A truly nurturing soul, Telluride, Colorado-based songwriter Emily Scott Robinson has mastered the art of using music as a means of healing. Heavily inspired by artists like Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, Robinson’s music is very much rooted in tradition and old-soul wisdom while also being firmly grounded in her own, present-day experiences.
Robinson wrote her first song in 2007; having seen Griffith live, she returned home and immediately put pen to paper. Since then, she’s found that writing doesn’t always come so easy. Despite that, she’s had no shortage of success in doing so.
She was named among the Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk Winners in 2016 (around the same time that she bought an RV to tour the country with her husband) and won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Troubadour Contest in 2019, all before signing with Oh Boy Records - a full circle moment - earlier this year.
Her debut on the label, American Siren, encompasses a collection of meaningful moments and imaginary characters, while she weaves bits and pieces of herself within it throughout. The album seamlessly ties folk, country and bluegrass together, on tracks like ‘Cheap Seats,’ about her first- and only-time seeing John Prine live, and ‘Old North State,’ a song about the love she has for her home state of North Carolina.
Other songs, such as ‘Hometown Hero’, a stunning number about her veteran cousin lost to suicide, is much more stripped back. It allows Robinson’s warble to carry all of the weight of emotion through such a heartfelt ballad.
Catching up with Robinson on the front porch of Oh Boy Records’ offices in Nashville, as the hustle and bustle of Americanafest brewed among us, we talk about American Siren, how she was introduced to John Prine, writing about trauma and the indelible parallels between music and social work.
Are there any lessons you’ve learnt from life on the road that you can apply to your life now, whether that be in a musical or general sense?
I learned how to keep things simple in terms of my possessions. I think being on the road that much really helps you to be present in the moment, because you’re in a new city and venue every day. It’s helped me to become radically present with wherever I am in my life at that point.
It’s allowed me to feel at home just about anywhere, whether it’s the Holiday Inn in Jones Beach, Delaware, or my actual home in Telluride, Colorado. It’s those things that make me feel taken care of and feel like a human, especially when I’m traveling that much.
When you first moved to Colorado, was it specifically for social work, or were you set on moving out there and making your career fit?
I really wanted to be in Colorado. I’m fluent in Spanish and have a social work background too, so I ended up finding a job in Telluride that specifically catered to those things. It was perfect. I had a job that was taking me to the mountains, which is exactly what I wanted.
Is there anything from your experience in social work that you’ve been able to draw upon or apply to your music?
Definitely! The thing I loved most about both social work and performing is the people. You have to love people to be successful at either. You need to be interested in understanding the nuances of people; their histories, their flaws, what makes them beautiful.
Audiences want to be seen and people find music deeply healing; that’s why so many people love John Prine. They can rattle off countless songs of his that have changed their lives. With social work, you’re doing the same thing - you’re trying to change people’s lives and help heal them.
Speaking of John Prine, you’ve experienced quite a full-circle moment; your song ‘Cheap Seats’ is about seeing him at the Ryman for the first time, and now you’re a part of his label. How does that feel?
The song is about seeing him at the Americana Music Awards two years ago. He and Bonnie Raitt played ‘Angel From Montgomery.’ It was the only time I got to see John play live. I was sitting in a floor seat at the Ryman, where they have a few obstructed view seats with columns in front of them. It was a half-price ticket to the awards, so I got all dressed up to go watch the show from my cheap seats.
It blows my mind to think that I’m now a part of Oh Boy Records. Many things have happened to me throughout my music career that have been very auspicious and meaningful. I’m somebody who sees a lot of meaning in the world and in my own life, so it’s crazy to think about this because I never could’ve dreamt this would be possible two years ago.
That’s really what ‘Cheap Seats’ is about. You can feel what your dream is, but you don’t necessarily know what steps you need to take or how it’s going to look once it plays out. It’s incredibly meaningful and symbolic for me. It feels like it was destined in some way.
Did you ever get the chance to meet John in person?
I didn’t, which really sucks. The great thing is that everybody who loved John, the entire Oh Boy family, tell stories about him all the time. So, I feel like John’s spirit is still here and very much alive. How beautiful it is to have brought so many songs into the world for people to remember you by after you’re gone. It always seemed like he was larger than life. Now he really is.
It's like you know him without ever actually having met him. What are some of your earliest memories of hearing his music?
My college boyfriend introduced me to John Prine when I was 19. I didn’t grow up listening to much music. It was mostly James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Nanci Griffith, shitty top 40 radio and lots of 90s and early 2000s music.
I first met my boyfriend at a summer camp located along the Green River in North Carolina. I remember singing ‘Paradise.’ In that moment, you take the song and make it yours; we felt like it was about the Green River, instead of in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.
We were talking the other night about some of John’s songs and Colin, who works for the label, said ‘Sometimes I don’t think you’re supposed to understand John’s lyrics, you’re just supposed to feel them.’
We talked specifically about the line in ‘Sam Stone’ that goes ‘little pitchers have big ears’, and he was like ‘I don’t know what that means, but I feel it’.
A song that I wanted to talk to you about is ‘The Dress’. I understand it deals with your experience of sexual assault while in college. I wanted to say thank you, I can imagine that’s a traumatizing experience to go through and recall via song, but I really appreciate you doing so.
I have close family members who’ve suffered through similar experiences and know first-hand how isolated it can make them feel, so thank you for having the strength to share your story as a way of letting other victims know they’re not alone.
I became a social worker after that happened to me, and I worked with other sexual assault survivors. I learnt then about secondary trauma, which is when somebody you love goes through something very traumatic, it’s also felt by their family, friends and other loved ones around them. That reverberated through my family as well.
I just wanted to honor that, because when a person you love is victimized, put in danger and violated in that way, it’s traumatic for anybody who loves them. It lives with you and changes you.
I’m actually getting ready to lead a class at a songwriting camp in Oregon about healing ways to write about your trauma. Writing about that experience and ‘The Dress’ took me years, but it has been the most healing experience for me.
As a whole, what do you hope listeners take away from American Siren?
I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about how in order to be fully alive, you always need to be willing to ask the deeper questions about life.
We were talking about how some people find a job, get married, have kids and settle down somewhere. When they do, they often stop asking those deeper questions because they’re comfortable.
Nanci Griffith actually talks about this on her live record. It’s on One Fair Summer Evening, during her intro to ‘The Wing And The Wheel - Live (1988 Anderson Fair)’. She says something about how, as she watches her friends age, she’s seen that many of them became complacent. By complacent, I do think she means they stop asking the deeper questions.
I think American Siren is about exploring our shadows, asking those deeper questions, and the will to change and transform throughout life. There are many characters on this record that are on the cusp of transformation.
I hope the album makes people ask those deeper questions and shake things up when they’re not working. Be brave.
If you could go back in time, when you were first hitting the road in your RV, what advice would you give to yourself?
I feel like I’ve been fairly centered and grounded as I’ve gone through the first five years of my music career. But, I would tell myself that you’re not going to have to change to be successful.
Success comes from finding the deepest and truest version of who you are and getting really comfortable in that. You’re going to go inward to learn more and more about yourself, thus radiating more of who you are in the process.
You’re not going to add layers, you’re going to take them off and be stronger, more powerful and more you than you’ve ever been.
Emily Scott Robinson’s album, American Siren, will be available Oct. 28 via Oh Boy Records.
Listen to Emily detailing the story behind her new single 'Let 'Em Burn' below.
Emily Scott Robinson is the featured artist on Holler's New Country Artists Playlist, subscribe and listen below!