By Alan Richard
Cindy Emch and her band are making a new album, and everyone’s invited to the party.
The Secret Emchy Society,as the editor in chief of Country Queer calls her ever-changing group performing her original songs has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo for her new album, The Chaser, to be released later this year.
“I really appreciate the people who love my music and my friends and families. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to get the first crack,” she said. “I love the idea of bringing people together around music and art and experience.”
Once described by Under the Basement as the musical child of Bill Monroe and Sid Vicious, the crowdfunding campaign for Emch was also recently covered in No Depression.
The new album is produced by Canadian guitarist Tolan McNeil, who has worked as Neko Case’s touring guitarist, among other gigs. Emch (or “Emchy” to friends) met McNeil through her friend, Canadian alt-country singer Carolyn Mark. “He’s a fuckin’ genius. One of the smartest songwriters and guitar players I’ve ever met,” Emch said.
McNeil was between working studios when the project came together, so Emch brought him to Oakland, California, where she has lived for years. They recorded in her basement, normally a rehearsal room. The space seems to give her album a haunting, dense feel, even when songs are sprinkled with humor and offbeat alt-country music.
“Anybody is welcome to come and enjoy queer country music,” Emch said. “I always love it when I see the older straight couple dancing during my set. I’m making this music for the community, but also I’m making it for the larger country music community.”
Lots of “queer folks who like country music—so many of us do come from rural backgrounds and feel like we can’t stay because it’s not safe,” Emch said. “It’s changing, with organizations like Queer Appalachia, but for so many of us, it just didn’t feel healthy to stay where we were. So you leave.”
Emch moved to the Bay Area in 1995, mostly living in east Oakland, but she comes by her love for country music honestly, originally hailing from Howell, Michigan. She remembers the place as a farm town, although it’s become more of a “strip-mall town,” she said.
“We spent a lot of the summers in the Upper Peninsula with my grandparents,” Emch said. “All I remember is running through a lot of corn fields as a kid, and sometimes helping bale hay and brush down the horses at my friend’s farm.”
“I was a pretty artsy kid, and I was really into a funny combination of Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen and Prince and Black Flag,” she said. Her friends were “punk rockers and dancers, but I didn’t feel safe or comfortable to be just be me.”
A community radio station in her hometown was technically an “adult contemporary station,” but played much of the broad spectrum of pop music of the day. “Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle … along with Madonna,” she said. “I didn’t realize that was what country music was.”
She was turned off by much of the 1980s “super-pop, overproduced” music that passed for country.” But that’s what “the guys in their trucks in my town who picked on us” listened to, she said.
She went off to Michigan State University and began her own show on the student radio station, leaning more alternative than country. Emch’s show featured an eclectic mix of Neil Young, John Zorn, Kurt Weill, and Leonard Cohen.
Then she met another deejay, a woman with an alt-country show just before her own. “She played Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris. I said wait, I love this music,” Emch said. “She helped me see how broad the spectrum of country music should be.”
After a short detour to Phoenix for a job in publishing, Emch returned to Oakland and vicinity, full of “queers and punk rockers and artsy folks” as she puts it. Even with current gentrification in Oakland, “there’s a solid community trying to hold down the artsy weirdo fort,” she said.
Back then, Emch’s wife (now of 22 years!) loved X and The Knitters (the country-punk side project that featured X’s John Doe, alt-country pioneer Dave Alvin, and others). So when Emch and friends decided to start a band, they found themselves drawn to roots sounds of country, bluegrass and related genres.
“But this music…it feels like going home,” she said. “It reminds me of when you hung out with your friends at farm parties, or at the lake all day – going down old dirty roads to pick up my friends. I miss that, and when I hear country music, it reminds me of that, it reminds me of home.”
Emch had several bands before the Secret Emchy Society, including Vagabondage–an “accordion folk-punk kind of band” she called it.
Her band Rhubarb Whiskey was more influenced by country and bluegrass and featured accordion and fiddle. “We’d listen to lots of The Corn Sisters and old Buck Owens records” as inspiration, Emch said.
She describes the Secret Emchy Society as a “combination of classic cowboy songs with a dash of Outlaw Country thrown in.” The band likes “to throw down,” but there’s also a cowboy-song element that includes slow waltzes.
“Maybe it’s outlaw-cowboy country,” Emch said.
The new record emerges
A preview of the forthcoming record reveals that the title cut “The Chaser,” is indeed a country waltz. But Emch describes New Orleans as her second spiritual home, and that influence shows on many of the songs here: at once haunted and rustic, wistful, rough-hewn and jubilant.
In writing the title track, Emch recalled having spoken to her wife about how she’d tended to chase friends in life and support others in their pursuits—spoken word, filmmaking, and more: “I’ve always been a chaser, no matter where I go. … The second drink that starts the show.”
“I’m actually, at this point in my life, really invested in not being the backstage person… but in chasing my own dreams,” she said. “I’m trying to put on my own oxygen mask first.”
One of the new album’s best songs, “Howlin’ Sober at the Moon,” was borne of conflict. Emch had a friend coming to visit from New York who called her too much to handle. She sings:
“I’m a little intense, I’ll give you that, never going the right way
I got regrets, I’ll give you that, never know what I should say
But all these voices in my head, of the living and the dead
They’re howling sober at the moon, and I hope I see you soon“– “Howlin’ Sober at the Moon,” The Chaser
Memorable, and laden with mandolin and harmonica, “Howlin’” became “a love song to friendship. We’re all a little broken, so can we just love each other as we are, in the messy ways that we are, as we exist?,” Emch asked.
Another new track, the jumpy lead-off song, “Everything Was Fine,” came to Emch while on tour, driving great distances from Los Angeles to British Columbia and back. “The lonely hits your stomach like it’s rot gut wine,” she sings, remembering driving through vast areas of California blighted by wildfires, suddenly becoming a “desolate wasteland.”
“Grackle,” a melancholy mid-tempo number, was the first song written for The Chaser. “I was married to a man a long time ago. I was just too gay to be married to him … but he also was my absolute best friend, and I loved him so dearly. That’s a super-hard place, when you love someone so much, but you know leaving is the right thing to do.”
The album’s closing number, “Dance ‘til the World is Ending,” is about Emch’s “favorite dive bar, The Buck Inn in Doyle, California,” where she’ll play on March 14. “It’s the kind of place where the bar just stays open all night, (with) adorable drunk people dancing with each other.”
“Dance like the world is ending,” Emch sings, “ending in a song.”
The new album is a chance for country and roots music fans to support inclusive country music, Emch said.
“It’s just about making songs that are brutally honest and being as authentic as I can be, and just being myself out in the world,” she said. “I always try to be inclusive of other queer or country or folk music or trans or people of color – anywhere or that mainstream culture or the country music industry has been unwilling to shine a light on people.”
Emch also hosts her own web-based radio show, Emchy’s Outlaw Americana on Gimme Country, on which she celebrates the true diversity of country.
“I can have this show where I play super-intersectional country and folk music,” she said, “not all just white dudes. It’s music I love that’s made by all different kinds of people. I absolutely play Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton,” but also Amythyst Kiah and Karen and the Sorrows, and Pink Anderson, and Lavender Country.
“I’m a femme white queer walking around in the world, and there is some privilege” that comes with her place in society, she said. “I can kind of walk in a lot of different spaces, and if I can use any of that to shine a lot on the music of other people… I need to be a part of fixing it in any ways that I can… while still making my own records.”
“I’m passionate and excited about that.”