There was a moment when Emily Wolfe came to the realization that while she can shred the guitar on stage, she also writes some damn good songs, too. A long way from her early days, playing off a Harmony acoustic guitar at the age of 10, then dissecting the catalog of indie-rockers Rogue Wave for hours on end in her teens, Wolfe has since hit major festival stages and recently designed her own signature guitar with Epiphone. On Outlier, Wolfe’s second album and follow up to her 2019 self-titled debut and 2014 EP Roulette, the Austin-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist finds her most intrepid voice yet.
Videos by American Songwriter
Moving away from her heavier blues-rock roots, Wolfe dives headfirst into more crystalized elements of pop under the tutelage of producer Michael Shuman of Queens of the Stone Age and Mini Mansions.
“My intentions were to merge my love of rock and roll, guitar, and bass with really well crafted songwriting,” says Wolfe. “I had this idea in my head that the songs are supposed to be really emotionally driven, and to make sure that the lyrics made sense when the story printed out on the page. He [Shuman] taught me these fine tuning tricks for songwriting.”
Spanning all the things Wolfe isn’t afraid to say, Outlier veers head on into a male-dominated industry on the temperamental blues crunch of opening “No Man,” with her determined doctrine of Don’t need no man to tell me how to work my machine, and through her acceptance that the two opposite ends of the country never suited her style on the pulsating “LA/NY,” with Wolfe crooning I can’t be L.A./ I can’t be New York / But I can be yours.
“I really just wanted to create rock songs that had pop production, and merge those two genres,” says Wolfe. “I wanted to try and break the barriers of genre and bring in different elements from different eras. For instance, if you listen to ‘No Man,’ it’s this very kind of ’60s Cream, but then there’s this modern kind of weird stuff that goes on. I wanted to merge ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and put them all in a box together and see what would happen.”
Starting with a hook that was lingering around for some time, “Something Better” is a track Wolfe says took on new meaning during the pandemic. “I wrote ‘Something Better’ at a point in my life where I felt stuck,” shares Wolfe. “It just took on a whole new meaning during the pandemic because no one knows when it’s going to be better. With everybody in the same boat, the chorus, Will things ever change, I don’t want to waste my life away looking to find something better, just came naturally.”
Wolfe recounts one teenage night, dancing in the dark at a local park and listening to Joan Jet in the back of a car. “Vermillion Park” started on a nostalgic pop footing, then evolved into a narrative of Wolfe’s relationship with her wife now. Bending around the electronic fuses of “Damage Control” through “Death Row Kiss,” Wolfe and Shuman deliver elegantly twisted riffs that St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) would salivate over, before a slower turn on the sultry guitar-driven closer “Heavenly Hell.”
Spending most of 2020 writing and tweaking tracks before heading out to Los Angeles to record everything in November, once basic tracking was completed, Wolfe and Shuman textured songs with programmed drums and some exploratory synth.
The album title started as a word Wolfe kept hearing out on the road, from bandmaster and at nearly every venue, that stuck. “I wrote down the word ‘outlier’ and started to study what that really meant, and I felt really close to the word because it means something different than what’s around it,” says Wolfe. “For me, I’ve kind of always felt like I don’t quite fit into a box.”
Since Roulette, Wolfe says she hadn’t really scratched the surface on how to craft a song in a way that would get her feelings across. “My approach to songwriting before this year was very much about what’s going to make me feel better, what’s going to get my emotions out and put my heart on paper,” she says, “but recently, I’ve just started kind of putting my brain whirring into it, taking the steps to write the music, then taking the next step to write the gibberish that comes out, that phonetically sounds good with the music, then take the next step to make sure that gibberish turns into words that make sense. I’ve started taking that extra 10 percent step of making sure that there’s a point in the song where everything comes together.”
Wolfe’s deliverance is evidence of the outlier within. “There’s an underlying thread of feeling different and feeling like I want to achieve something besides what’s expected of me,” says Wolfe. “Ultimately, it felt like jumping into the unknown with a blindfold on, but I always trusted that the risk would pay off.”
Photo by Barbara FG