EMILY GROGAN

 

Emily Grogan

by Lindsay Crudele

 

You just can’t fit a piano in a backpack.

Between breaks from her job as a cook at the Rat, Emily Grogan was
getting a taste of a scene far different from her classical roots.
Eventually, she traded her keys for strings, and now the
multi-instrumentalist is releasing her third album. As a single mom,
her songs about picking up and moving on have attracted the attention
of the Today show, and her band HRT, with a group of other
mothers from Sharon, MA, will be the focus of a 13-week television
series on Canadian network television.

In anticipation of the release, Emily reflected recently on the
changes of the past few years, including the versatility of playing
multiple instruments, writing and singing, her motherhood and, at one
point, the now-squashed consideration of walking away from music once
and for all.

“I have to kind of speed song write,” she said. The way parenthood
affects her writing the most is in her style of communication. “My
communication’s gotten better since I had children,” she said,
describing earlier years as a person not quite so verbose, taking a
back seat as a guitarist or drummer. “I never wrote lyrics to any of my
songs, or I’d write little riffs that might be catchy.”

It was after she gave birth to her second daughter that she
entertained the thought of singing, as her band searched for a singer.
Her bandmate suggested Emily go ahead and assume the role. “She said,
‘you have a nice voice, you should sing,’ and I said, ‘okay, maybe.’
She kind of gave me the confidence to write lyrics; she really made me
think I’m not just a musician or an instrumentalist, but a vocalist. I
started singing just because we couldn’t find a singer.”

That was about eight years ago. After her second child, she began
writing more and more. Following separation from her now ex-husband,
Emily said, “I had lots to say, and to write about. I finally connected
with my emotions. I really started to feel things in a different way.
My style was definitely the same, but that really helped me with
lyrics.”

Emily said that she recently reflected with friend Heidi Saperstein
(SnowLeopards) about the state of women in the Boston music scene, then
and now.

“Back then there were like no women in the scene, it was so devoid
of female musicians,” she said. They remarked that, “…both in our late
30s, how strange is it that NOW, our music is connecting with people.
Back then, if you were over 30, forget it, you’ weren’t valid, no one
would want to hear you. Now that we’re closer to 40, no one seems to
care, it’s like, oh well, we like the music you’re doing. Both of us
feel like we never thought in our late 30s we’d be doing music on the
local scene or any scene and feel like what we’re creating is
connecting with people.”

But some old habits die hard, and Emily said that she’ll still find
that her multi-instrumentalism surprises people. “The guy I’ve been
with for a few years is a musician,” she said, “and sometimes when he
introduces me to new people, they treat me like the girlfriend. They
never assume I do music… Some people, when they hear I’m a musician,
they ask first if I’m the bass player, or the singer, or the
keyboardist.” When she answers that her repertoire includes guitar,
saxophone, drums, and bass, she said, “They kind of look at me like, ‘I
didn’t expect that.’ I’ve heard people say that. I’m not an expert, but
I’ve played all these. It is interesting that as a female, people don’t
expect you to be a multi-instrumentalist.” Or, when people hear her
record, she said some have asked who does the writing and arranging.

“Women have the ability,” she explained, “but for whatever reason,
because it’s not culturally acceptable, women haven’t felt the
confidence to take on that role, to produce the CD… I don’t think it’s
at all a reflection of women’s innate ability. A lot of stuff in life
is confidence… Women aren’t used to thinking of it as an option.”

For Emily, there weren’t a lot of guitar-wielding women to mimic.
But her own daughter sees her musicianship commonplace enough that
she’s taken up guitar study herself. “My 11-year-old daughter is a kick
ass lead guitarist already,” Emily said. “For her, it’s like, ‘oh,
women play guitar.’ For me, I only saw men play… She does have that
confidence. It’s amazing to see an 11-year-old girl playing. We didn’t
really have very many idols like that.”

A different kind of influence shaped Emily’s future from home;
scientist parents instilled her with a love of math and science. She
describes music as the perfect intersection of quantity and quality,
and music the expression of math.

“I started off as a math major in college,” said Emily. “I think I
felt that the purity of existence lied in numbers. When I listened to
music, it was just the sound of numbers. They were not these dry
things. I thought, this is the base language of how to describe
everything.”

Her first foray into bands began when she picked up a guitar while
cooking at the Rat. “That they even hired me was a miracle,” said
Emily, explaining that someone had misheard her age as 24. She was in
fact 18. On breaks, she’d stop and watch the bands play, like Buffalo
Tom, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, and Hole, the latter to a crowd of about
15 people. “I remember being really impressed,” she said. “[Courtney
Love] was the first woman I’d really seen go for it with a gut, total,
raw energy that most women restrain themselves from putting out.”

Her piano wasn’t portable enough to translate to a band, so she
visited Mr. Music in Allston. “The guy, Steven, there, looked at me and
said, ‘you need a guitar. I’ll give you a good price if you learn how
to play.’”
Mister Butch, then a Kenmore Square fixture, invited
her to join his band for an upcoming show, opening for Steve Albini’s
Rapeman. She told Butch she only knew three chords, and he said,
“That’s okay, that’s all you need to know.” She said, “I remember being
like, I’ve been playing for three weeks! But it gave me a kind of
flavor. I loved the rawness of rock ‘n’ roll. I love the guitar. It’s
so percussive and melodic. That’s when I joined up with Heidi
[Saperstein]. And we got a band going.”

Emily played in bands in New York , and when she returned, pregnant
at 24, to Boston , she thought perhaps her career in music had seen its
day. But after two years of motherhood, she decided she needed an
outlet, and joined up with Andrea Gillis in Red Chord on guitar and
saxophone.

Her classically trained roots have taken a front seat to the rawness
of the rock ‘n’ roll she first called home, though. “Now when I write,
I hear strings in my head,” she said. “I’m much more influenced by the
beginning of my education. The things I enjoy about classical music are
the things that I hate about it at the same time. If it’s done right,
it’s so powerful, but if it’s done wrong, it’s fancy bullshit.”

Her new record, At Sea , uses classical elements, she explained, in
order to reach the vastness of grappling change, pain, and progress
through the means of strings and horn sections. “My last album ( iO )
was more self-involved, and I got tired of hearing myself whine,” she
said. “This next album is about moving on.”

She recorded it with Ducky Carlisle in Medford , with whom she
described as a pleasure to work. There’s a listening party scheduled at
the Plough & Stars on February 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm . The
official record release is on March 3 at the Lizard Lounge with Andrea
Gillis and The SnowLeopards.

Hopefully, moving on will involve moving back to Boston at some
point in the near future, getting back into the city with her children,
and finding a way for her music to help support that. Her newest band,
HRT, is made up of mothers located in her hometown of Sharon , MA ,
whose show at T.T.’s in January left a line of people down the block
shut out of a sold out show.

“Who would’ve thought that mothers in their late 30s and early 40s
would cause this kind of noise about town?” she asked. “All of a sudden
big things are happening for us, and I thought, I’ve got to give music
one more chance. I definitely want to give it a chance. I was getting
jaded, thinking, nothing will happen, and all of a sudden I’m on the Today show.”

Next up is a thirteen-part series so far planned for air on Canadian
network television, after agents caught wind of the band. “That’s so
surreal,” she said. “Is my life really that interesting? ‘This
episode’s about Emily, cooking dinner for her children,’” she joked.
Emily suggested that the possible conflict between being a mother and a
rock musician is at the heart of what the producers are trying to
target.

However, those two elements are perfectly at harmony to Emily. “Most
of the people I know, when they became mothers, became stronger, became
much more aware of feelings… You have to be tough to raise kids. You’re
up against so many challenges—the whole culture is waiting to fuck your
kid up. You’re having to draw boundaries, everywhere you look, you have
to be super aware. I don’t know how at odds it is.”

And rock ‘n’ roll is a perfect release because she sees its
simplicity as cathartic. “Rock is popular because life is so complex,”
she said. “It’s the same reason classical music was popular when life
wasn’t so complex; people needed stimulation.”

Her days are hectic, starting at 6:30 to deliver the first daughter
to school, days spent waiting tables at the Plough & Stars, picking
up the kids, buying and making dinner and the things that come in
between, once a week when the kids are with their father meeting with
up to three of her bands—her own, which meets about monthly, Angeline,
and HRT. But she considers herself lucky to be so busy, and says that
she’s driven to keep working on her music.

“A lot of people put down the thinking that anyone can play in a
band. Why put it down, when people are getting together and creating.
There’s so little in our culture where people can get together. Look at
protesting; people can barely get together for that.

“I kind of like the new movement where every kid wants to be in a band. And I get to be in three.”

www.emilygrogan.com

www.myspace.com/emilygrogan

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