Last week, I covered New Jersey based singer-songwriter Val Emmich’s acoustic set at Turtle Club in Hoboken. Before and during the show he took fan requests. Emmich said with six albums, it’s often difficult to teach his full band each individual song. “For these acoustic shows, I feel like I need to pay back my fans and play what they want to hear.”
Afterward, we chatted about his songwriting process, life at Rutgers, and how his acting roles on hit television shows like “Ugly Betty” and “30 Rock” influence his life. Read on to find out how the former American Studies major got his start in music and advice he has for you. Be sure to visit Val Emmich on MySpace and stay tuned for a new album in the upcoming months.
What is your songwriting process like?
The songwriting process for this album was a lot different. Previously, I would usually find myself in some mood. Frustrated, sad or hyper, I would pick up a guitar or set up a piano and it would come out in some way. Then, I would sing a melody that came to me naturally and work on lyrics. It usually happened in that way; music, melody, lyrics. In this case, I worked with this production team called Near Records. We just sat there and co-wrote together. I’d sit at the piano or someone would play guitar and I’d sing. It was fun for me because it got me out of my own head. Being a solo artist can sometimes have its limitations. It’s also very freeing because no one’s saying no to you.
You went to Woodstock by yourself to write a few albums ago. Do you find it better to be by yourself?
I guess it’s an ongoing search. At that moment, let’s call it a bad breakup with my record company. So, I needed to find what I loved about music again and find a rebirth. I really did feel like a child going away to learn from square one. It was really liberating. I would just sit there. I woke up in the morning, drank coffee and wrote whatever came to me. I know I wrote songs alone there with no distractions that I would have never written anywhere else and couldn’t write today because I was putting myself in that situation. I was lonely. I was isolated. I had a big beard. I was unkempt and I just feel like I had nothing to do but write, and it made me feel safe to write.
I think it’s about finding new challenges and new ways to get you out of your habits because I think you could become predictable. Often, people like first albums of people and then they think they went off. I think it’s hard to keep it fresh. This new album was the same thing. I tried to come up with a new process.
You’ve been in a bunch of TV shows including “Ugly Betty” and “30 Rock.” Do any of those experiences find their way into your songs?
Into the songs, no, but into me as a person. Anytime you can meet new people. Today I met this guy who was talking like he had a frog in his throat. I was just obsessed with his voice. Maybe a year down the line, some voice lyric will come. Or a character in fiction I write. I just feel like you should be open to life. The TV stuff, it puts me in touch with fear because I’m always scared when I do those things and I’m meeting new people and they’re used to what they’re doing and I’m the newcomer. But it’s a challenge. It makes me feel alive.
Some of your songs come across as being sad, but the music is often upbeat. Why is that?
On my last record, I wanted to try to do it all by myself with literally no one else. The Woodstock stuff, Sunlight Searchparty, I wrote by myself but then played it live for the band. For Little Daggers, I did it by myself in my bedroom. I wanted no one else to get in my head. I sent a bunch of songs to a producer friend of mine, Jason Cupp and he said, “What I like about these songs is that they sound happy, but they’re kind of sad. The good ones. You should get rid of these and focus on these other ones that have that weird juxtaposition.” He pointed it out to me. That was intentional, but it was something that came out naturally.
I love your song “Hurt More Later.” What was the inspiration behind it?
I think it’s so joyous to get into a relationship even when you have a feeling, “I don’t think this girl is the right one for me ultimately. But it feels good now. I kind of feel like she’s a cheater maybe or she’s not being totally honest. But, we have a good chemistry and the sex is good.” So, you let yourself go even though you know you’re going to hurt more later. That was the feeling I was trying to capture. Throw caution to the wind.
What’s going through your head when you’re performing? I noticed you close your eyes a lot.
Not always. This was a peculiar situation where people are right there and I didn’t have a stage. Usually when you’re on a stage and the lights are there, you’re shielded a little bit and you see nothing and that helps to open up. I did go into my own shell today.
My thoughts wander and I try to follow them if I feel like a lyric hits me and I’m angry I go with it. Or, if I feel hyper I let my body do it. I’m just trying to find a new way of enjoying it. This sounds so crazy, but I just thought [performing] does remind me of sex where someone will do something and you’re like, “Oh wow. Woah, I never thought of that. Let me do that,” and you follow the feeling just because it feels good. Same thing onstage. You’re like, “I’m going to go over here. Woah.” It’s about being open to that and I think some people are too scripted and they get into routines and they don’t feel spontaneous onstage.
Do you feel a song comes out better when it’s based on real life, or do you draw from fantasy as well?
Both. There are literal songs where this literally happened. “Shock,” a song about deceit literally happened and I just wrote what happened, my blatant feelings. There are other ones that I take an emotion and I let it wander. I find that the ones that aren’t bound to truth are usually more interesting. It’s just like acting. If you go for a role as a killer, do people assume you’re a killer? No. You just feel like, “Oh, I’ve felt anger before. I’ve felt out of control before. I can imagine taking the next step and killing. If I could just think there.” It’s the same thing with songwriting. If I feel sad I can sometimes make myself feel sadder in songs. Who wants to hear a lukewarm song? You want to hear the most extreme feeling you can and the most potent.
I went to Rutgers also so it’s always nice to see fellow alumni succeed at what they love. What was your background there?
Sometimes I wish I went to the Fine Arts school there, Mason Gross. Part of me is artistic and part of me is really cerebral and I like factoids and more scholastic stuff. [My major was] American Studies. It’s a focus on America in all different facets. So it’s history, literature, economics, politics. So many people just get a narrow focus. They only major in politics or only major in economics. I get it all, so it’s probably a metaphor of me as a person just trying to be well rounded. Someone important in my life always tells me I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. Which, she doesn’t really mean as a compliment I don’t think. But, I do like to dabble. Maybe I’d be better off just focusing on one thing and being excel
lent at it. At Rutgers I did
the same thing, I minored in English and minored in Philosophy because I just wanted it all. I still want it all.
What’s your advice to aspiring singers?
I followed what I wanted to do. Luckily my parents weren’t the kind of parents where I came home and they said, “American Studies. What job are you going to get with that?” They supported the music I wanted to do so I was fortunate in that way. If you have a bunch of people telling you “No,” it’s a lot harder. Another person in my life found me in college and said, “I really think you’ve got something here,” and it made me believe I could do music. I really believe the nurturing of art and artists is important, which is why I always try to talk to people and answer emails because you never know when your email might be the thing that they go, “Maybe I could do this.”
My inspiration: surround yourself with people who make you believe. A friend from Rutgers was here tonight who I haven’t seen since Rutgers and he said, “It makes me feel comforted that you’re still doing what you love.” And I got what he meant. I’d be upset if some of my friends stopped doing what they love. I would lose faith. I feel like you just take examples from other people and if I’m an example to someone, then that’s an amazing thing.