There's a wonderful duality to the music of Emily Wolfe (opens in new tab). Hailing from Austin, Texas, The 31 year old singer and guitarist is a true shredhead who unafraid of going full scorched earth with her guitar solos, but is also a strong admirer of the aesthetic and songcraft of modern pop music. Her sophomore album, the recently released Outlier, is a joyful marriage of both of these elements – combining slick, modern pop production with dirty blues infused electric guitar (opens in new tab) riffs that simply ooze attitude.
A brush with death earlier in her career seems to have awoken a fearlessness in her, motivating her to attack everything she does with a sense of sure footedness and self-belief. MusicRadar spoke with Emily shortly following the release of Outlier to find out more about how guitar inspires her songwriting and why she feels it is important for all musicians to have a full understanding of the technology they wield.
This is a certainly a balance she's struck well on Outlier. Songs such as No Man and Cover Of Virtue combine the full, sprightly sounds of modern pop with blood and guts guitar riffs that grab you by the scruff of the neck. Guitar is still very much present, though it melts into the fabric of the songs rather than leaps out at you. As Emily describes, this was an intentional choice - and one that she arrived at following discussions with album producer and Queens Of The Stone Age (opens in new tab) bass player, Michael Shuman.
"With this record, I was speaking to Michael and he essentially said that I should just make the best record I possibly can, and then figure out how to translate it to live performance later. So, basically I had to upgrade my board because I've been using so many pedals in the studio and I really wanted to be able recreate the record to a tee during the live show. It's important to me now to be consistent in that way.
"Guitar is where I usually start with everything. It was interesting pairing up with Michael to do this record because he gets a lot of inspiration from synths and bass guitar and drums - All instruments that he plays. His whole idea behind writing a song is that every part should be its own hook - So I learned that from working with him. I think that's a really great way to do things."
Emily's music is often lauded for her ability to combine the riff heavy drive of Queens of the Stone Age with the pop hooks and spunky attitude of Demi Lovato, so working with Michael Shuman was something that was very exciting for her.
"Working with Michael was great and a lot of fun" Emily explains. "He's so cool and very laid back, but a perfectionist at the same time. It was sort of a shot in the dark when I asked him if he would produce the record because he didn't know who I was - not a lot of people do, actually! So it was pretty cool of him to say yes to an emerging artist and take on a project he believed in."
With that in mind, does Emily feel as though she's introducing the more rock inclined members of her audience to the joys of modern pop music?
"That's the goal. I basically wanted to try and rope in a bunch of different music lovers. People who really dig mainstream pop, I wanted to expose them to how cool guitar can be – and the super gearheads who only listen to guitar music, I wanted to rope them in too. That's the goal for sure, I guess we'll see how it works out."
"Oddly enough, I like to look at the arrangement of a pop song that I really love and use that as inspiration when I write lyrics for new songs. Once I have the music figured out and structured, I'll look at that and run down the lyrics of a pop song. Where are they going with this line? Can I do the same thing with my story here? Most of my other favourites are rock and roll legends. Most of their influence comes out in the form of 'let's burn it down, let's destroy stuff'. The pop stuff is more about love, so I think it is fun to mix the two."
Emily is also a self-proclaimed gearhead, and has been building her own pedalboards for years. As such, she's developed solid insight as to why this is important for any musician, with self reliance being among the key factors.
"I think it is a super important part of being a musician and it is something that is often overlooked. For me, I started getting into the technical stuff because I didn't want to rely on anyone besides myself when it came to how to set things up, or how to get the sounds that I wanted to get. So I kind of dove into pedals and audio interfaces and speakers and mics, and all that sort of stuff. Knowing a lot about the gear side of things can really help you accomplish the sound you have in your head because you know exactly what every knob does. It's really important and more people should do it."
After hearing Emily speak about this, the restrained anger of current single and album opener No Man starts to take on a whole new relevance. Her blues inflected riffing locks in alongside tight, punchy drums as she sings “I don’t need no man to tell me how to work my machine” - something anyone who has ever felt patronised in this industry will be able to relate to. So, what does Emily feel makes a good pedalboard and which effects would she never leave out when building one?
"The pedals I love to play are the ones that feel the best under the fingers - ones that don't compress your amp, and I think just having everything really neat and clean, and if there's any troubleshooting you need to do last minute then you know where everything is going. Everything is labelled and laid out really neatly. I think organisation is a big deal. As for what I would never leave out, there's always going to be a place for fuzz and distortion.
"Guitar is such an expressive instrument. If I hear a riff and then I find myself singing it for the rest of the day, then I know that's a good riff. Something that says something in particular and is expressive enough that it tells you how to feel."
Epiphone Emily Wolfe Signature Sheraton (opens in new tab)
Emily's love of gear also brought her to the attention of legendary guitar empire Gibson, who were so impressed with her music and knowledge of her instrument that they offered to work with her on a signature model - A customized, hollow bodied Epiphone Sheraton with a handful of special tweaks that make the instrument a truly unique representation of her.
"I'd been working with Gibson for about three or four years before the signature model was presented as an option," Emily tells us. "I flew out to NAMM, which is a big gear conference in Anaheim, California. The band and I played a show for the whole crew – Gibson staff and executives. They approached me after and asked if I wanted to do a signature model which, of course, is exactly what I wanted!
"It's essentially just my original Sheraton II with some modifications that more suit my needs as a player," Emily explains. "It's less top heavy, it has some smaller adjustments... Namely a master tone knob instead of two tone knobs for each pickup, and it has a matte satin black finish, diamond F holes and lightning bolt inlays. It's a great guitar and a powerful instrument, but it's also elegant and subtle at the same time. I'm really excited about it."
Along with every artist on the planet, Emily also had to stop touring and performing live due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. She's built a reputation through her live performances and as she explains, the transition wasn't easy - But she used the downtime to refocus on writing so she could hit the ground running, new album in hand, when the pandemic finally begins to wind down.
"It was brutal to not be able to play that long. It's such a big part of my identity, playing shows, and not being able to go and do that was really tough. Basically I came to terms with the fact that I couldn't do that and decided I had to focus on writing a record instead and hopefully release it when things are winding down in terms of Covid. I kind of took it as an opportunity to write and spend time with my family, so there were good things that came out of it.
"Things are coming back here in the states. It's definitely not over by any means but things are opening back up. I played this past weekend in San Antonio and then I played a venue in Cedar Park, just up the road - So it's all been local for now. But I've got a national east coast and west coast tour booked for October. I can't wait to get out there again."
Outlier is out now of Crows Feet Records. Find out more at emilywolfemusic.com (opens in new tab)