Profile: Jackson Emmer, Singer & Songwriter
His daily practices, processes, and thoughts about art and life.
Jackson Emmer is a storyteller who sings and writes songs. His music is authentic country with a modern twist. His style is intimate yet irreverent, playful yet provocative. Up until a few weeks ago, he lived in Asheville with his wife and dog. He still lives with them but now they’re in Carbondale, CO.
What is your art? What do you make? I’m a songwriter, composer, and visual artist. Mostly, I make music.
How long have you been doing it? Sixteen years total, professionally for ten years.
Is it your full-time gig? Yes and no. I always have a couple lean months each year, and I take on part time work to supplement. For the most part though, it’s a full-time operation. I still can’t believe it.
How did you get started? I started playing guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. I was 15, had never heard music like that, and was immediately hooked. Right after I graduated high school, I got a job playing guitar in the “house band” for an open mic night at a bar in Colorado. People would sign up to perform at open mic, and we’d accompany them as they played their songs. I had to learn those songs on stage, in front of an audience, and try to make the leader sound good — it was a cool first gig.
Do you have a morning practice? Yes. I drink water, walk the dog, make coffee, have a light breakfast and begin writing. My routine changes depending on whether I’m at home or on tour, but not significantly. When I’m traveling I prefer to write as early as possible, then have a longer breakfast, explore a town, and talk to strangers.
What, if any, is your daily routine? My routine is no routine. I try to prioritize the most urgent and difficult things and take care of them before lunch. I walk myself and the dog every couple hours. I give the muse my undivided attention for some portion of the day. I give the same undivided attention to my family for some of the day too. But, these are loose guidelines. Mostly, I just get out of bed and try to be better than I was yesterday.
Evening ritual? Please describe: I like to turn the screens off an hour or two before going to bed. This doesn’t always happen but I try. I’ll walk the dog, again, and catch up with my wife. While on tour I like to read books after the show or sit outside in the dark just enjoying the quiet.
If inspiration strikes, I never walk away from it, but I always write regardless. I heard a quote recently that feels true: “The muse likes to find you working.”
Why did you choose singing/songwriting? I’ve been a writer since I was 10 or 12. I just loved books, comics, stories, and the word. A couple years after that I found music and writing songs seemed like a natural next step. It’s endlessly fun and fascinating. Songs are primal and necessary, they’ve been around as long as humankind. Trying to write a good one feels like a timeless pursuit. The practice is ancient but never gets old.
What do you love most about songwriting? The act of writing is it’s own reward. Simply sitting down, getting emotions on the page, hanging them on a melody, and solving the “puzzle” of how every aspect of lyric and melody must fit together- I love everything about that work. But a song isn’t really finished until someone hears it.
When I perform my songs for people and the show is great, both performer and audience feel a sense of connection through song. Songs have been around as long as people and they trigger our emotions in a primal way. I love being a part of that.
What do you want to say to the world with your music? Whenever you make art you’re inviting people to have feelings about the things you make but you can’t control how they feel about it. Some people get my music and some don’t. On certain songs I may aim to invoke playfulness, nostalgia, hope, or joy- but intent doesn’t always translate. That’s the beauty of this whole thing. I can say what I mean all day long but every listener will inevitably perceive and color my work through their own lens.
How do you share your work? Live performances, Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp, YouTube, my website, etc. When a song is brand new I’ll play it for a few close friends and other writers just to gauge their response before adding it to my live set.
I used to not care how many people heard my music but I care now. Admitting this feels like its own kind of risk. Does wanting more from my art than the simple act of creating it automatically cheapen the work and make me greedy? I don’t think so. I want a bigger audience. I want my music to connect with more people.
What’s hardest for you about sharing your work? Live, it’s no problem. I just go for it — I’ll play songs on stage that I wrote that morning. But when it comes to making records, I’m a perfectionist. Oddly enough this trait is new for me.
I like to share my music as quickly as possible. I used to record the first version of a song I’d finish, then just put it on a record without much editing. Now I know better. I have to resist the urge to share my work immediately, give it time to gestate, and make revisions to both the composition and the recording. Listening to my inner perfectionist has made my work better but it’s not easy.
What makes it easier? The whole process is a cycle. Create, share, revise, share, finalize, share, repeat. The more I go through the cycle, the easier it gets.
How do you deal with the ebbs and flows of creativity? I don’t worry about it. Ups and downs are normal.
Where do you turn for inspiration and/or how do you stay inspired? I listen to music every day. And by listen, I mean really listen. I’ll listen with intent, parse out how each song is constructed, and how the recordings are put together. I listen for the various melodies each instrument is playing, how the voice leading works, the narratives, the textures. This way of consuming music typically gets me excited about making more work.
I also try to keep tabs on what my friends are creating — whatever their artistic output is, I get into it and try to learn their catalog/portfolio. There’s a staggering amount of great art out there. Once you look around, it’s impossible to not be inspired.
What do you do when life gets hard (to make it less hard)? I have a few close friends and family I’ll talk things out with.
What makes you laugh out loud? Sassy people.
What do you hold as true? Death, taxes, and Dan Reeder.
Best advice ever received? “Don’t play small.” — Brooksie Wells (who heard it from someone else).
Worst advice? I don’t remember. I try not to retain bad advice.
Your advice? Surround yourself with people who inspire you. And, make contracts, keep records, and receipts. If creating is your business, you must treat it like one.
Do you wait for inspiration or start regardless? If inspiration strikes I never walk away from it, but I always write regardless. I heard a quote recently that feels true: “The muse likes to find you working.” I’ll often write for about 30 minutes before I really hit my stride, and then I’m unstoppable for the next 90 minutes or so… and then it’s time to walk the dog.
Where do you get your ideas? Strangers, friends, emotions, stories. Anything I find tugging on my heart. I meet a lot of new people while traveling, and they’re often quick to tell me deep, heavy things about their life. I don’t know why, I guess I just have one of those faces. The vulnerability people share with me, and the tales they reveal often make it into my songs. The experiences of strangers will often stir my empathy- then a song gets built around their version of the story, and mine.
Songs are primal and necessary, they’ve been around as long as humankind. Trying to write a good one feels like a timeless pursuit. The practice is ancient, but never gets old
How do you get creatively unstuck? I change what I’m doing. I take my energy in a new direction and this shift in flow is typically enough to unclog things. Bonus: this tactic works on a macro and micro level.
How do you stay focused in a world of the internet, social media, and other distractions? Isolation is just as important as connectivity. I turn the wifi off on my computer and put my phone on airplane mode for a couple hours each day. If for some reason I can’t make time for that I’ll go for a walk without my phone, even for 20 minutes.
What books do you turn to for inspiration and guidance?
Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo, How to Make it in the New Music Business by Ari Herstand, Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke, and The Elements of Style by William Strunk.
How do you take risks in your art? Risk is a relative term. I used to be a noise/avant garde musician, so performing folk music full-time felt “risky” to me. What if I lost the audience who liked me for my noise music? (I did.) Once I got deeper into folk music performing rock and blues covers and commercializing my music felt like a risk to me. Then I hired two friends and toured as a trio around the US even though nobody knew who we were. I was responsible for their paychecks — another risk, given our lack of notoriety. The list is ongoing. I think some risk is healthy. It seems to keep things moving forward.
“Surround yourself with people who inspire you.And, make contracts, keep records, and receipts. If creating is your business, you must treat it like one.”
What’s the next step/level/leap for you in your work? I used to not care how many people heard my music but I care now. Admitting this feels like its own kind of risk. Does wanting more from my art than the simple act of creating it automatically cheapen the work and make me greedy? I don’t think so. I want a bigger audience. I want my music to connect with more people — enough people to turn my songwriting into a sustainable, year round business for the next 30+ years or so. Why do artists find this desire confusing? A plumber who wants to connect with enough people to run a business for 30+ years is considered completely normal. They just get to work and make it happen- no existential crisis necessary. My next step is to be more like the plumber: get to work and make it happen.
Five interesting facts about you?
- I’m left handed, but play instruments right handed.
- I love baking bread, mostly peasant loaves, and have tried over 30 variations of one recipe.
- Before my career as a folk/country musician took shape, I performed noise and experimental music for a year or so in Vermont and California.
- I have had nearly 40 odd jobs to support my art over the years. I was once a seasonal limo driver.
- While traveling, I love reading Wikipedia articles about the history of roads, interstate highways, and the towns along the way.
To read about the rituals, routines, and thoughts of other artists and makers go here.