Interview with Emma Hill: Music, Guitars and Alaska

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Alaskan singer-songwriter Emma Hill and her musical partner Bryan Daste recently released their fifth album titled Denali which was recorded at The Wolverine Den in Anchorage and co-produced with Evan Phillips (Easton Stagger Phillips/Whipsaws).

Emma grew up in a small village in Alaska and was heavily influenced by the folk rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Having first started playing piano, Emma tried her hand at guitar and it ultimately became her instrument of choice. Having moved to Portland in 2006 to pursue her education and musical career, Emma met Bryan and their musical career began. Returning to Alaska in 2011, Emma continues to write, record and tour extensively.

Emma shared with us how growing up in Alaska influenced her music, the female vocalists that inspired her vocal style, house concerts, her writing and recording with Bryan Daste, and of course her new album Denali.

GGM:  I’d like to talk about your music, but I’d also like to learn more about your background growing up in Alaska. Can you tell us a little about that and how that experience inspired your music? 

Emma:  I grew up in a village of 100 people on the Kuskokwim River in the western interior of Alaska. It takes about two hours in a single engine plane to fly there from Anchorage. There are no roads. That level of isolation definitely inspired my music, because for a long time my influences were very restricted to what I had available. That was primarily my parents’ tape collection, which consisted of mostly ‘60s and ‘70s folk rock. Don McLean was my first idol. I quickly moved on to Simon and Garfunkel. 

GGM:  How was it that you got involved in music in the first place? 

Emma:  I’ve been singing since before I could talk. I’ve always had an incredibly close relationship with music. I started writing songs at eight and never stopped. Music, especially lyrics, have always been my way of taking everything the world throws at me; the good, the bad, the confusing, the exciting – and making some sense out of it. By putting those experiences into song, it becomes a form that I can throw back at the world. It’s incredibly therapeutic.  

GGM:  Who were some of your musical influences growing up that had the most impact on you and how did they inspire your music today? 

Emma:  I mentioned the folk rock already, which is huge. I think it plays a huge part now, considering that I write and play lyrically inspired, harmony driven music that is rooted in folk and Americana-infused. I was also very inspired by music that my older sister would send to me. She was in college at Berkeley and was always sending me albums by female singers. I know that my voice was influenced by the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Dido, Alanis Morisette, Aimee Mann, Natalie Merchant and so many others.  

GGM:  When did you first start playing guitar and why guitar over any other instruments … or do you play any other instruments? What was it about the guitar that attracted you to it?

Emma:  I started on piano first, but never got very far with it. Even today I’m just a plunker on the piano, but I love the instrument dearly. I picked up guitar in high school. At first I was frustrated with it, because voice came so easily and working out strumming patterns was difficult. I put it down for a year, but during my freshman year of college I picked it back up and haven’t stopped since. Guitar provides an amazing songwriting tool and that has always been my relationship with the instrument. 

GGM:  What type of guitars do you play and what is it that stands out the most about that instrument?

Emma:  I was lucky enough to get an artist endorsement through Breedlove, so I play their Northwest Classic. It is a beautiful guitar with an amazing sound. I also play a Taylor 114ce which is a great guitar for recording.

GGM:  Kuskokwim Records is your own indie record label. Can you share with us when you started your own label and the reason behind that?

Emma:  My family and I started Kuskokwim Records together in 2007 when I was about to release my first full length album, Just Me. We wanted to make sure we had everything set up to legitimately release the record, and to set up the infrastructure for future releases, touring, etc. I’m very glad we did. My family is an amazing support network and they help with a lot of the business side of being an independent artist.

GGM:  Given that you have your own label, if you were approached by a major record label, do you think that is something you would consider?

Emma:  Absolutely, if it were the right deal for my musical partner, Bryan Daste, and me. We have put a lot of hard work and money into getting where we are today and I would want to make sure that the deal fit with our long term plan for our career. 

GGM:  When did you meet your musical partner, Bryan Daste, and how did you become a duo?

Emma:  We started collaborating in 2007 when I stumbled upon his recording studio, The Magic Closet. He’s a recording engineer and I was going in to record my first professional demos. Those demos turned into the first album, which he co-produced with my brother Zach Hill and me. We started playing out together in late 2008. Bryan and I have co-produced every album since. We started with a fuller band sound, but after a couple of years realized that the duo sound and feel was working better for us. Every now and then we put a full band together for special shows. We would probably bring in certain players for larger tours if it felt right.

GGM:  How do you and Bryan approach the writing/recording process?

Emma:  I write the songs and Bryan helps arrange them. We live in two different states now, so a lot of this happens via email. We make time for rehearsal before each tour starts to solidify the new material. 

GGM:  You’ve just released your fifth album, Denali. Share with us a little about the album and the inspiration behind it. You had quite an accompaniment of musicians on the album. How did that come about?

Emma:  Since my move back to Alaska in 2011, I have become very involved with the local music scene, which is an amazing one. This album stands apart because it’s the first project of ours that was not recorded primarily at The Magic Closet. We recorded most of it with our dear friend Evan Phillips (Easton Stagger Phillips/The Whipsaws) at his studio, The Wolverine Den, in Anchorage. He also co-produced the album with us. It’s a very Alaskan inspired album and I think that recording it in my home state was appropriate. It also allowed for us to have all of the amazing Alaskan players on it that we wanted. Everyone that did session work on the album is a dear friend of ours. That really helps contribute to the overall vibe of the record. We even had Tim Easton and Megan Palmer, who are honorary Alaskans, play on a couple of tunes. Very fun stuff!

GGM: You’re currently on tour. How has that been so far?

Emma:  We are playing 52 shows in 58 days, driving 12,000 miles around the US. We are on the second half of it now. We leave the East Coast on Friday, making our way back west for the remainder of the trip. Our final show is in Portland, Oregon, which Bryan calls home. It’s been an amazing tour so far, and we are so thankful to all the fans that have made it so special.

GGM:  Your past touring schedule also included house concerts. Does your current tour also include house concerts, and what is it that you like most about performing house concerts? And … how can someone schedule one?

Emma: This tour has been primarily house concerts, like most of our tours these days. They are our absolute favorite to play. They are a win for everyone involved because of the intimate setting. It sets up the opportunity for a magical musical experience. We find that we make more lifelong fans in that setting than in any other. Because the focus is primarily on the music, people connect with the songs more and are more likely to buy merchandise, tell friends about us, etc. We are always looking for new hosts. Anyone interested in hosting can contact us at emmahillband@gmail.com.

GGM:  Lastly, while most musicians move to big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville to pursue their musical career, you have chosen to stay in Alaska. What was your decision to remain where you are, and do you feel that will have any impact, positive or negative, on your career?

Emma: I lived in Portland, OR, for five years, for which I will be forever thankful, as it is the reason that I crossed paths with Bryan. It’s a beautiful city full of wonderful things to do and really fun people. I knew right after moving there that it would be a temporary place for me. I really love Alaska, and it will always be my home. I love to travel and spend a lot of time out of the state, but I truly identify with my home state, and it has weaved its way into my songs and stories. Moving back to Alaska in 2011 was one of the best career moves I’ve ever made. Alaska is a very supportive place for musicians, as we have a lovely little local scene. The balance between touring in-state and out is working very well so far. I fly Bryan up about twice a year to do runs of about 2 to 5 weeks. Otherwise, I fly to Portland and pick him up for US touring. It just works. 

For more on Emma, visit her site HERE.

Photo credits:  Lauren Parker

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