It was easy to fall under the subtle charm and seductive lure of Denali, the enchanting new release from Emma Hill. Its great Northwest sensibilities, its tales of people real and imagined, and its independent spirit felt like a piece of history I wish I had lived. I wanted to climb the peaks, pan for gold, do battle with the environment, and carve out my own space in the wild. The Alaska of Hill’s upbringing has its own truth, and she takes us across the landscape in search of it. Seeing her perform these songs live was to have her as your personal guide. Emma Hill, live, is a revelation.
It was to be a night of firsts for me: the first time seeing Hill, the first time experiencing the intimate setting of the house concert scene. It has been many years since I sat in a living room where the guitar, amongst other things, was being passed around. I remember fondly the bond of song, the way sharing music lifted the room, and our spirits. On Will the Circle Be Unbroken, vol.2, Emmylou Harris spoke about the recording sessions, noting that often in the process of producing records, the idea of making music organically was obscured. “We lost the living room,” she said. Emma Hill never left it.
Hill is a professional musician, an artist who makes her livelihood specifically touring the house concert network that is growing across the country. About a week before the show I read an excellent article on NoDepression.com about the burgeoning house concert circuit that convinced me I want to get involved. Going to Hill’s DC gig only strengthened that desire. The show took place in a gorgeous condo on 15th street NW, in the nation’s capitol. Finding it was a bit tricky, but what awaited me was more than worth the effort.
A young man opened the door and confirmed that I was at the right place. I walked into the living room and ran right into Hill, who rose from the sofa and extended her hand to greet me. “I’m so glad you could make it,” she said. To my right sat her accompanist, Bryan Daste, a man of many talents, and Hill’s musical co-conspirator. I was able to speak with both of them for a few minutes, and found them warm, engaging, and remarkably down to earth. Within moments, I was introduced to a half-dozen friendly souls, including the hosts of the concert. Over the next half-hour, several more people trickled in from the cold, found their way to a glass of wine and a cushy seat. Then the show began.
Hill invited the audience to get comfortable, and retrieved her acoustic guitar from the corner. Daste took his seat at the pedal steel, reached over to pick up his banjo, and the duo launched into “Bright Eyes,” the opening track on Denali. Several things were immediately obvious. The first was the stunning clarity and purity of Hill’s voice. The second thing was the sheer strength she projected. Her relaxed body language contrasted the commanding manner in which her vocals filled the room, without the aid of a mic or PA system. Hill approached the songs honestly, without the bag of vocal tricks, of artifice, that the American Idol generation has come to lean on so heavily. Her voice seemed to draw its nuance and bravado from the narrative in each song, illustrating the power of words and the courage and fragility of the characters that populate the Alaskan frontier Hill knows so well.
The next set of discoveries involved Daste. His arrangements on Denali are incredibly intuitive, and the choices he makes underscore his knack for knowing exactly what is needed to best showcase each song. He has a light touch, avoiding the temptation to clutter, allowing the tunes to breathe. But his skills don’t stop there; he is an excellent harmony singer. Add to that his selfless work ethic — he does everything to support the artist and nothing to draw undue attention to himself. He faithfully serves the singer and the song, in the process becoming invaluable to both. The list of instruments he employs is lengthy, and the manner in which he wields them is tasteful and understated. His presence, indispensible, adds depth to the live performance of Hill’s material.
Hill led the audience through a 12-song set that included eight numbers from the new record. Interspersed with introductions providing some insightful backstory, the listener could feel as though they had been the recipient of a confidence, that Hill had shared some part of her soul that needed protection. The audience was naturally drawn to her, pledging silently to honor the impartation of secret knowledge with personal loyalty. Riding shotgun, on banjo and pedal steel, was Daste, who was as much a part of the success of the evening as he was the loyal friend and evangelist for Hill’s talent and quirky vision.
After opening with “Bright Eyes,” the pair segued into the title track of her 2013 album, Black and Wretched Blue, with Daste’s pedal steel caressing the sorrow and regret from the troubled heartbreak lament. This was followed by “Hard Love,” and then “Lioness.” Hill revealed that “Lioness” was written four years ago, as a result of a writing prompt to create a superhero. As mundane as that idea might sound, what emerged from the exercise was a gorgeous portrait of a conflicted woman, not unlike the central character of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita. As if that was not enough, Daste added a sweeping accompaniment on his iPhone.
Family history provided the spark for “49er,” a story-song Hill penned as an ode to both her father and grandfather, and their attempts at striking gold. The second track from Black and Wretched Blue, the solemn “A Pilot’s Goodbye,” brought home the dangers of the Alaskan frontier, where residents of tiny remote villages depend on daring flyboys to bring them the provisions they need to survive. Hill, known as the Sleetmute Sweetheart, hails from one of those tundra towns, population one hundred. The song celebrates the life of one particular pilot, Hill’s uncle, who died in a crash.
The final selection, “Alaska Dear, I’m Coming Home,” was sung a capella, a paean to the simple pastoral pleasures of Alaskan life. Hill let slip that she wrote it in the back of her father’s Cessna, and that seems just about perfect.
After the show Hill and Daste mingled and sold merch, taking time to speak with audience members. They were spectacularly ordinary, in the good sense. No pretentious airs, no aloof rock star personas. Just working musicians laboring damn hard to support their art. This particular night was show number 31 out of 52 concerts to be performed in 58 days. In all, Hill and Daste will drive over 6,500 miles, bringing their unique American vision to living rooms across the country. “My Costco membership gives me a real deal on a rental car,” Hill said. We talked about the current state of music and where they are headed next. When I asked a question about playing pedal steel, Daste walked over, sat down, and turned it on. He proceeded to show me how it works, how he shapes chords, how he bends the notes. He took his time. The thought occured to me that Emma Hill and Bryan Daste could be anyone’s children, that they are good musicians, and, most of all, good people.