Now/It's: An Interview with Emma Hern

There's a distinct lack of groove in Nashville; or so it would seem. Everyone in town knows how to have (some modicum of) a good time - any and all bachelorette parties could tell you that - but is there anyone around town that's ready to assume the throne for The Get Down crown? Enter Emma Hern, a rock n' roll band-leading bad ass singer, who can move and groove to invigorate any audience before her. She's out of Richmond, Virginia - so part of the next-wave of transplants to grace our fair city - but she's wasted no time making an impact all over Music City. I first met (and interviewed) Hern at Pilgrimage Festival last year, where she was slated to perform - barely a year into her tenure in Nashville - but haven't really gotten to sit down and talk with her since (plus, the Pilgrimage interview was all of about ten minutes). Needless to say, there was plenty to cover the second time we met up, and I'm certain Hern is only continue to on that upward trajectory. 

Now/It's: Nashville met with Emma Hern at Portland Brew East, in East Nashville. 

Emma - What’s been going on?

N/I - Not much…

Emma - Apparently a lot - you’ve been starting a new endeavor….

N/I - I suppose that’s true, getting everything off the ground and what not.

Emma - Yeah! I read the one that you did with [Jacqueline Justice] yesterday.

N/I - Oh yeah? I thought hers was really great.

Emma - It was! I love her. She deserves to get interviewed a lot more, too.

N/I - Absolutely. I agree 100%

Emma - She’s so great. I’ve actually only known her for the past few months…. Maybe for the past four months now? We met and just hit it off.

N/I - It seems pretty natural between you two. How did you guys meet?

Emma - I think I met her around Easter, because everything [in Nashville] was closed and we were at Ugly Mugs outside, so Colin Elmore - who’s our friend - grabbed some beers out of his car and passed them around. So we were all drinking outside on Easter Sunday [laughs]. So that’s how met.

N/I - No shame in that. That’s great.

Emma - And then one day she randomly hit me up and was like “Hey, do you want to go break into a church with me and take some photos?” So of course was like “Yeah. That sounds amazing.” And now I probably hang out with her almost every other day.

N/I - That’s fantastic.

Emma - It's so cool, because it seems like all of these great girls are coming out of the woodwork.

N/I - Absolutely.

Emma - I mean, when I moved down here, I was with the same group of guys for so long, and then I started meeting [Jacqueline Justice], and Jess Nolan, and Katie Pruitt, and all of those girls. So at a certain point, we were all like “Wait a minute - we should just hang out.” So now we hang out whenever we get the chance. We all met up the other day, and we were all at Dino’s. Just us girls, as well as Liz [Cooper] who’s awesome too. And we just sort of looked around and thought, “This is awesome. We never do this, and this is so great, and so empowering.” That’s probably the biggest thing - swapping stories and being able to relate.

N/I - I bet. That almost seems sort of necessary.

Emma - Right. I mean, [Jacqueline Justice] talked about it in your interview with her, about the trials and tribulations that one has as a female in any….

N/I - Creative realm. Or realm in general.

Emma - Really just any industry at all. So it's so cool to have them around and be able to say “I can’t believe this shit happened,” and talking about this, that, and the other, and saying “Tell me I was being punked, this can’t be real.” Just to have them there to say “Don’t stand for that, don’t allow that to happen,” really makes an impact.

N/I - I’m sure. Do you run into that sort of weird female condescension at shows? Like when you’re loading in or sound checking?

Emma - Well, we were actually talking about that at Dino’s last night [laughs]. I was talking to Liz [Cooper], and she was saying her weird situations were more with sound guys, like that’s where she really runs into the condescension. And for me, it really began during meetings. I recently just started shopping songs around and stuff…

N/I - Yeah! That’s what Jacqueline [Justice] was saying.

Emma - Right! And that has been awesome - a new thing for me - but some of those meetings rubbed me the wrong way in a very short amount of time, basically just two weeks. There were a lot of different things going on, but things just kind of felt off. Even being in the studio, somebody engineering the record might only be looking at the band, talking to the band, not even making eye contact with me, so I’d have to go “Hey man. I wrote this, and this is my music….”

N/I - I mean, it's your name. It’s your band.

Emma - Exactly. And I’ve been doing this long enough to the point of which I know exactly what the fuck I’m talking about, and you’re mixing it like a pillar, and I’m not singing like that. So its basically just things like that where I have to jump up and down in order to simply say that I do know what I’m talking about, and if the person would just listen to me, they would understand that. But for whatever reason, that doesn’t always translate, which is so frustrating when its your own music. So when people come and tap you on the shoulder to say “Hey, this actually what you should do,” or “This is really the best way to go about something,”  its like “You know what? I don’t think so. I’m not going to do that.”

N/I - Right. I understand that to a degree - just in the sense that I’m not a woman - but as someone that’s younger, and trying to sell people on my photo work or interviews, it can be discounted pretty quickly, simply due to the fact that I’m 24. To some people, it just looks like hobby-ism.

Emma - Yes! They’re like “What a great hobby!”

N/I - And I have to try and argue “Well no, it's not actually a hobby….” when I’m trying to make it's way more than that. It seems like certain groups want to immediately assign certain things as hobbies in a defense mechanism. So I can only imagine how difficult it would be to record a single or make a record, only to have someone who was supposed to help the process inadvertently become an added obstacle to that process.

Emma - I don’t know. I kind of just reached a limit. Because on top of all of that, I found myself in situations where other annoying little things pop up. I think sometimes people aren’t even aware of the fact that they’re doing it, which turns into a whole different societal issue. So these people aren’t necessarily aware of what they’re doing, but I kind of have to take mental notes when I’m in business settings like “Okay, this person is looking at me like that,” or “That person isn’t even making eye contact with me.” In the long run it's kind of like “Whatever,” because the industry seems to eventually weed those people out, but in the meantime, it just seems to have reached a peak. There would be scenarios in which I’d be performing with a guy - who’s a friend that also happens to be a musician - and people would be like “Oh, so you’re dating…. Or you’re fucking,” or whatever. Stupid stuff like that, and I’d have to be like “No,” but then they’d be like “Oh, so you’re his background singer!” And again, it's just “No!” I mean, it got to the point where I was invited to this thing, and some girl was like “So did you sleep with this guy to get the tickets to come to this thing?” And that was a moment where no one was around, and I was like “Oh my god!”

N/I - It sounds like it was one of those situations where there’s no one around you to verify whether or not what just happened really happened.

Emma - I wish somebody had pinched me, or least been around so I could as “Did that really happen?” But even with all that,  you just have to let it all roll off. So that was the boiling point when I had that happen, so I actually wound up going back home for a little bit. I hadn’t been home for a long time, so I called my mom the next day - as you do when your life seems to be falling apart - after  talking to that random girl. I had just finished all my recording stuff, and I was like “I am out of money. I am being treated like such an object.” Granted, that’s something that’s happened to me and to every other girl since I was fourteen, and you’re trained to say “Whatever, just move on.” But this last time, I just got hit in the face with all of it at the same time.

N/I - It sounds like you hit - not a breaking point - but a literal wall where you kept running into instances where all you could say was “I cannot believe this is happening again.”

Emma - I was exhausted. Because it was happening every day, and it was happening in all aspects. It was in mixing, it was in performing, it was in all of this stuff, until finally I was like “Oh my god.” And on top of it all, my car broke. I was trying to go home the next day to surprise my parents for Mother's Day, but I couldn’t. It seemed like everything that might have needed to be replaced in my car broke. Everything. To the point of which the mechanic came out and said “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong, all of its wrong.” So I was stuck in this moment where I had to be like “Well, if you had to choose two things, what really needs to be fixed?” But he basically told me I couldn’t drive it on the highway until I got all of this stuff done. So I was like “Okay! Let me go make a phone call real quick!”

N/I - I’m sure that killed the surprise.

Emma - Yeah. So I had to call them and say “I don’t have any money and I can’t fix my car, and I have no clue what to do.” But I am so lucky to have the most supportive family, and they were like “We’ll figure it out, we can work out some sort of plan,” and so once it was figured out, I drove home to Virginia the next day. I wound up staying there for a week and a half…. All the guys in my band are guys, and they’re all phenomenal human beings and friends, but I just felt like I was stuck explaining this “thing” to them that they can sympathize with, but never fully get it. So I went home and I talked to my dad. He works in a pretty big company, and I just started spewing all of these situations out to him, and I told him “I hope you treat all women in your workplace with the utmost respect, because if they’re at the level you are now, they’ve decided that it’s worth the stream of bullshit that they have to deal with every single day. Because the work is that important to them, and they have to work five times as hard to get to that point.”

N/I - So is he in a predominantly male driven industry?

Emma - He is. So I was just like “There are some badass women,” and then he’s the sweetest guy, so he said “Oh my gosh, yes, of course I do!” Then he turned it on me, basically asking “Are you okay?” So I just stayed home for a week and a half and wrote angry songs.

N/I - Good!

Emma - Which I’ve never really done. So I came back and got to be surrounded by these phenomenal girls, and they’re all amazing. I’m meeting all of these women at agencies and everything. So much so to the point that something became so clear to me - for now, as long as it’s the right fit - I made the decision that I only want a female team. So I’m okay with waiting for the right girls to show up, and I’ve got to meet some really great women that get it. I had a meeting with a woman on the phone the other day, and she was saying the exact same thing, but it was from her angle as an agent. I can’t even imagine being a female agent, that’s gotta be so tough.

N/I - I’d imagine its one of those scenarios that she runs into every single day, no matter how well she’s managed to establish herself. If she’s working with new people, she probably has to repeat whatever the process was to get to the point she’s at. Like she could be this ruthless business badass, but there’s always going to be some random dude at some random venue replying in either a flippant or patronizing manner.

Emma - That’s the thing! I’ve noticed such a change in my demeanor since all of this stuff has happened. I used to be all “Oh, this is just great! That’s okay!” But now I’m just like “Whoa, I can’t do that,” and maybe that comes off as me being too harsh, but I go into business meetings where I’m the only girl there….

N/I - And you put your foot down from the onset.

Emma - Exactly. It’s weird, because that’s not my immediate personality. I love people, and I want to be bubbly or whatever, but I’d rather someone think that I’m a bitch in order for them to take me seriously.

N/I - Why not? You have to draw a line in the sand where the impetus is on them instead of you.

Emma - Right! Because I’m trying to get some shit done!

N/I - Well you’re trying to establish your career!

Emma - And it’s not easy! [Laughs] Anyway, somewhere in there was how I met Jacqueline [Justice].

N/I - That’s great. That’s one of those things where good people seem to find good people. You mention Jess - she and I were co-workers in college, technically.

Emma - Oh! You went to Miami?

N/I - Not quite. We worked in this convolutedly named department at Sony Music called the Sony Music and Entertainment College Marketing Department.

Emma - Did you guys put that on t-shirts?

N/I - They might as well have. So we were reps in our respective towns, but we would go to New York for meetings, and through those, I actually met Jess and got to know her a little bit. But since she’s come to Nashville, I think I’ve only run into her once or twice, but she’s been kicking ass.

Emma - She’s been killing it! It’s so empowering. That’s the thing - once I started hanging out with those girls, I realized I needed to start doing that type of thing more often, because when we’re together, it’s so empowering. Jess and I probably get coffee three times a week. We pretty much just celebrate and encourage each other.

N/I - Right. Its effectively a pow-wow of positive affirmation.

Emma - And on top of that, it’s all just been great. These girls have been phenomenal and I’m just honored to be friends with them. I have no doubts that they’re going to take over Nashville and so much more, because I think that’s actually the end goal. Nashville is our home - it’s been so welcoming, and I love it so much - but I think the end goal is to only be back here for a little bit.

N/I - Right. It’s the same goal that I think any performer would have where ideally you’re on the road the majority of the year, and you only come back for holidays and the dead period during the summer. But that’s hard, especially with all the weird barriers to entry that you wouldn’t even consider.

Emma - I know!

N/I - Like if you’re anyone under the age of thirty, you don’t really get to have a say in a certain sense. It’s like “Okay, we get it. You think you know what you want to do, but we know better.” But that’s not always the case, in fact, that’s rarely ever the case.

Emma - That’s totally true. It just gets shitty. It’s been shitty, but it’s also been a really great learning experience. But it’s forced me to change in a good way, and I’ve become something completely different. Now I realize I have to put my foot down and say “Hey, you’re working for me.”

N/I - You want people to be incentivized to work with you.

Emma - Yes! And when I first got here, it was like “Oh my gosh, I will work with anyone that will take me!” But I’ve realized that it needs to be an even platform, and I believe it needs to feel like family, which for me is so important. So that’s what led me to the decision to work with only women, because they’re never going to ask me to lose ten pounds, but at the same time, we can understand those things I was talking about before. But at the same time, I can talk about those things to the guys in my band, but it’s not quite the same thing.

N/I - Right. You were talking about being over the moon when someone expressed an interest in you once you moved here - that scenario kills me, because there are people that prey upon that.

Emma - Yeah! And that’s where the majority of my time in school was spent being taught not to do that.

N/I - Right, because you went to school somewhere on the east coast?

Emma - I went to Berklee [College of Music]. So combine that with the fact that I’ve really been playing out since I was fourteen, and suddenly, I’ve been doing this for ten years. Luckily I didn’t sign anything - my dad’s a lawyer - so I’ve been purified of the temptation of a contract. But I see people sign stuff and immediately giving stuff away, and I’m so glad that I didn’t. Also, a lot of us that are down here now are in a similar age group, and I really think I’ve grown more since being here for almost two years than I have ever. Because you have to. You grow up real fast.

N/I - Sure. You’re right in the thick of it, whether you like it or not.

Emma - You have to learn how to handle your business. I never viewed myself as a business woman, and I never thought of myself as one until the last year….

N/I - And you feel like you’ve come to realize what that looks like.

Emma - Yeah!

N/I - That’s good. You’re in the middle of this movement and the learning curve is huge, and it moves fast, and it’s incredibly steep.

Emma - So steep.

N/I - And if you stop for a second, you’re going to get pounded by it. The nature of all of this is competition, whether you like it or not.

Emma - It’s super competitive…. But I’ve also learned the power of saying “no” and when saying no is the best thing to do. That’s the weirdest thing to be like it’s not a big deal if you say “No, I don’t think that’s going to work, but I’m so glad we got to know each other.” It’s like learning how to break up appropriately.

N/I - Right. As sweetly and softly as possible.

Emma - And it almost always ends the same way with “I hope we can still be friends.”

N/I - Well it kills you to tell someone no for a while, and then there’s typically a moment when everything just clicks in saying no. You’re not saying that it’ll never work, but at the very least, you have each other’s contact information.

Emma - And then you can pass them along to someone else.

N/I - Exactly. Someone that might be a better match.

Emma - I think it took me two weeks to quit my job, because I just couldn’t. Because there’s always something.

N/I - Right. And that’s a whole different thing - where there’s a security in knowing that an exact dollar amount is going to come around every two weeks, or every pay cycle, as opposed to making money solely off of gigs where there’s no idea what the guarantee actually is, and whether or not you get a cut of the door - it gets rocky.

Emma - Oh gosh. That’s stressful.

N/I - Do you do most of your booking?

Emma - Oh, I do all of it. I do everything.

N/I - How’s that learning curve been?

Emma - It’s good. It is what it is. I’ve learned a lot. We did some full band touring - and we have a big band - so I have to get a van, because I don’t have one. My Jeep Wrangler will fit no more than one person and a guitar, so I think my shoulders were up to my ears the whole time, except for when we were on stage. As everyone needs to do, we’re keeping every receipt, and doing all of that, knowing what I put up for the tour, hoping I would make it back, not necessarily knowing that I was because some nights you know how much you’re going to make, and others it depends upon who you pull. And if you’re doing a house show, there’s the dependency on how generous people are feeling. Luckily, we made it all back, which is great.

N/I - That’s amazing. You almost never hear that.

Emma - Yeah! We broke even! I think I was just like “Whoa, that was too much.” We made it all back, but I realized I had bitten off a little bit more than I could chew. It was a good moment to realize that I have some time before I need to be booking a tour like that.

N/I - It was your trial by fire moment. You knew what would - hopefully - be the hardest road, so at least that experience is there.

Emma - Right. And you’re in a van with a bunch of your friends playing music, so you’re going to have an awesome time.

N/I - It can only get so bad.

Emma - It was amazing. We had a wonderful time. But since then, I’ve only been going out [on the road] with one other person, which has been great. We were in Asheville last weekend, and we leave for Kentucky tomorrow, so we can just take a car and an electric or acoustic guitar, and it’s been awesome. I’ve been calmer and enjoying it more.

N/I - You’re not strung out trying to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Emma - Yeah! And soundcheck only takes twenty seconds. It’s way better for right now. It’s actually made me - I’m used to having this big band when I’m in town - but it’s making me rework my song in a different way, which I think is really beneficial for me, musically. Its making me write a little different, because if you have just one guitar and your voice, you have to have the song to back that up.

N/I - Its a whole different dynamic.

Emma - I think that’s the way I’d like to continue for a while and save the full thing for when we’re in town, but I think it’s making me be a better musician. It’s a lot harder - though I am still with a friend - but it just makes you work for it a little bit more. There’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s just you.

N/I - You pull yourself up by your bootstraps and let it rip.

Emma - And it’s essentially an elevator pitch, because there’s no “Look at my horn section!”

N/I - You show the main part, and everyone else has to imagine the rest of it, if they can. That’s what it could become.

Emma - It’s harder, but I’ve really been enjoying it. Which sounds weird, but I feel like I work backwards. I think most people do that way first, but when I moved down here, I was so lucky to come down with this big group of guys to the point that I’m lucky enough to have a band like that.

N/I - It’s a different pathway of learning. You learned by committee - performing by committee - while most people go solo while starting out. It sort of minimizes the depth and breadth of potential failure, because it’s just you.

Emma - Right. Whereas I’m like “I’m bringing them all down with me!”

N/I - Its different for every person, but it’s good to hear you’re figuring out both ways.

Emma - It’s been fun. It feels like you’re at school again. For me, at least. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but it makes me feel like I’m actively working when I’m doing it by myself. When I have the guys, it’s like a vacation. I have so much fun. It’s a rotating cast now, and they’re so, so talented. So when we start playing, I can’t stop smiling. It’s easy with them.