Soundstrack of our lives: Songwriter’s Round comes to TACAW

TACAW hosts heavy-hitting songwriters

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to The Aspen Times
Jackson Emmer hosts the first Songwriter's Round at TACAW Sept. 1.
Jon Estes

Songs have the power to become the soundtracks of our lives — sometimes for a short time, sometimes for decades. Choruses transform into mission statements, verses tug at our heartstrings, melodies make us feel like we’re soaring and beats become part of our rhythm of life.

Award-winning singer, songwriter and Carbondale-based producer Jackson Emmer is celebrating the power of songs by bringing the first songwriters’ round to The Arts Campus at Willits and hopes it’s the beginning of a long tradition. The format, most common in Nashville, gathers three songwriters who take turns performing original tunes.

Susan Gibson and David Starr join Emmer on stage Sept. 1.

Gibson, a Texas-based singer and songwriter, has released six solo albums and wrote The Chicks’, formerly the Dixie Chicks, hit “Wide Open Spaces.” Starr, who originally launched the institutional Starr’s Guitars in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1998 and then moved it to Cedaredge in 2001, has released nine albums and opened for the likes of John Oates, Karla Bonoff, The Steel Wheels and Survivor.

Susan Gibson performs in the Songwriter’s Round on Sept. 1.
Bill Ingram

“Susan and David are wonderful songwriters and performers, and I’ve looked up to them for years,” Emmer said. “Susan Gibson is a hit country songwriter, but she’s never been a household name, which I think makes her presence and story all the more interesting. She has made 100% mainstream music that millions of people know the words to, but her touring and musical life thrives mostly on the outskirts of the industry. That gives her a unique perspective, and she always puts on a stellar show. David Starr has a relaxed, confident approach to songwriting, singing and gently shredding guitar. He’s a ‘triple threat,’ as they say, which is rare in the folk world.”

The casual, intimate evening carries the synergistic quality of mutual inspiration.

“The songwriters often choose their next song based on whatever the last performer did,” Emmer said. “We’re all playing off each other, trying to impress and support one another.”

Jackson Emmer is an award-winning singer, songwriter and Carbondale-based producer.
Olive and West Photography

“I’ll hear Jackson or David play a song and that will remind me of something that I have that might feel relevant to the conversation, you know? The key is staying in the moment and reading the room,” Gibson said, adding that “Wide Open Spaces” will most likely make it into the set.

One of the songs Emmer plans to play is “Kids on Crescent Drive,” released in April.

“It’s about me grappling with my own privilege, my own good luck. I grew up in California just across the creek from East Palo Alto, which was the homicide capital of the U.S. at the time. Gunshots every night,” Emmer said. “As a kid, I really struggled with how I could be so safe and fortunate, while 100 feet away, other children starved while their parents died in drug deals and turf wars. The song explores that dissonance.”

Starr has added a couple of new songs to his list, as well. “Better Me” speaks to wanderlust and self-improvement, while “Any Chance of Going Home” is based on watching an old gentleman on the street.

David Starr performs Sept. 1 as part of the Songwriter’s Round.
Courtesy photo

“He was a stranger to me, and I built a story around who and what he was about,” Starr said. “It’s become one of my favorite songs to sing every night.”

This type of storytelling takes “equal parts curiosity and imagination and the willingness to be vulnerable” Gibson said — along with deep listening and observational skills, Starr added.

“The world around us provides constant inspiration and good song ideas are everywhere,” he said. “Also, I believe strongly in keeping abreast of world events. The human condition certainly provides me with a lot of material. Above all, empathy is critical; we have to be able to walk in another’s shoes to tell our story effectively. A song should tell a story that a listener can relate to. It should paint a vivid picture.”

In the end, how songs hit an individual is personal and subjective.

“There are a million right ways to do it,” Emmer said. “That said, for me, it’s the marriage between music and lyric that really sends me. A great song feels like it was written for you but says things in ways you’d never think to say them yourself. That’s what great artists do. It’s like they are speaking for us and to us at the same time.”

And, often, a song moves people differently, depending on the day or mood.

“I play the same songs all the time, but they land differently,” Gibson said. “I think there are some objective impactful qualities like groove, melody, performance, etc. But, I think it really depends on the openness of the ears that are listening whether or not it’s impactful.”

And, whether songwriters hit it big or not, just the process of writing and sharing can be quite satisfying. Emmer hasn’t sold a song to a major artist, yet he has “pockets of listeners and fans around the country,” as well as Nashville and Texas artists who perform his songs.

“Mostly, I’ve kept things pretty simple: Write the song, sing it for anyone who will listen,” he said. “This create-and-share cycle is very, very fulfilling. It’s also addictive.”

His advice for aspiring songwriters: “Just start. Just try. Don’t worry about what other people think of your songs. Don’t worry about sucking. In the beginning, everybody sucks. This may sound discouraging, but it’s actually a freeing concept. The only way to get good is by not quitting. Just write, write, write. (It takes) a willingness to fail, and a willingness to tell the truth. Nobody hops out of bed and writes their masterpiece on the first try. Writing is 50% divine intervention and 50% craft.”

Aspiring songwriter or not, the Songwriter’s Round is an efficient way for listeners to get to know several new artists at once.

“Since we’ll all be taking turns, performing alongside one another, it’s an easy way to introduce yourself to new music without having to sit through an entire set of unfamiliar songs,” Emmer said. “There is nothing else quite like it, and it’s one of my favorite ways to see live music.”

Starr, who lived in the Roaring Fork Valley in the early 1980s, said he looks forward to playing in his old stomping grounds.

“And, the fact that I get to share the stage with Jackson Emmer and Susan Gibson is icing on the cake,” he said. “The interplay among good songwriters is always fun, and I can promise it will be a great evening of music.”

If you go…

What: The Arts Campus at Willits Songwriter’s Round

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 1

Where: The Arts Campus at Willits

Cost: $20 for members; $25 in advance for nonmembers; $35 day of show

More info: