Cindy Emch is a singer/songwriter who, together with her band The Secret Emchy Society, is responsible for some of the most exciting sounds in Americana music today. Equal parts rockabilly, outlaw country, Bakersfield country, honky-tonk, and cowpunk, the band’s latest album The Chaser is easily one of 2020’s best so far. Recently by phone, I spoke with the woman who Huffington Post calls “The First Lady Of Queer Country” about her new album, about being a performer during Covid-19, and about her hope for the future. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below.
Americana Highways: How would you best describe your songwriting process?
Cindy Emch: The way things are right now have impacted me in a negative way. I come up with a lot of my songwriting ideas on the road, and the ideas usually come to me as the roads are flowing by, as I hear a song, as people are texting me or as I’m thinking about the adventures that happened the night before.
I grew up in a pretty rural part of Michigan and to get to my best friend’s house to watch music videos, or pick her up to go see Rocky Horror together, it used to take 45 minutes to get from her house to my house and an hour and a half, if we wanted to go to Detroit or something. So, a large part of my life has been spent in cars and driving. It’s just a really natural thing for me, the motion of the road and that feeling of being on the go really inspires a lot of my songwriting. So, it’s been really challenging for me because I haven’t had that time on the road touring with the band. But I am adapting by having a lot of Zoom sessions with a lot of my Canadian musician friends.
AH: When you were putting together the songs for The Chaser did you have an overall theme in mind?
CE: I didn’t have a theme in mind in terms of subject matter, but I knew since I wrote so much of the album while I had been touring on the West coast I wanted it to feel like an old Spaghetti Western that maybe was scored by David Lynch. I wanted every song on the album to feel like it was a part of that sonic landscape. My songs have a lot to do with where I am personally at any given moment. So, if I am feeling nostalgic and maybe missing my friends and fellow musicians, both whom I love immensely, those feelings will come out in my songs. So, that was a part of the album too.
AH: I hear so many different musical influences in the songs on The Chaser. Can you talk a little about how each one of the individual songs came about?
CE: I feel like the songs for The Chaser came together pretty naturally. When Tolan McNeil, my producer, came to listen to the songs, the songs were totally done and arranged and my band and I had been rehearsing them for about twelve weeks. Tolan and I have been working together for years and he knows a lot about my musical influences. I really wanted the record to have that old-timey feel to it, but to also sound very current. Older country music is what I personally listen to a lot, so I wanted to make sure that I made an album that if it wasn’t mine, I would want to listen to it. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are a lot of good things about today’s pop country but I really love the old country the best.
AH: I don’t like trashing any era or time frame of music or even certain artists, but I am right there with you on your love of older country music. It’s the stuff I grew up on and when you say country music to me that’s what I always think of first.
CE: I agree with you in not trashing certain types of music or certain artists just because you don’t like it as well as others. The wonderful thing about music is that it is impacting somebody in a really awesome way somewhere. It’s making their day better or it’s helping them get through hard times or whatever. I don’t have any problem with anything that anybody has in their record collection because Lord knows, I have some pretty hilarious stuff in mine. I never want to be that person that knocks what somebody else likes just because I don’t like it as much.
AH: How would you say that Covid-19 has impacted the way that you have promoted the record?
CE: It’s really interesting because I guess I had what you could call an accidental promotion ready for it. I have been making bandanas for a really long time because I wear them all the time and I sell them on the road when I am on tour. I had a friend on social media ask me if I had any left and if I could send her some because she needed a face-covering because of Covid-19. So, I said sure and made her a couple and took a picture of myself screen printing them and then posted the picture on social media. After that, I had all of these people wanting one. I really didn’t expect that to happen. It really took off for a few weeks and I was screen printing a lot of bandanas. That was just really surprising to me.
Other than that, when we first started the whole shelter in place thing, I did a whole bunch of live streams. I felt like I got a lot of decent traffic from them but I got a little burned out doing them. I think a lot of us got burned out on watching so many. I feel like the energy is different when you do them because there is no give and take going back and forth between you and your audience. When I am performing the live streams I like it when you can read the comments and answer back but that’s really hard to do and stay in the performance. So, I kind of stepped back a little from doing so many of them so now I just do one every Sunday that my friend Carolyn Mark puts on from Canada. They are called Carolyn Mark’s Virtual Hootenannies and you can find them on her Facebook page and on YouTube.
AH: What advice would you give to any up and coming music artists?
CE: My first piece of advice is that before you release an album, Google your name. There’s nothing worse than writing an amazing album and naming your band something where your search results will always get buried under five million other topics and/or having the same name like a bunch of other bands at the streaming services – Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc. If that happens you will get lost and people will not be able to find your music.
My second piece of advice actually comes from Carolyn Mark, who I was talking about earlier. She once told me that whenever you go on tour make sure you are having fun. She also told me to be careful who you go on tour with and to make sure it is with people you enjoy being around because we, as touring musicians, don’t make enough money to not enjoy what we are doing. She said to make sure that you are making music with people you love and that you can have a good time with and that you can rely on. My friend Carolyn was right. For me right now, my band is like my family. I adore them. That’s really important. I can’t stress enough how important that is.
So, I would say those are my main two pieces of advice.
AH: What is one thing that gives you hope for the future?
CE: I would say that one of the things is just the sheer number of and different kinds of people that are trying to come together right now. It’s happening both on the front lines with protesting and with people online writing articles and with people actually reading the articles to help them understand where Black Lives Matter and the protests are coming from. There are so many people right now who are willing to work together and that is encouraging. I really do think that people want to show up and help each other in this moment and time. I have always felt that most people are at their core, decent human beings, and watching the way the protests are going right now, people are standing up with each other, for the most part non-violently. It is a very sincere resistance and it really is something beautiful to see. And to see that so many of the people protesting are also out there trying to protect each other by wearing masks is also great. There is just a lot of human decency and concern for each other and it’s like a global community of people and they really are helping each other rise up.
So, I would say that the fact that so many people are standing up and willing to take on the systems that have been in place that keep us all from being treated equally is what really gives me a lot of hope for the future.