Emily Burgess: A Guitar Heroine Finds Her Voice

Emily Burgess (photo by Karol Orzechowski)
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All the songs on Are We In Love?, Emily Burgess’ debut album, released late last year, are good. Most are in an electric blues vein, and feature stellar guitar fills and solos, of exactly the kind you’d expect from a musician with a little over a decade of professional experience as a lead guitarist.

The title track, though, sits in a world of its own. A soft, soulful love song, its layers of plaintive vocals sitting atop jazzy chording and a drum machine, it points to Burgess’ future as a singer-songwriter, in which her voice, a less commanding and more fragile instrument than the electric guitar, does the talking.

Emily Burgess (photo by Karol Orzechowski)Like most of the songs on the album, “Are We In Love?” was co-written by Ryan Weber, one half of the lead siblings of the Weber Brothers, Burgess’ main current gig, and tackles the subject of unrequited love.

“It’s the strongest feeling you have,” Burgess says flatly, when asked about the theme, which is a common one in blues music. “It’s nothing to do with what I know how to write—it’s just, ‘I gotta write this.’”

For most of her career, though, Burgess wrote instrumentals. Jazz-schooled and steeped in the idiom of electric blues, comfortable holding the spotlight as a soloist from her teens, through a long stint in the 24th Street Wailers and with the Webers, she has come somewhat later to the game of singing about her feelings than is common. “I love being able to sing my own songs,” she says.

Three years on the road with the Weber Brothers, a taut, hard-working miniature rock‘n’roll revue in which there are no passengers, have been decisive in that shift. “The first year I didn’t sing in the band,” she says. “One time I was singing along, and Ryan said ‘You’re good enough—time to start working on it.’” She sang a song or two a night, plus some harmonies, and eventually started singing her own songs.

“I don’t think I would have pursued it without that encouragement,” she says. “If you told me three years ago, I’d have said there’s no way.”

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Emily Burgess grew up in Mississauga, in a house that hummed with the sounds of her father’s records. “I heard everybody that way,” she says. Although he wasn’t a musician, he loved rock and blues. “It was always his dream that I would be in a band.”

She started taking piano lessons as a child, a very correct Royal Conservatory type of instruction in classical music, but though she thought of herself as a musician at the time, she never practiced and progressed slowly. When she switched to guitar at age 14, that all changed.

“I had already made my plans before I took my first lessons,” she says. “It was my thing and I felt connected to it.”

Emily Burgess (photo by Karol Orzechowski)Like a lot of novice guitar players, she started ‘lifting’ solos, learning them painstakingly note by note from records. The first she attempted was George Harrison’s on the Beatles’ “Something.” “I remember absolutely butchering it, but eventually I started to get the hang of it.”

Eventually a guitar teacher showed her the pentatonic scale, a five-note sequence, pared down from the standard eight-note scale of classical music, that serves as the essential core of blues expression.

From there, Burgess took a deep dive into the blues. She knew Stevie Ray Vaughan, a common gateway artist, from her father’s collection, and Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix of course. But soon she found older blues, further away from the rock mainstream, like the three kings: BB King, Albert King, and Freddie King, the last of whose all-instrumental oeuvre and jaunty phrasing were particularly influential on her approach to the genre.

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There’s an old joke where a kid goes to her mother and says, “Mum, when I grow up, I want to be a musician,” and the mother answers, “Well dear, you can’t do both.” A full-fledged guitar nerd as she approached her late teens, intent on a life on the road, Burgess faced the prospect of having to do something responsible with her life, and opted to do both, enrolling in the jazz program at Humber College.

“Jazz wasn’t my first choice,” she says. “It was like ‘You have to do this if you’re going to go to school.’ It was just an excuse. You tell your parents, ‘Hey I can be going to school and playing music!’”

So she played jazz for five years, from her late teens to her early 20s. “I liked it,” she says. “The faculty are top notch. The first two years are so intense. You learn how to teach yourself and how to learn.”

She was young, struggling a bit to keep up with the best of the best in a somewhat unfamiliar field. But the theory knowledge and the chops she developed through that experience have helped her a lot. She had to learn quickly.

Emily Burgess (photo by Karol Orzechowski)Blues and jazz are related, but where blues is primarily expressive, personal music, jazz tends towards technical formality. “I was into doing that the best I could, and I was definitely better at it then than now,” she notes, laughing. As a listener, she says, “I do appreciate it, it’s just not what I go to first.”

The Humber experience was also important in that it introduced Burgess to a classmate, Lindsay Beaver, who was putting together a blues band.

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The 24th Street Wailers, the band Beaver put together after meeting Burgess at Humber, was very much a collaborative band of equals at the start. Burgess jokes that “I’m the least talented member of any band I’m in,” but underscores the fact that she was “there from the beginning,” shaping the sound and the direction.

Everyone in the band was a talented musician, but young and inexperienced. “We kind of grew together,” she says. “Everything was a first experience.” First big shows, first big tours, first festivals: the band did it all together, becoming not only experienced professionals but seasoned performers who showed off their chops to great cumulative effect.

Burgess also learned more about the blues, immersing herself in the current Canadian scene. “Every folk competition you can imagine, every blues competition, we just worked our way up.” Through many hours on stage, and many days on the road, they deepened their engagement in music and their understanding of the music business. “We were all in it together,” she says, “just trying to shoot for the top.”

One connection was with the band she calls “the best band I’ve ever seen in my life.” After a show in Toronto, the 24th Street Wailers went out as a band to the Dakota Tavern to check out the Weber Brothers. “I was jaw to the floor,” Burgess says.

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A little while later, Burgess was living in Peterborough, a spur-of-the-moment decision (“you know,” she says, “a guy”) that she was on the verge of reversing. She got a call from Ryan Weber, asking her if she played bass. “Not really,” she answered truthfully. But she showed up to the gig anyway.

Emily Burgess (photo by Karol Orzechowski)It wasn’t a show. It was a video the Weber Brothers were making for their song “I Still Believe,” filmed in the majestic old chapel of the recently opened Mount Community Centre. It was an immensely charismatic introduction to the band, and a uniquely Peterborough one.

That experience was catalyzing, immediately sealing a bond between Burgess and the Weber Brothers, and between Burgess and Peterborough.

Although the Webers are undeniably a roots-inspired band, it was still a big musical change for Burgess, coming from a straight-up blues band. Early on she was told, “You’re going to have to strum some open chords”—which, coming out of jazz school and years of electric blues comping, was “not my forte.”

Whereas the focus in the Wailers had been jaw-dropping solos, in the Webers the emphasis was on strong group work, and everyone had to pitch in together. “You had to just be strong, don’t play weak,” Burgess says, thinking back, “play rhythmically—fill out the sound.”

The 24th Street Wailers had songs, some of which were written by Burgess for Beaver to sing, but the Weber Brothers shows were all about songs. Solos took a back seat. They still happened, and everyone in the band was a great soloist, but the solos were there to serve the song, not vice versa. “I really loved it.”

The band’s massive catalogue of original songs, played night after night, “transitioned me into writing songs,” she says. “Not blues songs, just whatever songs.”

That catalogue, and the focus on creating a repertoire of original material, influenced her shift from guitar player to singer-songwriter, “big time.”

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Burgess’ solo repertoire developed without explicit ambition. “I was writing whatever the hell I wanted to write, not really thinking about making an album.” The decision to go into the studio and start recording the material was pretty spontaneous.

The recordings were done by James McKenty at his studio, with Sam and Ryan Weber producing, and their other bandmates, the Browne brothers, Marcus and Rico, playing. “Having them as the producers was so good,” she says, “there were just so many ideas. ‘Get rid of this first chorus!’ Things that made the songs flow.”

It was done in free times between shows, usually on Wednesdays and Thursdays when the band wasn’t performing. The material was pretty fresh, some of it written days before it was recorded.

“We had played some of them before with the Webers, plus I’d done a few solo shows with Marcus and Rico.” But there was a lot of experimenting. Everybody threw in ideas, and everybody played instruments they didn’t normally play. “It was fun.”

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Burgess is touring now with Marcus and Rico, and while the guitar is still a key ingredient (“With the trio we all have to be there,” she states emphatically), the original songs are centre stage.

Emily Burgess (photo by Karol Orzechowski)She thinks for a long time before answering whether guitar playing is less important to her, less expressive of who she is as an artist, than songwriting. She chooses her words carefully.

“There are certain guitar players where a guitar solo is just going to be so good,” she says, “where that solo is just like a song in itself—people who can just take the guitar and make some magic happen.” Now, she says, “I feel like my songwriting does that more for me.

“It’s more of an expression of who I am. I was all about guitar playing. And

guitar is still very important to me.”

A big part of it is the cultural context of guitar playing. “With instruments there seems to be a competitive thing.” However, “you can forget all that if you can write a song that moves someone. That’s all that matters.

“If you write something that feels good, if you’re expressing yourself,” she says, “there’s literally nothing better.”

 

Photos by Karol Orzechowski.

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David Tough

David Tough

david.tough

David Tough is a musician, scholar, and journalist from Peterborough, Ontario. He is Senior Editor of Electric City Magazine.