My Interviews - Emily Otteson

Emily Otteson

©2016 By Bronson Herrmuth

Emily Otteson is one special and very talented artist, songwriter, and entertainer. From the first time I had the pleasure of attending one of her shows, she's continued to impress me with her vocal delivery, her songs, and her stage presence. When Emily steps on a stage it's quite obvious that she loves to perform and she loves to entertain her audience. Her voice is unique and her choice of phrasing and melodic improvisations make her stand out and allow her to claim her own place in a town known for great singers. Never does she feel the need to sound like someone else or mimic other vocalists, she's always Emily, which is a treat to say the least. Her laugh is contagious and her personality shines through whether she's singing or relating to her crowd in between songs. Having shared the stage with Emily I can tell you without a doubt that she's a pro, and there's never a dull moment when she's performing. Emily Otteson has the ability and the drive to take her career to the next level and let's hope she does, because I know she will entertain us every step of the way.

You can listen to my 15 minute
interview with Emily, recorded May 9, 2016. All photos ©2016 by Maria Lamb

Bronson: How old were you when you first started playing music?
Emily Otteson: Well I've been singing since I was born, basically, and when I was about 12 years old the music director at our church, she had a dream that I was all grown up and singing on stage. So she came up to me and she said, "Emily, I don't know where you're going in life but I think I want to help you get there." So she just kinda took me under her wing and started.

Bronson: So basically you started singing in church?
Emily Otteson: Yeah and it was the kind of environment where she would just go, "Hey, next week you're going to sing and play piano so you better get practicing and if you need help, I'm here."

Bronson: So piano was your first instrument?
Emily Otteson: Yes.

Bronson: Was anybody in your family musical?
Emily Otteson: My mom did choir in college and my dad played the violin a little bit growing up, so music was around in our household.

Bronson: So you're a multi-instrumentalist and you started with ...?
Emily Otteson: Started with piano, that was just basic like church worship chords--learning to read chord charts and things. That's when I was 12 and then when I was about 13, I went to a Nickel Creek concert and fell in love with the mandolin. I saved up and bought a mandolin when I was about 13 and then that kind of took over my life for a while (laughing) and blossomed from there.

Bronson: You also play guitar?
Emily Otteson: Yep, picked that up really when I was like 20, so I played piano, mandolin mostly, and then when I got to be about 19 or 20, I just was like ... Yeah, well I guess I should learn how to play guitar (laughing).

Bronson: Did you tour with the church?
Emily Otteson: There was a band, a little folk group that was formed within the church that I grew up in called Strangers and Pilgrims. We'd go on like little mini church tours just around Oregon and Washington.

Bronson: So you're from Portland?
Emily Otteson: Yeah.

Bronson: You were born in Portland?
Emily Otteson: Born in Seattle, raised in Portland.

Bronson: When did you actually start writing songs?
Emily Otteson: I stared writing when I was 13, after I went to a Nickel Creek concert and just ... because of that concert ... like, I had grown up in the Christian world going to these Michael W. Smith arena concerts, and for the first time when I was 13, I went to this bluegrass concert that was this intimate setting where the acoustic instruments were just creating this sonic sound that I'd never heard before. I cried because it was so beautiful. I just couldn't believe my ears. So from there I went and bought myself a mandolin, saved up and got a little journal and started writing songs.

Bronson: So did you take lessons or did you just teach yourself?
Emily Otteson: For mandolin, I started just teaching myself. That was before I think YouTube even, so I couldn't look it up (laughing) and I really wasn't on the internet either ... but yeah, just taught myself and then about 2 years into that, I started taking lessons from a guy named Brian just to make sure that my technique was correct (laughing) and so I'd take a lesson from him maybe every 2 months.

Bronson: Then after all that you decided to move to Nashville.
Emily Otteson: Oh yeah.

Bronson: Why Nashville? Why not New York, L.A., Chicago, New Orleans?
Emily Otteson: Welll ... that's a loaded question. In a nutshell, I grew up singing in church. When I was about 19, 20, in Portland, I just kinda had this realization of like hey, I love the church, I love that context, but like what about all the people that would never step foot in a church? Like who's gonna go party with them? So I started playing out and about in Portland when I was 19 or 20, picked up the guitar, started doing my own shows, and then randomly came to visit Nashville last June. My mom was hired to do some business consulting so I came as her assistant. I never thought I would move here--I thought it would be fun to visit sometime. I've had friends who had come out to Nashville before and been here for a few months and left crying because they weren't "discovered" (laughing) and so I just never thought Nashville, but I got here last June during Country Music Fest, and I thought I would get here and be overwhelmed with the level of artistry and musicality, and I thought that I would feel like I was like the lowest rung. Then I got here and just through a series of crazy events I ended up opening for a girl named Morgan Myles that week ... it was Country Music Fest ... and played some songs and some folks came up to me afterwards that were just like, "Hey, you should maybe move here."

Bronson: So if you had your ideal group together and you were getting ready to go on stage, what would be your instrumentation? What would we be looking at on stage?
Emily Otteson: Definitely my voice (laughing) that would be the first instrument. My voice, guitar, some percussionist, probably upright bass, fiddle, and maybe like a synth.

Bronson: Every artist in the world hates this, but what would you say if someone was going to describe Emily Otteson, the genre of music that she performs, what would be that genre?
Emily Otteson: I would say ... tongue in cheek yet heartfelt ... Groovy Folk (laughing).

Bronson: Groovy Folk.
Emily Otteson: (laughing) Yes.

Bronson: So if you could, with that group that you just described ... and I'm surprised you didn't say mandolin?
Emily Otteson: Oh I just assumed that I was ...

Bronson: So you basically, you're either on mandolin or you're on guitar? One of those two instruments you're going to be playing?
Emily Otteson: Yeah and I'm assuming the fiddle player can go to mandolin as well (laughing).

Bronson: Right, most of us can ... you know they kind of go together.
Emily Otteson: Yes.

Bronson: So if that group, Emily's group, could go out right now and share the stage with any act that you would want too, who would that group be?
Emily Otteson: The Punch Brothers for sure. What I appreciate about them are the musical lines that they cross in their live shows, and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek--he would probably be my biggest influence just being an entertainer. Going to Nickel Creek shows, watching him talk between songs, kinda like the banter and monologue. It's not just someone talking, they're entertaining and wrangling the crowd and all that, so Chris Thile has had a huge impact on my life. I'd love to be on stage with him (laughing).

Bronson: So when are we going to record?
Emily Otteson: That is a great question. Currently I'm figuring that out. I know there's a lot of people here I could throw some money at and they could get a recording out, but right now I'm just figuring out, searching for some producers that I really blend well with. So there's one person that I'm taking to and there's some other options.

Bronson: Are you anticipating your recording being a full length album?
Emily Otteson: I have the content for it. It would just be a matter of whether I want to or not.

Bronson: I know you're very active on Social Media and you have your own blog.
Emily Otteson: I do, yes.

Bronson: And I was reading your blog and you were talking about that you recently auditioned for the Voice?
Emily Otteson: (laughing) Yes.

Bronson: Well talk about that. I really loved your perspective of it.
Emily Otteson: Yeah, thank you.

Bronson: Talk about that a little bit and that had to have been exciting?
Emily Otteson: Oh my goodness, yes. Well what I loved about that was ... Well, for some context, being a musician in Nashville so far, and even back in Portland, people are very supportive of one another--a rising tide raises all ships. It's like, you're doing your music thing, I'm doing mine, and we're all in this together! But preparing to audition for the Voice, it was like there were higher stakes you know, and either I walk in and they like me or they don't like me and so I gotta make sure I'm on top of my game (laughing) more then I would be, so it was fun to prepare and get there, and it was just such a different atmosphere than I'm used to. It was very robotic. I arrived, was checked in, and every interaction I had with one of the staff members was just like ... okay number 24 you're up (laughing) you're not a person, you're a number ... but, met a lot of really cool people. It was fun to get dressed up and walk into their beautiful studios and sing on an awesome sound system (laughing) into a camera.

Bronson: Was that the first time you've ever competed?
Emily Otteson: In high school, the church I was a part of had a national competition called Fine Arts Festival, and you can compete at state level and if you go beyond that there's a national competition. It's all kind of arts--so singing, instruments, you can paint, you can compete in photography, but I competed in vocal solos in high school and two years in a row won the state level for vocal solo.

Bronson: So you think you would do it again? You think you'd audition again for the Voice?
Emily Otteson: I ... this is what's interesting to me about that. I would, definitely because why not? Even if I made it onto one episode that's publicity (laughing).

Bronson: Right.
Emily Otteson: But friends, I have a friend who made it to Top 3 in American Idol and then another friend who was in I think Top 10 of the Voice, and just being in Nashville there's a lot of people you meet that are like, "I was on the Voice!" ... but one of my friends who was an American Idol Top 3, we've talked a lot about was it worth it, you know, and she's said to me just based on me hustling my behind, like I'm farther along then she is just because she doesn't know the first thing about business and music and how that relates, so I mean it's a great opportunity but often you find people that have been on the show, and then they get off the show and they don't know how to use that momentum so they just kind of stay in the same place that they were.

Bronson: Have you ever thought about being in a band? You know like you were talking about there's so many of us here, have you ever thought about throwing in with other people, or are you just pretty locked in on doing your own thing?
Emily Otteson: I've thought about that a lot, and I think for me to be in a band it would have to be ... I think I trust my instincts on stage so much. I feel like I know how to read a crowd fairly well, can adjust myself accordingly. To me the most important thing in playing with people is that they can, they can track with me, and I think ... you know I've played with musicians before and we make great music, but the audience wasn't engaged. So I've thought about it but I really haven't met anyone yet that I would want to ...

Bronson: Band up with?
Emily Otteson: Band up with. You know so far it's like Emily Otteson and the Tally Ho Troupe, or whatever and usually it's musicians that I am kind of like directing. Not that I'm not a team player, it's just that when I've experimented with that and been on stage and it's like ... okay we're on stage and I can tell that I need to go this direction but they're not with me.

Bronson: So touring, probably you want to get that record out before?
Emily Otteson: Definitely yes.

Bronson: Have you ever toured internationally?
Emily Otteson: No, however that conversation just opened up yesterday.

Bronson: Really, so tell me about it.
Emily Otteson: Well I can't talk much about it yet, but a friend of mine who lives here in Nashville, he's from London and he books shows out in London.

Bronson: There's a chance maybe he can get you some gigs over there?
Emily Otteson: Yeah, the UK.

Bronson: If you could just go anywhere right now and you had to pick a country, is that where you would go?
Emily Otteson: Probably it would be Ireland and then would include maybe some Scotland, some England, just 'cause that would be great (laughing).

Bronson: Is that your roots?
Emily Otteson: I'm Irish! Yes I am! I've always wanted to go visit but anytime I think it would be fun to go visit, I always think it would be fun to go visit, but it would be even more fun to go visit and also be able to play music there.

For more information about Emily just visit her website

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