Vicky Emerson is full-eyed and alive with caffeine, bustling with the purpose of a mother gathering her children for church. She de-scarfs and seats herself, here to say, resolutely, what she’s meant to all this time.
“There was a little bit of ‘fuck it,’ but I wasn’t fueled by spite,” she says of her decision to self-produce her fourth full-length, Steady Heart. “I was fueled by curiosity and growth.”
A tenured studio junkie, Emerson decided to take the reins herself for the first time after reflecting on the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements rippling through popular culture. “I thought back to points in my career where I didn’t speak up,” Emerson says, alight in the vintage lamps of Diamonds Coffee Shoppe. “I looked around, and I was like, ‘Where are all the women producers?’ I was confident enough in the arrangements of the songs, and I was comfortable enough in a studio setting, so we went to Wild Sound [Recording Studio], and we did it.”
Steady Heart follows a two-year layoff from writing, and Emerson wanted to arrive at the studio prepared. On the advice of her fellow songwriter (and the Home Fires bandmate) Sarah Morris, she joined a songwriting group on Facebook that challenged her to write, record, and release a full song in only a week based on one-word prompts, an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding process.
“It gave me added confidence to trust myself, my instincts,” Emerson says. “I feel really close to this record in a way that I haven’t with other projects.”
Steady Heart is an album about love. But it’s not sweet or winsome—its songs explore love’s durability in the face of daily erosion. Opening ballad “In the Pines” may be an almost naive benediction, but soon after that the trials begin. On the fiddle-driven “Good Enough,” Emerson apologizes for those days when her reservoir of patience runs dry. “My heart feels like a stone today,” she sings, before lamenting, “I get mad, throw my words around” and admitting how her mistakes make her feel like “a damn fool.” It’s a song that makes amends without seeking forgiveness.
“My husband travels a lot, so a lot of times, I’ll be solo parenting,” Emerson says. “I hang pretty tough, but by the time he’s about to come home, I’m weary. My nerves are starting to get frayed. If I lose my temper, it’s hard.”
Emerson wrote the title track to Steady Heart as a love letter to her husband, but it hardly idealizes their 10-year marriage. Emerson paints their love as a labor, with each partner’s shoulder pressed to the plow, persevering through troubles like those “Good Enough” presents. She offers persistence, not perfection.
“It’s about loving somebody and also recognizing when they need help,” she says. “That can be a tough thing in a relationship.”
Emerson’s husband first heard “Steady Heart” was when she serenaded him with it at her surprise 40th birthday party in 2017. She hadn’t yet written any other material for the record, but the experience crystalized Steady Heart’s eventual message for her.
“It was this super sweet moment, very tender,” she recalls. “I held that memory with me as I traveled through trying to flesh out the other songs.”
Steady Heart matches these moments of warmth with dispatches from the darker pits of love. On “Stone Cold,” written from the Facebook group’s prompt of “barren,” Emerson makes full use of her husky low register, singing like she’s on the verge of spitting in disgust. It’s here that the tamped-down frustrations with the music industry and the simmering rage from “Good Enough” achieve catharsis. In a fiery spaghetti-western revenge fantasy, Emerson demands recompense for every injustice she’s suffered as a musician, woman, and parent.
“Headed dead south, you’ll never find me,” Emerson growls. “There’s only so much a woman can take before she breaks.”
Emerson’s greasy re-imagining of Crystal Gayle’s 1977 hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” exhibits the same vengeful wherewithal. Where Gayle’s original is a fatalist country-pop elegy, Emerson slows it down into Tom Waits-y freak-jazz experiment. Emerson is very deliberate in her assertion that if you mess with her, woe is you.
“She says, ‘I didn’t mean to treat ya bad,’ but she did. She did all that,” Emerson says of Gayle’s song. “And she was like, ‘So what?’ So I was like, ‘let’s put a lot of “so what?” in that song.’”
Emerson has lived and loved long enough to know the necessity of a “so what?” attitude, and Steady Heart is the record of a woman who no longer has to imagine love one way and live it another. There are no deceptions, only the clear-eyed truth of a songwriter emboldened by the totality of her vision.
Steady Heart is an album that examines how love, at its best and most productive, wanes and waffles. Love grows just as strongly in the dark as it does in the light. That is the steadiness it provides—that somehow, regardless, it persists.
“Love is beautiful, but it can also be really messy and hurtful and hard,” Emerson says. “That’s what leads you through love. It’s not always great.”
With: Annie Fitzgerald
Where: Aster Café
When: 9 p.m. Sat. Jan. 12
Tickets: $10/more info here