Of course, if the music is good, it makes all the difference in the world. And on this night the music was very good. Fresh off their European tour, Emma Hill and her musical partner Bryan Daste set up shop in my living room and proceeded to spin tales of love and loss, in the process leading the audience into a shared space that celebrated the joys and pain that mark each of our journeys.
This was only my second time hosting a house concert. Fortunately, my wife Suzanne is a skilled facilitator and hostess and without her help the event would not have had the proper foundation on which to rest. In addition to producing an abundance of food, she also made the guests feel right at home.
Most of those in attendance were new to Emma Hill’s music and yet eager for the chance to hear her live. Their anticipation was rewarded; both the artist and the audience fed off of each other’s energy, and created a bond from the outset.
Emma Hill tours the house concert circuit almost exclusively. Her ability to touch a group of people is at once natural and remarkable. Blessed with a gift for poetry, Hill is not only able to tell stories, but also to cast them in the real world with imagery and emotion that comes from a place deeply personal to her. Her independent spirit exemplifies the unique grit required to make a life on the Alaskan frontier. It is her connectedness to that world that gives her the capacity to transport us there, and in doing so, give us a fresh look at our own backyard.
By contrast, Bryan Daste is the quiet accomplice, a magician with a minimalist touch, subtle and discreet, content to work from the shadows so as not to intrude on Emma’s spotlight. It is selflessness as performance art. Where Hill’s flair for the poetic is the immediate draw that locks the listener in to her orbit, it is the embellishment that Daste adds that makes the gravitational pull of the material even stronger.
After some good food and drink, everyone settled in to their chairs and Emma and Bryan went to work. Travelling Europe and living out of their backpacks meant Bryan had to leave the pedal steel home in Portland. For this night he would accompany Emma on banjo and i-phone. Emma’s voice, clear and pure, was strong enough that there was no need of a PA system. This was music meant for the living room. In a world saturated with an infatuation for all things viral, this was a refuge from our addiction to what is trending at any given moment. It was an invitation to feel, to be real.
The set list favored Hill’s most recent release, the critically acclaimed Denali, with some choice cuts from its predecessor, The Black and Wretched Blue. Toss in a hilarious cover of Taylor Swift, and the evening was emotionally complete.
Hill’s persona adapted to the narrative of each song, from the love struck adoring girl in “Bright Eyes” to the deadly assassin of “Lioness,” to the fatal paramour in “Hard Love.” Perhaps a bit weary from the road Hill began her first song quietly, almost tentatively. By the end of the song the audience was so dialed in, and so loud in their appreciation that it seemed to charge the moment, and Hill drank in the vibe and poured it back out for the rest of the evening.
Hill’s introductions to the songs are almost as important as the songs themselves. The backstory of each piece served to ground the tune in emotional territory that was universal.
The set was also peppered with some new material that Hill promised would appear on disc in the somewhat near future. The two most memorable were “In Too Deep” and “Furiously Happy.” The former presented the danger of being so far into a relationship that it is impossible to see the warning signs. The latter number was inspired by a book Hill read that helped her navigate the turbulent waters of a bad breakup.
2015 was a terrible year for Hill. She originally debuted “Furiously Happy” on YouTube in front of the Swiss Alps with an intro that revealed her struggle with a darkness that sought to consume her. Hill found her emotional breakthrough in a book of the same name written by Jenny Lawson. The lyrics give the listener permission to release themselves from their self-imposed prison and celebrate their right to happiness. That message directly impacted the audience, and would come up in conversations later, over the next few days.
Suzanne’s favorite, “Lioness” displayed Hill’s ability to take a writing prompt and make a memorable story that didn’t feel forced or contrived. The tale of an assassin who works for mysterious black-suited men, brings to mind Luc Besson’s classic film La Femme Nikita. It also featured Bryan playing a sweeping melody on his i-phone, much to the delight of the crowd.
All over Alaska, rural villages depend on bush pilots to deliver supplies. Hill’s father is a pilot, as are other members of her family. “A Pilot’s Goodbye” is an homage to Hill’s late uncle, lost in a crash. The song has become larger in scope over time, becoming a vehicle of expression for people dealing with loss.
But it wasn’t all sadness and blues. There were moments of laughter and true joy. And Hill’s writing revealed a subtle sense of humor in the lyrics. On “Hard Love” she sang, “You were a black cat/ and I was your ninth death/staring down a barrel at everything you’d known.”
A few songs later Hill launched into my request, “Life on the Road.” The tune is the polar opposite of “Lioness.” The song is a lighthearted look at the gypsy life, longing for the highway, and yet laced with a hint of danger. Danger of a different sort. The song acknowledges the toll travelling can have on a relationship, while at the same time refusing to look the problem in the eye.
Just when I think I’m tired
Ready to sit still
Then I miss burning up my tires
And these battered suitcase wheels
Oh the blossoms they are blooming
Flying through spring air
And I am jealous of their freedom
How they fall without a care
Bet you wouldn’t catch me if I fell
Maybe I’m afraid that you will…
Over the next few days, we had conversations with our friends who were moved deeply by the stories and songs and the chance to share in a communal experience. Music has that power to pull us up out of our routines and the daily burdens that so often wear at us. Shared in the company of friends its benefits are amplified and enduring.