From the album Born on the Ground, this “concrete country” city gal puts heart and soul and hard-won wisdom into her new video single.
Singer-songwriter Emily Duff is a New Yorker through and through — except maybe for her cowboy hat, boots, and “concrete country” music. Born in Flushing, Queens, New York City, she lives today in Greenwich Village, New York City, with her husband, their two children, and their hound dog, Banjo, all in a 340-square-foot apartment.
“I would chuck everything in the city for a farm with horses and run away,” Duff says. “I had a horse for a short time when I was a young girl and it was a transforming experience for me. Although I’m a city street rat on the outside, I yearn for a stall to muck out, a horse to feed and groom and ride, and a chat with over good coffee as the sun is creeping up.”
She grew up, she says, on “Brill Building” and ’60s songwriters, ’70s soul, early outlaw country, and rock. “I was eclectic for sure,” says Duff, whose new album, Born on the Ground, came out in late June. “From my earliest days I would go from Janis Joplin to Smokey Robinson to the Jackson 5 to Neil Diamond, Clarence Carter, Aretha, and Led Zeppelin with a little Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra in there too!”
Her musical influences also make for an eclectic list: “Pops and Mavis Staples, John Prine, Dolly Parton, Led Zeppelin, Bach, Handel, Muddy Waters, The Clash, Chrissy Hynde, Nina Simone, Tanya Tucker, Buck Owens, Keith Richards.”
Stir it all up with the big creativity spoon and you get music that’s been called — and Duff really likes this description — “sweet and sour rock ’n’ roll with a great big hit of country soul.”
“I had the good fortune to be an opening act for Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at Jones Beach,” Duff says, adding other career high points like recording at FAME in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with members of the Swampers and the Fame Gang and hearing her songs on the radio.
“Every minute of every day that I am allowed to pick up a guitar and sing my music is a high point and I am lucky,” she says. “I’ve met a few geniuses and people I respect. Those are beautiful moments I will treasure. I even get to call a few of these people my friends and call them to trade recipes and jokes.”
We talked with Duff about her music, the new video, and her picks for a Good Mood Playlist.
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us about the new music and Born on the Ground.
Emily Duff: These songs are a collection of tunes that I call my “20/20 hindsight look back without anger.” Of course I put it out in 2020 — Perfect Vision. It’s an “I was so much older then … I’m younger then than now” thing but slightly left of that in that I have a unique vantage point these days to examine old wounds and relationships. I’m not angry at all. I am happy. Very happy — even in the middle of a pandemic. My life is simple and beautiful. I am a privileged to be a mother and a happily married wife. I didn’t have a mother to guide me and my father was/is not a nice man. I married a beautiful man. So, I am parenting when I wasn’t [parented] and I am married when I never thought I could be because I never knew what a good marriage was. My parents literally tried to kill each other — in front of me. It was awful. Honestly, this album is about being a true survivor and knowing when certain relationships are toxic and that it’s okay to walk away. You don’t need to be loved or even liked by everyone. I’m good with all that. Most days I feel as if I’ve won the lottery just to be alive. \This specific song, “No Escape,” is a haunting ditty that’s quite a change to my usual style, and I dig that a lot.
C&I: Who wrote it and what were the circumstances/setting?
Duff: I write all my songs and this one is no exception. I wrote it about obsessive love and not necessarily wanting the object of desire back in my life but rather that I would do anything if it would just GO AWAY. Sometimes we feel that there is no escape from a situation or a person that haunts us till we break and become like a junkie, an addict. The withdrawal is a sickness — a terrible, painful sickness that feels like the end of the world sometimes. But it isn’t.
C&I: Who’s playing on it and what were the sessions like?
Duff: I’m playing acoustic guitar and singing, Scott Aldrich on electric guitar, Skip Ward on bass, Charlie Giordano on organ and piano, and Kenny Soule on drums. Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, engineered by Mario Viele at Cowboy Technical Services Rig in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NYC, and mastered by Richard Dodd in Nashville. Working with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is great. I learned a lot from him about singing in the studio and I thank him for that. He’s a master at his craft and coaxed brilliant performances out of everyone in my band, but they are all brilliant anyway We recorded “No Escape” completely live except for the piano overdubs and we nailed it in one take. I brought this track into the room at the last minute — we almost didn’t record it.
C&I: What’s your favorite part of the song?
Duff: The chorus: I would climb the highest mountain / Swim an ocean full of tears / Yes I would do most anything / If you would only disappear. It’s almost cliché — something I really stay away from — and then it’s not. Then it’s on its head completely.
C&I: How about the video?
Duff: I shot it at home with my husband, on an iPhone 8. My daughter is in it too. Shooting a video during a pandemic is interesting and challenging. We tried some cool, simple techniques like shooting through the bottom of glasses and bowls and through diffused light — cool to look at and might even feel like expensive special effects, but they’re actually easy and cheap and creative DIY tricks.
C&I: What’s your process like?
Duff: My process changes often. I call it song-catching. I hear the songs in my head most of the time and I just go get them. Then I shake hands with them and become friends. I write every day, sometimes all day. Words are the coolest. Melody is heaven, and telling stories is the best job in the world. Making musical stuff up is my daily workout and it keeps me sane. My process is show up and put the song on like it’s a dress or a wedding suit and then invite someone else to try it on, tailor it to fit them like a glove, and make them believe it was made for them so they never take it off. A song can be a coping strategy for the rest of your life. A song can save someone’s life.
C&I: Back to the pandemic: What have you been doing during lockdown?
Duff: Writing, cooking, reading, planning, organizing, laughing, crying, loving, cursing, shouting, praying, stretching, facetiming and Live Streaming……
C&I: And you’ve managed to keep the music going while sheltering?
Duff: Oh, yes, always. My entire family plays music, so along with my writing every day, we all play together almost every evening after dinner. And I do a live stream every Sunday at 4 p.m. on Facebook. I’ve also finished writing two more records and I am in preproduction on both.
C&I: What should we do when we’re in your town?
Duff: Hang out with me on the Hudson River at sunset and let me feed you dinner.
C&I: What’s next for you?
Duff: Making dinner! I have a song on a Willie Nile tribute record coming out in August and I co-wrote a song with Ricky Byrd from Joan Jett’s Blackhearts, and as soon as I am able, I will get back on the road and head to the U.K. — when it’s safe.
Tune in to her weekly live stream, Virus Escape, from her Greenwich Village fire escape every Sunday at 3 p.m. Central.
Emily Duff’s Good Mood Playlist
“I’ll Take You There” — Staple Singers
“Hold On” — Alabama Shakes
“There Is a Valley” — Bill Fay
“Brass in Pocket” — Pretenders
“Picture This” — Blondie
“Baby I Love You” — Aretha Franklin
“Police on My Back” — The Clash
“The Other Kind” — Steve Earle
“Candy’s Room” — Bruce Springsteen
“What’s Goin’ On” — Marvin Gaye
“Let’s Stay Together” — Al Green
“Trust Me” — Wilson Pickett
Photography: Header image courtesy Skip Duff