AMELIA EMMET has been known by many names. With a constantly revolving lineup of bandmates, the 26-year-old Jamaica Plain singer/songwriter has been a familiar face in the Boston music scene from her early days as Dogs and Trains, then as Brother/Sister, and later, Mr. Sister, under which she released her first full-length album O, Sinister Force in September 2010. Carried by the gentle plucking and strumming of her banjo, her deep alto voice goes from a delicate whine to a violent howl, evoking ‘60s country starlets Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. Meanwhile, she follows the storytelling tradition of today’s freak folk sirens Joanna Newsom and Marissa Nadler, with poignant lyrics of disillusionment that match the melancholic tone of her music.
A Townsend native, Emmet has been playing music since she was young, taking up the classical trombone in grade school and performing with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. She then turned to painting, enrolling at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where, through friends, she met many of the people who helped launch her music career, like Elio DeLuca and Mike Fiore (Hallelujah the Hills, Faces on Film). She started learning banjo after buying one from a friend for $100 her freshman year.
In late October, Emmet re-emerged as THE RED HEROINE, with Brian Rutledge (Jah Hills) on trumpet, who has been playing with her since the beginning, and newly joined by Nicholas Ward (also of the Hills) on upright bass and Alec Tisdale (Volcano Kings) on drums. The name was inspired by the Chinese silent film The Red Heroine, about an orphan girl who takes vengeance on the warlord who killed her grandmother. In 2008 and 2009, Tisdale and The Devil Music Ensemble toured performing an original score to the film. Emmet’s also a natural redhead.
The band just finished a month-long residency at the Plough and Stars, a cozy, 40-year-old Irish restaurant and bar in Cambridge. For the first time, Emmet says, she has a dedicated band supporting her. “Before I just felt like I had musicians playing with me, really good friends that would do a lot for me," she tells the Phoenix. "But now, as the Red Heroine, they’re in the band. They’re in it for the long haul. It feels amazing to have such sweet and talented people committed to the music I write.”
Emmet hand-picked the residency's opening acts, local Americana, blues and rock and roll groups including Tallahassee, the Volcano Kings, Saralee and Coyote Kolb. She first met Tallahassee and Coyote Kolb at her CD release show last year. “I wanted to play with really good people that I’d never played with before, ever," she says. I felt like I kept playing with the same people over and over again. I had never met any of them, and I was so intimidated by all of them. [Since then ] I’ve been playing shows with them at least once a month. And we’ll all have poker night together almost every week. When there’s people in the same city as you that just make really good music, and you have the chance to really be friends with them and get to know them, it’s amazing."
At first glance, the Plough seems like a less than ideal venue, with just a small corner reserved for performers, but its warm, intimate atmosphere along with the hum of conversation and clinking glasses dovetailed well with the Red Heroine’s backcountry sound. “It’s a bar with free music, so just the fact that people stay and they’re listening is nice,” Emmet says. “It’s been a little hard some nights, but mostly the crowd’s been really quiet. When I do my a capella songs, they’re all completely silent.”
The intimacy has added benefits, as well. “It’s fun being able to shut people up,” Emmet adds. “I feel like I’m mostly pretty quiet in the rest of my life, but when I’m on stage I can just scream and yell and get away with it.”
And her battle cries have certainly been heard. Emmet recently recorded harmonies on Nadler’s latest release Covers Volume II, which includes covers of Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty and the Magnetic Fields, among others. She met Nadler, who lived in Jamaica Plain before moving to Newton where she now resides, through playing music in Boston. With more than a dozen new songs in her arsenal, Emmet will soon be heading to Brooklyn to record her next album with Glenn Forsythe (St. Claire), whom she met while he was studying music production and engineering at Berklee School of Music. The Portland record label Mama Bird Recording Co., originally based in Boston, will be producing the album on vinyl to be released sometime next year.
But songwriting has been a patient process, Emmet says.
“You know how old writers talk about the muse? It’s totally real. I can’t sit down and force myself to write. It doesn’t come out. I usually have to wait to experience something,” she says. And, after a summer of tough personal transitions, she says, she had plenty to inspire her music making. “I’m certainly not a saint, so I try to be a heroine.”
THE RED HEROINE + PABST BLUE RIBBON BAND | Midway Cafe, 3496 Washington St, Jamaica Plain | December 21 @ 9 pm | 21+ | 617.524.9038 or midwaycafe.com
All photos and video by Ali Carter