Interview: Emily Duff explains her razor blade smile

How a New York City attitude was mixed with southern country soul.

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Emily Duff is a New Yorker born and bred, but it is the music of the American South that has touched her musical soul. She has been influenced by the blues of the Mississippi Delta, Memphis and Muscle Shoals and this comes through in her vocals and guitar playing. However, she sees herself as being primarily a songwriter and here her influences here are Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash and the other great country song writers with a touch of the Brill Building. American UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Emily Duff to discuss her new album ‘Razor Blade Smile’, and the influence her mother leaving the family home when she was a child has had on her songwriting and approach to life. She also talks about her experiences of the New York music scene which includes her time as a member of Captain Beefheart producer and guitarist Gary Lucas’s Gods and Monsters and co-writing with Willie Nile.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

It has been hard, I’m not going to go a piece of cake and I can count eleven people I know who died. There were quite a few heartbreakingly young people in their early ‘60s who were musicians and staples of our scene. I actually had it before it was the thing here, I had mine at the end of January 2020 when the Light of Day shows happened with Springsteen and stuff. Everyone came from all over the world to do those shows, and we did a whole bunch of those shows all over the place, and we all passed around what we thought was flu. It turns out it was COVID, and I had never been that sick, but my husband and kids haven’t had it, thank goodness.

Why does a New York girl seek out the country twang for her music?

It is interesting, and just because I was born in New York it doesn’t mean my parents didn’t have great records in their collection that came from down South. I grew up on all the music from the Brill Building, plus Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, we had a whole bunch of really great songwriters. I think that’s what my parents were super into was just songwriters. I had the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and that is the stuff that really appeals to me and my mom played folk guitar, and she taught me my first four chords and then I took off from there. My Uncle Benny, who lived downstairs from us, had a mandolin so gave that to me and when I was four years old I was playing mandolin. It was just natural, it was just the thing. I started playing cello when I was ten years old and writing string quartets [laughs], so going from orchestral stuff and Haydn back into country music when I had my band Eudora, and I was writing baroque string parts for country music. It was like a total freak show [laughs], and to be where I am now which is what everyone calls americana music. It wasn’t really a huge departure because everything I have ever loved is rooted in great songwriting, and that is really americana, country and blues.

Your website says Emily Duff Songwriter. Is that primarily how you see yourself?

That is exactly what I consider myself to be first because I am always there to serve the song, it is all about getting the audience inside in terms of telling a story. I’ve also been a screenwriter and I have sold scripts to Disney and Touchstone, you know, so it is really all about the story, telling a story. I am never going to say I am a singer, I am lucky a lot of people like my voice and want to buy my records and hear me. But honestly, just like my keyboard player Charlie Giordano says to me “Oh I’m too loud, turn it down.” [laughs]. I never going to say I’m a singer, listen to me, I’m a songwriter and I prefer to hear so-and-so sing my songs.

You have your own family but were abandoned by your own mother at a young age. How much has that formed who you are as a person and how is it reflected in your music?

It completely influenced me as an artist because having to grow up without a mom, you know my grandmother moved in with us for a little while, and I have to say on the reasons my mom left, and she didn’t really want to leave, but my father didn’t really give her much of a choice, because he threatened her when she asked for a divorce. My father ran with a kind of dangerous crew, and I will put it this way, he would remind you of the man who has just left the White House. My mom was basically frightened of the things he was doing and the people he was working for, and she wanted to leave him, he said that’s fine get your stuff and get out otherwise I will have somebody kill you. My mom just jumped inside a bottle, she was scared and already had a lot of alcoholic tendencies because her father died of alcoholism at the age of 38, he froze to death on the street. It ran in the family and that was her coping strategy.

When the marriage started going south in Queens, she jumped inside a bottle of scotch and a bottle of Valium together. My dad took us out of where we lived in Queens and bought a house without telling her, out in Long Island. We didn’t have the extended family support, so she kind of went a little cuckoo, because he was always on the road doing this and that. When he told her, he would get someone to kill her she was really scared and just ran away. That was her survival instinct to save herself and I don’t blame her, we have a really good relationship now, but it was very, very hard because I had to grow up really fast. That is a lot of what I write about, and also romance, relationships, marriages and child-rearing was not something I ever saw done well. The fact that I am able to do it and that I actually met somebody that I feel in love with, and the fact we were able to have children and raise them was a complete miracle to me.

Two records ago, ‘Hallelujah Hello’, there was a song on there called ‘Love Blues’ and it is just all about that. That is what happened with my mom, and I guess it is like a wake that a boat will leave. She left a wake, and while I wasn’t consciously always trying to get back to her, I was always trying to figure out how to remain safe, and what made me safe was the guitar. That is why I spent five hours a day with a guitar on my lap and in my arms because that was my substitute for my mom. My parents were the poster children for abstinence, you know [laughs], if you have children don’t do this, don’t do that.  At some point I think you make a decision and believe me I took a lot of wrong turns, took a lot of wrong exits and I certainly have my demons and I deal with them on a daily basis. My exorcism for my demons is my music.

I am not always writing cautionary tales and I wouldn’t consider my songs as a little bit of a roadmap or playbook, but they are things that people can find their own situations in. That is the essence of songwriting for me, to make it like a garment that anybody can put on and wear and feel like it is theirs.

You were a member of Gary Lucas’s Gods and Monsters band. How did that come about and what did you take away from the experience?

It is interesting. I ran into Gary the other day on the street because we are neighbours, and he said I’m doing an anniversary show at Le Poisson Rouge on September 11th and you need to get up on stage and do some songs with me again. It is the 40th anniversary and I said of course I will do that, and he has been hassling me about going into the studio. The way it happened was that I think it was 1995 or 96, I was walking my pug Boris on Bleecker Street and we used to have a record store on Bleecker Street called Rebel Rebel, it was a great record store and this guy Dave, who was a friend of mine, owned it. Gary Lucas was outside the record store playing, and he had his old 1943 Gibson J45 and all these crazy boxes, and he was doing all these open tuning blues with his crazy boxes, and it just blew my mind. I had been a fan of Beefheart’s, but I didn’t know his guitar player lived around the corner from me and our paths hadn’t crossed up to that point.

So, he blew my mind, and literally, two days later I was walking Boris around the corner, and I ran into him as he was coming out of his building and that is how I knew where he lived. I went up to him and I said, “Hey, I’m a blues singer”, and at the time that is where I had come from, and he is like “Oh Yeah” [laughs]. I told him I’d seen him playing the other day and I said I think we should work together, and he gave me his card and said here’s my number, call me. I called him and he asked me over to his house two days later. When I got there, he gave me some lyrics of a few songs and said let’s see. He started playing and hummed the melody to me, and I started singing and he just looked at me and this time it was “Oh Yeah, OK” [laughs]. I co-wrote a song with him, but we never made a record together, and that was unfortunate, really unfortunate, because there were too many legal things involved and I wasn’t willing to sign over that much exclusive time. However, I did get to sing with the band for a very long time, and it was wonderful. It was the iteration where he had Jean Chaine on bass and Jonathan Kane on drums. Gary had kind of a review for a while where Richard Barone would do some songs, then he would call me up and then another woman called Dina Emerson who would sing that great song, ‘Exit, Pursued by A Bear’, and that was off the charts. We had done a couple of tours, and then Sandy Coleman came to us and said he wanted to produce a record for you guys, and he had just got some deal with a Silicon Valley guy, and he was going to set up 911 Records. His idea was that I would be the singer and it would be like Jefferson Airplane, but it never happened. I am going to get back on stage with him in September, so who knows. Gary is a trip without luggage, man. He is just insane, it is like sorcery, and he channels things from different planes and it is amazing to watch.

He is also very rootsy as well.

Oh gosh yes. It is rooted in the deep American South, as well as other areas and he can pull anything off the fingerboard and make it sound so elemental and authentic.

You recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. What was that like?

That was a dream come true [laughs] because that is where the music I have loved my whole life, came from. One of the songs that made me want to be a songwriter was Clarence Carter’s ‘Patches’. I remember being in the back seat of my parents Monte Carlo back in the ‘70s, weeping because of that song because I thought it was the saddest thing in the whole wide world. I remember thinking to myself I want to do this, I want to tell stories like this. When I got to Fame, just the fact I was in that studio alone was enough. When I got to work with the keyboard player who came into work with me, Clayton Ivey, I had no idea who he was. When I walked in for the session that morning there was this older man sitting on the couch, eating a Mac Fish sandwich he had just got from McDonald’s, getting ready for the session, and I said, “Hey Clayton, I’m sorry you are going to be playing to some scratch tracks, I usually keep my scratch vocals they shouldn’t be so upsetting to your ears.” And he is “Hey girl, that is fine because when I was here and we were cutting ‘I Say A Little Prayer For You” with Aretha, she was playing piano, I was on organ and the band were here, and when she started singing I frozen in my head and I couldn’t play.”. That was the first thing that made me think I was in for it, then we get in there and it is the song ‘Don’t’ and he hears 20 seconds of the opening, and he is that’s enough, I’m good, let’s go. He said I’m just going to do what I did on ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ with Etta James. I was sitting in the control booth, then the third thing happened, and I needed a paper bag because I was hyperventilating [laughs]. He sits down and plays Wurlitzer, and he says, “Is this Spooner’s?” because it is Spooner’s, it just lives there, and he is “Wow, this is the exact piano I played when I was 23 years old and I cut ‘Patches’ with Clarence Carter.

Just being in the studio in the first place is enough because it is rarefied air. There is Bobby Gentry, Wilson Pickett and there are photographs of everybody, Mac Davis, it was too much. Then to find out that this man who was on my tracks was also on all those other tracks, just blew me away. I felt like I hardly deserved to be in the room [laughs]. Clayton came up to me afterwards and hugged me and said “Those are fine, fine songs and they belong here.”. I got to go back two years later, and he was part of the whole band, and I recorded with other members of The Fame Gang, and they were my band on ‘Hallelujah Hello”. I made two records there, and that was the year I became really good friends with Donnie Fritts, it is an unbelievable place and everything you ever thought about it is true, and more. Anyone who gets a chance should go because you feel like you have walked into a holy church. If music is your religion, going there is like the Sistine Chapel, the whole time I’m in the booth I am pinching myself, and I’m using microphones Little Richard used. It is almost incomprehensible, it is that beautiful.

How did you manage your own nerves and stress of recording in such a special space, and still be able to sing?

At the end of the day, it is all about the work. I wasn’t performing for anybody there, I was making a record and I was in the truest place on Earth where I could be myself, where I felt more like myself than I have felt in any place in my life. I was given so much respect and love from some of the greatest musicians in the world. I said to Will McFarlane, who was Bonnie Raitt’s guitar player, I just love what you are doing on these tracks, and he said “Emily, we usually come into an artist as a band, and we cut the charts and I turn down the artist. When we are making your record, and this hasn’t happened to me in a long time, we turned you up.”. Being able to hang with those guys was just the greatest feeling for me and I wasn’t worried or uptight, it gave me confidence.

Tell me about your new record ‘Razor Blade Smile’. Where did the title come from?

It’s from my song of the same name, and that song is “I will give you something to cry about, silly billy boy. I’m gonna shake the whole world until the change falls out.”. It is all about grinning and getting through it. “I’ve got nothing to lose besides my razorblade smile.”, I grew up with that I need to be tough to get through it attitude, because here I am, I’m all by myself. I don’t need it anymore, but I have to say I kind of put the razor blade smile on a little bit this past year to get through the COVID stuff. There was a certain aspect of fake it ‘til you make it, in terms of feeling OK because there was a lot of anxiety and as a mom, you kind of want to put on that things are a little bit better, and it is not necessarily razor blade, but it goes back to that I can deal with anything vibe.

So that is where that came from, and I liked it in terms of being a title for the record because it had the attitude that the rest of the record had. I’m a punk from the streets, and when people say what’s with the country music, I say there is no bigger punk than Johnny Cash. If you really want to talk about what’s punk rock and what’s country music, it is really all the same because it is all about an attitude. If something is just rootsy, elemental and authentic then everything can be country music [laughs].

You didn’t record in Muscle Shoals this time. Why choose Eric Ambel to produce again?

No, Brooklyn. Last year’s record, which was what I called the pandemic record because it dropped on March 6th, and we went into lockdown the day I was supposed to get on a plane to London on Friday 13th March. It was OK kids you are staying home from school, and moms not going anywhere. That recorded ended up getting really good reviews, it got a lot of airplay and I sold a ton of it even during a pandemic. I didn’t get to tour it so maybe now when I take ‘Razor Blade Smile’ out, and I have dates to go back to the UK in May 2022, I will probably be touring the two records together. So, this is the second record I made with Eric, and I had been wanting to work with Eric since the ‘90s.

When things didn’t work out with Gary, I started my own band Eudora and we did a lot of work in and around, we opened for a lot of great bands, and I met Eric at this time in the ‘90s because he had put out a record with a band I fell in love with called Blue Mountain. He produced their ‘Dog’s Days’ record and that became one of my favourites, and I had a wonderful time playing in the East Village and getting to know him. I wanted to work with him, I sat down and spoke with him about what would it take for him to get with Eudora, but it never worked out. So, it took 26 years from the time I first sat down with Eric until we actually said we would make a record.

We made that record in Brooklyn and we had such a good time, that when the pandemic hit, I started writing songs like crazy, I started writing two songs a day. For some reason lockdown, and you need to understand that four of us live in a 340 square foot space in New York City, with 200 guitars and a hound dog and my teenagers are getting bigger, and my husband is almost 6 foot 3, a crowded little apartment and for the most part, sitting out on the fire escape is all we did. For some reason, everything exploded, and I was writing two songs a day, and I still am, and I was all dressed up with no place to go. Eric and I started talking, and it was voting time with the election coming up, and I wrote a bunch of political songs and two of which wound up coming out as singles, ‘The Call’ and ‘Devils and Snakes’, so I called him up and told him I was writing so many songs and I think I’m going to explode. He said he had an idea that If I felt safe getting on the train I could come to Brooklyn, and he would record me just playing guitar and doing my vocals to a click track, and we will do a remote overdubbed record.

I said that sounds interesting and I went out there, and in three hours I cut twelve songs. We did two songs as singles and held ten back for the record, he then brought in a band that was him on guitar, Keith Christopher on bass from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Phil Cimino who is Eric’s drummer and then my keyboard player and E Street Band player Charlie Giordano came in and did the overdubs on the piano. We then just farmed one song out ‘Nicotine and Waiting’ to this lovely kid in Boston named Cody Nilsen, to play pedal steel on. Eric and his wife Mary Lee Kortes from Mary Lee’s Corvette did all the background vocals. It was like a little family thing, and it turned out great, at least I think it turned out great [laughs]. I was really impressed, so what we did with the band track was I was home, and I was patched in through technology called Audiomovers, so I could hear the band tracking live, and I could communicate with them via texting. That is how we made the record, it was kind of insane.

A lot of people have done similar things.

Technology, it just pushed us to get really creative.

What impact did COVID have on ‘Razor Blade Smile’ and  is it a post-COVID record?

Oh, it is definitely not a post COVID record because all the songs were written during that time, I reckon maybe two songs weren’t, but if you look at the lead-off track ‘Go Fast Don’t Die’ that is a COVID song [laughs]. ‘Angry To Bed’ is one also, I would say it is a pan COVID record [laughs] because although COVID is going to be a time-marker on everybody’s lifeline, I think that so many of the emotions and sentiments that you can recall from the record, are everyday things that is like we have our stuff and it just got blown-up by that in and out marker, and we are really not out of it yet. A lot of people think we are, and you should see how people are walking around. We have to remember this is a global situation and I think you in the UK were a lot smarter in terms of who you allowed in and out. The US has always allowed flights to places I thought may have been risky, but who knows. I think I would call this a pan-COVID record because the human condition is the human condition, whether we have an epidemic of opioids, or we have an epidemic of anti-depressants or this or that. COVID just amplified everything, and for it to happen while we were going through what we were going through politically which was frightening, one insanity coinciding with another insanity.

I was surprised there wasn’t more politically fuelled art popping up all over the place, with Black Lives Matter and all that other stuff that was happening, I was really amazed there wasn’t more of a movement towards protest songs. Maybe it is is all going to come out now, I’m hoping that the music that is coming out now really reflects the political situation a little bit more. We are still going through this crazy denial of reality, people are still claiming he won the election, and January 6th was another situation and like, are you kidding, are we just going to let that go, you know? We are in a state of flux.

What is the New York music scene like now we are halfway through 2021?

It is just coming back. I did a set out on the street the other day that was great, City Winery has opened back-up, Jesse Malin did two shows back-to-back, and we have just had a big Gay Pride celebration and the city and the streets were just insane. There was music everywhere and it feels as if everything is back to normal, even though it is not. Venues are opening up, but we need to remain cautious. I’ve got some gigs booked but I am still sticking to outdoor shows mostly for the summer, I then do something with Willy Nile in September, and then if everything goes well, I’m down in AmericanFest 2021 in Nashville, and I’ve got things booked for that like songwriter’s parties, which makes me really happy because that is how I identify.

What do you hope to be doing in 2022?

I’m going to be near you. It is very exciting, there are a whole lot of dates including Nottingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and that is going to be in May. Up to then, I will just be doing local stuff and maybe something on the west coast. I will be going to Detroit to record 12 songs with some heavy musicians in the next couple of weeks. My eyes are open, and my ears are buzzing and I’m really excited and my fingers have been doing a lot of Mississippi John Hurt style stuff, and when the Detroit producer called up and asked for some songs I sent him a bunch. He was like it is like you turned into Tom Waits overnight [laughs]. I like writing for strings, and I also like writing for brass, and recently some of my songs have the New Orleans vibe to it, and the producer was like let’s go. I will be playing with a bunch of guys who also play with Sturgill Simpson and there will be some old Motown guys as well.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are the three tracks or artists that are top of your playlist?

I can’t stop listening to Elizabeth King who is an older woman out of Memphis. She was a singer and then raised like loads of kids and didn’t do anything, and I think she put out her first record at 75. This record is unbelievable, and I love gospel music. Another one I can’t stop listening to is Julian Lage’s new record ‘Squint’. I’m not a jazzhead though I like jazz and I think the reason why I went cuckoo on it is because I was getting coffee at my local here called The Elk, and there was this young thin guy with a guitar and the thing I was really focused on was he had a 1960 Fender Champ in his hand, and I was really lusting after it. I tapped him on the shoulder, and we have face masks on, and I told him that’s the only amp you are ever going to need, and he agreed. We then got into this big discussion and we geeked out and he then gave me his number so we could get a coffee and talk again. I had heard of him, but I had never heard him play so I went down this rabbit hole on YouTube and he blew my mind. I have never heard anyone play with feel like that. He is in his ‘30s and married to singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy and we are now friends. John Murry has a new record out, ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’, and I’ve been listening to a bunch of John Murry records and I’m pretty well in love with him. I also like Willie Nile’s new song ‘Blood On Your Hands’ with Steve Earle. That was a great pairing for the two of them to work together. Also, Ricky Bird who played in Joan Jett’s band and recorded and toured with, Roger Daltrey, Elvis Costello, Don Felder, Bobby Whitlock, Bonnie Bramlett, Bruce Springsteen among others, I co-wrote a song with him that is on his new record, and I’ve been listening to that, ‘Sobering Times’.

I will join you on John Murry, because he is such a great songwriter.

He is, and he always surprises me lyrically.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I can’t wait to get back because the UK is probably my favourite place to play because I have encountered people who I consider to be the truest music lovers I have ever met. So, thank you for wanting me to be there, thank you for showing up to the shows, thank you for always wanting to talk to me about the songs and I can’t wait to get back. It is probably the coolest place to play music. I will be bringing my guitar player Scott Aldrich who came with me last time. He is one of the funniest people, so he is easy to tour with, and he is a brilliant guitar player.  Finally, just a thank you to Eric Ambel who helped me get my record out and for playing some amazing guitar parts on it, without him and his technology and talent I wouldn’t have been able to do it at a time when I really needed to make a record.

Emily Duff’s ‘Razor Blade Smile’ is available now as an Independent Release

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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