I only recently discovered the music of Emily Hurd, even though I’d actually heard her work in the past without realizing it. And the same is true for far too many other people, folks who have heard her songs and yet remain sadly unaware of not only her name, but Hurd’s real talent and accomplishments as a musician and songwriter. Still, there are signs that things on that front have begun to change.
Hurd’s work has already begun to seep into the public consciousness. Her music has been featured on the television drama NCIS. A gifted performer, she’s opened or played with a variety of widely recognized artists, including Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn and Bettye Lavette. Her compositions have drawn the praise of her fellow tunesmiths even while they’ve won or placed in the finals of a number of prominent competitions, including the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, NPR’s NewSong Contest, and The International Songwriting Competition. And she’s developed a fan base that’s big enough to support an annual celebration of her music, EmilyFest.
Her latest effort, Any Given Day, was just released and has already garnered favorable reviews from critics and listeners alike. It’s one of those discs that works on many levels, and which holds up well to repeated airings. And, as Hurd explains below, it’s also a true rarity, a Christmas recording that can be enjoyed during the holiday season or at any other point of the year.
I’ve read that Any Given Day, despite being a Christmas album, is also a disc that can be enjoyed during any season. Was that an intentional choice on your part, and, if so, why go that route?
Yep, I definitely intended Any Given Day to be an all-seasons album. I shamelessly listen to Christmas music year round, so I guess I wanted to make an album for holiday nerds like myself, or maybe create some new holiday nerds by making a nice album about human kindness and good will.
What special challenges did that decision present to you as a songwriter? And just how difficult was it to write songs that were linked to the holiday season and yet worked on any day of the year?
It wasn’t hard at all. The songs just kind of poured out of me without consciously trying to omit references to Frosty, Rudolph, etc. I let myself feel what I feel about Christmas, and then I let the songs flow. Turns out, I had a lot to say.
If memory serves, you wrote all of these tunes within the space of one month. Is that typical for you, or does your creative process normally need more time to bear fruit?
Completely normal. I’m either writing like a bandit, or not. I have a sense of urgency about songwriting. I know that creative spurts are fleeting, and I try to seize them when I’m lucky enough to be wrapped up in them. And when that happens, songwriting trumps everything, including food and sleep.
What’s your approach to songwriting? Do you usually begin with the lyrics and then come up with a tune for it, or perhaps start with a melody that somehow suggests something verbal, or is it all a bit more complicated than that for you?
It’s a little less complicated than that. I sit down with an instrument, and I start playing and singing at the same time until something happens that I love. Then I decide to make that one bit the focal point of the tune. Then, I turn off my brain and try to surrender. It sounds crazy, but I believe each song is already written, and it’s my job to pull it carefully and correctly out of the sky and put it onto a piece of paper.
How about the arrangements? Do you have all the instrumentation and various parts worked out from the start, or does that develop while working up the song with your fellow musicians?
None of these tunes were arranged ahead of time. The guys showed up to the studio, I gave them chord charts, and away we went.
One thing that struck me about Any Given Day is that, for the most part, it’s an upbeat and positive set with only a few hints of a Blue Christmas. Is that just how it all came out, or was that the result of a decision on your part—or perhaps even your general attitude towards life?
The record came out happy because that’s how I’m feeling these days. I’m alive, and life is grand.
On the production side of things, one thing that struck me was that it all was recorded it in one day-long session. Why work that way? And what lessons, if any, did that experience offer you?
That’s a great question. We recorded the album in one evening. We showed up at 5 pm, and we left at 11 pm. There are two reasons I love this live recording approach. One, it’s cheap. Two, you get the unmistakable live sound that no amount of EQ could possibly recreate. The energy is raw and invigorating. The downside to recording this way is that you can’t really fix your mistakes; you have to live with them. But there’s a life lesson in that, yes?
There’s also an organic feel to the record, a natural flow from one tune to the next, which led me to wonder just how important sequencing is to you and your work when recording or when playing out live?
Well, this still blows me away. Because of our time constraints, we had to submit the artwork to the manufacturer before we recorded. Which means we had to come up with a song order before we hit the studio in order for the album to line up with the artwork. This album’s song sequence is completely arbitrary.
What do you get from making music, generally?
I think I just feel really myself when I’m making music, like the real me is doing what the real me does. When I’m writing and singing songs, it authenticates me.
How about playing out? What does that experience give you that playing for personal enjoyment doesn’t provide?
The joy of playing out is the other people in the room and what we all feel collectively. I don’t ever treat a show like I’m the person on the stage, and everyone else is watching me. I guess I believe we’re all in it together, having some laughs, making some music, and hopefully feeling a bit more inspired.
What do you hope that listeners get from this new disc?
I always hope that my music makes people feel understood. I also hope that it makes them open their mouths and sing along. To me, that’s the ultimate goal.
Anything to add before I let you get back to work?
First, you can buy Any Given Day many ways. Learn what they are on the homepage of my website.
Second, please check out the video “Chain of Light” on the homepage of my website. It will be released on December 17, 2012. We’re monetizing it on Vimeo, and we need people to watch it, leave a tip, then pass along the link. We—my fellow Midwest music makers and myself—are trying to raise money for the Bright Hope Foundation and the Great Lakes Nature Conservancy.
Third, my new bluegrass/country band, Stone Blind Valentine, has finished their new record. We’re releasing our debut album, “Burn Like a Field,” on Valentine’s Day, 2013, and it’ll knock your socks off. Check it out on the band's website.