It was a pleasure once again to interview the multi-talented Emily Duff as she drops her latest album and discusses the process and how it came about.
Interview by Linda Buongermino. Photographs by Linda Buongermino. Album photographs by Charles Chessler.
Emily Duff: I’m doing good, great to be here.
LB: You have had a crazy busy year since quarantine. Music wise, have you been productive since January? And how have these changes in your life affected your music?
ED: Because I’m not playing as many shows, I’m writing five times as much. And I’m a big mouth and I’m very observant and I like to process through music. I have been making more music than ever. It’s funny because I was out on a dog walk last night with my husband and I said I am going to force myself not to write any more songs this year. I’m going to try and stop myself because there’s too much material and I’m starting to forget songs. I’m not spending enough time with the stuff that I have. It’s coming out too fast. I write it, I play it a few times, and then I put it away. And then I go “Oh wait, what about that song,” and then I can’t remember how it goes. Luckily I videotape everything and record everything so I see where my hands are. I do a rough demo but stuff just came out fast and furious because there was so much emotion.
LB: Is your songwriting a daily process?
ED: Yeah absolutely. It’ll wake me up out of a dead sleep. But every day I put down some thoughts. I see if there’s an aha moment in the thoughts and then sometimes just the daily thought where a few words lead to a title, leads to a chorus and then before I know it, it’s done.
LB: What comes to you first, the music or the lyrics?
ED: It changes every time. I’ll sit down every morning and strum after I have coffee. My husband and I have coffee together when he gets back with the dog. And usually while he’s out with the dog I’ve got things floating around in my head. We sit down, and then he starts making his lunch to go to work and while he’s making his lunch I’m strumming. My practice is that I usually teach myself a new chord. That’s something that’s uncomfortable for me because I want to put my fingers somewhere that I don’t usually, and then I spend about the next few minutes going from an uncomfortable chord to a comfortable chord until the uncomfortable chord becomes the comfortable chord. And that opens up my ears because it’s a cord I don’t really know and a voicing that I’m not sure of. And then that will lead to a riff. The way it comes to me is different every time. I sometimes receive a whole song all at once. Like I have an antenna on the top of my head that’s just kind of bringing in a song. I call that song catcher. I’ve got a couple of songs like that where I pick up the guitar and out of nowhere I just start singing a song and it’s complete, like I’ve known it my whole life.
LB: Wow, that’s something.
ED: It’s almost like a channeling thing. And those are good days, those are lucky. Sometimes it turns into a joke because I’m just spewing nonsense, and sometimes I latch into something and then it just goes.
LB: Do you think that comes with practice because you’ve done it every day or is that something just innate to you?
ED: I think it can happen to anybody, I don’t think it’s just innate to me. But I think that I’m wide open, like when I pick up a guitar I don’t pick up a guitar with the idea that I’m going to become a better guitar player. I pick up the guitar with the idea that I’m gonna find something that sounds good and that I will make something happen. I’m not gonna be the egomaniac, “now I’ll show that song where it’s going,” you know what I mean. I know that ultimately I’m really not in control. The song knows where it wants to go. So it’s a lot of that, it’s a lot of like, “here Jesus take the wheel.” [Laughter]
LB: That’s funny. How old were you when you wrote your first song?
ED: I think I was seven when I sat down to write a song with a guitar and it was about my parents getting divorced. No, that was the second song. The first song I wrote was about baseball cards. It was a real punk rock song.
LB: Were you a baseball fan?
ED: Oh gosh, I was massively into baseball. I wound up being the only girl on a boys little league team and I collected baseball cards. My father took me to all the Mets games. I was a serious Mets fan coming from Queens. I loved Tom Seaver, he was like an idol. I got to meet him at some all-star games which was very exciting. He signed a ball for me. So yeah, I was completely entranced by sports, but specifically baseball, so I obsessively collected cards. So my first song was very punk rock and the verses were repetitive and it was just, “got it, got it, need it, need it, got it, need it, got it.” It was about looking at somebody else’s collection and then the chorus was, “I’ll flip ya, I’ll trade ya, I’ll scale ya.”
ED: No, I was thinking that I would do it, I mean it would really wind up sounding like the punk rock band Flipper. Which would be cool because it was just like chords, and it was like two chords. I think one chord for the verse and one chord for the chorus. That was it. But that was my first real song that I sat down and said “I’m gonna write a song,” and it was about something I really loved.
LB: Is there a song that someone else has written that you wish you had written?
ED: Yes, absolutely. There’s quite a few but I’d say my top song that I wish I could put my name on is “Darling Be Home Soon” by John Sebastian from Lovin’ Spoonful. One of the best versions of it that I’ve ever seen which is a live version and it’s nine minutes plus long by Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks and their band. You can see it on YouTube and he winds up doing this incredible slide solo at the end that never fails. I’ve watched it probably a hundred times and I cry every single time and it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
LB: Have you ever sang it?
ED: Just to myself. Certain songs I’m not going to perform. They’re kind of sacred. I don’t really love doing covers. People love when I do covers so it’s very deliberate choices and they’re from a very specific time for me. When I do choose a song it’s very special for reasons but I don’t know that I want to sing that song. I’ve actually had the honor of sitting at the counter at the Matt Umanov Guitar shop on Bleecker when it was still open. I had a guitar in my lap, John Sebastian had a guitar in his lap and we were chatting. I said, “By the way you know you wrote one of my favorite songs ever,” and he said thank you. It was a big deal for me to say it, but yeah, it’s probably that one.
LB: You have a new album that just came out. It’s called “Razor Blade Smile.” Congratulations, I’ve read some of the great reviews that you have gotten so far.
ED: Thank you. So far, I’m very lucky, knock on wood.
LB: I was wondering, how did that title come about?
ED: When I wrote that song “Razor Blade Smile” it was just this image that I had gotten of me when I was just this punk rocker and I was like this [grimaces], this fake smile, like razor wire, you know grimace of toughness. I’ve got nothing to lose besides my razor blade smile, because I was this really really tough thing because I was on my own, so it was a lot of posturing and that’s what that razor blade smile was. Most of the time I cut myself with that razor blade smile. It suits me a lot better these days to have a lot softer side. The toughness is all about smiling through pain as well, and putting up a front. The first line of this song is something my father used to say to me all the time, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” What I wanted to say was, “you’ve already given me a million things to cry about, what the hell is wrong with you.” It’s all about turning somebody into a harder version of themselves against their will, really. But then it’s actually serving me because becoming tough really served me well.
LB: And it’s given you a lot of material and it has formed the way you are creatively.
ED: Yes, and luckily I was able to wiggle out of that uniform, you know what I mean, when I needed to because then it wasn’t serving me anymore. It was definitely hurting me.
LB: Did you approach this album with the mindset that the music would be cohesive or were you looking for more of an eclectic series of songs?
ED: Well because it was in Roscoe’s [Eric Ambel] hands, I was making it with somebody I had worked with before, who I have so much respect for, who’s made so many great records. I knew that it didn’t matter that we were making what we call an overdub record because the band wasn’t all in the room at the same time like I usually do. And it was pandemic, and there were restrictions and there were safety issues. I always knew that it was going to be cohesive as far as the selection of the tunes really hung together and if you think about it, as what is my style, if that’s what you’re talking about in terms of cohesive. It’s not a concept album so I wasn’t looking for that type of continuity but I think that if you look at it in relation to Born On The Ground, as far as cohesion, it’s very similar because it actually really draws on all of my influences.
ED: Ohhh, well in the way that I made it. Hallelujah Hello obviously was a gospel record, so that had more of a theme to it. The Muscle Shoals first record Maybe In The Morning was very much a country soul record. Go Tell Your Friends was very much a stripped down, folky alt country. And then with Born On The Ground and this one, we start to pick up more of the rock and roll punk influence and a return to more of who I was and putting all those things together. It’s like I love country music but I’m not a country music artist. And I love country music in so far that I think it’s one of the greatest genres for songwriting, because you could take most great country songs and sing them in any genre. I could take any Dolly Parton song and make a punk rock song out of it, or I could take it and do anything with it and it would sound great because they’re great songs and the authenticity of the writing and the storytelling is simplistic and real and beautiful. So with this record I was able to go, “yes, I love country and I can do that and I can bring my punk rock self,” which is that rock and roll, you know Johnny Cash meets Patti Smith meets Lucinda. Whatever, drawn all the things that made me, me right now. And then to finish off with something as I’d say pretty as “Nicotine And Waiting,” you know a waltz for God’s sakes.[Laughter] A waltz about pain, a country standard.
LB: What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
ED: Oh that’s hard. I really love “Another Goodbye.” I really love that song because lyrically I think there’s some great stuff going on there. I love “Angry To Bed.” But the other day I listened to it from start to finish and “Gimme Back My Love” was really the one that made me go, “oh that sounds different,” because it’s got that Buddy Holly meets Phil Spector real big rock sound. And it’s, I think, that we did a really good job on that and Charlie [Giordano] and everyone’s just really in that.
LB: Tell me about the musicians who worked on this one.
ED: Well, Charlie Giordano, of course, he’s in my band. He plays piano, Hammond B3 Organ, Wurlitzer Organ and he plays accordion on two songs. Then we’ve got Mary Lee Kortes again on background vocals and harmony vocals and Eric Ambel as well, who he kept referring to himself as church boy every time he did harmony vocals which was funny as hell. Keith Christopher plays bass on this record. He’s the bass player in Lynyrd Skynyrd. And on drums we have Phil Cimino who plays with Roscoe [Eric Ambel] in his band. And then I have a little guest appearance by a young man from Boston named Cory Nilsen and he plays pedal steel guitar on “Nicotine And Waiting.” Roscoe [Eric Ambel] handles all the guitars except for me, I do acoustic and lead vocals and that’s it, we kept it sparse.
LB: I know you love collaborating with Roscoe. Will you do another album with him?
ED: Oh I would definitely work with Eric again. I would work with Roscoe [Eric Ambel] as many times as I could. He’s an inspiration to me and he’s really just a nice guy. He’s got a beautiful studio, he makes you very comfortable and it’s very convenient for me. He brings with him so much talent and so much experience and so much enthusiasm, why wouldn’t I work with him again?
LB: The photos for the album were taken by the remarkable portrait photographer Charles Chessler. He captures your essence so perfectly.
ED: Thank you. He is a genius. We really appreciate each other and that comes through. We think our friendship really shines in these photos.
LB: Absolutely. When you did the shoot for this CD, did the title of it drive the photos?
ED: No, I didn’t know the title of the record until very recently. Charles took that photo and we took a whole bunch of photos up on the roof and we didn’t really think that it was gonna be for the record. We just wanted to do a shoot and we wound up doing two shoots. We did one in the alley and we did one on the roof, and I used two from the roof and one from the alley for the record. The review that I got from Americana Highways talks about the package design and the photos, and it says it’s the best this year so far.
LB: Wow, that’s great. So, the photos were done prior. I actually thought it was the opposite way.
ED: No, I listened to the mixes for the record when it was all done and then I thought to myself, okay now I know what this record is and I thought I was gonna call the record “Gimme Back My Love.” I always named the record after a song. I toyed with “Gimme Back My Love” and then I also toyed with “Nicotine & Waiting” and I thought I’ll do an ashtray and a hand or whatever. And then I went through all of them and then I thought to myself, f***k it’s Razor Blade Smile, it’s just so obvious. Then I started going through the photos and I found that one and then I laughed and I thought no that’s too funny. It’s almost tongue-in-cheek, and then I thought yes it is, and that’s why I like it. So it became this thing that really fit the mood, not just of that song but of also the year that we’ve been through where it’s just been grin and bear it b**ch, you know, just smile through this and move forward.
LB: I have to say it was really a pleasure to see you perform live again at your outdoor pop-up at Cowgirl on June 21st. It was a hot sultry night but it was so wonderful to see you and Scott Standish Aldrich and Skip Ward. It was emotional for me since it was the first time seeing a live performance since pre-pandemic. People were sitting at tables and people stopped to listen to you. It must have been emotional for you too. How did that feel in front of the crowd?
ED: It was very emotional for me. It felt amazing, because I’ve been playing in my living room for 16 months or however long it’s been, and my favorite thing about music is sharing it. It’s about a conversation and it’s not just me singing lyrics and telling stories. For me as a musician it’s the camaraderie with another musician that we can take each other higher and that I’ll play a lick or I’ll sing a melody and then Scotty will come in and answer it or Skip will come in and do something. And then we start to laugh and then we start to kind of look at each other and the energy kind of just lifts us off the ground and then it’s like on a cellular level and on a molecular level. It just changes everything and then when we start to get excited, you guys start to get excited, and then that energy can like friggin’ move rocks. I think that’s why it gets so emotional, it’s because it’s this crazy amount of real love that we’re sharing. We’re having this intense musical conversation through notes and just our bodies and everything and we’re like smiling and then you guys are picking up on that and you give it back to us. So it’s just like love, like ping-pong you know and it’s sound waves. I mean that’s energy. Sound waves are like this powerful stuff, so music, the way it gets passed back and forth and smacked around during a show, is an emotional force of energy. So to be able to do that with other people feels like excitingly non-masturbatory [Laughter]. It’s sexual energy, it is. And giving that is beautiful, that’s what we’re here for.
LB: When is your next live show and will you be touring for this album?
ED: I’m definitely going to figure out a way to tour this record. I’ve already got my tour for the U.K. set for May. I was waiting to find out about a pending surgery that I’m going to hold off on. So my next real band show is September 20th, because everyone’s away in August. Even with the pandemic people are still cutting and running so I’m gonna go visit my mother finally. And then when I come back I’ve got a duet thing that I’m doing. I’ve got some private shows, people have hired me to do some house stuff. I just did a solo acoustic thing in Kingston with Amythyst Kiah at the Old Dutch Church and that was really special. I did a private party in Nyack on a farm, and then after that I’m not doing much until September 1st when I’m in New Jersey opening for Willie Nile, and then September 20th I’m back at Cowgirl if all goes well. Fingers crossed everybody stays healthy.
LB: If you were to start over again what would you change?
ED: Am I starting over at this age? Can I change my age? [Laughter] Can I be 24 again? I don’t know that I’d change anything. I think I’ve always been sort of this uncompromising person who was always sticking to my guns in terms of following my gut. I never did anything that I thought would make me feel shitty. I never sold my soul, I never sold anyone else out. I never climbed on the back of anybody else, I worked really hard. I love writing songs. I don’t need to make a million dollars, I don’t want a million dollars. I like my simple life. Of course I’d like a bathtub and maybe a bedroom for my husband and I. We need a larger place to live but I’m not complaining. I have more than I deserve. But I don’t know that I would really change. I’ve had so much fun and so many opportunities and I’m grateful for all of them. I think I probably might have worked harder to get a publishing deal back in the days when people gave publishing deals. Because now they don’t, and I think artist development is really important for an artist to be able to pay their rent and not struggle. I might have started my own label because I would love to be producing young artists right now and give really talented people the chance to develop as artists because we don’t have that. What would I have done different? I would have said yes to the people at Westbeth when they called me and said do you still want this apartment your number is up, instead of saying no I’m fine here. Because I didn’t think I’d ever get married or ever have kids and I didn’t need a bigger place. So maybe that’s all I would have said. I love my life and I’m really proud of the way I’ve lived it so I don’t know that I would change anything because if I change stuff I don’t know that I’d have my kids or my husband, and that would be a huge loss for sure.
LB: Will you continue your live stream on Sundays?
ED: Absolutely, I really like it. I really enjoy it. I like the conversations and I think that it’s important for people to get together. I think the accessibility of this really brings an energy that feels consistent at a time where I think people need something that they can count on. I think it’s really important for me, because it’s a time for me to get together with friends as well. It’s not just a time for me to play guitar and sing. It’s a time for me to reach out in all ways, and people reach out to me too. So I get a lot of fuel from it. It definitely brightens my day.
LB: So people know, you can find Emily streaming live every Sunday at 4pm on Facebook at Emily Duff Band Live.
ED: If people wanna know what I’m doing and see me do my live stream, they just have to Like Emily Duff Band on Facebook. That’s the best way to do it.
LB: How can one get your new CD?
ED: If they want to buy a physical copy of the CD they’ve got to go to Bandcamp. I have a page on Bandcamp and you can get all my records there. If they want to download it off of iTunes they can do that. They can stream it on Spotify if they prefer to do it that way. But they need to know that they should follow me on Spotify as well because I don’t really get any money from Spotify. Spotify gets all the money, so if people think that by having a monthly membership that they’re actually giving money to the artists, they have to realize their not. Spotify figured out how to steal and you’re giving money to a shitty corporation of geeks who can’t make art, who figured out how to rip off artists.
So you give them monthly, if you subscribe, to listen to all the music you want, same like iTunes. If you do Apple Music you’re giving all your money to people who know how to code, not people who know how to write songs. So if you’re going to do it that way at least follow me because if I’m building up followers on Spotify that means something to potential publishers. They want to see numbers, how many followers do you have on Instagram, on Facebook, on Spotify. So if I’m not actually getting the money, which I don’t, from people streaming my music on YouTube, and this that and the other thing, at least subscribe. Because that means something to somebody. As far as getting the physical CD, if people don’t have a CD player, and they don’t even make cars with CD players anymore, you have to pay extra for it. It’s like an exorbitant amount of money because they don’t want to do it. They just want you to plug your phone in and that’s it. I get it. But some radio stations would be more apt to play me if I have a following on Spotify or on Pandora or whatever. So I play the game, I put it everywhere it’s supposed to be, even though it’s losing money. I do make a little bit of money on iTunes or on Amazon. I do make a little bit of money there and it’s fine. Look, like I said, I don’t think anybody becomes a writer or an artist to become a millionaire. We do it because that’s who we are and that’s what we do. I get up in the morning and I write songs like most people get up in the morning and brush their teeth. So it’s gonna happen one way or the other.
LB: And hopefully when you resume touring you will make some money.
ED: Hopefully I’ll be able to do that, and people can buy my t-shirts and that’s also a way for me to make some money, because making records cost money.
LB: And where can they get your t-shirts?
ED: On Bandcamp as well, I have a merch section.
LB: What’s next now after this new album that just came out?
ED: Well, I will say that the next record is sort of recorded already. I just got back from recording 20 songs with a producer in Detroit. That’s all I’m going to say right now. There will be an announcement because the producer is affiliated with a record label as well. So I will be making an announcement about that, but right now I’m going to say that it remains a mystery. However, it’s pretty exciting the amount of stuff that’s already in the can to work with. And that was with a whole different group of musicians in Detroit that I didn’t even know, and walked into a room and spent four days with them. On the request of a producer who said I know some pretty talented guys who might want to meet you, bring some songs, so I jumped in a car, I met them and it was pretty magical how we grooved right off the bat. So just know that there’s lots more songs that will be forthcoming.
LB: I look forward to that and I look forward to interviewing you and hearing more about that. Thank you so much Emily for your time.
ED: Thank you. And thank you for wanting to talk about my music.
LB: Oh always, it’s my pleasure.