Interview | FFS 5 with Secret Emchy Society

Photo by Dave Le

It’s the voice that hits you first. It’s big, a bit boisterous. It’s a voice that makes you grin, but it’s also sad and wise, and very observant. It’s a voice that stands you to a shot and a beer, kicks you out onto the dance floor despite your silly misgivings. It’s Cindy Emch’s voice—in every meaning of that word—that comes through on the pioneering queer-country singer and songwriter’s new album The Chaser.

Recorded with her long-running band, the Secret Emchy Society, The Chaser gives Cindy’s funny, deep songs an equally big voice. It’s a record of exact portraiture, country style. Cindy Emch knows how human beings behave when they’re in bars, when they’re lonely, and when they’re in love. And when they’re out of love. The Chaser is the work of an original who looks beyond Saturday night, toward an eternal present.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I think the moment I fell in love with music was sometime around 5 years old. Or at least – that’s when I consciously knew that it was going to be a part of my life in a very significant way. My mother used to practice her accordion when I was a child and she had this book of all these 1920’s cabaret and American folk songs that she used to work on and I would join her and sing the lyrics. It was how I learned to sing, to keep tempo, and to be on pitch. I loved those old songs so much.

Then I saw the musicals Grease and Annie on television and you couldn’t stop me from singing them around the clock. My brother still teases me about how many times he had to hear me doing my Broadway auditions for the starring role of Annie with my headphones on and singing at top volume alone in our family room. Apparently I could fill the whole house with sound even then! For a long time that was all I wanted – to sing songs and just let all of that feeling – whether it was a Stephen Foster or Pete Seeger or Broadway song – course through me. To this day I have a hard time singing “This Land is Your Land” without tearing up at the optimism and solidarity of it as a song for all Americans. When I was a bit older I was working for the city park where I lived and bought myself a cheap guitar and a Leonard Cohen songbook. That was when I learned about the craft of songwriting and taught myself chords using the tab. Not long after that I also bought a Johnny Cash songbook, and then a Tom Waits one, and well – it was off to the races for me then. You could barely pry that guitar out of my hands.

As an artist, how do you define success?

Success to me is a dangerous question. So many people can get caught up in the strict financials or fame version of success – and sure – I wouldn’t mind worrying less about money. But success to me is that connection with the fans. It’s playing a show with other bands you respect and admire the music of. It’s having someone tell you how your song changed their day, their week, or their life. It’s about being true to the music in my heart and still having people like it and wanting me to play it for them. 

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

As an indie artist that does all of it myself – I struggle with needing a clone! Between songwriting, booking, and the management of the many spokes of the process – I could really use an assistant for the logistics and the business side of things. A friend who often helps me with merch laughs at me during every show because I want to just give merch away if people liked the music – because I get so excited about them and the connection we’re making. She usually bans me from the merch area after about 10 minutes. But also – I do have an awesome team of people helping me. From my bandmates to the indie artists who create my album art/posters, to my wife who makes my videos, my legal folks, my chosen brother and music producer, my PR team – I feel super blessed that so many folks want to help me get this music out into the world. At the end of the day – money is the big struggle. For this release, I did a crowd funder to help ease the cost burden of printing vinyl and even though we exceeded our goal due to an amazing and supportive network of fans – that was still only 5% of the album costs. The rest came out of my pocket (and a lot of credit cards).

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

Oh, I have a few bucket list items for sure! I am an optimist – so I hope they’re all realistic. I want to play a show with Willie Nelson. I want a song to chart on the alt-country radio charts. I want to have a showcase at SXSW and AmericanaFest. I want to tour US / Canada / Europe (and not lose money). I want folks to hear my songs and connect to them. I don’t know if I’ll ever end up Grammy’s famous – but if people like the songs I’m releasing – then I fell like I’m doing something right.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

There are three things that I do in addition to music that keep me grounded and keep my creativity open and accessible to me. First – walks in the woods. Forest bathing I’ve also heard it called – but I grew up in a heavily wooded part of central Michigan. Walks in the woods, dew getting my shoes wet in the morning, hiding out in groves of pine trees, running around river banks and climbing trees and using acorn tops to make whistles – that’s what I grew up on. The woods ground me and make me feel more myself and more in the moment. Living out in Northern California I am lucky to be within a few minute’s drive to a few different redwood forest trails. So getting out – usually with the dog – and walking in the woods is absolutely crucial to keeping my head on straight and inspiration coming.

Second is dance. I spent over 10 years as a child in competitive dance classes, obsessed over the movie and show Fame, and basically was convinced for a very long time that my destiny was to move to New York to try and dance and sing on Broadway while living in a crappy studio apartment and having wild and torrid affairs. I had a great imagination. When I hit my teens I kept dancing but my body type no longer matched what the world told me was ‘dancerly’ – so after high school, I gave up on it.

About ten years ago I decided that I was losing too much joy by not dancing – that only I was going to define what was ‘appropriate’ for myself. So I hunted down some dance classes and started back up. It was touch and go for a while – but now I am in a dance school and take class 3-5 days a week. It brings me back to being in the moment. Interpreting songs through movement is another way that I can reconnect to my songwriting when daily life is too stressful and I find myself stuck in my head.

And lastly is poetry. It goes hand in hand with my songwriting – but every song for me starts as a poem. And when I’m feeling uninspired – reading work by folks like Hayden Carruth, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sharon Olds, Langston Hughes, Li Young Lee – the beauty of the language reconnects me to a primal soul sort of place and helps me slow down enough to rediscover the experiences around me in a way that I start turning them into song.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm