Sofar Sounds is the large global start-up which hosts daily concerts and live events in various locations by super-secret-special-ultra invitation only (invite details at website). The performances vary by location but all are intimate and discourage the use of cell phones or talking in order to enjoy the one-of-a-kind experience.The second of three artists performing on this night, Emily Keener is the one-of-a-kind artist that looks forward to the next gig and can handle any curve ball thrown at her.
The night began with last minute venue change after the building’s landlord got his panties caught in bunch and kicked the artists out of the space in a commercial building in Downtown Los Angeles. Phone calls were made and options were laid out. The artist decided to continue with the show minus the videography. Luckily the music Gods were on their side as arrangements were made for a quick four-minute walk two blocks away into a much larger and open space beckoning for some good vibes. She opened with “Lorelei” and immediately had the crowd hooked.
Since the early age of 11, Emily Keener has skillfully learned the craft and is ready to conquer everything that comes with her career. The latest release, Breakfast, was released last fall with her spot on NBC’s The Voice earlier in the year.
Emily Keener chatted with us after her set to discuss her music, her early career and the travel bug that’s got her seeking the open road.
Have you done a show like this before?
With Sofar? Yeah, that was the first time. I hadn’t done an underground show like that before. I thought it was awesome to be able to walk into a room full of attentive people in a city that I’m not that familiar with.
You mentioned during the show that this was your first tour?
I’ve been to Nashville before on my own once. That’s the only time. I’m pretty psyched about it because I’ve always wanted to travel and tour so it’s the beginning of a really long journey, hopefully.
Where did your musical adventure begin?
I grew up listening to my dad play guitar. The one I play right now actually is my dad’s guitar. It’s like 25 years old and I’ve beaten the hell out of it. I grew up listening to him play and I thought it was amazing. I was mesmerized by it. By the time I was ten, I decided I was going to teach myself how to do it. I found every book that I could, taught myself how to read tab and taught myself as many chord as I could and started learning songs. Once I had been learning songs for a little while, it occurred to me that people actually write these songs and create this music. I thought it as really fascinating. I thought, ‘I really want to want to do that.’ My mom managed to hook me up with this singer songwriter in the town were we grew up. She precociously went up to him and said, “Would you ever consider giving somebody song lessons?” I was like 11 or 12 at the time and playing covers and Christmas songs around the house.
So he took you under his wing?
Yeah, pretty much. He taught me everything, at that time, that I know about music theory, chords, lyrics; the basics of songs. I worked with him for about six months. After that, I couldn’t stop writing and haven’t since.
How old were you when you wrote your first song?
I was 11. It was called, “Daddy I Miss You,” because I missed my dad, big surprise. It’s funny, a report in Vancouver asked me the same question. It was a song about when he took a three month trip to Vancouver. He was helping to de-ice airplanes during the Winter Olympics. That’s when I wrote my first song.
Do you still play song?
No. I think I played that for all of two months because when I started working with my teacher I realized, ‘Oh wait, this song is bad. I should never play it again.’ So I didn’t. [LAUGHS]
There’s a variation in your sound in your last three albums. “Waste My Time” has a big sound unlike your first album. What’s that song about?
Originally when I was writing it, I felt in the mood to create something happy because for the longest time I’d been writing melancholy stuff. For this record, since I’m working on pop styling’s since I was just on the voice. I want to get a shot. I want to write some pop-y love song. It turns out it did have sincerity behind it. But when I wrote it, I hated it for six months. I played it for my producer and he said, ‘No, I see potential in this. I don’t understand why you hate it. Let me have it for a couple weeks then tell me what you think of it.’ he performed his magic and turned it into something different. The structure was the same and the lyrics were the same but the tings that he did really elevated it and now it has a special place in my heart, for that reason.
Speaking about ‘The Voice’, how has that experience shaped you as a singer-songwriter?
I think it instilled a lot of confidence in me. Because I wasn’t always confident with the process I learned how to become confident.
Had you been on stage before The Voice?
Yeah, I had been performing for about 5-6 years. I started performing in bars and wineries when I was 12.
Wineries at 12?
Yeah. [LAUGHS] I did about 50-100 shows a year, depending on the year. It was all I wanted to do. It’s still all I want to do. But I’ve never performed for an audience that large before. It’s such high scale, such different than what I was used to. It was terrifying. Every single time I was on stage. I was so scared. It’s 14 million people who are about to watch me do something right now and you have to have a lot of balls to do that. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of the time. The people behind the scenes, the vocal coaches, the band members, everybody who did the work that made the show happen, I learned something from each of them. I felt really encouraged by the end of it. I know I gained a stage presence I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else. It’s not like I do crazy stuff on stage but I’m not afraid anymore. It also taught me to be un-apologetically who I am. Getting to be outside of the box on a national platform like that.
Top 3 desert-island choices?
Blue by Joni Mitchell, Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson and Graceland by Paul Simon.
Anywhere in particular you’re looking to travel?
One of my biggest goals is to do a European tour. I’m really looking forward in my career because it’ll probably happen within the next five years. We’ll see. I’m really looking forward to seeing the Pacific Northwest. I’ve always wanted to be up in that area.
Have you traveled there in general before?
I haven’t. I haven’t been to a lot of places. Whenever we vacationed with my family to typical places like Florida or Tennessee, nothing crazy. To get to do stuff on my own and explore new cities, it’s really special. I’m really excited about that, even for this shot run.
What do you want future musicians to take away from your music?
I think one of the most important things, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, is how empathy relates to art and how understanding human beings actually are. It’s done that for me. Having my mind to different sorts of people by becoming a musician at a young age, I think that really allowed me to see things that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. I think it’s important for future artists to focus less on the egotistically side of music. I’m starting to realize that it’s the most important thing. My favorite songs that I’ve written are things that are being empathetic towards characters and being empathetic towards human feelings in myself too. I think that could enrich a lot of art and create a lot of new artists.
What is next for Emily Keener?
Well, I’m planning on playing as many shows as I can and touring as much as I can. I have quite a lot of new songs on deck and writing more as we speak. I’m looking forward to getting into the studio soon. For now, I’m really happy to be sharing Breakfast with the world. I’m proud of the work my friends. It’s like a family fun project. I’m looking forward to touring and traveling and sharing that with people.