Kyle Emerson celebrates the release of his debut Ep Worth it on Thursday 5/11 at Hi-Dive, and right now we're really digging the stripped down space he's created in his work. Often compared to artists like Ryley Walker and Elliott Smith, Emerson has carved his own route with a self-taught finger-picking style that is pretty unparalleled,-- a skill that has created a distinct and severely raw, listenable sound.
Worth it is a far-flung departure from his earlier work with the psych-rock group Plum, an experience which has informed Emerson's perspective in more ways than one. Emerson's music has since shed much the instrumentation of Plum, in favor for guitar-heavy musicality and lyrical vulnerability. Instead, Worth it offers Emerson's experience, earnestness, and a fairly large helping of "humble pie," something that is hard to communicate behind the production levels of a larger rock group.
Emerson is sincere and open with us; from his beginnings, to his experiences in L.A., and ultimately what is really 'Worth it', something that can be easy to lose sight of. From 'Post-Egomania' to 'Off The Road', Kyle shares what he's learned along the way, and it is refreshingly, sweetly simple.
Check out our exclusive interview with Kyle Emerson below, and be sure to buy your ticket for his release show with The Velveteers and Freaky North at the Hi-Dive on 5/11 here.
OUR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW ON WORTH IT
KENDALL: Your solo work is a very big step in your own direction, away from the psychedelic, reverb-saturated world of Plum. How does it feel to have more creative control in terms of sound?
KYLE: I definitely finish more songs in a quicker fashion. It’s still pretty collaborative though, I mean Brad Whaler from Sun Boy played drums for me on the EP, and he’s been big in the arrangement process. Dan Vollmar of Shady Elders played bass on it as well. It was definitely still a collaboration, I’m not like playing every instrument. It feels more like my own style still, though, and I think you could tell that there is less influence on Worth it from the personalities of the members of Plum.
KENDALL: What artists have had the most influence on your debut EP Worth it?
KYLE: I definitely was really into Neil Young, John Lennon, and Paul Simon when I was working on the EP. A bit of Big Thief and Kurt Vile too. Ryley Walker and Steve Gun’s open tuning finger-picking really opened my eyes to what you can do with a guitar. Andy Shauf, who has a bit of an Elliott Smith vibe, and his style of production was also a big influence; it’s very dry and compressed.
KENDALL: Yes, I definitely got a bit of an XO vibe from Worth it, if I was to pick an Elliott Smith album.
KYLE: I actually love Elliott Smith, and I listened to him a bit when I was younger, but I haven’t listened to Elliott Smith regularly in a really long time. So the Elliott Smith comparisons are kind of out of the blue; I wasn’t like trying to rip him off or anything. He’s kind of a sad sounding guy, and that wasn’t what I was trying to do, but I take it as a compliment. He’s brilliant.
KENDALL: The EP was produced with a few friends. What was it like working with them during the production process?
KYLE: I tracked with Jeff Cormack from South of France, and then I mixed with Justin Renaud, who actually mixed Plum’s last EP as well. He was one of my best friends, and it’s always really easy just hanging out. He’s really good at what he does. We sat down, and I was like, ‘This is what I want the record to sound like.” We did it live on tape with no clip tracks, which was a big step in a different direction compared to how I usually record. Things came out sounding pretty close to how I wanted them to. We kind of discussed what we didn’t want to do more than what we did want to do with it, and that’s how I knew he was the right guy for the job. He said he had ideas about the way it should be mixed, and working with him was really easy. It definitely wasn’t a process of mixing a song three or four times.
KENDALL: What’s different about the creation process when you’re writing on your own as opposed to with a group?
KYLE: I get more ideas out, more written during a guitar playing session than when I was working with Plum. We’d have a riff, maybe a melody, and everyone would just throw ideas out. Lyrics are definitely a bigger part of this project when compared to other projects, which makes it easier to know where I want to go musically.
KENDALL: When you’re writing songs, where are you pulling your lyrics from?
KYLE: I usually draw on something from experience. Not all the songs are necessarily from my own life; if it sounds like I'm singing about myself, it's not necessarily my own experience as far as the stories go. but I write from life experience. It can be fictional, but it’s generally based on something that’s happened to me.
KENDALL: Can you tell us a little about the meaning behind the title Worth It?
KYLE: The title was taken from the fourth song of the EP. The lyrics of the song ask the question, ‘Was it worth it?’ and later on the song tries to ask the question again in a different way. During production I never had a preconceived title in mind, but I’ve since noticed that I hear the term like, ten times a day. So, it was just funny to me because I had a song called ‘Worth it’. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that the saying can mean so many things. It could be both really heavy, or really conversational. I've had the tendency to be overly poetic in the past, to try and use some word that nobody knew, and I just loved how normal and unpoetic the term is. It wasn’t trying too hard, which I found really appealing.
KENDALL: What were your initial ideas about the EP during its conception? Did your creative intentions change after its completion?
KYLE: I wrote a bunch of songs in LA and at that point in time, I hadn’t really formulated what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something that was pretty guitar driven, and not in a super rock ’n’ roll way. I was really influenced by Burt Yanch from the band Pentangle, he has a great acoustic finger-picking style. I still love love the rock movement, it really influenced me, but I had this idea about using just a guitar, with no synths or anything, and recording on tape. Lyrically, I think I lost interest with the psych-rock movement. I mean, I’m not slamming that movement, I’m not going to name bands or anything like that. But, I was really interested in seeing how a guitar driven band with confessional, heartfelt lyrics could sound. I mean, if you think about it it’s kind of an oxymoron, if you think about someone who like, shreds the guitar singing about their feelings. That was my main interest or intent. I didn’t hear an artist and think, oh, I’m going to rip that off. It was very much just trying to use the skill set that I had, organic and raw as possible without hiding behind production.
KENDALL: How did you get started playing music and writing songs?
KYLE: I started playing guitar when I was twelve, and shortly after that I just started writing. I was never good at covering songs accurately. I found the more creative I got the more fulfilled I was. It eventually lead to me learning to sing and writing lyrics. Some people can say, ‘I remember my first song,’ but for me it wasn’t like that. One day I just felt like I had been doing it for awhile. It felt naturally therapeutic. It was almost a cathartic way of dealing with things. I didn’t set out to be a songwriter, but I guess I’ve been doing it for ten years now.
KENDALL: What was the first album you listened to as a kid that convinced you to start playing music?
KYLE: My older sister introduced me to The Doors and Led Zeppelin once I picked up the guitar, but I think the first may have been The Arctic Monkeys. I saw the music video for ‘Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor’ and for some reason I really identified with it. But, I remember getting into bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and learning those songs, and realizing how fun it could be to make music with friends. Making music with friends has always been a big part of it all for me, so it’s kind of funny to me now when people say that I’ve ‘gone solo’, because I still very much associate my music with the people play with. There’s a lot of camaraderie.
KENDALL: 'Off the Road' (a play on Kerouac’s On the Road) is a quick-tempoed end for Worth It, and evidence of more serious, stringent training in classical fingerpicking. Where did you learn to play guitar?
KYLE: I don’t know, I’ve never been super into guitar solos. Once I heard Nick Drake or even Chet Atkins, the idea of being able to play guitar in that way was way more interesting than learning an Eddie Van Halen solo or something like that. But I don’t have any story about being a guitar prodigy as a kid. I never had a guitar teacher or anything like that. It’s just been what I’ve pursued, and for some reason it’s developed more quickly than other things, musically, for me.
KENDALL: Can you tell us a little more about where the track 'Post Ego-Mania' came from, and the meaning of it’s title?
KYLE: I don’t normally like to tell to much about the meaning of a song, but it’s exactly what it sounds like. 'Post-Egomania' is about going through a bit of an egotistical phase, with your head up ass, and then you come out the other side and you realize like, ‘Wow, that wasn't worth it. That wasn't a head space that is easy to live in.” But I think more than anything, it’s about phases that you go through, and the lessons that you learn. You have to eat humble pie at some point. The song is a reflection on these last few years and my realizations of what is meaningful in life, versus what you pursue when you’re trying to make it.
KENDALL: Plum made the move to L.A., but you’ve returned to Colorado. What ultimately brought you back to Denver?
KYLE: I think that song, Post Ego-Mania kind of explains it. I started to realize what really mattered. Denver’s vibe, the amount friends I’ve made here, and the local music community brought me back. I know that there are certain downsides to the Denver music scene, and I could probably talk about that for awhile. But, at the end of the day, it’s a very inclusive, friendly, and helpful scene. I mean, LA’s scene has those qualities too, but I kind of just wanted to return to form, come home, and start this project from the ground up here in Denver, more so than any other place I’ve ever been to.
KENDALL: Did living in L.A. alter your perspective of the modern music scene?
KYLE: Definitely. It was the first time that I had been exposed to people who were very successful in the music scene. I met a lot of people who were making a living off of their music alone, and I began analyzing their lifestyle, and the choices they made to get where they are now. It was eye opening to see the steps to take and the decisions to make to get there. Growing up in Ohio, it was nearly impossible to meet people who were either like, really successful with music or seriously dedicated to it. Living in LA opened my eyes to certain things about the industry, and the fact that life as a professional musician is not abnormal. Half of the people I met, it was just what they did to earn a living. For them, it wasn’t important that they were famous, or that they had gotten their big break so to speak, it was just their lifestyle. It was almost like debunking a myth for me; I realized that they were just normal people, it didn’t have to be this lofty, mountainous sort of thing.
KENDALL: Favorite Beatle? Favorite member of The Byrds?
KYLE: I have a hard time picking a favorite Beatle. I identify with John and George the most, as far as their songwriting goes, but I also love Paul and Ringo. I love David Crosby, especially what he did with CSN and CSNY. Even these days, he puts other people to shame in terms of artistic credibility.
KENDALL: Any words for your Denver friends and fans?
KYLE: This is kind of heavy, but, I recently found out yesterday that one of my friends in the Denver music scene committed suicide. I won’t say who, but it really dawned on me how important it is for music to bring people together, especially the people who feel like they don’t have a place in this world. I think it's easy to get into what's cool, and what’s exciting and flashy in the moment with music, but my main goal with this EP is inclusivity. To make music that feels warm and welcoming to all the kinds of people who connect with music. The world’s a pretty gnarly place right now, and maybe it always has been, but it really feels like that way now. I hope the Denver music scene, and my contribution own contribution to it, is welcoming to all. It's really sad when people feel like they don’t have a place here, and I really hope that my own music could give them a headspace to live in that feels a little bit better.
Interview written and conducted by Ultra5280 writer Kendall Morris.