Emily Scott Robinson interview
Learning Music the Honest Way: A Life of Emily Scott Robinson
The competence and pull of Colorado singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson shines considerable in perhaps her most tempting song, “Things You’ve Learned The Hard Way,” a merger of both personal and collected maxims.
Some of the short, pithy statements are directly from her own prickly experiences – like running her first vehicle, a ripened 1990 Toyota Camry station wagon, into the scrap metal graveyard after she didn’t maintain the oil – while additional lines were rounded up from the submissions of others.
Either way, the song itself, is testament to Robinson’s ability to establish music the honest way, one audience, one song, one conversion, one instant at time.
“With “Things You’ve Learned The Hard Way,” I got the idea first for the chorus and wrote the chorus, and it’s straightforward in its form,” said Robinson. “It’s a country song, touching on people’s life experience and the universality of those details. I’d run out of ideas, and in April 2020, I posted on Facebook, ‘what are some things you have learned the hard way?’ I received about 200 comments on my personal page.”
Robinson said that she could have written an entire album inspired from that comment section alone. But she narrowed it down to the most provocative remarks and eventually drew from that group enough material to add to and then complete the song.
“Don’t get married in a church called Mother of our Sorrows,” said Robinson. “I never could have made that up! The hard part was deciding what to cull from all of that amazing material.”
At 36, with enough scuffs on her boots to reveal the efforts of her longing, Robinson bursts at the seams with all of the right makings. She, it bears repeating, has learned the brass tacks of songwriting the honest way, telling true stories through song, grounding them in raw delicacy and engraving them in special detail.
“One of things I have learned from artists like Nanci Griffith and John Prine is the value of character songs,” said Robinson. “Creators of the worlds you step into, where the artist is not over-explaining the world, but creates a world suddenly in the song…If I think that a story has an emotional truth to it, I measure it by if I can sing it and channel something bigger than me. If I’m crying or feeling the emotion building up, then I test it for audiences.”
Another most crafty number from Robinson appears on the 2021 release American Siren and is called “Cheap Seats,” based on her experience as a spectator at the Americana Music Association Awards and Honors at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. John Prine and Bonnie Raitt were two of the night’s special performers, and all of the good tickets were a bit too expensive for Robinson’s budget. The show was sold out, sans a few lesser priced obstructed view seats, which meant that a thick, wide column stood directly in front of the purchaser.
Robinson bought a so-called “cheap seat,” a cost of approximately $75. Luckily for her, the seat was in fact a long bench similar to a church pew and she was able to scoot over and see the event without difficulty.
“It was a mixture of inspiration, adoration, and wonder and desire, seeing your heroes doing the thing that you want to do,” she recalled.
About seven months later, John Prine passed away, and since then Robinson has worked under the label that he co-founded in 1981, Oh Boy Records. (Built on Bones was released in October 2022.)
“John Prine is still the center of my songwriting universe and his spirit is in everything I do. He loved people and he had a kind eye for people.”
Born in North Carolina, Robinson was classically trained on the clarinet, her instruction beginning at about age 12. Her affection for songwriting, though, dates back to her stay at a woodsy, remote Northwest Michigan summer camp, the following year. The counselors there were mostly college sophomores, and they were a giddy lot. Almost every single one of them played guitar and liked to play folk music. At night, Robinson heard plenty of ’70s ballads alternated with contemporary ones from folkies such as Dar Williams and the Indigo Girls.
The songs left an indelible mark in her cerebral cortex.
Robinson attended college on a music scholarship and, at age 19, she was a sophomore and her mother took her to see Nanci Griffith at the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro. Deeply inspired, she went home that very night and penned her first song.
“I fell in love with the guitar and singing,” said Robinson. “I sat in my room and printed tabs off the Internet. I learned by ear, “Closer to Fine.”
That was in 2006 and Robinson didn’t attempt to write another song until she was 27.
Robinson, who graduated from Furman University with degrees in History and Spanish, moved sight unseen to Telluride in 2011, where she accepted a job as a social worker at a non-profit and started having fanciful stirrings and longings for something greater.
“My dreams of being a songwriter were born in Telluride,” said Robinson.
Subsequently, Robinson and her husband at the time moved into an RV and traveled around the country, a period that spanned about four years. At one point, they stayed at a trailer park with a mass of natural gas and seasonal workers, somewhere in eastern Oregon. There wasn’t much within walking distance, except a gas station that only accepted cash and a lone bar operating inside of a cold double-wide trailer. Out of the starkness of winter and the mob of hardened, stern inhabitants, she processed all of the imagery and wrote one of her most direct and cutting songs to date, “Ghost in Every Town.”
Good things continued to happen, including a key opportunity that evolved after she won a contest for emerging singer-songwriters at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The prize was immeasurably rewarding: her first tour. The tour included a stop at a church-turned-music venue known as Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse, in Dallas, a few house concerts, stops in the big cities of Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, and even events at small, remote outposts in Texas Hill Country and the Texas-German Belt.
“We had from 15 to 200 people listening to us,” said Robinson. “That’s when I started to figure out that I was cut out for this life.”
Eventually, Telluride called Robinson back, and in 2019 she performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival stage as the winner of the Telluride Troubadour Contest; playing for the festival crowd at home galvanized her into greater action.
The Telluride chapter of her life recently came to a clear, organic conclusion and she has since moved to a less congested mountain town, nearby. And it’s from there that Robinson stages the next phase of her sweet, good life, enjoying all of the surges of freedom that come from seeing clear blue skies and having the solitude for contemplation.
“Seven years in and I’m learning to create more structure around the process of writing. Two years of American Siren and living off the energy of those songs, it’s coming to a natural end, and I’m ready to create more songs.”
One of the tenets of musicianship that appeals to her is the concept of applying the spirit daily.
“There isn’t a day that I haven’t done something for my career,” said Robinson. ”Write. Post. Book. Emails. Goals. Working out a song. Writing out song ideas. Recording some random hook. I’m always on. It’s not just a job – it’s a calling.”
She is learning that there is a distinct difference between adhering to a calling and being swept up in the abyss of self-regarding.
“Your ego steps in and tells you what you should be doing,” said Robinson. “The comparison game. The myth in your mind that things are not looking the way you thought they should. When that happens, I’m learning to find things that light me up creatively – and put my energy towards that instead.”
Indeed, Robinson is dealing with her position in music sensibly and realistically, leaning into the storm to stand upright, preparing to dig into the trenches to withstand and overpower whatever forces the world of music heaves at her. Success, she said, is focusing less on independence and more on intimate interconnectedness.
“I’m thinking beyond just myself,” said Robinson. “At 36, I’m not running on young ingénue energy and I’m thinking beyond just wanting to be loved. My life is shifting beyond me and going deeper. Ego could make you miserable, a black hole for your energy. Instead I should be asking, what is it that I can offer and give? How can I form beautiful, generous, co-creative relationships with the universe and the people and the art?”
On a recent night at the Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery in Santa Fe, Robinson was all of the things that an exemplar of modern Americana may well be: abundant with brio, emotionally ajar, sympathetic (“Hometown Hero,” a bluntly documentary song about a scarred U.S. soldier who succumbs to suicide, set off a flood of watery eyes), reflective, conversationally lively, and richly connective. Songs were endearing – many of them driven by sympathetic characters unapologetic about their pasts and personal flaws – and created a mood that was insightful and interesting.
“I like to surprise myself with my own performances,” concluded Robinson. “If the set list feels too safe and I am in a rut with it, I’ll shift it around. I want to keep it fresh for myself. And I want people to have an escape, to feel magic, be moved, be connected, laugh, and be surprised, too. It’ll only happen that way on that one night.”
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Interview: Emily Scott Robinson Visits the Shadowy Places
Find more information on her website here: https://www.emilyscottrobinson.com
Author and writer Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org