Cindy Emch On Chosen Family, The Importance of Queer Stories, and Her New Album, “The Chaser”
If queer country is a garden, Cindy Emch is a sunflower: tall and proud, open and friendly. She’s easy with a laugh, and the laugh is as big as her presence.
I first met her in my own home, in 2016, when I hosted a songwriting workshop with Peter Case. She struck me then as a good writer who was serious about it, and in fact, she’d have her first album, “The Stars Fall Shooting Into Twangville,” out within a year. Of course she’s hardly the only queer country artist in the Bay Area, but between her albums, performances with her band, The Secret Emchy Society, the shows she produces, her DJ stints on Gimme Country, her contributions to this here publication (including serving as its original Editor-In-Chief), and her frequent international tours (Canada counts!), Emch feels like the center of the cyclone.
Emch’s brand of raw, rockin’ outlaw country is showcased on her third album, “The Chaser,” released on May 15th. I talked with her at home early in the lockdown, four years ago or yesterday, not quite sure. I wanted to take a deep dive into the first two singles off that album (there have since been two more), and get her thoughts on the process of making it.
As expected, she was generous, openhearted, and funny. Take a listen:
DHG: So how are you?
CE: I’m good. I was just watching the Hunky Jesus show. That’s the benefit for the San Francisco queer nightlife workers that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence do. So I’ve always wanted to watch that on Easter. So because it was remote, I got to this year. It was pretty fun.
DHG: Oh yeah, that’s cool. Some pretty good talent there?
CE: It’s a definite diverse range of experience.
DHG: So how are you feeling with…this stuff going on?
CE: Oh, I’m pretty good. I mean, it’s all a crazy time with everyone sheltering in place and whatnot, but in a way, I’m actually busier than I was before. So that’s strange and surreal, to be so busy while everything’s going on. But it’s good. I’ve had a bunch of live streams that have done pretty well. The one I just did for The Boot is now up to like 2,300 views. So that’s kind of awesome. And I’ve just been playing live streams and working the day job and doing all the other things to help get the record out that you do when your record’s coming out.
DHG: Right. So you’ve got a record coming out! Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about that?
CE: Yeah, so my record, “The Chaser,” is coming out on May 15th, and a couple of singles have already dropped from it, which have been doing pretty well, which is excellent. I didn’t quite realize when I was writing the record that a bunch of the songs were gonna end up being a bit prophetic and perfect for the time we’re in now.
DHG: Let’s get into that in a minute.So your record’s going to be dropping on May 15th, and who produced it?
CE: Tolan McNeil produced it. He’s a guitarist and a producer from up in Victoria, British Columbia, and he’s produced songs for Neko Case and albums for Carolyn Mark and a whole bunch of other bands that are more well known in Canada than in the States. But, he’s got a pretty impressive roster, like indie and Americana or Canadacana bands up there. I’ve worked with him before on my first record and I thought he did an amazing job, and I figured why mess with perfection. So I wanted to go with him again. Plus he’s usually my lead guitar player for recording when we’re ever in the same city. So I was pretty excited about having him on it as the guitarist as well as the producer.
DHG: So he played lead on it – who else played on the record?
CE: Mya Byrne also played on it – she did mandolin and lap steel. And then my normal drummer Michele Kappel and bassist Hans Winold are on the album as well.
DHG: And together you are The Secret Emchy Society.
CE: We are, although I was recently sending a message out to all of the bandmates that exist in all the different cities, and I think of the Secret Emchy Society as kind of the key players that I have in Portland and Victoria and Vancouver and Oakland and Seattle. We’re tapped out at, like, 20 people. [Laughs.]
DHG: So it’s an international conspiracy.
CE: It’s an international conspiracy and it’s a living document, as they say. The band changes depending on what town we’re in. But, in the last couple of years, the Oakland crew has been able to tour a little bit more. So it’s been nice to have that consistency of taking those charmers on the road.
DHG: Yeah. You guys played at the Country Queer show up here in Sonoma. That was very cool. And you played a lot of songs from the record, so that’s cool, too.
CE: Yeah, that was fun.
DHG: So talk to me a little bit about why you made the record and what it is that you’re trying to say. Where are you coming from on this record?
CE: What am I chasing? [Laughs.] Well, I started writing the record, actually, while we were recording the first one. So while we were recording “Twangville” up in Victoria, some of the ideas for songs for this album started to happen and I got them written. But the one consistent thing about the songs I write is, I feel like they are a lot about chosen family and, like, writing love songs to friends and to specific moments. And my first album, “The Stars Fall Shooting Into Twangville,” was a lot about loss and grief, because I had lost both my parental in-laws and my sister-in-law in the course of making that record. And so there was a lot of loss and grief and coming to terms with that.
And I also had a day job that I wasn’t very happy in and I was trying to figure out how to keep making music while I had a job where I worked like 60 to 80 hours a week, plus we were doing a lot of caregiving for my wife’s family, so that album had a lot of sadness in it. And while it was still about chosen family, it was also a lot about change and transition. And I feel like this album is much more – I got laid off, so I had time to go to Oregon and I had time to really invest in music in the way that I wanted to, and time to realize what it was I wanted in life.
And a lot of what that is, is more intentional time with chosen family. It’s intentional time dedicated to my craft and to experiences. One of the things I really like to do when I’m writing music is I like to create moments that bring the listener into it with me. So it’s almost like through the song, you can be in that bar with me at four in the morning or you can feel that same welcoming embrace in the chosen family that I feel with my friends that I see when I’m traveling. A lot of my closest friends don’t live in Oakland. I have a lot of people scattered all over that I consider my family and dearest to my heart. And so there’s always a lot of longing to be somewhere else because that’s where my people are. And, it’s actually fascinating while we’ve all been sheltered in place because now I’m on Zoom calls with people in other countries all the time and it feels like they actually do live here now. So that’s kind of been really interesting and fulfilling in a different sort of way.
DHG: We all live in cyberspace now.
CE: I know, it’s surreal. But I think the album is really about acknowledging and embracing your own definition of family and connection and loving people without conditions, no strings attached. You’re just, like, I choose you, you’re one of my people and that’s just what it is. And also in the landscape of chasing your dreams – your people support you in searching after what’s going to make you happy. And that’s a big part of it.
DHG: Yeah, I mean, it seems to me like, apart from blood, the one thing about family – as good a definition as any – is the people that are going to be there when the shit hits the fan, right? Come hell or high water, they’re going to put aside the quibbles that they have with you and their judgments about you, and they’re just gonna lift you up. So, it’s interesting because as you well know, we are a queer-oriented publication and, aside from being a queer artist, it seems like the perspective that you’re bringing here on this record, might resonate particularly well with a lot of queer people, because sometimes their blood family has chosen not to be there for them when times got dark, or there have been some situations where they felt unwelcome or sometimes maybe even abused. So chosen family, I think, is resonant for anybody that had a difficult time with their original family. So, this seems like it might resonate in particular with with our readers.
CE: And I think, too, that even with a bio family or with chosen family, none of it’s still gonna ever be perfect and you’re often still chasing down people’s love, depending on how the relationships work out and that’s part of what the album is really about, too. It’s not always perfect, but if you can just find room to love each other, then it really helps make life a better place. And that – I mean I’m a queer artist – that comes specifically from my own experience, seeking out and choosing family as well as, bio family and everything else. My parents and brother, siblings and cousins all live almost 2,500 miles away from me. So you have to create your own support network when you’re not near your family like that, geographically.
DHG: So let me ask a little bit about the making of the record. I know very well that no big project ever got made without things taking some kind of unexpected turn along the way. Are there any good or bad or just plain cool stories that you have about the making of the record?
CE: Well, we recorded it in my basement, so I spent the entire holiday season of, I think it was 2017, basically gutting my music room and repainting it, and putting up soundproofing in specific places so the drums wouldn’t echo too hard and stuff like that. So I spent about a month with a couple of friends and Charlotte, my wife, redoing the whole room that I used for band practice downstairs. And I flew Tolan down from Victoria, that’s part of his package of payment for producing the album. And he stayed with us for 10 or 14 days, and worked on producing the record. And we had some really great times and we did some shows.
I won’t say that anything too crazy happened. We did have a computer kind of shit the bed on us one time. And so, when he took it all back to Victoria, there was a lot of file reconstruction he had to do, which created some delays for us, and getting the mastering and the mix done, but nothing too crazy. The first album I remember I had made a scorecard of how many cartons of cigarettes were smoked, how many bottles of bourbon, et cetera. And this one I actually felt, because we were here in my house, we kept it pretty reasonable. There was, one bottle of bourbon, and a couple bottles of wine…
CE: We kept it real. And we knew we had a limited timeframe to get all the parts we wanted. So we just kind of soldiered forward and were very adult about it, although I won’t say that it was always sober, but it was always very fun.
DHG: I think that’s actually a really cool story. Usually you hear either a band goes to the producer’s studio, or they both go to some other studio, but it’s not often that you hear of the producer coming to the artist’s studio. That’s kind of a hip story.
CE: Well, I knew I couldn’t afford to get the whole band up to Victoria –
DHG: There you go. Cheaper to get the producer.
CE: – or find us a place to stay. So it was just like, well, I have a basement, so let’s do something with it, you know?
DHG: So you’ve released a couple of singles by now. Why don’t you start by just telling us what they’re called and where we can find them.
CE: So the two singles that have been released, the first one was “Everything Was Fine,” which I wrote about the wildfires and touring in that [the fires] for a couple of years up and down the West Coast. And the second one is called “Dance Like the World is Ending,” and they’re both available, primarily on BandCamp because they are the most fair to musicians in terms of how you get paid. But they’re on all the platforms. We couldn’t even name them all because that’s how Internet music distribution works.
DHG: Let me start by asking you just a little bit about “Everything Was Fine.” So this is a rollicking road song, right? It barrels along at a pretty good clip. I think it goes above the speed limit actually. And it’s got a lot of allusions to what seems like a specific road trip. Is there a story behind that?
CE: So I wrote it over the course of two years, actually, and it’s got about five different tours wrapped up into one song. There was a period of time, from 2016 through 2018, where I was driving up and down I-5 a whole bunch to go do shows in LA and Santa Cruz and Portland and Seattle and Victoria and Vancouver. So it was like [sing-song] up and down and up and down. And, the time of year where it was easiest to book the shows and I knew I didn’t have to worry about snow on any of the roads or the pass getting closed, was primarily August and September and October, which during those years happened to be the worst wildfires the West Coast had seen in a long time.
So, all of those things [in the song] are things that happened to me while I was driving on those tours. And most of the driving was actually by myself, which…there’s a certain kind of lonely that can hit you when you’re driving on your hour eight by yourself. And even if you’re going to roll into Portland and do a show and your friends are going to be there and that’s awesome, there’s still a lot of isolation – you get up at 6:00 AM, you’re by yourself, you’re on the road. The only people that see you for the next eight hours are other drivers who happened to look over or people at the fast food joints or the gas stations where you’re stopping.
So the chorus, which talks about “the lonely hits your stomach like it’s rotgut wine,” really came from how much your brain can kind of turn on itself after that much time alone. And the hilarious texts that I would start sending to my other friends who were also touring musicians, cause I felt like people get it, like we’re all in the same boat of driving around all by ourselves to then [faux-animated] put on a show for lots of people! But you’re still kind of apart, and then afterwards you’re all sweaty and tired and it’s all hectic and it’s like…it’s really hard to make real connections with people sometimes when you’re on the road like that. And, so that’s really what that song is about.
But there were points where there was a fire five feet from the road I was driving on, that was just kind of waiting to jump to the median. And it was like, “Okay, just keep going.” Hopefully we don’t get stuck in some traffic while the fire’s jumping over. And that did happen once. I was stuck. I was actually in the car with Carolyn Mark and another friend of ours and we were going to go to a show in Hollister around the same time. And we watched a fire truck drive into a field to put out a fire that was starting and then the fire came closer to the road, and then it jumped the road we were on, then we were surrounded by fire and just kind of hoping it didn’t get out of control as we were trying to drive out of it. So yeah.
DHG: Okay. So let’s get into “Dance Like the World is Ending.” So that’s a pretty heavy idea, right? And you clearly came up with that in the pre-plague days. What gave you that idea?
CE: It came up in October of 2017. The band went up to Reno to do a show at Jub Jub’s [a Reno venue]. And then we decided, at the urging of our bass player who was friends with this bar owner up in Doyle, to go do a second show of the night there. Cause he was having a birthday party. It was gonna run really late. And I was like, really? Cause it’s already 10 o’clock. So everyone’s, “Come on, let’s do it!” So we all got rowdy and we drove the 40 minutes up to Doyle to go to the Buck Inn and do a birthday show for Steve Heck. And the revelry lasted far longer than bar hours. So, we all passed out at some point for a couple of hours.
Then at like 7:00 AM I go back to the bar because that’s the only place to get coffee in town. And a lot of folks hadn’t slept, and we’re right back there, and the jukebox was kind of amazing. It was all like, Bay Area Burning Man folks who’d come up for his birthday, and desert rats, and the artists that live up there. And we basically had stocked the jukebox full of really, really good music like Iggy pop and Tom Waits and Nick Cave and Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams. There was so much good music playing on it.
And then at one point I just turned and looked, and my accordion player Roachie and Steve were dancing, and there’s this door behind them that’s open and the bar is basically empty. It looks super desolate ’cause – this bar has been there since the 1930s and it’s like a total proper roadhouse bar. It’s great. And some of the posters on the walls, I swear were a hundred years old. They were just dancing around to, I don’t even remember what song it was. And I just felt like, this is the apocalypse of my dreams. I felt like, we could have been at the very end of the world and they were just dancing like all they had, all we had for each other was love and joy and it wasn’t, like, hippy dippy dancing. It was kind of rock and roll. Think Lou Reed songs at six in the morning at CBGBs or something. It was just awesome. And there wasn’t a care in the world and it really felt like this moment where it could have been the end of the world, but we all have each other and it’s all okay. And that’s where the song was born.
DHG: So when you saw these guys, that phrase popped into your head, that actual hook popped into your head?
CE: Yeah. That popped into my head and I did actually pull out my phone and videotape them dancing.
DHG: I saw some video footage. Was that –
CE: Yeah, that’s from that day.
DHG: That’s fantastic footage. I love that.
[A digression from the music, but an amusing one:] So, I’m not sure if I actually met him or not, but Steve Heck was part of a scene that I was on the edge of in the mid-80s. Steve had a warehouse in Oakland that was stacked high with pianos and he’d have parties there. I was at at least one party there, and I knew a bunch of people that were in that scene.I don’t remember if I actually met Steve, but when I saw him in the video, he looked pretty familiar.
CE: Yeah. That’s actually why he moved out to Doyle, was because Oakland real estate got too crazy. And so he bought a space up there that was big enough for him to do his piano sculptures. And then when he got there, he found out the main bar in town was closing and that it was actually super cheap to acquire it. And he was like, well, the only reason I came to this town instead of another one was so that I could have a bar to go to. So he ended up buying the bar.
DHG: That’s a great story.
CE: So he’d have a place to go drinking.
DHG: So let’s get back to “Dance Like the World is Ending.” Now that we are in the times that we’re in, and I’m not saying the world is ending – nobody knows what the next chapter will be – but it sometimes can feel pretty fucking apocalyptic right now. So are you finding that that song seems to have particular resonance for you or for audiences right now?
CE: Well, I hadn’t planned for it to be the second single at all. We had a couple of other songs that were on there. And what was happening is, I’ve been doing an open mic every week that Carolyn [Mark] hosts that I usually do whenever I’m up in Victoria. And so that’s been going on for a little over a month now. And every time I asked friends privately, “Is there anything you specifically want to hear?” They requested that song. And then I would play the song and the people that were watching it would get really excited and be like, “Oh my God, it made me tear up. Oh my God, that’s so powerful. I really needed to hear it.” And so I just kept getting this reaction to it.
I don’t want to feel like I’m exploiting a moment. I like singing it right now because it gives me some comfort, but I don’t want to be creepy, like use a plague to market a product.That doesn’t feel right. But then I had so many people that were asking for it and really wanted to hear it, and it seemed like it was helping people feel like there was a way to come together through song. And so, it just felt like, okay, this feels like something that other people want, and so I’m not going to not share it.
DHG: Well, you’re putting a song out there that has particular resonance for the moment and that’s a very valid thing to do as an artist. So what’s the reaction been like so far for the singles? How’s that going?
CE: They’ve been getting a decent amount of attention. There’s been some really nice press. Definitely I was super honored that, based on the strength of the single they heard, that The Boot wanted me to come do that live stream for them last week. I’ve felt pretty honored that some places that I really respect online have given me, time and space on their articles, which is great. This interview included. I just feel really honored by the attention that people have been giving the singles and the record. So that’s been pretty great. The number of streams on Spotify and Pandora has been going up every week. I pay attention to that and I’m like, “Oh, okay, that’s awesome.” And the BandCamp streams go up, and people have been adding it to playlists. I don’t know if the general public realizes what a big deal it is when they add your song to a playlist, but it really does help get the word out, and it’s kinda like, “word of mouth” and “it takes a village” and all of that, matters so much more, especially these days, than I think people realize.
DHG:I guess shared playlists are the new radio in terms of discovery, right? [Note: I am unspeakably old.]
CE: Yeah, for sure.
DHG:So the world right now is essentially under a shelter in place order, more or less. So, obviously, venues are closed, radio stations are not doing any in persons. I would imagine. The typical ways of promoting the record, are suddenly not available to you. So how have your plans changed for promoting the record?
CE: Well, I mean I had a whole…I was going to go to South by Southwest. I had shows booked for the National Queer Arts festival. I had a huge album premiere party planned that was going to be a bunch of drag artists of every gender.
And that was going to be at El Rio, which is the best gay bar in the world. And it was going to be different drag artists performing my songs. It was going to be a two part show: the first part was going to be everyone interpreting classic country songs. The second half was going to be them performing the album with this organization called Jerk Church leading everyone in a singalong of “Dance Like the World is Ending” at the very end. I was far into the planning and I had all the artists booked and we were figuring out the order… I mean it was just going to be so cool.
And now, in terms of all of the shows that got canceled, I’m trying to figure out for the ones that I was kind of running the show on, that I was the producer of, I’m trying to figure out if there’s an online option. I’m also, just given this time, as I’m sure a lot of us are, I’m really tired. Everything feels like it takes so much more effort. So I’m trying to honor that as well. So that’s what happened to all that, and that sucks. But it’s more important that we all stay as safe as we can, and it certainly sucks for me less than for a lot of other people. So I’m keeping that in mind as well. But, I’ve been lucky enough that the PR company I’m working with, Sweetheart PR, has been able to help me navigate the waters of booking some live streaming shows and keeping my foot in the performance waters and not just hiding under the blanket and reading bad vampire fiction.
DHG: And that’s fine, too.
CE: Yeah. It’s a balance for sure.
DHG: Is there anything else that you want to say to our audience in particular?
CE: Well, I just think it’s really important that we keep coming together and supporting each other and supporting independent and queer artists and representing as much as we can. I know that a lot of the content of my songs isn’t explicitly political or isn’t explicitly queer. I mean, obviously I use my wife, I use she pronouns and everything because I’m not gonna be closeted about my marriage or my life or anything. But I feel like we’re at a time now where we’re actually allowed to be just ourselves in our queerness. Our art is political just in existing. And there’s a really beautiful way that I keep seeing the queer community still coming together to promote each other’s stories and lives, because even if we’re not talking about oppressive movements, there is a way that we still find power and empathy and community in connecting around the art that we’re all making. And then the community that we are a part of as human beings, queer human beings who have a very unique walk in the world, even when we’re not singing about oppression.
So, I just wanna say that we’re all in this together and I really appreciate people being supportive of each other in all the ways that we can figure out, whether that’s wearing a Country Queer hat while you’re doing a live stream, like I saw James from Paisley fields doing recently, or just making sure that we’re still putting it out there and being connected to each other. On Twitter, on Instagram – it all still really matters. And I was super moved by the post you made, I think it was a couple of weeks ago now where you were saying that you weren’t sure what the future of Country Queer was going to be, given the pandemic and everything else, and the way people responded back and reached out to you.
That to me is a huge example of why it still matters to talk about the identity politics of our art; and why it still matters to have queer publications and queer film festivals and everything else. Because we do still need that ability to be seen, and to come together and to know that we’re not invisible. I think in the world, even if everybody loves queers in pop culture now, it’s still not that easy to always walk in the world as one of our people. So I think it’s great when we can come together, in whatever manifestation that takes.
DHG: Great. Thank you so much.
CE: Thank you!