her and say, “Mom! Stop smiling,” and she’d then say, with a smile, “What?” and keep on smiling. She was always so cheery, and I think that just bled down into my personality. If I sleep over at her house, she still wakes me up by clapping her hands and singing, “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory.’
I’m just like her, only I have more of a demented personality. In a good way. Thank you again though. Actually, thank my Mom’
Malec: I’m very lazy–so please ask yourself, and then answer, the final question.
West: What’s your earliest memory of music in the house growing up?
West: My earliest memory would be me dancing around to Sandi Patty and Annie The Orphan Soundtrack. My sister and I would put our Can Can Slips on and prance and twirl around our old house on Columbus Drive. Ironically, we weren’t aloud to listen to music with too much ‘beat’ in it because we were strong Baptist Church-goers and my folks, becoming new believers themselves, thought it was too much…beat, I guess. “Heavy beats” led to provocative thoughts or something. They should have known better, though, because I became what I’ve become today–a country music rock star chasing ‘beats’ and making ‘beats’. My religious beliefs are having no religious beliefs. I just love Jesus and know that he loves me too. He even lets me ‘beat’ as loud as I want to at my shows. He’s the greatest.
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