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Behind The Curtain: Miss Emily

By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Suzy Lamont.

The promise from ‘Behind The Curtain’ has always been that the artists featured offer something more than what one can find in the standard press release or regular interview. To provide readers with that exclusive insight, it pays to profile artists who are established, know the artist’s bio prior to any discussion, ask questions that are relevant to the artist and the reader, and often, to have an existing rapport with the artist. In this case, it paid to cross paths several times with Miss Emily while both of our musical acts shared the performance roster this past summer. It is true that if festival goers have enjoyed live music in person this year, they are likely acquainted with Miss Emily; she has been a strong presence on the 2022 festival scene, either billed on her own, or sharing the performance bill with Downchild. Miss Emily is someone who has been contributing to the Music Collective for approximately the past 25 years, and there’s merit in investigating - and sharing -portions of her experience as an artist.

The conversation I had with Miss Emily required no real formalities before we started to delve into the subtleties and details of her career, how her personal journey as an artist has evolved over the course of it, and her observations about the music business as they have related to her. In truth, what was scheduled to be a formal phone interview turned into a lengthy, substantive, off-the-record conversation; one that opened the door to discover that exclusive insight readers have come to expect in this forum. One thread that emerged several times in the conversation was the discussion about being a woman in the Music Collective. Miss Emily’s experience and insight certainly provides readers with that peek “behind the curtain” they seek, and it remains a very relevant topic, so this is where the focus will be in this instalment. As mentioned in every edition, I encourage readers to investigate artists featured in this article – Miss Emily has a bio and active schedule that is worth discovering; it is because of her established status it’s possible to investigate beyond the press release.

Once the focus of this article was decided, it made sense to ask Miss Emily what she thought the predominant difference is between men and women within the music Collective, in her experience. She offers:

“The obvious observation I have is that there are many more men in the music industry than women. The split varies from genre to genre and role to role, but most of the people I’ve worked with in my lifetime in music have been men. I personally feel I’ve had to work harder to get the same opportunities as my male peers, and I feel like this is likely a typical experience of many other women. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that many of my female peers have gone down to casual or part-time music work, or left the industry all together. I’m sure it varies from woman to woman, but I have to wonder if this happens partially because this industry is hard to balance if a woman chooses to marry or have children. I was the only food source for my daughter for the first 6 months of her life…in those days, I was primarily a bar musician…needless to say, it wasn’t an ideal environment for my early days of motherhood. I’m sure I’m not the only woman with a story along those lines.”

Knowing that Miss Emily has identified a difference between male and female artists, It made sense to ask her if she felt there is a different standard for female singers and performers:

“Generally, I feel like women have to be better and more consistent in their talent. Being a minority gender makes us stand out more, which can be beneficial at times, but through much of my talent over being booked because my gender is missing in a festival lineup, but I feel like we’ve moved generally in a positive direction in recent years.”

As a follow up to Miss Emily’s thoughts, the next natural question was what Miss Emily thinks has changed in the past 20 years with respect to gender bias in the music industry. Some readers might find her answer sobering, however, this is, perhaps, the peek behind the curtain people are here to find:

“Honestly? Not much. I’m a Soul singer. The Blues community has been more embracing of what I do, but when my sound was more Rock, there was a constant uphill battle as a woman. If you think about Rock radio, you’ll notice that women aren’t played. The few exceptions make up a microscopic percentage of the airtime, and that standard has been that way since the birth of the genre. That’s an issue – big time. Will it change any time soon? It’s not looking like it.”

Miss Emily’s thoughts provide an opportunity to go deeper still. Knowing that she has experienced gender bias over the course of her career, there’s merit in asking what she has done to cope with being a woman in the music industry, and subsequently, how it has impacted her. Candidly, Miss Emily offers her truth:

“Looking back over the past 25 years in this industry, I can tell you there’s a legitimate reason why I use a low speaking voice and often swear like a sailor (laughs). For years, I tried to make myself more “tom-boyish”; I tried to fit into the male world when I clearly looked physically very feminine. In the past 10 years or so, I’ve developed an attitude of what I call ‘modern day feminism’; I almost over-feminize myself in a lot of ways. It’s like I’m making up for lost time a bit. I’m in my 40s, and I‘ve never dressed more feminine on stage. For the first time in my life, I’m wearing pink. I think after all those years of fighting the obvious – being a woman and standing out because of it – I’m finally embracing the fact that being a woman sets me apart from many of my peers in this industry, and I’m ok with that. We are finally in a time where we are celebrating individuality – not just in the Arts, but in communities as a whole. I used to get offended when someone offered to carry my gear, as if because I was clearly less muscular and wearing heels meant I couldn’t haul my own shit. I look at it differently now. If someone wants to sacrifice their own physical health to carry my gear, that’s now saving the wear and tear on my body. I’m not a precious woman, but some of those older, male-manner practices work in my favour, ultimately, so, why fight them. I don’t feel the need anymore. I just changed my attitude, and outlook on them. It’s not an attitude that works for every woman, but it definitely works better for me now.”

After mentioning what works for her, the opportunity was there to ask Miss Emily to offer one final thought: what advice she would give to an aspiring female artist who is looking to follow the path of a career in music. Without pretention, Miss Emily shares a substantial amount of advice that only an experienced artist can credibly deliver:

“My first advice would be to create your own path. Be smarter than I was. Value your talent and give yourself greater worth earlier in your career. Be adventurous, and think outside the box. Opportunities often won’t fall in your lap. Be a business person. Take charge and find ways of making opportunities when it feels like there aren’t any. Most importantly – be kind. Be supportive, and champion other artists and music industry workers. Don’t be afraid to say no, but make sure you are saying ‘yes’ more than you’re saying ‘no’. Don’t be precious – this industry will eat you alive if you are. It’s often not fair, so, suck it up and change your attitude and find a way to be in control of what you can reasonably be in control of. Work harder than your peers if you want to get ahead. There’s always someone better and more talented, so always try to be inspired by those people. Never stop growing and learning, and being more compassionate. Value the people you work with – I always say ‘it takes a village to raise me’, and I rely on my village in the toughest times, and celebrate with them in the happiest times. Find a village of people who believe in what you’re doing and treat them like gold.”

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Bernard Clark.

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum Big Voice. Big Sound.

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