Interview – Vicky Emerson and Sarah Morris – Keeping the Home Fires Burning

thehomefires2Katie Cannon Photography

By Rebecca Marx

When I interviewed Vicky Emerson and Sarah Morris early in the Spring of 2016, I knew immediately that there would be a follow up of some sort. The “secrets” that they divulged about the US radio charts, and just how they were navigating the music industry as independent artists really resonated with people who were trying to do it DIY style. For those same folks, check out my update on what the two have been up to, and for a rock n roll read/expose; I recommend the book by Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter: So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful Of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life.

Vicky Emerson and Sarah Morris have been babysitting their 2015 and 2016 albums with non-stop Americana radio campaigns in the US and Europe, attending Festivals, and gigging across the states. With that all tied up, I assumed that the two musicians might want to take a step back to recharge, but that couldn’t be further away from where they are at. They enlightened me on what their next call to action is, and just how they keep the home fires burning.

The last time that we chatted you were wrapping up your US Americana radio campaign, and starting your Highways & Heartstrings Tour together, what’s happened since then?

VE: We did a European Americana Radio Campaign that went really well, and a ton of shows. Sarah’s album got to #16 on the Euro charts, and mine went to #5. It went great, and we were able to connect with a lot of people out there.

Do you plan to go further with that?

VE: I plan to tour Europe. I am working on Sarah right now, but she is shutting it down. It’s tough, we both have the family juggling act. We are still working on that! My husband has told me to keep pursuing it, he hasn’t totally said “Yes”, but I’ve said “Yes.”

SM: I really want to do more domestic touring. We have places that we should get back to from our previous shows, and new areas of the country to get to. So in my brain even though Europe sounds lovely, in a world where there are children and people who need to take care of them if I have to prioritize it is much easier to tour here.

Was the European radio campaign easier than the US campaign?

VE: Yes, way easier! Half the chart will take a digital download, half takes the hard copy–that was the tricky part. Then just following up with emails or Facebook, some were really active on Facebook. The US is all working from a radio point of view, and # of spins. The Euro chart is all voted on, each station gets an equal 7 votes.

SM: Some weren’t stations, some were journalists.

VE: Right. They were so polite, and for the most part very responsive, they were willing to educate me. One guy spent time outlining  how the voting system worked. It was really a good experience. You could send an email and actually get a response! Sometimes in the US you feel stonewalled, there were those (in Europe) that you never heard from, but less so. In our US campaign we were told that we did EVERYTHING wrong!

SM: Actually, Vicky did like everything half wrong! It feels like they don’t want to do their job, but they have around 400 albums to go through each week, and if you had all those artists contacting you every week well, I get that…but, I think that is out of date with how things are getting done. We have great radio promoters in our town, but I don’t think that there is anyone exclusively working with Americana music, so we have to go outside our community to find that support. I talked to someone who hired out their radio campaign, she had similar results to us but walked away without any connections.

How frustrating, because with her next album she’ll have to start all over again!

VE: Exactly.

SM: Or you have to hand it over to the same person who you hired for the last campaign.

VE: They own it, the industry–promotors, radio they are all buddies, and friends so they want to help each other. I understand all of that, but the other part of that story is that musicians do a Kickstarter, do the album, a video, do PR–do all of the things that we are supposed to do, and most of the time you don’t have the money to do all of that. Now it’s time to do the radio campaign and you are supposed to come up with thousands of dollars to do that. Just pick it out off of the tree? No. We don’t have that money but we are smart, we can do it ourselves. We believe in our music, why can’t we do it ourselves?

It makes sense to me that you’d want to be in control of your own “product”. You should sell it, you are the most passionate promoter for it out there!

VE: One of the guys (US Radio Campaign) told me that he wasn’t listening to any new music, and Sarah mad texted me that he claimed in an Americana Fest panel that he listened to every CD! I wasn’t there yet or I would’ve yelled: “Liar-pants on Fire!”

SM: Kari (Arnett) was with me, and I was like: “That guy’s a liar!” The deeper you delve into being an independent artist, and  the more that you’ve invested the harder it is to let go. I mean listen, I’ve already come this far, and made all of these decisions. I’ve invested the  money, I don’t trust or know if I can really hand this off to you. I feel there are examples out there of great people like Krista Vilinskis (Tinderbox Music), but I worry that others might drop the ball.

VE: We don’t have time to wallow in that.

The two of you plus fellow local musician Kari Arnett traveled recently to Nashville for Americana Fest–did you happen to see T Bone Barnett’s keynote speech?

SM: I went to something right before that, and was so inspired by it that I skipped the keynote. Then everyone was like: “It was so amazing!” But I was outside, and T Bone walked by, so I felt like by reading it, and brushing shoulders with T Bone that I experienced it vicariously. Kari Arnett went to it.

VE: I wasn’t in town yet. We all tried to hit up different things so that we could meet up to share what we had learned.

Was there a take away for either one of you that especially resonated with where you are right now?

SM: That it (Americana) is a super awesome community to be a part of, that there is a really upswing in that kind of music

VE: Oh, absolutely!

SM: The Americana Chart and Festival is 17 years old, and is finally hitting its stride. It felt really positive.

VE: There were some panels that felt antiquated, especially with independent artists. They weren’t providing current information, being an independent artist that is what I was looking for. I did find the speakers to be accessible, just last night I was emailing a mentor from one of the panels. One of the guys was a PR agent from L.A. and we really hit it off. He told me to send him updates. I sent him some new publicity, and he was already sending me back feedback. It’s amazing, the ability to make those kind of contacts.

In the past you both have really had to pursue that feedback…

VE: Most of the time it really outran us! One of the things that I learned so much from was the Spotify Master Class. They showed different ways to utilize it as an artist, but also made their department emails available. Something that I think without the panel going on we wouldn’t have had access to. I was invited to tour the Spotify offices the next time that I am in New York, and I am going to go! I’ll get my picture taken with the big green dot.

You mentioned independent artists, that is how I think of Americana as a genre–is it a bigger thing now though?

VE: I think it is really powered by independent artists. There is a tier at the top, but underneath it is really a movement of Roots Americana music.

SM: It really is independent focused, but we are on an independent level that is a really independent level. There are pretty famous Americana artists that are in that category also. A lot of them are various forms of “independent”. They might release their own album independently, but then line up with a distributor.

VE: That is the one thing that we kept hearing over and over, to build your team and make your brand. That would be the take away. Your distributor might be in Virginia, your PR in L.A. It is all about building your team. It was enlightening, mostly what we have been trying to do.

SM: We are a good team.

VE: Sarah and I started writing a song together in Nashville, and it felt like it was a thing. I think it was germinating, people were bringing it up. Sarah’s friend Anna Laube sent us a note basically saying: “You didn’t ask for this, you might not want this, but I think that you guys need to make it official…” She shared a lot of super supportive women things, and ended it with: “And again, you didn’t ask for my opinion but you got it anyways–sorry!” She saw our collaboration coming a mile away!

Maybe it is more obvious from the outside when something is happening?

VE: Maybe, but I think as we created our show, the harmony and our banter has naturally come across as a very upbeat thing. Sassy, just a really musically tight show.

SM: We have a great chemistry onstage, and right here! (laughs) When I am sitting in the audience watching that kind of a show I feel a part of it.

VE: Sarah and I aren’t artists to put on our sad faces and just power through our shows, that is not our personalities, music, or our personas. We really allow each other to be ourselves, and just have fun.

I definitely felt the chemistry the last time we met. You are both song writers, how does writing together work?

VE: The song is nearly done, the bridge went really fast over a bottle of wine! We are going to take time over the next tour, Sarah do you want to tell what you are bringing with you?

SM: I’m bringing a tiny guitar. It’s my son’s tiny guitar. We’ll write songs together in the car, one will drive, the other will work on the song…This tour is all closer together. Faribault and La Crosse are coming up.

VE: We are opening for Frankie Lee (with The Counterfactuals) at Caravan du Nord in Faribault on November 11th, and then Madison and Appleton.

SM: We’ll have some hotel time, the first tour had a lot of radio press, this one will have more writing time. I have a lot of material that maybe doesn’t work for me as a solo artist or with my band that needs a home.

VE: I have never had that experience before in my life, but now I have had that–where “Oh, that is a Vicky/Sarah song vs. for my solo work.

Time is an issue for the both of you with performing and then having young families, how do you make time?

VE: We have so much time, NOTHING but time! We have a lot of shows in the first part of 2017 coming up, and then we plan to go South in the Spring like Nashville, Knoxville and Asheville.

SM: We need to make some of our new friends stronger friends, too.

You announced a new project, your duo: The Home Fires?

Unison: YES!

VE: Home represents that we love being moms and wives–our families. The Fire is the passion for performing and writing.

SM: I’ve noticed that there are a lot of other musicians doing this but it seems to me that they have a lot easier time not looking like moms while they do it. We are super hot of course, but we tell stories about our kids–we embody it! We are both in that trench at the same time. It made sense.

VE: It’s essential to acknowledge that. You know our lives are different than before we had kids. Before we had all the time to focus on songwriting and pursue all of that, we don’t have that anymore, and I don’t regret any of the decisions that I’ve made to start a family at all. I love my family, but I have loved making music every since I was a little kid. How do you balance that? Me, I think in the last few years I’ve found that place, and working with Sarah has helped too. I have a good ally.

There certainly is ageism as well as sexism, that exist in music. I think there may be a “momism” in the industry as well. I really like how you own it and are doing it all, maybe not perfect at every single thing…

VE: Not perfect at anything!

But how important for people to see that you aren’t willing to give up your aspirations as a wife, mother, woman, human being.

SM: That is a big reason why I kicked music into a higher gear in the last few years. to show my kids that I didn’t want them to ever look back and say: “Mom could’ve done something with music.” I want to show them that by working harder that they can accomplish things.

By being a good role model, by showing them all of the facets that can make up what a woman is.

VE: It’s key. Showing them how strong you have to be to keep it all rolling. Our husbands travel a lot, and I think it is good to show the kids how to be strong.

Also, being in the arts, you tend to experience rejection.

Loud, hearty laughter that drew looks from the surrounding tables.

SM: What!?! NOT my experience but I’ve heard of this. Yes, there is that…

It seems pretty important to share the small and big wins with the kids too?

SM: I am a chronic over-sharer.

VE: I am a big celebrator of  the wins BIG time! Especially in the last year, the wins man, and the fails…It’s like okay, move on. Moving on. There have been times on projects when a lot of things were difficult, it has never been that way with Sarah. I really think that The Home Fires will unfold organically as it has so far.

You can watch The Homes Fires unfold organically as they play the Caravan du Nord in Faribault on the very auspicious date of 11/11: