Like an alluring invitation to weary souls everywhere, Emily Scott Robinson’s new album, American Siren, calls upon the lost and lonely amidst a national breakdown. The 10-track collection is her first release as part of John Prine’s infamous imprint, Oh Boy Records. Seductive in its sparseness, the artist’s third effort leaves necessary space for her sharp-witted songwriting to shine.
Robinson has stood proudly at the helm of her music career since her 2016 debut, Magnolia Queen. Having come into her authentic artistry with great poise, American Siren presents an expressive vocalist and intuitive instrumentalist. But, the stories told between these tracks remind her ever-growing audience that Robinson is first, and foremost, a storyteller.
Written almost entirely in isolation while the COVID-19 pandemic stormed outside her window, American Siren is a hand-crafted collection of songs that, together, chronicle the collective experience of a vast nation facing unprecedented polarity. Universal sentiments reside within these seemingly unique perspectives, attempting to bridge the gaping divide that veils the commonality between us.
The North Carolina native, who now resides in Telluride, points to her discovery of Joni Mitchell’s magic as a pivotal moment in her musical journey. That same summer while at camp, she dug into the discography of Cat Stevens and Dar Williams, who propelled her to pick up the acoustic guitar. She remembers the words that tumbled out as she clumsily strummed along came easily to her as a teenager. This talent translated well into her chosen career and was affirmed by the trophy she brought home from the Telluride Troubadour Competition in 2019 after she was named a finalist at 2016’s Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk Competition.
In the years since, Robinson made the road her home, booking her own performances across the country and garnering a spanning, supportive fanbase the old-fashioned way. Her grassroots growth sowed as a reverent traditionalist brought her 2019 self-released album Traveling Mercies to widespread acclaim. Her single “Better With Time” garnered millions of streams and put her on the map for many new listeners.
But it was a stand-alone single, “The Time for Flowers,” she shared amidst the chaos of 2020 that led her straight into the arms of her new label home. Prine’s oldest son Jody—who runs Oh Boy Records in the wake of his father’s untimely passing last spring—reached out in response to the touching track, letting her know how much it meant to his family in their time of loss. From here, a friendship bloomed that led to their new label partnership.
Produced by Jason Richmond (The Avett Brothers, The Steep Canyon Rangers), American Siren sees Robinson step into the shoes of several subjects she has encountered on her own journey, extracting critical lessons from each singular struggle. Like historical fiction, she wields the real people she has run into as a muse for the imagined characters with whom she tells this universal story. With candid lyricism, the artist captures these characters capitulating to their kryptonite. Threading through the album, she says, are “those things that call to us.”
Album opener, “Old Gods” immediately addresses a titular motif against a moody, maritime backdrop. Carry my prayers on the ocean / Carry my prayers on the sea / And if you are meant to be mine love / One day you’ll come home to me, she sings in an esoteric cry. Enchanted by what might only be an illusion, the subject pines for a long-lost lover in a state of anguish.
The folk tune nods to the fabled mythology of the siren—a seafaring man’s Achille’s heel. Answering the alluring call of a mermaid-like enchantress introduces the fatal flaw as an integral element of the story arc presented across the album.
But fatal is a loose term for most of the subjects of anecdotal tracks. “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’” features a discontented wife with a wandering eye and a priest feeling distant from what he once interpreted as a calling to the church. The only tie that binds these sorrowful souls is the self-inflicted captivity they now face as a consequence of vows they took in the seemingly distant past.
In some cases, answering that call means succumbing to eternal darkness.
Heavy-hearted, Robinson heralds the often-hushed reality for the brave souls who serve our country overseas on “Hometown Hero.” Aching vocals overpower the gently whining pair of banjo and fiddle, evoking the devastation that follows a veteran who returns home from Afghanistan and then commits suicide with his adoring family on the other side of the wall. A father should never have to / Bury his own son, she laments in the bridge, establishing the narrative perspective. The lyrics explore the bewildering idea that you can love someone and leave them / And how both things could be true.
The impressive cast of musicians marks this album as a full-circle moment for Robinson. Each player, except for her bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, hails from her home state. Beyond her core ensemble — Austin McCall (percussion), Duncan Wickel (fiddle/cello), Allyn Love (pedal steel) — Lizzy Ross of Violet Bell and Mipso’s Joseph Terrell lent their vocal talent as they tracked the project, masked up at Echo Mountain studio outside of Asheville. Two members of the Steep Canyon Rangers, Graham Sharp, and Mike Guggino from stepped in with banjo and mandolin offerings, respectively.
The jubilant album closer “Old North State” celebrates the common ground — the best land, the blessed land —where each of their musical roots run deep, entangling with compounding generations of defining contributions to the age-old regional traditions.
Robinson points to “Every Day in Faith” as the thesis of the record.
“This is one of the deepest songs for me on the record; it’s touching on this idea of showing up for the journey, whether it’s your career, your dream, a relationship, just some kind of commitment that you’ve made,” says Robinson. “And for me, like, I’ve committed to doing music. I know that’s my calling, and my destiny in this life, so it’s about showing up through the absolute quiet periods where everything was shutting down, and we were canceling our gigs. And it’s about understanding that even in times like that, you’re growing. There’s a lot of fear for us musicians and insecurity about how the future will look—we’ve all felt that way in the past year and a half.”
By definition, faith is to follow blindly with the confidence you will be rewarded for your adherence. Thoughtful lyrics remind the listener of the uncertainty encountered along the way. She presents the strength of unknowingness in the verse: If I’d seen hills and valleys on the road / I might have never had the courage to pack my bags and go.
“Sometimes, if we have any idea what lay ahead of us, we would certainly turn around or just stay put out of fear,” she continues. “I found myself living those highs and lows really viscerally in this year, and granted. This is me acknowledging I’m still here, and my experience of life is deeper than it ever has been now. And what a beautiful thing to come to realize that you don’t have to be afraid of the busy or quiet. It’s all a part of the journey and it’s all beautiful in its own way.”
Photo Credit:Cal & Aly