Music: See Emily Play

Final 97Xposure winner Emily Strand finds increasing success, room to grow and a full band

May 19, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Dale M. Johnson

Cincinnati native Emily Strand (center, with guitar) and her newly assembled backing band have a busy 2004 planned, with two CDs scheduled for release.

Emily Strand was, until late last year, mainly a solo acoustic performer in Cincinnati (where she was born and raised) and Dayton (where she now lives and works). Before that, she honed her chops in a variety of bands in Cincinnati, Dayton, Evansville, Ind., and Nashville and, in 1999, recorded and released her first CD, Evansville, a surprisingly assured record, given that it was her recording debut.

Strand gigged around, gained a following and last year decided to enter (the now sadly defunct) WOXY's 97Xposure contest for unsigned bands. She was accepted into the contest and then was chosen to be in the semi-finals. At that point, about a month and a half before the semi-finals, she thought that maybe she ought to have a band.

"I love being able to play solo," Strand says. "I love that freedom of just being able to say (to a venue), 'OK, you can only pay $75 for this gig? I'll do it. But I can't get the band up there too.' I love playing solo, it's a great rush to play solo.

But, solo, I don't have the 'high end' or the 'big sound,' and I think that the band helps me do what I need to do with that."

So she sought out Whitney Barricklow (of The Whitney Barricklow Band) to do backing vocals. To be accurate about it, Whitney wasn't "sought out" as much as she was just simply asked, because Barricklow and Strand have been best friends since childhood and perform together often.

Then Strand turned to another friend, drummer Shawn Elsbernd, to assemble the rest of the band. He brought in bassist/producer Ashley Shepherd and Scott Hacker on guitar. Strand plays acoustic guitar and sings lead vocals in the band.

For some, a month and a half isn't enough time to learn one song, much less a whole set. But the players Strand and Elsbernd assembled aren't just "some" musicians, as was evidenced when the newly formed band and Emily advanced to the 97Xposure finals in December of last year. They faced strong competition from the expert lyricism and amazing Pop sensibilities of The Spectacular Fantastic and from the layered textures and top-quality songwriting of cari clara.

But Strand and her band won the contest. Their exuberance was infectious, their energy rippled through the crowd and the band gave Strand a wide and varied tapestry on which she painted her evocative lyrics.

It's Strand's exceptional gift for lyrics and a hook that sets her apart from the pack. While her words aren't as ethereal as her idol Joni Mitchell nor as colloquial or surreal and gothic as the Ass Ponys' Chuck Cleaver, Strand shares with those two the ability to make each line she writes a richly detailed, haunting snapshot of life as she knows it or imagines it to be.

Case in point: her song "Voodoo Doll," a dark tale of betrayal and sly revenge in which the voodoo doll of the title is only a metaphor for the coming retribution. From the way she tells it, you get the sense that the character in the song wouldn't out-and-out shoot her betrayer in the head — that would be too unrefined, too messy. The wronged person in the song strikes you as someone that would cut the brake line of the wrong-doer's car, an exact millimeter a day, for weeks, until it gave out and the betrayer would go hurtling over a cliff. Preferably far away. And alone. And possibly cold, starving and unloved, too, for good measure.

Strand doesn't come right out and say any of that, but the song certainly evokes those images and that feel. The sort of disturbing part is that while "Voodoo Doll" is dark lyrically, the music, while not "bubbly," isn't a funeral dirge either; it's a pleasant yet complex "strum along" song with a killer hook.

Such is the juju that Strand conjures with her music. "Voodoo Doll" was in rotation on 97X until the station recently changed owners. The good news is that "Voodoo Doll" can be found on her new CD, Delay in the Connection, which is scheduled to come out in July.

"I found a great producer in Nashville who was extremely generous with his time," says Strand, referring to knob-twiddler Eric Fritsch (who's worked extensively with ex-V-Roys frontman Scott Miller). "There's a great band on there that I already knew and had already worked with and they already knew some of my tunes."

In regards to a second CD due in 2004, Strand says, "We cashed in our studio time (from the 97Xposure win) at Ultrasuede (recording studio) and cut seven songs in two days. Live."

She hopes to release the second as-yet-to-be-titled CD (produced by Shepherd) sometime in the fall.

The most telling thing Strand says during our chat — and the thing that really exemplifies her approach to life and her music — indicates her burning eagerness to constantly get better.

"Somebody once asked me which instruments I'd like to play," she says, "and I answered them with, 'Either one of the two that I already play ... but just so much better.' "

It's the room that Strand gives herself to grow and learn, and the confidence she displays in the process, that makes her music stand out.

EMILY STRAND ( plays at the Northside Tavern May 26 as a part of the free Murder Creek Assembly Americana showcase. On May 29 at Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, she'll perform with special guests the Kim Taylor Band.