Aspen’s Jackson Emmer on his genre-bending new solo album
The stretch of two years when Jackson Emmer was making his new solo album, “Last Known Photograph,” coincided with the runs of his Americana music series at Justice Snow’s in Aspen.
Those adventurous shows, exploring American music in its many permutations, with his bands Hot Eagle and the Howling Kettles, took Emmer and company deep into the traditions of country, folk, rock and blues. Those deep dives — which often played out in raucous bar scenes — helped inform the sound and spirit of the new record, which Emmer independently released Sept. 1.
“All of that was a mindful exploration of our influences,” Emmer, 28, said of the concert series. “Saying, like, ‘We love Muddy Waters. How many Muddy Waters songs can we learn and deliver? And not the way he would but in the same spirit. What about his personality can we connect with?’ It’s a fun way to study stuff.”
“Last Known Photograph” dips a ladle into that melting pot of American idioms — along with electronic touches and a dash of Dixieland — and comes up with something new. Emmer ignores the boundaries of genre and the demands of traditionalism, internalizing a sprawl of sounds and finding one that’s all his own.
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“I found myself dropped into these musical scenarios where I can glean those tropes,” he said. “And it’s become part of me. It’s not like I’m trying to navigate bluegrass, country, electronic music — it’s just what I liked.”
Emmer said he writes about 40 songs a year. The singer-songwriter made the new album in decidedly DIY fashion. He recorded rough cuts of the album’s eight songs on his own at home, playing guitar and bass to a click track and inserting temporary digital arrangements around them. He then brought in musicians — Hot Eagle fiddler Sam Moss and its drummer Alison May, local upright bassist Mike Facey, and pianist and Justice Snow’s composer-in-residence Trevor Wilson — to lay down their parts here and on the road. Selecting what songs to include on the album was an intuitive process.
“I write music all the time,” Emmer said. “So I had the material created, but I wanted to come up with a collection that felt like a pretty good representation of me. So I was choosing songs as I went along for this album, just saying, ‘This fits.’ … It wasn’t necessarily that I always had a razor-sharp vision, but it was more like, ‘These are people I like to make music with and they understand my musicality. Let’s see what we make.’”
What they made is a 21st-century folk record that refuses to live in the past. On the new album, Emmer creates a world where the handclaps, keyboards and indie-rock sound of “Score” live comfortably beside the trumpet and down-home country jazz of “Living on the Cheap.” The album opener, “Hands,” is a timeless workingman’s country — with a fiddle, an acoustic guitar and Emmer’s dusty vocals — about tired hands and blowing off steam after clocking out. “Rocky Winds Blow,” a gorgeous piece of nostalgia about growing up in the West, has an electro-pop touch and sounds something like “Nebraska”-era Springsteen filtered through a Jimmy Tamborello production.
“Texas Last” starkly highlights the juxtaposition of traditions, with an acoustic guitar meeting a wash of distorted electronic guitar as Emmer narrates watching Texas hill country pass from a car, asking, “How long will Texas last?”
“It’s a weird thrill every time I hear it,” he said of that song and its unresolved musical and lyrical conclusion.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and Aspen, Emmer’s first musical love was hip-hop. There’s no hip-hop, per se, on “Last Known Photograph,” but the precise phrasing and lyricism of rap are evident in Emmer’s original songwriting. As he matured musically, he gravitated toward folk and studied music at Bennington College in Vermont. He stuck around there after graduation to work in a homeless shelter and found a nonprofit that offered free music and art lessons while writing songs and releasing the occasional EP. But looking back now, Emmer sees his return to Aspen as the creative catalyst behind “Last Known Photograph.” Here, he said, he found fertile ground in the loose strictures of Colorado folk and the very loosely defined Colorado bluegrass sound.
“I always felt like an alien in Vermont,” he said. “Here there’s a different mash-up of cultures and music that comes together. For some reason here it makes sense to make a record that has electronics mixed so heavily with acoustic stuff.”
Emmer is currently on a seven-state, 20-plus-concert tour of the West that runs through the end of October, after which he’s coming home to Aspen and then moving to Asheville, North Carolina.
He’s hopeful that the new record and tour will allow him to connect with audiences intimately, as he turns away (at least for now) from the freewheeling bar shows of the Justice Snow’s series.
“I hope people will come to a subtle performance and listen rather than the loud, beat-your-face-in-with-a-drumstick show — though that’s fun, too,” he said.
And while the state of the music industry is grim and the landscape for emerging artists appears more challenging than ever, Emmer is undaunted.
“Music has been around way longer than the music business, so I’m not worried about the music,” he said. “Whatever’s going on with this weird time we’re in, I remain pretty optimistic. I feel lucky and grateful to be doing what I’m doing and to get to share it with people.”
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