Emily Wolfe just released “Something Better,” the first single off her upcoming album, Outlier, out June 25.
A virtuosic musician who has already made a real name for herself in the guitar community, Wolfe is the kind of artist whom you can just tell was born to play.
Wolfe has been playing the guitar since the age of five, and her playing has a kind of agelessness to it. She released her first album in 2014 and has been steadily touring since then. Recently, she designed a guitar in partnership with the company Epiphone, an opportunity that is extremely rare for an emerging artist but that’s a testament to Wolfe’s talent and magnetism.
Emily Wolfe at Paste Studio NYC live from The Manhattan Center www.youtube.com
Her anthemic blend of blues-pop reaches new highs on “Something Better,” a song about regret and appreciating what you have. “”Something Better’ is about feeling stuck in time,” Wolfe told Atwood Magazine. “It’s about the point of chaos in life that ends up creating real change for the better. I wrote it during a pretty lonely period in my life, but it ended up being a song I’m very proud of.”
The song tells the story of someone caught up in an 8 AM to 5 PM rat race cycle, always hoping something better will come along but never really making a move to make a change. Ultimately, though, it’s a bittersweet song about appreciating what you have no matter what and living in the present, because everything is fleeting in the end. A rousing drum beat, harmonies, and gritty guitar lines add hints of dream-pop, but all in all this is a classic rock jam that gets to the core of some of the more existential questions that come hunting for each of us now and then.
Wolfe’s forthcoming album is all about feeling like an outlier, an outsider looking in on the rest of life — but her experiences of isolation, stuckness, and deep gratitude amidst it all are deeply universal, and any listener is sure to resonate with her songwriting. We spoke to Wolfe about her new single, playing guitar, her musical growth, and the blurry possibilities of our uncertain future.
POPDUST: How has the past year been for you in light of the pandemic? How is your world and your music holding up?
EMILY WOLFE: The past year has been a huge year of growth for me as a person and an artist. I’ve gotten to spend more time with my family and friends, which was rare pre-pandemic due to touring. Last year when I learned shows would be canceled or postponed, I was devastated.
Most of my 2020 was supposed to be spent on the road, and after a few months of sadness I accepted the new normal. It was difficult but this time has made me really look at myself as a musician and a songwriter, and forced me to expand my depth and get out of the box I created for myself.
You’ve been playing guitar since the age of 5. How has the instrument changed for you over time? Do you think of it differently than when you first started playing, and are there things that have stayed constant through it all?
The thing that’s stayed consistent for me in terms of guitar playing is the feeling I get when I pick one up. It’s like putting a blanket on while you’re on the couch with your partner watching TV. It’s just comforting, and it feels like my hands were made for this instrument.
What’s changed over the years is the way I play and the level of mindfulness when it comes to choosing what and when to play. There was a time when I was obsessed with finger-picking acoustic sounds, a time when I wanted to use tapping and high-gain sounds to really get my aggression out, and now I’ve reached a point where my goal is to make whatever solo or part I play meaningful and hooky. It’s a ‘less is more’ approach now.
Emily Wolfe – Holy Roller | Live from 5th Street Studios, Austin at SXSW www.youtube.com
When did you start viewing your music as something you would dedicate your life to? What are some of your earlier or formative musical memories or experiences?
I don’t think there was ever really a point when I decided music would be the thing I dedicate my life to. I just got addicted to playing shows and kept coming back for more. Eventually that led to a life-long career that I’m planning on having. I’m too deep in it so there’s no turning back now. I do remember when I signed up for Battle of the Bands in college and won first place. That was kind of the start of me thinking I could maybe do this at other venues in Austin. Pretty soon after that the booker at the time for the Mohawk asked me to open a show for a pretty big band. From then on, I never looked back.
You designed your own signature guitar with Epiphone, which is amazing. What inspired the guitar’s design, and what/how was the process of creating it?
The process of creating it was one of the most exciting things in my life so far. I always hoped a signature guitar would be in my future, but I pictured it happening very far in my future — I’d be done touring and retired in some peaceful town outside of Austin.
But Epiphone and Gibson have been so supportive of me as an emerging artist, which is something I’ve never seen a guitar company do. Usually you have to be a crazy established artist for a signature guitar, so the fact that Epiphone is changing things up really made me want to be a lifelong partner with them.
What inspired the Sheraton Shealth is my original Epiphone Sheraton II, which I got about a decade ago. For all those years, that guitar was my number one. I played it throughout hour-long sets every night and it is so beat up, but it really can withstand anything. This guitar has been dropped, hit up against walls, and flung all over the place on stage, and it still sounds incredible. So when Epiphone approached me to do a signature guitar there were only a few minor changes that I thought a newer version could use, but the overall concept is my personal take on the Epiphone Sheraton II.
You have a new single coming out called “Something Better.” It’s really catchy and euphoric — you can definitely hear some new pop influences as well as the same grit and virtuosity that defines your old lyrics and sound. Did you consciously decide to make the transition to that new bigger sound, and what informed that decision?
I did consciously decide to open up my sound. For the longest time I was kind of stuck in this box of bluesy-rock. I wanted to break out of that and see how far I could go in terms of songwriting. I met up with Michael Shuman for dinner before pre-production started, and we talked about what this record should be.
Both of us wanted to make a timeless record, because I do want to have a life-long career that just keeps building on itself. He taught me a lot about hooks and how important it is in a song that every instrument plays its own hook. You’ll hear a lot of that in this record. Even down to the drum fills.
“Something Better” is about not wasting your life away waiting for it to get better; it very much seems to be a “seize the day” kind of track. How did you get the idea for this song? Is this a mantra you try to follow yourself, and how do you find the strength to push forward through the fear and hesitation that can surround making these kinds of changes?
This song came to me in pieces, which a lot of times the best songs do. I wrote the first verse a few years ago and couldn’t finish it because I didn’t know where it would go, which is very fitting for the meaning of the song itself. I wrote the first stanza sitting alone in my duplex. I was waiting on my (now wife) to get home from work and I just couldn’t figure out where my life was going. I felt that I was holding out on opportunities in life in hopes that something better would come along.
That, ironically, left me feeling stuck. I finally finished the song when I took a chance on going to Nashville by myself and renting a small house to write in. Once I got out of my comfort zone, the chorus opened up into what it is now. This song pushed me in a direction of not being afraid to open up, because that’s how we all connect to one another. A lot of this song is a reminder to see what’s in front of you and appreciate what you have in family, friends, careers, etcetera. If you’re constantly looking for something better, you’ll miss what you have.
Tell me about your upcoming album, Outlier. What inspired the album? What’s its story?
This album is the soundtrack of who I am at this point in my life. All the songs tie in together with the underlying theme of feeling like an outlier. An outsider or something that doesn’t fit into a box. They all came from a place of feeling like I was on the outside of life looking in.
You recorded the record during this last year in LA with Michael Shuman of QOTSA. Tell me a bit about the process and how the experience was?
This album was so much fun to make. We were supposed to record a lot of the album at Electro-Vox, but at the last minute the owner sold the building, so we were left to our own devices in Michael’s garage studio. It was such a blessing in disguise, though. I truly don’t think the record would sound the way it does if we recorded it anywhere else.
The drum sounds are very tight because we didn’t use any kind of room miking. Everything was recorded very close to the source, and we added production tricks during mixing. Cian Riordan mixed the record and really helped it come to life after it was recorded. I’m such a fan of QOTSA and Mini Mansions so it was kind of a dream to work with Michael. He’s the coolest guy I’ve ever met and really taught me so much about songwriting and production over the course of the year we’ve known each other.
What inspires you the most and makes you want to write and create? What’s the source of your music, if there is one?
There is a source to my music and it always comes from some kind of intense feeling. I can almost feel when a song is coming on because my brain kind of closes in on itself and I hear drum beats in my head, all the possible guitar parts and sometimes the vocal part. I kind of get into a trance mode and retreat into my own mind. A lot of times I feel something very intense — sadness, anger, happiness — then bottle that feeling up and let it come out during the songwriting process.
Are there any stories you’d like to share about any of the songs on your upcoming album, or about your music on the whole?
I think I want to admit that I’m now open to having synths on my songs. Up until this point I had made the decision that the only instruments allowed on my records were drums, bass, and guitar. But that mindset really limited me. I’m excited to share this record because I see it as a creative risk and a new world I’m venturing into.
Are you looking forward to getting back into touring? Do you think you’ll approach anything differently post-quarantine? What do you love most about playing live?
I can’t wait to get back on the road. I’m running low on spiritual fuel because shows haven’t been happening. I love playing live because I get to enter a world where nothing matters but these songs and how much fun everyone’s having. I don’t have to worry about anything for that hour and a half, because I get to open up into a place where no one cares about feeling judged and everyone just wants to connect with each other.
As far as changing my approach post quarantine, I’ll take any challenge on the road with open arms. I love the road but there are difficulties — grumpy sound people, loading heavy gear into venues with no elevators and only stairs, putting on makeup in a dark broom closet before a show that maybe no one will be at, changing outfits on the sidewalks of NYC by the van. All of these things seem so minor now because I truly miss touring and the possibility to play for new people every night. All the weird things that come with touring will just be great memories now instead of challenges.
With the release of Outlier, you are reaching a new level with your music. Do you have any particular vision for the future in terms of making more music?
I’d love to continue on the path that Outlier has laid out for me. It was a blast to try and mix genres and eras of music into one record that I feel truly represents me. I always want to stay true to myself as a guitar player; I definitely want guitar in some capacity on every song I write, but I see a lot more room for musical openness in the future.