Singer-songwriter Emily Frembgen’s sweet voice belies savage wit and a sharp tongue.
Denver native, anti-folk, alt-country, and full-fledged Americana songwriter Emily Frembgen has been a part of the Brooklyn music-theatre-comedy nexus for over a decade. She initially moved to Baltimore at twelve and New York at fifteen after years as a child actor in Colorado, where her mother worked at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She dropped out of high school and homeschooled herself, then started playing guitar after the double-whammy discovery of Lou Reed and Lucinda Williams.
After returning to Denver Frembgen recorded two albums and toured with indie-rock band The Language of Termites before moving back to New York and recording a string of DIY solo albums and EP’s from 2009 to 2016. While working day jobs, she hosted and curated a weekly Americana show at the Knitting Factory, backed comedians like Ben Kronberg, provided podcast theme songs, and continued acting. Her most recent album, ‘It’s Me or the Dog,’ is a crowdfunded project recorded with Delta blues/Americana legend Hugh Pool at Excello Recording in Brooklyn (with ‘Flower/Weed’ recorded at Figure8). Pool chose just a few backing musicians for the album: Brian Mitchell on piano, Keith Xenos on piano, Keith Robinson on drums, Charles Deschants on bass, and Pool himself on guitar and pedal steel. For most of the songs, it’s just Frembgen and her guitar.
Quiet female artists are too frequently compared to Emily Dickinson, and Frembgen is no exception. But after spending time with ‘It’s Me or the Dog,’ poets like Dorothy Parker and comedian Suzanne Weber’s Anita Liberty persona (‘How to Heal the Hurt by Hating’) are more likely to come to mind, and artists like Liz Phair, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Tori Amos, and Mary Lou Lord. Plus Dylan at his most acerbic and bittersweet.
Behind that deceptively sweet voice and whimsical song and album titles (like her earlier ‘I Fell in Love with an Alien’ and ‘My Cat From Hell’), Fremgen deploys deadpan lines with plainspoken candor: “My heart’s a flower/Your heart’s a weed/Growing like a disease,” using a quirky chord progression and what she described to Guitar Girl Magazine as “this strange fingerpicking pattern that I had been noodling with.”
Frembgen’s musical minimalism is quite effective at highlighting her flinty words. She is struggling to trust new people on ‘Changes,’ trying to end a doomed relationship that drags on interminably on the waltzy ‘Sad Affair’ (“You wanted more than I had/And that’s ridiculous,” “Take this pretty thing and break it in this street”), and is a hopeful romantic on ‘Silver Lining.’ The shuffling, catchy, country ‘Hometown’ celebrates characters — “alcoholics, waitress comics” — that she undoubtedly encountered in all of her hometowns. She is capable of storytelling with just a few haiku-like lines. For example, the opening verse of the otherwise lovely ‘He Held On to Me’ is a devastating blow: “He held on to me in the morning/And he never will again.” I can’t help but wonder at the finality of this statement. Do they hate each other now? Is he dead?
Writing about relationships without tipping into cliché is no easy feat. Frembgen not only manages that task but also shapes those images into something unexpected. She deserves to be taken 100% seriously as a lyricist and an artist who has stood the ethereal young female singer trope completely on its pretty little head.