Bluegrass artist EmiSunshine, also known as Emilie Sunshine Hamilton, moves in her version of a more pop-oriented direction on Diamonds, a truly solo album made, for the most part, without The Rain, her usual band (which is also her family), and funded via a Kickstarter. It seems a surprising move, but there are some small clues in her back catalog.
One clue is her performance on “Stars,” an unlikely co-write with Bootsy Collins. Hamilton, now 17, lays down a vocal line with so much natural twang, it almost sounds auto-tuned. A more subtle clue comes from “Johnny June and Jesus,” a track from 2017’s Ragged Dreams. It’s a solid country stomp that happens to share a melody with Kenny Loggins’ epic “Danger Zone.” Which shows that Hamilton’s voice, somehow as strong as a bear and as a delicate as a butterfly, is informed by many styles of music. Even music made almost 20 years before she was born.
And that’s the pleasure of Diamonds: It’s pop melodies and sounds through Hamilton’s bluegrass lens. This isn’t a pivot to a completely different style. I don’t think we’ll see Hamilton getting invited to perform at any Super Bowl halftime shows (though what an amazing move that would be). The album is Hamilton experimenting with different sounds, perhaps eventually planning a more formal break with roots music, or trying to recharge her creative batteries. The intent doesn’t matter when the results are so good.
“Gaslight” features a beautiful melody and sounds like a lost Ronnie Spector track. Coupled with the surf guitar touches, it’s Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western music meeting Phil Spector. As if to offset the menacing ghost of Phil Spector, the lyrics are an intense revenge fantasy about a tortured protagonist. It’s tragic for pop but fairly standard for bluegrass and country.
“Dead Man Can’t Cat Call” follows a similar lyrical theme (“Whistle, shout, you hiss, you jest but I confess you will regret / Dead men can’t catcall”), the dark refrain pure melody, like Hamilton is singing about love and not retribution. Crunchy guitars and a spoken-word delivery give the tune a New Wave flavor, with a Debbie Harry coolness.
But Diamonds isn’t Hamilton turning her back on her previous work. “After You’re Gone” is Southern drawl over banjo rolls. The melody might feel contemporary, but the music beneath it, and Hamilton’s delivery, is roots. “No One’s Gonna Change Me” is propulsive, modern country, with fiddles and harmonica, but the backing vocals give the track a different energy, making for a hybrid tune that doesn’t feel fractured. Hamilton isn’t splitting songs into different styles so much as she’s sewing them together.
Diamonds’ back story is compelling, but even if you don’t know Hamilton’s previous work, you’re going to enjoy how she filters the traditional sounds of roots music through pop, and the way she’s able to bend pop songs into a bluegrass state of mind. Diamonds feels like a talented artist walking toward different sounds. She’s not leaving her past behind, but using it as a point of departure into a zone that’s not dangerous so much as it’s exciting.