Emily Scott Robinson recently released her new album Traveling Mercies, which includes “The Dress,” a vulnerable track about her own experience with sexual assault. American Songwriter spoke with Robinson about her new album, her future plans and what it’s been like for her to publicly share her abuse story.
Since we last chatted with you back in 2015, how would you say you’ve evolved as a singer-songwriter?
When you guys talked to me back in 2015 I was just beginning my career. I was at the very beginning. So much so that I did not even have an official photograph — I think I sent some picture off of Facebook [laughs]. I was like, I don’t have a headshot! Gosh, at that point I had only really written my very first batch of songs and was just getting into the process of this joyful, delightful journey. An interesting journey of learning what’s like to be a writer. It’s been awesome — I would say that my storytelling has evolved a lot and gotten even deeper and more interesting since 2015. On top of that, the way that I understand songwriting to be — when I first started it was like every song was so laborious to get through. It took me months to write, and that’s sort of the only thing that I knew. Now I’m like, some songs take years and some songs take 30 minutes. It’s just been fun to be taken on a journey and different journeys by different songs. Some of my songs on my new record came out really quickly — it was like they were brewing in me for a long time, but when I finally sat down to write them it was easy and fun. So it’s been fun to discover that, you know, and cut my teeth more as a songwriter.
Speaking of new songs, I know your song “The Dress” was a really vulnerable story for you to share. What was that writing process like for you?
I started working on a song about my sexual assault about five years ago. It was one of the first songs that I tried to write and I have been writing iterations of “The Dress” since then… First of all, I waited until I was far enough away from it to actually be able to write about it because, you know, you can’t take the scab off of that wound too quickly. It’s taken me several years to write, and once it was close to being done, even then I was like, “Yeah, even when I finish it I won’t be ready yet to perform it.” This is what the writing process was like for me with that song. You know, a lot of my songs are not about me. That song is kind of the most personal and most vulnerable to me. What I wanted to do was, after I was assaulted I had many layers of stories that I told about my experience — both to myself and to people around me. So like, my parents knew one thing, my husband now, who I had not met at the time, heard another story. My therapist heard another story. There were different layers of what I actually told people, and then there would be these striking memories that would come back to me where I’d remember a part of it that I’d never told anybody else… So what I had to do was every time I sat down, I would keep coming back to that song and try to be as gentle as I could with it. I would not work on it, I’d work on it for a day, and then I’d leave it for months. I’d come back and I’d be like, ‘Today it’s time to peel back another layer of that story.” I wanted to get to the deepest truths of it — of what the experience was like. What I wanted to focus on was not the thing itself, but the aftermath, and how it darkened my world for a while. The thing that felt so lonely for me was the aftermath. I think that’s what feels so lonely for many survivors, and they feel like they’re crazy for feeling all these things, but really we’re not and we think we’re all alone in the world but we’re really not. I wanted the song to be this sort of message to other people going through it saying: All the weird things, the ways in which you’re looking over your shoulder, the fact that you can’t seem to take a deep breath for six month — all of those things — you are not crazy! There’s not something wrong with you. This is normal. So, yeah, it was a hard writing process and I just took it really slow.
Going off of that, what was the recording process like?
[Laughs] It was really not fun. I have to say, I recorded every song on the record with so much ease and so much fun, and this song was like my cross to bear. It’s almost funny to me now how I had this great instinct in the studio about every song and how to produce it, and I decided to cut that one mostly solo acoustic because somehow in my brain I couldn’t really imagine putting much instrumentation on it. You know, it’s like, what are you gonna add — a mandolin to a song about rape? [Laughs] That just, like, will not work. So my producer, Neilson Hubbard, was also very, very gentle and gave this song a wide berth. He was like, “Listen, just play it live a couple times.” Every time I’d come back into the studio I’d say, “Did it sound good? I can’t tell if it sounds good. I just don’t know!” He was like, “All of your takes sound amazing,” he was like, ‘I know that this is a heavy, heavy song for you, and I just want you to know you’re doing great with this and it sounds great.” He really didn’t want me to try at it too much. I think I maybe did three or four takes on it and then that was it, you know? It’s a song that I did not because it was all that comfortable for me, but because I knew this song had a deeper purpose in the world, so putting it on the record was really important to me. On a personal level, I skip that song every time on my CD because I don’t like actually listening back to it. Every other song on the record I love, but to be completely honest I just can’t sit there and listen to it because it’s like, I’ve done so much emotional work on that song and on the writing of it that it was almost like, okay, it’s time, it’s done, I don’t listen back to it.
It must take so much courage every time you play that song for a crowd. How has it been received by audiences?
It has been received so beautifully. It’s been wonderful. I had a lot of neuroses and anxiety built up around performing the song. I realized what this was the other day when I was talking to somebody, which is that I spend a lot of my time in a show trying to make myself comfortable on stage and make the audience feel comfortable. And then I arrive at the point where I have a story and a song that I know will make them uncomfortable, but uncomfortable for the right reason. So I will sometimes think that. And this is wrapped up in part of my being a survivor — we often think that our stories and our truth is too much for people, too much to tell. People are gonna be like, “Oh that’s so dark, that’s do depressing, I just don’t even wanna hear about it,” right? But that’s our own fear and shame built up around our stories that’s coming out. I’ve learned to say, “Okay, that’s my fear and my shame talking, but people really want to hear this song, and it really changes people’s lives, and it’s very healing.” I give like a short preface to this song and then I sing it, and as soon as I start giving the preface — I mean, I spend a lot of my time in stage banter thinking of funny and cute ways to say things, and there’s just no funny or cute way to into this song, so I just tell them, “There’s a reckoning happening in our world right now, and there’s a very dark thing that happened to be in my life, I was raped,” and I’ve since learned that I’m like, part of this club of so many people who’ve gone through this. We all never would’ve elected to be a part of this club [laughs] but here we are, we share this thing and it has not ended us. We’ve learned to grow it into something into our lives and the audience is just like — I see people physically lean forward and their eyes get big. They prepare to hear the song and they receive it beautifully. Every single time I perform it I have at least one person come up to me afterwards and thank me specifically for that song, and sometime tell me, ‘That happened to me too.” I’ve always been intentional about keeping the pronouns out of that song because this is not an experience that only women go through. I’ve had several older men come up to me and say, “Thank you for singing that song, I was sexually abused when I was young and I needed to hear that.” So it’s been amazing. It’s probably the most sort of beautiful, redemptive thing about my songwriting: being able to turn something dark and ugly into the thing that’s beautiful and healing. Yeah, it’s been pretty incredible.
You mentioned it took you years to write “The Dress.” Was there anything that inspired you to say, “Now’s the time,” and finally share this story?
Yes. I was at this songwriting camp where I teach. It’s called Song School and it’s put on by Planet Bluegrass every summer. It’s this wonderful, basically songwriting camp, this week-long camp, and a friend of mine, her name is Mai Bloomfield, she’s a cellist and a songwriter — she plays in Jason Mraz’s super band — she’s amazing. She teaches a class about turning your story into a song. Mai is a breast cancer survivor — she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s and went through chemo and all of this stuff and came about cancer free. She teaches about taking the things that have happened to you in your life and turning them into song. I was teaching that week, but Mai is very, very special and I thought, I’m gonna go sit in on her class, because I have this song and story in my life and I haven’t really shared with people. I remember, I was like, I had this song almost done, but I was still tweaking and playing with the last verse. I was like, “You know what, it’s time to finish this song. It’s time to finish this song and just get over it and start putting it out there.” This was just a few months after, really, the #MeToo movement had gone viral. So I finished it in her class that day and I performed it at the Folk’s Fest that weekend in my set, and it was like a powerful breakthrough. So there’s this beautiful thing that happens when we allow ourselves to be encouraged and inspired by the creators and the writers around us. So, Mai Bloomfield is one of the reasons why I finally finished that song.
I want to give you a chance to talk about the parts of the album [Traveling Mercies] that you love listening to in the car. I know it just came out four days ago, right?
It came out on Friday, yeah, four days ago. God, was that four days ago? I’ve been in a time warp [laughs]. I have to say the most fun song for me to listen to, and I put it on repeat always, is the leading track on the album, “Westward Bound,” it’s the first song on the record. It was so much fun to write, but it almost didn’t make it into the studio because I was singing the version that I’d written and I took it to a singing coach I sometimes get sessions with. He goes, “I don’t know what it is about this song but it doesn’t sound like you like it.” I realized in that moment that he was right. I’d really been taking stabs at writing this song but I hadn’t finished it ’cause I didn’t like the last two verses. So the night before I went into the studio with a full band of session players that I had hired, I rewrote the last two verses. And I was like, “Okay!” I played the song for them and they started playing, and it just felt so bright and open and expansive and it was one of those examples where I went into the studio with so many ideas of what I wanted, which is great, but now I realize the best thing to do is to go in with a lot of openness and see what kind of magic happens. So that song had a lot of magic in it and a lot of energy when we recorded it. We didn’t do more than three takes on it, that was it, and it was just so lovely. I love, love, love that song. It’s probably, and now, there’s a lot of songs that are really special to me on the record, and another one that’s really special is “Overalls.” It’s the second to last track and it’s probably the one song that most people come up to me and comment on and share their stories, cause it’s about a World War II veteran who lives a long life and asks to be buried in his overalls with a pack of cigarettes in Tennessee [laughs]. I get so many people coming up to me saying, “Oh my God, that’s my granddad,” “that’s my daddy,” “you made me cry,” “you made me think about when my grandfather passed away.” It’s beautiful. Those two songs really move me still, I mean, there are a lot of songs on the record that still move me every time I listen to them, but those are two of my very favorites.
I know the album just came out, but what’s next for you? Do you have any big plans?
I’m touring! This spring. I’ve got a bunch of tour dates around the southeast and around Texas for the next few months. I’m about to announce more tour dates for the rest of the year. My husband and I are gonna be traveling around in our RV this summer out west.
We love it. I feel very lucky to be able to have these expanses of time where I can tour and work really hard, and then these spans of time where I can be like, “Alright, these next three weeks I’m just gonna hike in the mountains and hang out with my friends and write some songs.”
You are living the dream!
Thank you, yeah, I have this new batch of songs that have been coming to me in the past six months. I heard Joy Williams compare this to, like, planting a garden. You put the seeds down and they all start growing, and I think that, I had this feeling that multiple songs, this batch of songs is all gonna bloom at once, and so I’m really looking forward to getting in the studio again when the time is right and recording a new batch. It’s, you know, it’s like I’m not in charge of it. It’s like the songs are here to take me on a journey and I’m along for the ride. It’s really beautiful and a fun thing for me. I can’t wait to make more songs.
Listen to “The Dress” below and find Traveling Mercies on all streaming platforms.