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Emily Robison interview

Emily Robison is one half of country-folk duo Court Yard Hounds, and of course a member of the country trio Dixie Chicks.

Following the Dixie Chicks’ hiatus after their 2006 album Taking The Long Way, Emily and her sister Martie Maguire (also a Dixie Chicks member) formed duo Court Yard Hounds. They released their debut self-titled album in 2010 which found success in the US. Now the duo are releasing a follow-up, Amelita, on Monday 15th July.

We caught up with Emily to find out more about Amelita, talk about the making of the album and to find out if the band has any plans to come to the UK.

How are you today?

I’m doing great. It’s morning here and I’m not a morning person so I’ll warn you of that (laughs). I’m good. I’ve had my coffee so I’m raring to go.

Don’t worry we’ll be gentle with you. Let’s start off nice and easy and talk about your new album Amelita. What can fans expect from the record?

Let’s see. Sophomore albums are always tricky because you’re trying to solidify a sound. That was our goal for this album. We branched out a little bit as far as different kinds of songs, tempos and subject matter but kept to our core sound. We reached out to other songwriters which is a little bit different for this album. The core writing group is still the same – Martie, me and our guitarist Martin Strayer – but we do have a few other writers which was fun and gave a little bit of new perspective to some of the lyrics and the feel. I think in a nutshell as far as what people can expect, there’s a little more variety, a little more tempo but it’s from the same place. Hopefully we kept our core Court Yard Hounds sound.

It’s been three years since your debut album came out…

Yeah I know. It’s been a long time!

What would you say you’ve learned between the first album and your new album?

I think it’s just more confident. We took baby steps making the first album and it was based on a series of songs I had written during my divorce so it had a certain flavour to it. We were testing it out and we were confident in it but it was new to us. We were trying to figure out this post-Dixie Chicks moment. Now we’ve toured Court Yard Hounds and we’ve been a band for a while so there’s a confidence that maybe we didn’t have on the first album. Relaxation into who we are and what we like about the sound, that was important for us. Martie sings lead on some of the songs on this album too. It’s just trying to find that place in our voice that’s indicative of who we are and we’re comfortable with, and finding the right songs to do that. With this album we wrote so much so I think we have a little bit more ability to pick and choose which songs made it to the finish line.

When you have a lot of songs to choose from, how do you decide what makes the tracklisting and what doesn’t?

Everybody working on the album has their 2 cents about which songs they like and which ones they don’t or that they like less. I rarely take it outside of that group of people or take it to my friends and family. I think it happens naturally. You tend to gravitate towards the ones that you’re most excited about. That leads you to which ones you finish as opposed to the ones that just sit with a rhythm track because no one can envision how to finish it. It’s an organic process; the cream rising to the top (laughs).

Do you test out new songs when you’re on the road to see what the fans think of them?

We do! Some of the early ones we wrote around 2011 we had the opportunity to play in the live shows – Amelita and Sunshine being two of them. They got a good response on first listen from crowds. A Guy Like You, one that Martie sings, we’ve been playing for a while has stood the test of time and it’s one the crowd likes. I think that’s the beauty of being able to go out and play and take time between albums; we can road test them.

Court Yard Hounds

Why did you decide to call the album after the track Amelita?

You know I wish I had a more in-depth and interesting answer for that (laughs) but we just liked the song. We got down to album names and it was just one of those things that rolled off the tongue. We’re familiar with albums that have female names associated with them and there’s something iconic to them that I like. I kind of put it in that place and how I see this album. I like the flavour of that name for some reason.

There doesn’t always need to be a big reason behind an album name. Perhaps Amelita will take on a new meaning when you tour the album?

Yeah. I think that song represents the growth of the Court Yard Hounds and our sound. It’s indicative of who we are sound-wise. I think people will be asking the question until they hear the album and realise it’s one of the cornerstone songs on the album.

Do you have plans to tour the album? Are you waiting to get it out first and then show it off live or have you got some shows already planned?

A mixture (laughs). We have some shows that we’ve just booked before the album comes out but then we’re pretty heavily into promotion. Then we’re doing some big festival stuff like Lollapalooza in Chicago and we’ll do a lot of press around that. We’ve got some other shows throughout August and September. Then I think we’re going to continue to try working it press wise and see what happens. At the level we’re playing now we have to do either big festivals or get in a van and really hit it on the road at clubs. I don’t know that that’s the best use of our time right now. We’d love to play as much as possible but strategically I think it’s best for us to promote, promote, promote and see where that takes us and take opportunities as they come. We’re not just going to hit the road.

Would you like to come back to the UK to do some shows over here?

Absolutely. Probably the most fun thing for us is to come over and play shows abroad. The UK has always been so good to us. We have so many fans that we keep in touch with on Twitter in the UK and they keep asking. I want to be able to get them a definite answer but we don’t know when that it. It’s definitely on our radar and something that we’d love to do. A lot of the time unfortunately it comes down to budgets and boring, boring things like that to get our whole band over to do a show and promote. I would say we can safely say we’ll be there at some point in 2014, hopefully spring. We just have to launch the album and get it off the ground in the States first and go from there.

Hopefully you’ll make it over and we can come and see you!

Yes we’d love to see you. If there’s such a huge groundswell in the UK, we’d love to come over based on the fans demanding it (laughs) then we’d have to come over right?

So basically your UK fans reading this should start campaigning to get you over here now?

Yeah! Start at grassroots.

See this is the joy of social media where fans can tweet directly at you asking you to come play a show without understanding the logistics behind it.

It really takes the label to say it’s time to take us somewhere because it’s really not cost effective to do it on our own or without that label support. It’s not something I want to bog the fans down with but I don’t want to write back saying ‘I’m so sorry, we’ll be there as soon as we can’ because it is so enjoyable. Just as a traveller I love being over in the UK and feeling you’re garnering fans in other corners of the world is so rewarding.

Court Yard Hounds

Talking about social media, it can be a powerful marketing tool for artists but on the flip side it can become a very negative place. What’s your relationship been like with social media?

I find that our fans, and the people that gravitate to us on Facebook or Twitter, are very respectful. I can count on one hand how many things have happened where I’ve thought ‘that’s a bit ugly’ or ‘that’s not very nice’. I don’t find that it’s a platform, in terms of our fans, for the ‘haters’ or whatever people call them. I just don’t think we have that kind of demographic.

Have you noticed a change in your fanbase from your Dixie Chicks days?

It’s interesting to see who our demographic is for Court Yard Hounds versus Dixie Chicks. I think there are some Dixie Chicks fans that have come with us but we’ve gained some new fans too; either people that are newly exposed to us as sisters or who just come for the music rather than just being a Dixie Chicks fan. It is a little bit different audience but I like figuring out who that is. I’m sure there are Dixie Chicks fans who aren’t on the bandwagon, which is fine, but I do get people come up to me on social media who say ‘I wasn’t a huge fan of Dixie Chicks’ but they really like our music. It’s good to hear you’ve converted someone else who maybe didn’t consider Dixie Chicks.

The music of the Court Yard Hounds is very different from Dixie Chicks. Was it a conscious decision to do something that was different?

I don’t know. I think our worry was that it wouldn’t have its own sound but I think it does. Martie and I’s sensibilities are pretty similar. When we hear something that we like we just know it and we let that guide us to what songs we write. The fact that we try and keep it all original for the most part helps us to create our own sound. It sets ourselves apart with where we were with the Dixie Chicks because some of our earlier albums were songs that were originally recorded by other people even though we did write our stuff eventually. Writing by committee is a little different than where we are with Court Yard Hounds. It feels more like just us and that by its nature is just different.

You play an impressive amount of instruments! How did you find the time to learn them all?

(laughs) I dabble more than anything. I don’t feel I’ve mastered any of them. I was always picking up instruments. The banjo was my first band instrument that I had. When I joined Dixie Chicks at 16 that was my instrument, it’s the only thing I could play. Not all songs call for banjo so I was forced to learn some guitar chords and play along. I played bass at the orchestra in school. I was just playing whatever was the need for that particular song in that particular band and that’s how it came about. We wanted some slide stuff on a Dixie Chicks song and I said ‘the dobro is similar to the banjo, it’s tuned very similar and the right hand is similar’. It’s more out of necessity than me trying to master all these things which I certainly have not.

You could start a one-woman band couldn’t you if you needed to with all those instruments?

(laughs) I don’t know about that! When I see those one-man bands I don’t know that I see that as an attractive proposition.

We’ve been trying to master the banjo. Where do you start?

Learning as a child is always much easier I think but a good teacher. I always took lessons. I self-taught on some instruments but I had many, many lessons. A good teacher is hard to find so good luck with that. Nowadays there’s so many YouTube videos, DVDs and tablature. I think the hardest thing with banjo is the right hand technique, your rhythm hand. Sometimes you need a teacher to correct you so you don’t have a sloppy right hand. You just need to dig in!

Our last question for you. What do you hope that fans take away from the album once they’ve listened to it?

I think this is a more fun, hopeful album. I hope people enjoy listening to the music. I don’t think we set out to have any agenda in terms of what we’re trying to say. To me it’s just a collection of fun songs with different perspectives. The hardest thing for me was to find a theme for this album and tie it up in a nice little bow. I couldn’t do that this time around because it has songs coming from every direction and every place. It’s not a thematic album for me; it’s a collection of songs. I hope people have a fun time listening to it and hear the growth and where we’ve come since the first album. It’s more diverse.

Amelita is released on Monday 15th July 2013. Watch Court Yard Hounds perform Sunshine live:

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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