Every once in a while, you’ll come across and album that just floors you, and for us, it was Emily Scott Robinson’s Traveling Mercies.
The raw emotion that Robinson delivers throughout the album is nothing short of special. Robinson spins tales of the evolution of love, the highs and lows that come with being a touring musician, assault, death and more throughout the 12 self-penned songs that make up the album.
In the second half of 2019, people started to take notice of Robinson’s effort. The album was named among Rolling Stone’s best country/americana albums of the year, and her deeply personal song “The Dress” was named “Song of the Year” by Saving Country Music, and among Grady Smith’s top three songs of the year.
Read along as Robinson discusses the valuable lesson she learned during the recording and release of her debut album, being vulnerable, the stories behind many of the songs on Traveling Mercies and what she hopes listeners take away from the album, her plans for 2020 and more!
Pro Country: Who are some of your biggest musical influences that have shaped your sound?
Emily Scott Robinson: Growing up in North Carolina, I listened to a lot of James Taylor. As a kid, you listen to what your parents listen to, so there was a lot of James Taylor and Nancy Griffith. I discovered Joni Mitchell when I was about 15; I got the album Blue as a gift, and I fell in love with her. Patty Griffin became a really big influence on me as well soon after.
PC: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
ESR: It’s funny, I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to have a career in music at all. I was actually classically trained on the clarinet, so that’s what music was for me, and I really didn’t want to do that for a living. When I went to college, I got a degree in Spanish and history, so I thought I would be a social worker or work in the nonprofit world, and I did both of those things for a little while. In 2013, I went to “Song School,” which is a songwriting camp in Colorado. At that point, I had been performing and playing covers for a long time, and I really loved it, but I wasn’t a writer. I had written a few things, but I just hadn’t practiced writing much, and I didn’t know if I had any gift for it. I also hadn’t really lived that much life yet to be able to write about it [laughs]. That’s where I met my very first teachers and mentors; people who were making a living in the Americana and folk genres, just touring, playing shows and doing their thing as musicians. That gave me a path forward. I could see that it was doable, and after that, I started writing. It hit me like a lightning strike that week that I could actually do this for a career.
PC: What were the emotions you were feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your Magnolia Queen album?
ESR: With Magnolia Queen, I had zero idea what I was doing, and now I see that was a really good thing. On their first record, a lot of people get a producer that makes them sound weird or the songs get way overproduced. I a) didn’t have the money to make a record like that, and b) I didn’t really know anybody or trust anybody. All I knew how to do was play and sing. I won studio time at a studio just outside of Chattanooga. I went in, and the engineer just put a mic in front of me, and we started doing live takes. He “fake mastered” it in the studio for me, and I put it out as Magnolia Queen. I look back on that and think how genius it was that he didn’t try to mess with my sound; he just put me in front of him mic and told me to do my thing.
PC: “Marriage Ain’t the End of Being Lonely” pretty quickly became the signature song on Magnolia Queen, and has earned over 150,000 streams on Spotify. Is there a certain level of validation that comes with having that success with a song on your debut album?
ESR: There is. It was funny, before I knew anything about Spotify, that song got on a playlist. I had uploaded my music to Spotify, but I had no connections with them. Somebody in the editorial world heard it, liked it and put it on an editorial playlist. That’s a huge deal for artists, especially because I was just breaking through. That song also won a lyric award for American Songwriter Magazine, and that was one of the first pieces of affirmation outside of myself that my songwriting was good. It had nothing to do with my voice, all I did was submit the lyrics. When I won that, I won my Gibson that I primarily play and tour with. It was so exciting! Somebody in the industry saw what I was doing, and it gave me a lot of encouragement. That song is kind of timeless, I still perform it all the time.
PC: What went in to release “Better With Time” as the lead single from the Traveling Mercies album?
ESR: I’ve always been a little self-conscious about how heavy a lot of my songs are, and I was finally able to write this fun, catchy love song. It was just so bright and happy, and I wanted to put it out as a single so people didn’t hear a sad folk song first and think, “Oh God, is this going to be the whole record?” “Better With Time” was one of the first experiences I had where I was receiving the melody. I was on a hike in Telluride, which is where I met my husband and where the song is set. I was writing the song as I was hiking. The chorus just kind of came to me, and I thought to myself that it was a great hook and a catchy melody. I hadn’t really written a melody until that point that I considered “hooky,” so I was like “Yes! I finally wrote a hook!” [laughs]. I thought it just needed to be the lead so people could hear a happy song.
PC: “Better With Time” has nearly 2 million streams on Spotify, thousands more on YouTube. What do you think it is about that song that has allowed it to connect with people the way that it has?
ESR: The lesson that I learned from my early songwriting teachers is something called the universality of detail. I took all of the little details of our marriage in the early years: the first house we shared together, that feeling of being newly in love, and I put it all into the song. The fact that it’s about having different shifts and my husband working nights and me working days and waiting for him to get home, in detail, it becomes a universal story. People will hear me sing that song and they’ll tell me that it reminds them of when they were first married and the first house that they bought. I think that the story if young love and figuring things out in the early days of marriage is something that a lot of people can relate to. It’s also hopeful. Culturally, I think people work so hard for the wedding day, but there’s so much more after that. There’s a real emphasis on the moment of becoming married, and then it’s “So what is the rest of this experience like?” Hopefully, there’s many years after that. It’s a song that was full of truth for me.
PC: “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors” comes off as a song that describes the struggles of a touring musician, and is followed by “White Hot Country Mess,” which provides a bit more of a humorous take on certain aspects of artistry. Why did you decide to have those songs back-to-back on the album?
ESR: It was exactly that reason. It was like they were the yin and yang of the experience. “White Hot Country Mess” is about moments that really push you out of your comfort zone and smashing any ego you might have. You show up to a venue that you think is going to be really great and really fancy that you’ve been wanting to play for years, and you get there and it’s just not [laughs]. I wanted to take that on in a funny way, because there’s so many moments that are funny. “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors” was one where I wanted to tell the gut-wrenching truth about how it feels when you’ve been out in the wind for too long. I know a lot of musicians who have been doing this the same way for more years than they’ve wanted to, and thought that they would have made it to a point in their career by this time where they wouldn’t have to do it this way, and it’s exhausting. People say that your life is amazing and that you’re living all of your dreams, and that’s true, but you’re also just passing through all of the time. I thought they’d be good to put back-to-back because they show both sides of the experience.
PC: “The Dress” is a very personal song about a real encounter you had in your life. Was that song hard for you to write, or was it a song that came to you quickly?
ESR: That song took about four years to finish. I knew I needed to take my time and that I wanted to be gentle with it. I didn’t want to try to get it out fast because I knew I wanted it to do exactly one thing; I really wanted it to explicitly capture the experienced and the months after I was assaulted. I just knew that I wanted to pinpoint the experience, and because my memories of the trauma were so wrapped up in many layers of story and many layers of processing it, I knew I needed to peel all of those layers back and that it would take time. It took me about four years to finish, and I finished it the year the #MeToo movement broke. I’d seen people talking about and sharing their stories and being really open and vulnerable about their experiences, and they gave me a different kind of courage that I could actually sing that song live. When I was writing it, I thought there was no way in hell I would sing it live or talk about it. I got more and more comfortable with the idea, and the courage of others was contagious. I was witnessing that there were many survivors telling their stories and getting a lot of support for those stories. I also think that there’s another thing that happens with survivors; when your story isn’t clear-cut or a “traditional rape;” when your story is complicated, it feels maybe like you’re less deserving of telling it. I was slipped something in my drink. I was drinking that night, but I wasn’t drunk, so it was confusing to me, and I wanted to capture that feeling of questioning if there was something I could have done to keep it from happening. I was in a gray area of blame. Even though we want to tell survivors that it’s not their fault, it’s kind of human nature to think that it’s kind of your fault with the complexity of blame and responsibility that you feel. I wanted to try and capture that, and it just took that long to write it.
PC: What has it been like for you to hear from survivors and how “The Dress” has touched them?
ESR: It has been the greatest gift of the record. I often get messages from people who have heard the song and say “Thank you so much for that song, it’s really amazing. It reminds me a lot of my story, and I’m so glad that you wrote it.” It’s been a huge gift to me to get those messages from people who’ve told me that I captured something that they needed to hear and that they feel less alone. They tell me that the song was healing and cathartic for them, and that’s why I wrote it. I definitely didn’t write it because I feel comfortable talking about it or re-living it,, I wanted it to be a service to other people. I wanted to use the experience for something good, and that’s been amazing.
PC: “The Dress” closes with the line “I’m still running from that storm.” Was there any catharsis that came with releasing the song and hearing from people about the way the song has affected them?
ESR: When I wrote that song, what I meant at the end of the song was that I was in a combination of denial and pretending it didn’t happen. I was very much still running. In the years since, I’ve been able to do a lot of healing in a lot of different ways. The ultimate healing has come from being able to redeem something shitty, sad and traumatizing, turn it around and use it as a tool to help other people. It allows me to take back my power. There’s an archetype called “the wounded healer,” which is someone that does their own healing and then helps others dto heal, and in that process, their own healing is amplified, and that is what that song is done for me.
PC: “Overalls” is one of our favorite songs on Traveling Mercies, and it sounds like a very personal song about real loss. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that song?
ESR: That song is the story of the father of a friend of mine. I met this friend working at a hospital in Tennessee. She was older than me and worked in the clinic where I was working, and we became friends. When I quit that job and went on the road pursuing music, I was still Facebook friends with her, and she posted about her dad and his last days. She said that they had brought him home from the hospital, and that he wanted to be buried in his overalls and that he wouldn’t want to sit through all six verses of “Amazing Grace.” She started sharing all of these things. Facebook is so full of noise and meaningless crap, and then there was this, and I was just crying when I was reading her post and I was feeling the truth of it all hitting me like an arrow straight to my heart. I didn’t tell her that I was writing a song about her dad because I didn’t want to tell her until I had written it and until I knew it was good, because I knew it needed to be good. I read his obituary and found out more about him. I altered a few little details; he’s not actually from Crossville, he’s from Cornersville, which is even smaller. There’s just too many syllables in Cornersville to make it work with that line [laughs]. That song has been another song that’s been a service song. When people hear the song, they’re hearing about the person that I’m singing about, but they’re also thinking about who that person is for them. They’re thinking about their granddad or their uncle, and I’ve had so many people come up to me after shows and tell me that they love that song and that it sounds just like someone they love. That song is so dear to me. I probably should have released it as a single. It hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the other songs on the record, but that’s okay. I know that song is going to be around forever. All I did was receive the story and translate it. It doesn’t really belong to me, it belongs to everybody.
PC: “Traveling Mercies” provides a strong close to its album. Why did you decide to name the album after that song?
ESR: I decided to name the album “Traveling Mercies” because every single song on the record was written during the time that we’ve been traveling the country RV. When I was writing that song, I didn’t think it would be the title track of the record, but once I wrote it, I knew it needed to be the title track. It just made sense.
PC: On many of the songs on Traveling Mercies, you dig deep into personal experiences and are, at points, very vulnerable in the lyrics and delivery of them. What is it about yourself that allows you to open up and put those feelings into words and release them?
ESR: I was taught early on that what matters most about songwriting is telling the truth and connecting with people. Vulnerability is much more powerful than beauty or perfection. I was also taught early on that there are many pretty voices in the world. Pretty voices are a dime a dozen, so what are the other things that I can bring to the table? I don’t have to worry about making my voice more pretty, that’s not the thing that matters most, and it’s not the most powerful thing that I do. The most powerful thing that I do is channel these stories, songs and energy. Being vulnerable up on stage and conveying that through my recorded music shows that I’m here, I’m human, and that it’s my truth. It’s like this electric current that passes into the audience; they hear it, and it’s almost like this energetic medicine that people don’t really know they wanted or needed, but they’re attracted to it. When you hear somebody telling their truth, it makes other people feel like they have permission to tell their truth and to live in their truth. It makes them feel okay about being human and being kind of messed up and broken, because we all are. It allows you to find the deeper human experience below the surface. I’ve studied and read books about vulnerability, and I just think when we open ourselves in that way, we say that we’ve been through these things, it’s our truth, that we love ourselves, and it’s okay to be human. It’s a magical thing to do, and I think I figured that out pretty early on. That’s one of the things that makes my performance special, so I work on that. I work on getting really comfortable, being really honest, and getting cozy in my own skin when I’m on stage, and that translates into a powerful performance experience.
PC: Traveling Mercies has been praised by many major outlets, including Rolling Stone, Billboard and American Songwriter. What has that recognition meant to you on such a personal album?
ESR: It’s so cool! When I released this album, I wanted it to grow legs, walk off and fulfill its mission. It’s like letting a kid go. This album had a creative force and life within it that wanted to exist outside of me, so I hoped that it would land and last. It was released in February, and all of the coverage at the end of 2019 showed me that it landed and that it lasted. Publicity campaigns in the music world usually last three months; there’s two or three singles, and then the album. At the end of that, nobody is really talking about it anymore.I wanted to make something that would last longer than three months, and it really has. I’m so proud of it, and I’m so excited about it. The biggest test for me is that I can still listen to it and love it. My standards for myself are punishingly high, and a lot of artists probably feel that way, so I’ve had to get learn to manage my perfectionism, so it doesn’t kill my creativity.
All of the coverage at the end of the year was amazing, and it was kind of funny. I was in Bulgaria visiting my husband’s family, and I was sick with a really bad respiratory infection, so I was just in my sweatpants halfway across the world, and I started to get these text messages from people asking me if I saw what Rolling Stone. I didn’t have a publicist on retainer, so I hadn’t [laughs]. It was really cool. I wasn’t pitched for these things, they just happened organically, so it was really special.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from the Traveling Mercies album after listening all the way through?
ESR: I hope that people feel inspired. I hope they feel comforted. I wanted to capture the whole range of human experience with this record. With some of the more gutting songs like “The Dress,” “Run” and “Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Floors,” I wanted to balance that with songs that were hopeful, because that’s as important of a truth as the hard stuff. We’re living in a time where there’s a lot of fear about what’s happening in our world. With our 24/7 news cycle, it’s very easy to think that everything is going badly, and I don’t believe that’s true. I wanted to balance out the dark and the light on the record, and I hope the people get that. I hope that they feel better in their own lives after they listen to it and better about being human.
PC: What are your plans for 2020?
ESR: Touring! I’m playing a bunch of shows, and I’m also writing again. I have no idea when I’ll get back in the studio, I just know that it will feel like I’m ready, and that feeling will come organically. I’ve learned to trust that. I’m leaning into a more structured writing practice for myself. Right now, my writing has been pretty haphazard [laughs]. I just right when I feel like it. I’m very creative; I have a million song starts and ideas in my iPhone, but I struggle to give myself the container for that creativity. I have all this energy, but I have to have a way to get it out. I set an hour long timer and say that I’m going to fuck around for an hour and write, and whatever is going to happen will happen. If something wants to come out, it will have the chance to. If nothing wants to come out, I’ll practice guitar for an hour and sing. My creative process is weird. If you look at a bright star, it can be hard to see it, but if you look right next to it, it’s easier, I feel like songs are the same way for me. The longer I look at it, I start to write from my head, not my heart and body, and I’ll start to overwrite it. It gets too intellectual. I think a drop of intellectuality is really important in my songwriting, but not too much, or else there’s not enough heart. I’m trying to give my songs a chance to come out this year, and whether they ever make it into a live show or on an album, I don’t care, I’m just trying to give them a comfortable place to come to when they’re ready!
*Images courtesy of Emily Scott Robinson*