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Meet Emily Keener, 2017 No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award Winner

Performing last in a talented roster of five finalists for the 2017 No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award at FreshGrass last month, 18-year-old Emily Keener of Ohio looked calm and assured as she performed her two songs for the competition. She wasn’t rattled by an audience that reached well back into a large auditorium at Mass MoCA, nor by the table of judges right in front of her – singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan; Rachel Chanoff, curator of performing arts and film for MASS MoCA, and editor-in-chief Kim Ruehl and publisher Chris Wadsworth from No Depression.

After all, she’d performed in that setup before. She was a contestant in Season 10 of The Voice, making it to the top 12, with help from celebrity coach Pharrell Williams. At FreshGrass, the chairs didn’t turn and the proceedings weren’t televised, but the excitement was real later in the festival, when Keener was named the contest winner. She’ll receive $3000 from the FreshGrass Foundation, a full day of recording at Compass Records in Nashville with Alison Brown, and a main stage set at next year’s FreshGrass Festival.

We checked in with Keener to learn more about her songs, the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award experience, and what’s coming next for this promising young artist. Check out a video of her FreshGrass performance at the bottom of this post!

Q: How did you get started with music?

A: I picked up the guitar when I was 11 after years of watching my Dad play and sing country and rock. I was really determined to learn it, so I taught myself out of any books I could find and started learning cover songs. I had always liked to sing, so I found even more joy in it while playing songs on my own. A local singer/songwriter saw potential in me and taught me the basics of form, theory, and lyricism. That was the year I turned 12. After six months of soaking in all that, I started playing bar and winery gigs with a bunch of my new original music. It felt very natural to me, so I’ve been working ever since.

Q: What were the names of the two songs you played for the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Contest at FreshGrass?

A: “I Know” and “Fire & Brimstone.”

Q: Why were those the two songs you picked to perform?

A: I think they represent the spectrum of my interests as a writer and performer. “I Know” is uniquely composed, with some interesting free time signatures and a distinct flow to the melody. It hints at jazz, and falls into a groove that isn’t always associated with folk music. While my roots lie in Americana, folk, and country, I love jazz, soul, pop, R&B, and world music as well. As for “Fire & Brimstone,” it’s close to my heart for a few reasons. First, it reflects a classic style of lyricism and form that conjures up a deep sense of nostalgia for me personally. The story is familiar and moves along with a little Midwestern simplicity. Second, it’s autobiographical in many ways, and I am emotionally involved with the song every time I perform it. That vulnerability is an important part of who I am, so it’s a good snapshot of me these days.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your songwriting process?

A: Usually, I come up with pieces of the guitar or piano part first. Once I have a section of music to work with, I let the sonic landscape kind of inspire the lyrics and direction of the song. I often end up composing melody and lyrics at the same time, and edit as I go. If a song is right, I finish it quickly and don’t usually have a lot to change. If a song doesn’t feel right, I’m sometimes guilty of letting it go unfinished. My favorite writing experiences involve true inspiration; the feeling of uncovering something that was already there.

Q: What songwriters do you most admire, and why?

A: I really admire Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Ray LaMontagne, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson (among many, many others). The music of the ’60s and ’70s really resonates with me, and I have a soft spot in my heart for anything reminiscent of that time. Conversational, musical, and intelligent songwriting inspires me.

Q: How did you feel at the contest? Were you nervous? Did you think you might have won?

A: I was feeling grateful to be a finalist and to get to check out the FreshGrass festival. The other four singer/songwriters are extremely talented, so it was great to hear them perform. I wasn’t nervous to perform, but I didn’t think I’d win! I was absolutely surprised by that. It’s tough to have an objective ear for your own work and to predict what peoples’ reactions will be.

Q: What does it mean to you to win a contest like this?

A: It’s very affirming of the path I’ve chosen in life. Since I began, I’ve been lucky enough to have so many people encourage my work. So, to hear it from people who obviously know and care a great deal about songwriting is a really cool feeling. It’s an incentive to keep working as hard as I have been!

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I just finished a successful Kickstarter project to fund my new record, so my focus is now on recording and producing it. Soon, I’ll be on tour with the new music, and I’m really looking forward to that!

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https://youtu.be/JAKV8SWyV48

Video by Jack Criddle for Mass MoCA.

Keener’s newest album, Breakfast, can be heard on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon. Check out her website, www.emilykeener.com, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram (@EmilyKeenerMusic), or Twitter (@EmilyKeener).

Are you sure there isn't a typo in this interview? You wrote that Emily is eighteen years of age, while clearly her talent, poise and the responses to your questions indicate someone of intelligence and depth one would not neccessarily expect from someone at this stage of their life. Clearly her past experiences from playing local gigs to performing on television to millions of people goes a long way in honing her stage presence and skill sets, but it's also obvious to me that she is in possession of something undefinable that sets her apart from so many others. I wish her well down an often bumpy career path for singer-songwriters, and my only advice would be to not spend too much time trying to chase a dream that you're already living. Every day that you get to do what you're passionate about is a special gift that need not be measured by the size of the audience nor the amount of money you're paid.