It was such a pleasure speaking with the multifaceted singer-songwriter Emily Duff. I have learned so much about her through her music and now through this interview. Her love of family, music, cooking and life shines through. She is not shy about her opinions and speaks honestly on many topics. I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed speaking with her.
Interview and Photographs by Linda Buongermino.
LINDA BUONGERMINO: How did a New York girl from Queens get into country music and what other genres of music do you play?
EMILY DUFF: Well that’s kind of easy because I started my musical education with my parents’ record collection in Flushing Queens, and I was born probably in the greatest time, in the year of 1966 when songwriting and songwriters were just exploding. My parents had a really great record collection and I fell in love with Carole King, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Everybody had the Johnny Cash “At San Quentin” record, and what we consider popular music now is not what was popular and being played on the radio and in everyone’s record collection then, so I was turned on to some great music. I loved story songs, so country music really resonated with me, and country music back then is not the country music it is right now. So I think I identified with it because it was incredibly punk rock.
LB: It’s more rockabilly, as they say?
ED: Well, just the attitude of country music then. If you’re looking at the Outlaws, Johnny Cash, Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristofferson, Jessi Colter, all the people that were doing it their own way. And when I was really into music was the ‘70s. I was born in ’66, but 1972 when I was six years old, that’s when I saw the Staple Singers on ‘Soul Train.’ That made me get all lit up and that’s when I started hearing Janis Joplin and then I found out that “Me and Bobby McGee” was the Kris Kristofferson song so that lit me up to “Jesus Was a Capricorn” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” There were so many sacred and profane things that felt close to God and the most furthest away from God at the same time. They were partying on a Saturday and on their knees on Sunday, and I love that, that “sometimes you gotta sin to get saved” vibe. I grew up with a dad who was the Jew in the Mafia, and a mom who really liked to smoke and drink and take pills. So there was always that one foot in what’s naughty and then wanting to be good. I had to take care of myself because they were always doing their stuff. I had to be good because I had to rely on myself, but I like that craziness too. Country music was all of that and I think it probably is the naughtiest, most punk rock, vigilante, do-it-your-own music there is. Not the stuff that’s out there right now, that kind of sounds like it’s being squirted through a corporate hose like it’s pop music, but the old country music really lit me up because I could identify with it. I was a naughty girl that wanted to be good.
LB: You mentioned there was music in your household as a child. Is that what inspired you?
ED: My mom played guitar, she had a 1967 classical Giannini guitar, and I was tiny. I’m still tiny and had little hands and this was a big wide neck. She taught me four chords and after I started looking at her song books. I still have a lot of them from 1970, ’71, ’72 and learned all those songs. Inside that book was “Suspicious Minds,” “The Wonder of You,” great Elvis songs, and Buddy Holly songs, the theme from “Doctor Zhivago.” I went off and learned on my own, but the very first instrument I picked up was my uncle Benny’s mandolin which he played in a very classical venetian Italian style with his friends. I picked it up and immediately heard country music. I used to fool around at the age of four on “Oh, Susannah” and sing at the top of my voice. By the time I was six and a half, seven years old, I found the guitar, so these things were in the house and they were available to me.
LB: Did you have formal schooling when it came to music or are you totally self-taught?
ED: I’m self-taught. Mom taught the four chords and I taught myself the rest. I taught myself mandolin but then at the age of 10, she said, “Would you please play the cello. I’ve always wanted to play the cello, I love it and it would be nice to hear it.” So in school we were given the choice. I decided to take on the cello, and I played that all the way through the end of high school and I was composing on that and playing in string quartets. I also played viola and trombone, and then I played drums and I picked up electric bass and every single instrument, I just wanted to put my hands on it. I took a few guitar lessons but then I just wanted to go off on my own. I was formally trained on trombone and on viola and cello.
LB: Do you write most of your songs?
ED: I write all of my songs. I don’t really do covers. Every once in a while I’ll do somebody else’s song just for the fun of it, but I’ve got a catalog of over 400 songs and I’ve co-written around 20 something songs.
LB: When was your first album released and was it mostly country? And how have your albums evolved?
ED: My first record, I don’t know that I would call it country because it was never country country, was released in 1999. I had done recordings before then but never put anything out as a full album. It’s interesting because I think I was, you know, I don’t want to sound full of myself, but people have said “You’re too far ahead here.” I was doing classical country music with baroque string arrangements, so I was marrying my ability to score string parts and write and orchestrate with country music. And it kind of blew people’s heads and they were just like, “Yeah I’m not ready for that,” but it was fun. So I wouldn’t consider it straight-up country, but it was absolutely inspired by straight-up country. I’m also extremely inspired by rock and roll and by the blues so I think you could put those three genres together, call it Americana, call it whatever you want. That’s where mine comes from, my style. I write in many different genres and I’ll write for any other artist in whatever genre they want me to, and I’ve been asked to write pop music. I’m writing a musical right now, so I’m writing Broadway style stuff. So I can write in whatever genre, and I’ve written commercials for “Diet Dr Pepper,” so I’ve written jingles. I’m a lyricist and I rhyme and I love melody and I’ll write anything.
ED: Well no, I won’t genre surf you know. I think you could basically say that I’m solidly called an Americana or roots music artist. I’ve been reviewed and the tagline that I’ve held onto because I like it is, “Sweet and sour rock and roll with a great big hit of country soul.” I think that really sums up what I do, because I am more country soul than I am country. I love bluegrass, western swing, honky tonk, I love all that stuff. But if I had to pick one I’d say give me Clarence Carter, Bobbie Gentry, Tony Joe White, the stuff that comes out of Muscle Shoals. That’s the stuff that really resonates with me. And then Led Zeppelin, which is rock and roll, heavy rock and the blues.
LB: Tell me about your band that you play with now, and how has the pandemic changed the way you perform, and record in the studio?
ED: My band’s amazing. It’s myself on acoustic guitar, on electric guitar Scott Aldrich, on bass is Skip Ward, on drums is Kenny Soule, and on accordion or all keyboards, Charlie Giordano. And during this recent pandemic that we are still in, I have been making a record. Those guys haven’t all been involved. I’ve actually used a couple of different players as well and that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m working with a specific producer and it’s his studio and because of the pandemic, they call it a bubble. Like who you get to be with and who you get to work with and you don’t want too much crossover. So I’ve been working with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. This is my second record with him, and I went in to do all the tracks on vocal and guitar myself and then he built the tracks with the band around what I did.
LB: So you all performed it separately?
ED: I did it separately and Keith Christopher came in on bass with Phil Cimino and Roscoe on guitar. And I use technology, an app called Audiomovers. We use their technology so that I could be plugged into the studio and listen to what they were tracking in real time and then I could respond. It’s not the best way to make a record but I’ll take what I can get right now. But otherwise, I’m not performing. I know there are artists that are going out and performing and I’ve been asked to do some stuff but I’m being careful. I don’t want to be taking chances right now because this is long game stuff. And I do my live stream every Sunday, that’s basically how I perform. I’ve done a few things but I don’t want to do too much because what I find is that you get lulled into this false sense of security and just because it’s been going on for so long and we’ve got these new ways of protecting ourselves that we’ve integrated into our everyday lives like masks, and how we wash our hands all the time and use hand sanitizer. I just don’t necessarily feel relaxed enough in that environment to perform in a public space. I see photos of my friends on Facebook doing shows and I think it’s great if they can do it, but I don’t know that I can be as present as I like to be with an audience and not be nervous. I know that would hamper how I go.
LB: How did your live stream on Facebook on Sundays at 4 pm come about, and how have you been able to sustain it?
ED: I sustain it by showing up. I mean it’s the people that have gotten together. It’s become a community. I consider what I’m doing incidental at this point because it really feels like everybody’s getting together, people are chatting and just the mere fact that you can see someone’s name in that room makes you feel good. It’s one little bit of new normal. I started by playing every night on the fire escape, literally. And I started calling it the ‘Virus Escape.’ I would go out there for the clappy hour, right before. I’d go out at six and I’d sit out there with my kids. We’d have a cup of tea and I’d bring my guitar and start singing and people started hanging out and listening. People started hanging out on Greenwich, and then coming out on their fire escape. People who were leaning out of their windows would scream,“What’s your name?” And then they’d connect with me on Instagram or Facebook. Then they’re sticking their heads out the window and going “Hey Emily,” and listening to my music and calling out requests. I started doing it like that and I thought to myself ‘I’m gonna start doing a live stream every week and see if anybody cares. I’m not going out because nobody knows what’s going on.’ That’s when we were furiously wiping down our groceries and taking our clothes off outside. And that’s when New York was really underwater and I lost three friends in one week and it was like, ‘are you kidding, this one’s gone, this one’s gone, that one’s gone,’ 20 something thousand people died. Nothing but sirens all night, it reminded me so much of 9/11. I remember thinking to myself on 9/11, I sat on my front stoop and counted ambulances going up Hudson Street and the sound of it, and this just brought back so many of those memories. I wanted to do something where I could still feel like I had people in the house even though nobody could come in and I wasn’t going out except to walk the dog or go to the grocery store. And at that point, I even shut my kids down early from school because I saw what was coming.
LB: Emily tell the audience where they can find you on Sundays at four o’clock.
ED: Well, you can find me on Facebook at Emily Duff Band [Live], where anybody can go, it’s a public thing. I don’t have any room to take anybody else on as a friend. I keep saying to people, please go to the band page, Emily Duff Band on Facebook every Sunday at four o’clock and it’s live. It’s also archived. I always tell people just go watch it afterwards even though it’s so much more fun to see it live. And that’s how we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries or something fun, and we talk about recipes and about what we’re eating, what we’re cooking.
LB: How does your family play a part in your music and does your husband perform with you?
ED: He does. He [Skip Duff] doesn’t consider himself a bass player per se but he does play bass and I’ve been encouraging it. I just keep saying let’s play this, let’s learn this, and here’s my new song. My family inspires every single song that I write and almost every note that I play, so they’re a huge part of it. My daughter’s also a drummer and she sits in with me occasionally. My son is staying out of it, but he plays harmonica and drums too. Sylvia also plays guitar and bass, she’s multi-instrumentalist just like me, out of curiosity she wants to put her hands on everything and touch everything, learn everything. So yeah, everybody gets involved and they roll their eyes at me all the time because I have to have a guitar in my hands at all times and they think I’m crazy and weird and not like the other moms. And most of the time they like that but there are times where they’re just like, “Ugh enough of this already.” But yeah, they’re completely in my music all the time.
LB: Where do you draw your inspiration from and is it mostly from experiences in life?
ED: Yes it is, but don’t tell my kids that because there are certain songs that scare them. I remember when I was writing ‘The Fall,’ and my kids learn the songs as I’m writing them. Most of the time because our place is so small, our apartment is only 340 square feet, Henry’s usually sitting at my feet drawing or reading or doing something. I’ve got a guitar in my hand and I’m singing the same lines over and over and over again until the rest comes out. Or I’m going over it 500 times and at some point you start to notice that he’s singing along. So I remember hearing my eight-year-old son sing the line “Snorting lines off the belly of the blessed Virgin Mary, I stuck my middle finger up to the Lord.” I thought, ‘Wow, no.’ He goes “Yeah mom I know all these lyrics, I know all the lyrics to all your songs because I’m here.” And I think to myself, ‘Wow, what must they think?’
LB: Does he ask you what they mean?
ED: Well that’s what he knows, he’s no stupid head my son. So I was singing that song one day and he and his sister both looked up and Sylvia says to me “They’re not all about you mom are they?” And I said “Oh no honey, especially this one.” So one day they’ll find out that 90% are about me. But there are so many songs that aren’t and there are so many songs that I’ve actually made up, I’m also a screenwriter.
LB: Were you a chain smoker?
ED: I was.
LB: Oh you were. I always wanted to know that about you because I know that’s in one of your songs.
ED: I loved smoking at one point in my life. I was taught smoking by my mother and my grandmother. To grow up in that house… it’s a coping mechanism, so you gotta hope that at some point you let go of those bad habits that are taught to you. So yes, I was. I drank, I smoked, I did all the things I shouldn’t have done and that I tell my children they’re not supposed to be doing because I haven’t done any of that stuff in 30 years now. I’m still here and I’m very grateful [knocks on wood table].
LB: I know you mentioned this before, but just to hit on it again, who are some of the musicians that you admire and you look up to?
ED: I’d say my favorite singer, and just probably one of my favorite human beings on the planet, because of her spirit, Mavis Staples. I draw a lot of inspiration phrasing from her, her absolute joy, singing for me is joyful. It feels like therapy and I do it because it’s frequency, and it’s resonance, and it clears my head and it makes everything that might be a downer or whatever’s bothering me, it just makes it all go away. It’s my religion, music is my religion. I don’t consider myself a great singer but I love to sing and I feel like I can sell a song because I know how to tell a story. I’m not just singing lyrics, you know what I mean?
ED: Yes, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt. I mean there are so many artists, John Prine, there are so many people that I am head over heels for. Dolly Parton I think is one of the greatest songwriters ever and an absolute angel and great human being. And you know who I’ve been listening to a lot lately, who I’m absolutely in awe of as a songwriter and as a performer, is Chuck Prophet.
LB: I am not familiar with Chuck Prophet.
ED: You need to know who Chuck Prophet is. He’s a bloody genius, so I just gave you a little golden nugget to go search out. Yes, huge, huge. It’s like the punk band, The Slits, are my favorite. The Slits and Led Zeppelin, those are two favorite bands for me and then of course there’s Aretha, there’s Duane Allman. There’s The Swampers, there’s great musicians that I always go “Wow.” Chuck Berry as a guitar player, and I love the Stones.
LB: Given the environment we are in now, how does politics play a role in your music?
ED:Well considering I’ve written so many songs about the election…politics has always played a role in my music. And there’s no way it couldn’t, by the simple fact that I’m female. I am the majority, I am part of 51% of the population, which I always refer to as the 51% solution, basically the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle way. That we could solve everything, we are the 51% solution. Just give us the government and let us take over. As a woman who has been denied historically, coming from that perspective I’m always going to be political. I’m disgusted where we are right now. I know exactly who this man is, and was, for my whole life as a New Yorker from Queens. Remembering and knowing that he’s always been disgusting, calling for the death penalty on five young boys that weren’t even guilty. I remember all of that and I remember things he said even before the Access Hollywood tapes. I thought it was one of the greatest shames on our country that he actually was elected president. It’s been a four year PTSD. The whole term of his presidency has been like shock and trauma and it’s not done, every day. It just feels like it gets worse.
LB: How did the gig at Cowgirl come about and what types of venues do you usually like to play?
ED: I like small venues, personal venues, having interaction with the audience. I like the audience to be connected to each other. I like everybody to feel like they’re part of a family. That’s my favorite kind of a show where I don’t need it to be like a church, where everyone’s quiet and just looking at me. I’m there for you, you’re not there for me. I’m there to give the audience what they want, that’s my job. So Cowgirl came about, honestly, their rent went up to an unbelievably high price. Their monthly rent is just astronomical and I heard what it was and I went, “Oh my God, that’s insane.” Because I come from the restaurant world. I know that there’s no way that you can make that much guacamole in order to pay that rent or sell that many margaritas. You’re just working for your landlord, nobody’s making any money. The owners are paying the staff and the landlord and the purveyors, you know what I mean. So I said, “What’s going on in the back room it’s dead, let’s figure out a way to get business rocking on a slow night. Give me a night and I’ll bring my band back there and we’ll do some music and we’ll see if we can’t get things going,” and that’s how it started. I said, “Look, I don’t care about making money, let me just pay the band, feed us.” We don’t get paid a lot, believe me, it’s really about putting butts in seats and people ordering dinner and drinks and filling up the back room and bringing energy to a space, to a restaurant that’s given everybody a lot of good times for over 30 years, that don’t deserve to be working as hard as they’re working for nothing. So that’s how it started and it grew to exactly what I was hoping for.
LB: And how often did you play, was it one Monday a month or a week?
ED: It was one Monday a month. It started out the first Monday of the month, and then we switched it to the third Monday of the month to accommodate Skip Ward, the bass player, because he would do a midnight show at the Ear Inn on the same night. So he would do our show from 6:30 to 9 and then go down there after a little bit of a break and play from 11 or midnight until three and four in the morning. So he would do a double gig on a Monday and it just turned out to be this really great vibe.
LB: I know you’re a great cook and you worked at one of my favorite restaurants for a time. Is cooking your second love next to music?
ED: It’s really a close second. It’s hard to say which one I love more because I miss my restaurant life. I miss it every single day and it’s funny because I still run my home kitchen like my restaurant kitchen. I can still close my eyes and tell you exactly what’s in my refrigerator and where it is and I still do menu planning and all kinds of organization and professional kitchen management here at home. You do it for so long it’s almost like being in the army, it’s like the military. It’s a way of life and it’s a philosophy. I’m the happiest with a guitar in my hand, obviously, because that’s a soul satisfying thing, but feeding people and making them happy is also soul satisfying. I don’t want to be back in restaurants because it’s 16,17 hours a day, six days a week. And I can’t be a mom and do that because that’s being a mom on a whole different level. So I guess my number one is music and a very close second is cooking.
LB: What are you working on now?
ED: I’m doing another record with Roscoe which will be out in May. I’m working on a show. It’s a musical that I’ve been working on for the past two years because you have to write the book and the music at the same time. And I have experience, I sold a script to Disney, to Touchstone back in ’93, a comedy that I wrote and I optioned a bunch of TV shows. And I’m actually working on some treatments for a couple of TV shows that I’m gonna pitch again and I’ve done a few documentaries with my husband. So I’m working on a lot of projects and a cookbook.
LB: Considering Covid, do you have any idea when the musical would come out, or when the book would come out?
ED: Well considering there is no Broadway…the musical, that’s one of those things that is a 10-year project. And ask anybody that’s ever worked on a musical. I remember running into Roseanne Cash and her husband John Leventhal. I know them since the mid ‘90s and I ran into them and they had just finished writing a musical last year and I said, “What’s going on?” And he said “Well, I just wasted a year of my life.” He had done other projects too and I said “Oh you worked on a musical, huh?” He goes, “ohhh.” Releasing a record now, it’s difficult because you can’t tour it. I released ‘Born On The Ground’ knowing that I wouldn’t be able to go on tour because it got cancelled, and that was really difficult because you spend all the money making the record and then you go on tour to make that money back. So that never happened but I decided to go into making another record right away, which was me dipping into my savings, because it was important for me to keep my momentum going as a creative person. So hopefully things will open up. I was talking to my U.K. tour manager and she said “The venues are calling that we had to cancel,” and said, “you know we want to put Emily back on the books so maybe we can book something for the spring. And then just leave it there and if it happens it happens and if we have to cancel it, we’ll cancel it.” I said “Go ahead, just do what you want to do.” I’m going to make a record and release it, hopefully May 1st or maybe even on my daughter’s birthday May 7th.
ED: It was produced again by Eric Ambel, and I didn’t use my band this time, like I said. Keith Christopher plays bass and Phil Cimino plays drums. I still have Charlie Giordano on boards, and Mary Lee Kortes is doing backup vocals, and Eric is doing most of the electric guitar work and some backup vocals too. There’s moments it’s similar to ‘Born On The Ground,’ but it’s a little bit harder edged. It still has beautiful country ballads on it, but I think that I’ve got a little bit more of my rock and roll side coming through on this record. And working with Eric was very exciting to me because he works in a different way that I’ve ever worked. The way he had me singing was really interesting in that he had me pulling back a lot. He said, “No, I know you can do that, I know you can sing that way, but I want you to hold back a little bit and give me a different part of who you are.” And I said, “Oh that’s difficult for me, to not just come out there big.” And he said, “Yeah yeah, just learn how to reserve those moments and you know kind of let it go slow.” So working with him has been great, he’s amazing.
LB: If you weren’t a musician, or a cook, what would you be?
ED: Let’s see, well I love horses. I might want to be a jockey, I think, or somebody who works with animals because I love animals so much, or a farmer. I think I’d be a farmer because I would work with food. I would grow it instead of cook it. And then if I was a farmer, I could have horses and I could have cows and I could have all kinds of animals on my farm. So I think I’d probably be a farmer.
LB: Very interesting. Emily thank you so much, I hope to be speaking with you again soon.
ED: My pleasure.