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Emily Higgins: Press

Auntie Em and the Tornadoes: A Happy Medium
Posted on January 31, 2018 by Ed Peaco

Auntie Em and the Tornadoes continue to mine the creative tension between a thoughtful folky songwriter and a trio of energetic bluegrass players — tension that they release as music of good will among friends.

They perform maybe once every couple of months, so don’t miss this chance: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, at Creek Side Pub.

Emily (guitar) described how she and Bo Brown (mandolin, guitar, Dobro), George Horne (bass) and Rick Davidson (drums) work to find the right treatment. Emily’s brother, John Higgins (pedal steel), frequently sits in.

“It’s stepped up my game a bit, not just to add a little tempo to some of these songs, but it’s been good for them, too, because they’ve been bluegrassers their whole music careers,” she said. They seek the happy medium of energy and still be “sing-able.”

“My real test of when a song reaches its proper tempo is when it has energy but you can effectively sing the lyrics. If you’re rushing the lyrics to try to keep up with the tempo, you lose the songwriter component of the whole reason you’re doing this, because no one will understand the words,” she said. “That is how we find that middle ground.”

The players continually ask Emily for more of her songs to develop.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a band, but I always thought it would be so much work, like herding cats,” she said. “With these guys, it has been flawless and seamless. We respect each other so much that everything is easy. Hard work, but fun.”

“It’s a real sense of kinship and camaraderie — and lots of love. … Then you add the talent on top of that and the ‘want-to’ — we all want to play, really bad, so that’s good. That’s a good combination.”

The results have exceeded her expectations: People dance.

“I never had that concept as a songwriter because my music’s cadence was a little slower than what you need to shake your tail feathers, but I was wrong,” she said. “To look out and see people dancing — wow!”

You can hear the differences by comparing Emily’s recorded versions and live tracks with the Tornadoes from a KSMU Studio Live set. See audio tracks below.

Consider “Lover’s Ledge” from the 2015 disc, “91 Acres”: It’s one of the more uptempo pieces on the album, with string instruments generating a lilting flow. The Tornadoes bring up the tempo, teasing out the understated bluesy aspect of the song.

“The House at the End of the Road,” the title song of her 2004 album: I heard two string players evoking a bucolic state of grace. In contrast, the Tornadoes execute a delicate rhythmic drive with soft chucks from the mandolin and brushes on a snare.

“Both of the live tracks with the Tornadoes are a good 10-15 beats per minute faster than the album recordings,” Emily said. “We are careful not to push too fast, which can make the lyrics run together.”

Just enough push to get the folks out of their chairs.
"The talented Emily Higgins, the calming voice of KSMU’s The Mulberry Tree radio show, released her fourth album in September. Like her current collection of acoustic country folk, this 11-song record captures the sound and atmosphere of the Ozarks perfectly. Each song chronicles a different story from the 91-acre property that serves as the inspiration for the album. One moment you’re following along as Higgins goes morel hunting, and then you’re enjoying the view from Lover’s Ledge. It’s a peaceful listening experience perfect for those long drives through 417-land. You can purchase 91 Acres at emilyhigginsmusic.com."
Music is in Higgins' DNA

You can hear a smile when Emily Higgins begins to talk about music.

It was music, after all, that relieved her complete sadness when a fury of songwriting followed tragedy. Her only son was killed in a 1997 car accident. “When Jake was killed, I used music to pull me out of that,” she says. “I started writing music furiously.”

Though it was her first real attempt at writing songs, the tunes poured out of her. Shortly after, Higgins had three albums. “When you need (music) the most, it will be there for you,” she says. “I think it’s part of some people’s DNA. It’s certainly a part of mine.”

As a child Higgins shadowed her older brother John. “I didn’t want to go to the lessons and everything, so I just copied off of him,” she says. “He mastered the guitar, but I went more of the songwriting route.”

Those first projects were very personal, relationship-based. Higgins’ latest project however, 91 Acres, centers on another of her life’s greatest loves—the Ozarks. The album tells the story of a rehabilitated 91-acre plot of land, Higgins says it’s the “quintessential Ozarks property, with water, rock bluffs, woods, open fields, dry creek beds and hills.”

The album was commissioned by the landowner who requested anonymity. It tells the story of that land, and its inhabitants—like bees and morel mushrooms. Higgins prefers the subject matter over the typical.

“This is such a different project than the others,” Higgins says. “This has nothing to do with human relationships. Nobody fell in and out of love. That’s what made it so much more of a good fit for me—not having to think about relationships, but to think about those things I love about the Ozarks.”

Higgins will share 91 Acres as part of Missouri Department of Conservation’s Nature and the Arts series at Springfield Conservation Nature Center Friday at 7 p.m.

Higgins hosts KSMU’s The Mulberry Tree Sunday nights at 9 p.m. It’s a cherished weekly opportunity. “The joy I get out of the (radio show) is from the joy of sharing music,” she says.—Brett Johnston
“The House at the End of the Road,” Emily Higgins: “The purity of folk.”
Move over, Oprah Winfrey. There's a new kind of book club in town.

Wild Bob's Musical Book club, a group of local songwriters who create original songs inspired by a literary classic every month, will take on Harper Lee's Pulizer Prize winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," Oct. 10 at Lindberg's on Historic C-Street.

The club, formed by Mallory and Mark Leicht, was modeled after the Bushwick Book Club based in New York and Seattle.

"I'm not a songwriter. I get the people together," Mallory Leicht said, smiling. "We wanted to facilitate the song-writing experience for Springfield artists and wanted to find a unique way to engage literature."

The Oct. 10 show will be the third event for the loosely-formed group. There are no fees and songwriters are under no obligation to participate every month. All songwriters are welcome, Mallory Leicht said.

Just read the book, let it inspire you to write a song, and then be ready to perform by the second Friday of the month.

"It's not based on experience or who you know," she said. "We want to provide the opportunity. If it's someone's first time and they are scared to death and they might be terrible — I still want them to feel comfortable and come. We stick with classics that are familiar enough to the audience and song writers. ... We try not to get books that are over 400 pages because that's a lot to do in a month. And we want to keep our songwriters happy."

Previous books featured were Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" and Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi."

Fourteen local artists are slated to perform "To Kill a Mockingbird"-inspired songs including Emily Higgins, Barak Hill, Brett Miller and Kevin Cott.

"It's a different audience and they are listening for a different reason," Higgins said. "It's kind of like we are providing a soundtrack to a book."

Miller called Higgins' approach "very valid and interesting" but he thinks of his monthly song-writing assignment differently.

"I have been approaching it as just finding something in the book that inspires, a hub or wheel of the song, something that kind of anchors the song, a metaphor, an interaction, an idea," Miller said. "I'm sort of greedy as a songwriter. I want these songs to be songs that stand on their own, outside of the books — so I can use them."

"For me, at least, I'm looking for the same themes that the authors were looking for," Hill added. "(I am) kind of tapped into that rather than literally telling the story."

Another cool aspect of the group, the musicians agree, is that the Friday night performances at Lindberg's are the first time any of the songs are played in public — making the night exciting and somewhat frightening for the songwriters.

"Anytime you play a song, it's like introducing a child to the world for the first time and you don't know — am I completely deluded? Is this a ridiculous song? You are exposing your soul to the world," Miller said. "But it's cool because we were all there doing it."

"Something got the adrenaline going," Higgins added, recalling her first Wild Bob's performance. "But when it was done, it was really enjoyable. It's unique. The audience is unique. The felling is unique. I just love it."

Being part of the monthly musical book club also provides the songwriters with a deadline to write — something some need more than others.

"I know that if everybody else has to write a song by said date, then that means I got do to it too," Cott said. "And that might mean you are finishing a verse on the way over to the bar."

Other artists performing Oct. 10 are Sabrina Lynn Deets, Steve Ames, Sarah Pearl, Robert Ranney, Corey Cowan, Caleb Haas, Jason Loftin, Jin J. X., and Craig Mackie.

The November book will be "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That show will be at 6:30-8:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at Lindberg's.

• When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 10

• Where: Lindberg's on Historic C-Street; $5 cover goes to the musicians

• Info: email at wildbobsmusicalbookclub@gmail.com; Visit facebook.com/WildBobsMusicalBookclub
“Emily Higgins plays six-string acoustic guitar and sweetly sings her soulful ballads. She is from Southwest Missouri and has traveled all over the country, performing in coffehouses and at festivals. She's been into music since she was a child and it shows in her well-crafted work.”
Doug Treadway - Nightflying