jason kundrath speaks with musician, actor, heartthrob Val Emmich …
‘Rath On Record #6
Artist: Val Emmich
Homebase: The New Jersey/New York metro area
Players: Val Emmich — vocals, guitar, songs; Eric Micali — drums, vocals; Rob Fitzgerald — bass, vocals; Ron Haney — guitars, vocals; Bart Schoudel — keyboards, vocals
Let’s just get it out of way: Val Emmich is a handsome guy. Very handsome. So handsome indeed, he’s borderline pretty. And in this vain world we live in, Val’s face gives him a measurable advantage over a nation of average-looking guys trying to make a name for themselves. But don’t hate him just because he’s beautiful. He’s also genuinely talented and driven-as-hell.
And while we’re getting it all out on the table, Val Emmich is an actor as well as a singer/songwriter. As it stands today, it’s likely more people have seen his face on television than have heard his music. He had a supporting role on the third season of ABC’s Ugly Betty as “Jesse” — the handsome, singer/songwriter down the hall. He has also starred in a bunch of memorable commercials — most recently, a holiday spot for Macy’s where he portrays a shoe salesman whose trip to the stockroom has him crossing paths with a mind-boggling list of pop-culture icons including Donald Trump, Jennifer Lopez and P. Diddy.
But regardless of his membership in the Screen Actors Guild, Val Emmich will always be, first-and-foremost, a dyed-in-the-wool musician. From his college days at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he first led the avant-garde proto-pop/rock troupe Ben Trovato, Emmich was an artist that couldn’t slow down. He had music in his head, along with a trunk full of all the passion, lust, fear and anxiety that most people feel in their early 20’s. And before he could sort it all out, it was already recorded, mixed, mastered and on CD. It was an exciting curiosity, and certainly unique, but it wasn’t destined for for the masses.
With his next project, Awake Asleep, he began to smooth out some of the edges, but in 2002, when he picked up an acoustic guitar and went solo with the stunning concept EP The Fifteen Minute Relationship, just about everyone who heard it knew that Val Emmich was a star on the rise. Detailing the lifespan of a romantic relationship from hope to anxiety, and then from heartache to anger and despair, each of its five songs are musically and lyrically remarkable, showcasing Emmich’s cutting observations and his vulnerable baritone. This was a unique, new voice.
To sum the subsequent nine years in a few sentences: Emmich followed it up with his debut full-length Slow Down Kid which featured the single “Privacy Attracts A Crowd.” The video for that song found it’s way onto MTV’s Total Request Live without a major record label behind it — a first for any artist. Cue the lawyers, the showcases and the bidding war, and Emmich signed with Epic Records. A year-and-a-half later, Epic released a second version of Slow Down Kid with some new songs and a new tracklist. But shortly thereafter, Emmich parted ways with Epic, and went on to release his next two albums — 2006’s Sunlight Searchparty and 2007’s Songs, Volume 1: Woodstock — on his own imprint, No Code. For 2008’s Little Daggers, he worked with the independent label Bluhammock. At this point, five albums in, many artists would have either burnt out on the process or simply run out of good ideas. But in late 2010, Emmich digitally self-released his latest and greatest album to date, Looking For A Feeling You Never Knew You Needed.
From the opening bars of “Don’t Wanna Go Home,” the crisp, layered production — courtesy of Bart Schoudel and Ron Haney — sets a high bar of shimmering guitars, driving beats, and powerful vocals that delivers again and again over 12 tracks. And if you get your hands on a recently released physical copy of the album, you’ll have three acoustic versions and a studio outtake to enjoy as well.
If every album is a process of self-discovery for an artist, Val Emmich may have finally arrived at enlightenment with Looking. The songs are lean, tuneful and sonically captivating throughout, featuring Emmich’s strongest melodies to date. From the infectious drum machine intro of “Sidekick” to the swirling, epic production of “Gone,” to the dusky ruminations of “Grown Up Man,” the album is a dynamic experience that deserves a wide audience. All of that passion, lust, fear and anxiety of old has been balanced with hope, love and perspective, and the result is a Val Emmich as cutting, vulnerable and charming as he’s ever been.
As it turns out, Emmich shines brightest on record, where his face has little chance of swaying your opinion. Except, of course, for those eight photo booth shots of his face on the cover. And the 63 additional head shots on the poster that accompanies the CD. Damn you, you beautiful bastard! I’m kidding!
Anyhow, a few days before he flew out to the west coast, I was able to e-mail Val some questions and got him talking about his latest album, his new celebrity crush, and his array of promotional album “extras” that include private lunches with him for only $200. Read on!
‘Rath On Record: So you’re leaving for L.A. in a couple of days. What’s waiting for you out there?
Val Emmich: Actually, I’m typing this interview on the plane. I’m heading out for a multitude of reasons. I usually end up going to LA once or twice a year for one reason or another.This time I’ll be out there a little longer. I’ve got some acting opportunities, some music stuff and I’m also working on a film project with a friend.
ROR: If you could wake up tomorrow as either an A-list film actor or a multi-platinum recording artist, which would you choose?
VE: I think I’d have to go with multi-platinum recording artist. I’ve worked so long in music that I think that victory would taste sweeter. Plus, I could always then dive further into the acting thing, whereas going the other way — actor-to-musician — is rarely well-received.
Both options would garner a certain amount of control in life and art and to me that is the most enticing aspect of being at the top of any field. Money and recognition are great things but control and autonomy and a certain amount of freedom are all more vital to me. The real answer here is that I’d like them both. I have a few other achievements I’d love to stick on the list too, but if you’re granting wishes, I’ll take whatever I can get.
ROR: How did your acting career come about? Had you always wanted to pursue both music and acting?
VE: I was eighteen, working at a used book store in my hometown. I would often goof off and make my boss laugh. She asked if I ever thought about acting. I said no. She said her son acted and that she could setup a meeting with her son’s manager. I had no idea what I was getting into when I first met his manager. I had never seen a script in my life. I was asked to read a monologue cold and I did.
The manager said I was a natural and agreed to send me out on auditions for a test run. I booked a commercial on my second or third try and the rest is history. She’s still my manager today. I’ve been learning as I go. Each new job teaches me something. I never intended to act but it’s been great. It’s helped my music and my music has helped my acting. It also pays a lot better than music so it’s helped me continue to be a full-time artist, which I feel very lucky to be.
ROR: I happen to think that Looking is your best album. Ever. And one of my favorite things about it is the inventive, dynamic production by Ron Haney and Bart Schoudel. Did they take your music in directions you didn’t anticipate?
VE: Thanks a lot. Every record I’ve done so far has involved a production style and process that was different than the last and this one was no different. I had heard what Ron and Bart had done on Rick Barry’s EP [2009’s This Antediluvian World] and got a chance to hang with them when I did some guest vocals. I liked the clarity of sound they had created and the layering and more importantly I liked the nurturing vibe they gave off as people. Their generosity of spirit was the driving force behind the record. Whatever idea I had, they helped me realize it.
In the beginning of the process, I had my guard up because I’m protective of my songs. But they gained my trust quickly. I rarely write songs in front of people, but I felt safe enough to do that with them. If they saw me working on something, they would be ready to work on it in an instant. They’d grab an instrument or suggest a chorus or bridge and it felt completely natural. Sometimes sessions would near 20 hours before we’d all agree it was time to quit. We would get lost in it. It’s rare to find a place like that nowadays — a place where you can just be an artist. It reminds me of what I’ve read about the ’60s where people had time to just hang in the studio and experiment.
Ron and Bart were great facilitators. They made it easy. Recording can sometimes be a drag and they made it fun. I hate doing multiple vocal takes but in the past some producers have insisted I keep singing. Ron and Bart would often like my first or second take and leave it. Most of the instruments were done in the same way — just a few takes.
I found that to be amazing that we had created this record that had a big, complex sound but yet it was done in a very innocent, sort of breakneck-speed way. That fun aspect was pivotal in allowing me to explore different styles, like with “Sidekick” for example. I had heard a song by MSTRKRFT and played it for them and in a few hours we had recorded “Sidekick.” The album was recorded over the span of more than a year but the actual work probably equaled no more than a month. It was very spread out.
ROR: How are you planning to get the work out about this record? I think the world needs to hear it.
VE: Sadly, I’m at a loss on how to do that. It’s the most grueling, thankless and often hopeless aspect of being an artist. Yes, I would love for this album to go multi-platinum so that your previous question could become a reality, but so much of that is out of my hands. I’ve already done what’s in my power — some little marketing things like running a contest for the album and offering special album packages. I’ve done two promo videos so far. I’m also planning a music video or two. But with those things I’m only catering to current fans; I’m not growing the fanbase. For that, one needs a break of some kind or money for marketing. For example, we opened up for Neon Trees recently and that brought in some new fans. Touring as an opening act is a great option, should a band be so lucky. When my fanbase has grown over the last few years it’s been due to my acting appearances. That’s the best advertising I can produce at the moment. Perhaps one of these projects I’m working on for acting will connect and offer me that “break” I’m in need of. That we’re all in need of. I’m still waiting.
ROR: Looking was co-released by your own imprint — No Code — and Near Records. Tell me a little about Near Records and how you came to work with them.
VE: As I mentioned, I was invited by Rick Barry to sing some backup on his EP. He was working with Ron and Bart who go by the name Near Records. They basically do production and artist development for a bunch of artists. The great thing about them is that they really commit to each project they work on and they’ll do whatever they can to help that project succeed whether it’s performing live with the artist or setting up showcases at SXSW or web stuff or whatever. It’s more of a collective at this point. You’ll see the same musicians popping up on many of the records. Like I said before, it’s all about nurturing. They’re incredibly overworked so they’re only able to take on a few things at a time. Ron and Bart also do dance remixes for huge artists like Rihanna and Mariah Carey and The Ting Tings. So they have a lot going on and I’m just lucky to have been invited into the family.
ROR: What music have you been listening to for fun lately? Anything you’d consider inspirational?
VE: Well, during the making of the record I was listening to and referencing stuff like MGMT, Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips, MSTRKRFT, The National, Peter Bjorn and John, Phoenix, Shout Out Louds and even Neon Trees, oddly enough. Lately, I’ve been addicted to Wavves, Sleigh Bells, Grizzly Bear (after seeing Blue Valentine), Matt & Kim and strangely Nicki Minaj. I’m crushing on Nick Minaj.
ROR: You’ve been putting out records pretty regularly since 2002. What are your goals for 2011? In music and film?
VE: I’m planning on releasing a digital box set this year featuring some 50-60 unreleased songs from my first 10 years as a solo artist. I feel like I need to get some of that stuff out there in order for me to move on. I had already started writing and planning a new album but a few things have pushed that back for the time being. With acting, I’m trying to step up my game. I was scheduled to start shooting a movie this month but the financing fell through. That project is in limbo. But I’d love to see what life is like being on a TV show on a regular basis. A sort of steady-ish job type of thing.
I’m eager to get to that next level, whatever that is.
ROR: As you are an actor, it’s only appropriate I ask your thoughts on this year’s Oscars. Best Film? Best Director? And while we’re at it, who is a director you’d love to work with in the future?
VE: Best film for me was The Social Network. That film blew me away, and I found Trent Reznor’s score incredibly moving. For Best Director, I’d have to go with Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan was such a strange film and a difficult one and a risky one and I applaud him for all those things. I also applaud the actors who apparently put their bodies through hell to give those performances. I also thought Derek Cianfrance did an amazing job with Blue Valentine, as did Ryan Gosling, and I’m bummed neither were nominated. I’d love to work with Cianfrance or any of the other obvious ones: the Coen brothers, Aronofsky, Spike Jonze. I would KILL to be in a PT Anderson film. I wouldn’t take an innocent life but perhaps a prisoner on death row. No one you would miss.
ROR: When I first read about your promotional album “extras,” I thought it sounded a little crazy. Then, I watched your adorable video explaining everything, and I thought it was cool, but still a little weird.
My questions are as follows: Are you prepared to have awkward conversations with really excited and devoted fans over lunch for an hour or more? And what kind of lunch does $200 get? Are we talking Chili’s or Ruth’s Chris? And what if someone who really doesn’t play an instrument or sing decides they want to write a song “together” and they’re willing to put up the $500 to do it?
VE: First of all, crazy is good. I like crazy. The longer you do this, the harder it is to find new experiences and I was excited by the challenge. I’m constantly looking for challenges. Plus, if you think my ideas were crazy, check out Josh Freese’s version.
He was the one who inspired me and I had to change them to be less crazy. But basically, this idea is not much different than when a band does a pledge drive or a Kickstarter campaign. But I’ve always felt weird about those things. I felt this was more personal. Like I mentioned before, I have no marketing budget so selling a few of these can really help lengthen the life of this record, not to mention help feed me a bit. Those Macy’s commercials don’t pay like you might think.
Anyway, to answer your specific questions, yes, a lunch may be awkward, but it’s the least I can do. I’m in a unique position to have a select bunch of dedicated fans who would even desire to have lunch with me. And so far, on the phone calls I’ve been doing for the $50 package, I’ve been so proud of my fans. They’ve been smart, funny and very insightful and I think my lunch partners will be no different. I think I have just as much to learn from them as they might from me. I want to know who’s listening to me. I guess part of it is research. But most of it is just a desire to have a deeper connection with humans. It’s a choice between Rachel, the girl I had lunch with, versus RVixon723 that posted on my Twitter. I’ll always choose the former every time.
Where we have lunch will be a case-by-case thing depending on dietary restrictions, etc. Part of the price pays for lunch and part of it is, let’s not beat around the bush, a donation to me and my art. It’s a show of support and one that I don’t accept lightly. I think it’s naive of an artist to still think they are just selling music. Music is replaceable and more and more it’s invisible. I’m attempting to offer something more personal and more tangible. As far as the song, I actually think it will be easier if the person has no musical skills at all but I’ll take all comers. I’m not sure if you are aware of the Song Shop I did in December where I wrote songs for people. That was a warmup to this. It was actually a really transformative experience for me and now that I’ve done it, I know how to do it efficiently. I’m not worried about that one. I think lunch is scarier. This is all an experiment. Like I said in the video, this is for people who want something extra. This isn’t for everyone. I’m sure I’ll come up with something crazier in the future. It’s too boring otherwise.
ROR: Come to think of it, I’ve had lunch with you at least once before. Are these charges retroactive? Because money is a little tight right now …
VE: I accept PayPal.
Here are the upcoming events for Val Emmich:
DATE CITY/STATE/VENUE INFO
2/10/11 Venture, Calif
2/16/11 San Diego, Calif.
8 p.m. | All Ages | $10
3/26/11 Asbury Park, N.J.
Doors 7:30 p.m. | $12 | Ages 18+