Monday morning was a busy one for Vicky Emerson. Sitting with two open laptops and her guitar and piano nearby in the Fulton-neighborhood home she shares with her husband and two children, Emerson spent much of the morning monitoring activity on the release of her music video for her new tune “The Reckoning” — an elegant call-to-arms for women in the face of a newly emboldened global strain of sexism.
“It’s been going bonkers,” said Emerson. “[The music blog] Americana U.K. put it out early this morning here, and it’s been getting tons of shares on Facebook, which has been awesome, and I’ve put it out on Instagram, and that’s kind of been motoring, and others have shared clips on Instagram, and the Women’s March just tweeted about it, and Americana Highways blog is doing the U.S. premiere.
“It’s getting out there, and that’s great. The purpose of the video, or the theme of the video, is women supporting other women, but we also need men as allies. I know a lot of great men and they are a little bit like, when you clue them in on [institutional sexism and misogyny], ‘Oh …’ So I think it’s our job as women to educate and keep the conversation going. We have to.”
The timing of “The Reckoning” may seem to be uncannily perfect, but sexism and misogyny have long been part of the music industry. It’s also been given new acceptability with Trump in the White House, but with the #MeToo movement and recent cases of R. Kelly and Ryan Adams being held accountable for their actions, Emerson believes the time is ripe for long overdue change.
“I think women have to step up, otherwise we’re just going to get run over,” she said. “Also, I think that I’m at an age where I’m just fed up, and I don’t care, and I’m not going to step to the side, and I’m not going to be quiet, and I’m not going to hold my tongue, and I’m going to speak out now. I look back even 10 years ago and I wonder: Would I have had the strength to do that? I don’t know.”
Emerson knows firsthand what it’s like to write, record, tour and promote herself as an independent female artist — and she also knows why the NBC News headline over the weekend implored, “After Ryan Adams allegations, will music industry finally face a #MeToo reckoning?”
“Certainly I’ve had my share of #MeToo moments,” Emerson said. “I remember my first gig, I was in my 20s, and I would play background piano at a golf course in St. Paul. The owner, who was 20 or 25 years older than me, emailed me after the first gig and wanted to take me out on his boat and he promised to be a perfect gentleman. Sure. I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, but I said I did and he just kept emailing me. He was so persistent. It was so gross. That’s just one of so many. There’s also just now, being a woman at a crazy bar after a show, trying to figure out how to leave and get safely to your car.”
In the music business, examples of sexism can be seen at awards shows, in media coverage and on country radio charts, which have received criticism in recent years for favoring cookie-cutter cowboy hat-wearing males over original females with something to say.
“The country radio thing is insane,” said Emerson. “I remember growing up and hearing lots of women on the radio — women to look up to and to aspire to as a little kid. And now you turn on the radio and it’s all men for an hour.”
Co-penned with fellow singer-songwriter/musician Graham Bramblett, “The Reckoning” is a moody anthem for our times that doesn’t preach or hit the listener over the head with a message.
“We wrote it right here,” said Emerson, sitting in her sun-drenched living room. “I was just getting over pneumonia, and I was supposed to go to the Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, and I got so sick and I just stayed home. Graham texted me and said, ‘Wanna write? I know you’re home.’ So he came over and we sat and complained about politics and [vented] our disgust with what’s going on in Washington, and that’s how the song started. I had the chorus (‘I hear the hive a-buzzing/I feel the storm rolling in’) and the melody, and we wanted to keep it kind of ambiguous. It’s not a political song, but it has a strong message.”
The song appears on Emerson’s new album, “Steady Heart,” and features fellow singer-songwriter/musician Kari Arnett on backup vocals. For the Jeremy Krzmarzick-directed video, Emerson recruited fellow singer-songwriter/musician friends Jillian Rae, Annie Fitzgerald and Sarah Morris (Emerson’s partner in the folk-rock duo The Home Fires) to collaborate with dancers choreographed by Heather Corndorf and Katie Cannon and real-time painting from artist Genevieve Fabiola (the video can be seen here and is currently streaming all over the world).
“My kids are watching me,” said Emerson, when asked about the source of her courage to sing and speak up about injustice. “They’re young. They’re 8 and 5, and they watch me. I want them to be like, ‘Yeah. That’s my mom. She tells the truth. She says how she feels, and she’s honest and she’s kind. I’m teaching them. I have a boy and a girl, both equally important to set those examples for them about being positive and strong. Also, I was married right out of college and my first husband was an abusive alcoholic. I was married for a short time, I came out of it, I literally had to rebuild myself and my life, and it was a definite choice to be like, ‘I’m never going back there.’”
At a time when female political leaders and candidates are making a new welcome noise as lawmakers, Emerson has tapped into a similar wave, one that bodes well for the future of all musicians and music lovers.
“Lately, a lot of my conversations with friends have drifted into inequality: how to make things happen, how to help each other,” she said. “Because I really do believe if we come together instead of tear each other down, we come together as a stronger voice, as a unified message, and I think it packs a bigger punch.
“You could go a lot of different routes [as a songwriter]. You could go a more negative route, but instead I wanted to bring strength and grace and beauty and incredible women, because visually it’s just stunning. I can whine about country playlists all day long, and that’s never going to change anything. But if you send a message this way, an enlightening message, something powerful … there’s a chance.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]