Emily Frembgen pursues music like her life depends on it. With no backup plan to speak of, her career as a singer-songwriter is the only career that she pours herself into. Thankfully for listeners, that means we get to enjoy the fruits of her labor, including her latest album, It’s Me or the Dog, which is available now.
I recently sat down with Frembgen to discuss tapping into her acting roots, going solo, and the four-legged friends who enjoy her music.
Americana Highways: You started your creative career very young as an actress. That’s an industry where so much is out of the individual’s control. Does music give you more control over your creative self than acting couldn’t?
Emily Frembgen: Yeah, I think that was a big reason why I switched to it. As I got to be in my awkward years, the auditions were just so tortuous. You can’t really choose what you’re going to do, and you are most of the time doing other people’s work, unless you write your own thing. And writing a three minute song is really easy, much easier, and then you can just go perform it. That’s what I wanted to do, and I did it.
AH: Is acting still a part of your life?
EF: Yeah. I’ve always kind of still had the bug a little bit. If somebody asked me, I’ll do it, or if it just kind of comes along, but pursuing it is such a full time thing and I’d much rather be doing this.
AH: Does music do something differently for you creatively that acting never could?
EF: Yeah, I reckon so. It’s just expressing myself fully, and it’s similar because the performance aspect is very similar. When I perform, I try to just pretend that I’m playing a part.
AH: And with theater, you do have that instantaneous response from the crowd like you do with a live performance.
EF: Right. That’s true. It’s a similar animal. And I think loving musical theater is a big part of why I do this. Those songs have influenced me a lot and I still love Sondheim and listen to that stuff all the time.
AH: What would somebody learn about you today in sitting down to listen to It’s Me or the Dog front to back?
EF: Oh gosh, that’s a hard question. I don’t know. I kind of leave it up to the listener. I just kind of put it out there and don’t think a lot about it.
What would they learn about me? This is sort of abstract, but I hope that my vision is becoming more fully realized. That it’s more tangible… that people are seeing more of what I envision in my head with the music, just in terms of the textures and everything. But lyrically, I don’t know what the takeaway would be about my life and personality. That’s up to the listener, but I hope it would come across how much I love songs and how much I’ve studied songwriting and worked all these years.
AH: When did you first discover your songwriter’s voice?
EF: I really feel like when I first started writing songs, when I was like 15, I felt I had arrived already. I was like, “This is it.” But, it took working on it and playing a bunch to just sort of get there. And I don’t really know exactly the point when I got to the place where I was writing the kinds of songs that were the quality that I wanted, because I’ve kind of always had this delusion about it. I always loved playing my songs, but I think with “Flower/Weed” on this one, I think that’s the most sophisticated song I’ve ever written – lyrically and musically. Also, people are actually impressed by the guitar playing, which I never considered myself a very good guitar player. I never worked that hard on it, but it just kind of came about from playing tons of gigs.
AH: So, what would the Emily who first picked up a guitar think of this album? Would her mind be blown?
EF: Yeah, I think that I would’ve really liked it. It sounds a lot like the records that I was enjoying back then – all the really great Americana stuff that was coming out in the early 2000s.
AH: You’ve been in a band atmosphere before. Why go solo? Does it allow you to control your own creative destiny a bit more?
EF: I was only in one band, The Language of Termites. And it was pretty much when I was starting out. I’ve tried to put together other bands and in every case, just logistically, it’s so hard keeping a band together. It’s just easier to go out with my little guitar. And yeah, there’s totally more control. When I’m playing with other people, I’m so nervous about letting them down and my rhythm is kind of funky. It’s less pressure and more pressure when I’m doing it on my own. It’s just so different.
AH: There is so much great music coming out right now, and more than ever, it seems like there is a LOT of it. Can that be daunting when you’re trying to capture the eyes and ears of listeners?
EF: Well, I mean, it can always be daunting if you think about it in those terms, and it’s hard not to sometimes, but I have a good little community around me in New York and I can only do my little thing. I don’t have another plan, so… that’s it. I tend to not listen to a lot of current stuff because it’s kind of scary, and all these youngins are making really good music. So, it’s hard to not… be a little jealous sometimes.
AH: And therein lies the curse of social media as well. You need it to promote, but at the same time, it can amplify that feeling of keeping tabs on what everyone else is doing.
EF: Yeah, it’s such a necessary evil. You cannot not be on it, right? You have to be on it, but you can’t pay too much attention to it.
AH: You said that you don’t have another plan. Is part of that because if you did have another focus, music could fall into the background?
EF: Yeah, I think so. I don’t know how you could forge forward wholeheartedly if you have a backup plan. You kind of have to do this like your life depends on it. If you’re not willing to do that, you probably don’t love it enough. And that’s probably a good thing for you.
AH: I’ve seen pictures of you and your cats on social media. Cats are tough critics. What do your pets think of your music when you’re sitting around writing?
EF: Okay, so I don’t actually have a cat, but that was the photographer’s cat. I’m a cat sitter – that’s one of my little hustles – so often the place that I’ll get songs done is when I’m cat sitting. Because I have isolation and cats like it. They do. (Laughter)
AH: That’s a good promotional sticker for the front of the record. “Cat’s like it. They do!”
EF: (Laughter) Yeah. I think it’s good animal music.
I used to pet sit a parrot. And the parrot would sing really loudly whenever I’d try to practice. Annoying, but in retrospect, the cutest thing ever.
AH: (Laughter) Well, finally, Emily, when you hang up your guitar and you decide to call it a day with music, what do you hope your legacy is?
EF: Oh, Jeez Louise. Just that I did something cool, I enjoyed, and that spoke to people the way other people’s music has spoken to me. That it made people feel less alone.
For more information on Frembgen and It’s Me or the Dog, visit http://www.emilyfrembgen.com.