Some three decades ago Steven Emerson got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle when he joined True West, a San Francisco band at the heart of the West Coast’s then-thriving Paisley Underground scene. On a circuitous creative path ever since, he’s honed his skills as a singer/songwriter in New York City, worked as a filmmaker, published as a poet, and, for much of the past decade, toiled as a composer in his North Berkeley home studio, writing music for commercials, films, television shows and video games.
But he’s still following his muse as a songwriter and performing occasionally in the East Bay, including a gig Friday at Jupiter with a band featuring Berkeley saxophonist Joshi Marshall (who also plays some keyboard and organ).
“I started writing in True West, and then I discovered Nick Drake and he kind of blew my mind,” Emerson says. “I’d never heard anything like him, and that solidified moving in that direction. I experimented with playing solo, or playing with a cellist for a couple of years. I also started playing with jazz musicians, upright bass and jazz drummers, inspired by Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones. There’s something about that sound that I was waking up to.”
These days Emerson finds inspiration close to home he shares with his wife, designer Erica Tanov, and their two children. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he delivers his spare, telegraphic melodies with his appealingly reedy tenor. His lyrics aren’t so much confessional as closely observed, detailing the pleasures and pains that come with maturity. He documented the new material on his recent ballad-laden CD Song of Love, which he recorded in his studio and mixed at Fantasy.
Raised in Davis, he joined True West in 1984 as a drummer just in time to play on the band’s first full-length album Drifters. The group made a strong impression, earning praise from Prince and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, who caught the band in Athens, Georgia, which led to True West opening for the alt-rock stars on the Fables of the Reconstruction tour. Emerson ended up playing guitar in the band, and by the time True West broke up a few years later he had started to focus on songwriting. The pressures of the road and frustrations over not landing a major record deal contributed to the group’s demise.
“We were on the college circuit, and it wasn’t as glamorous as it might seem,” Emerson says. “We did about 18 dates with REM, the best were at the Greek Theaters in Berkeley and LA. But there was always something that didn’t come through or happen, as far as getting onto a major label or getting management.”
After the Nick Drake epiphany, Emerson decided to concentrate on performing his own songs and he made the move to New York City looking for a dramatic change. He found a new source of inspiration when he caught a performance by then-unknown Shawn Colvin at St. John the Divine Cathedral. Part of an informal West Village circle of songwriters gravitating around Jack Hardy, the folk singer who mentored several generations of singer/songwriters, Emerson earned an ASCAP songwriting award and recorded a duo album with cellist Peter Lewy (a project that has yet to be released).
Burnt out by life in New York City, Emerson and Tanov started planning on moving to Berkeley, but, before he left Gotham, he directed the independent film Second Person, starring a flamboyant Italian dancer/actress he met while working an administrative day gig at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The film screened at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1994, the year he moved back to the West Coast.
“I had done a music video, and really enjoyed making it,” Emerson says. “That inspired me to go buy a camera. I knew I was leaving New York and the desire was to capture something about the city, almost a document of that time and place.”
He quickly found a creative community on the East Bay jazz scene, earning glowing reviews for his solo debut Until. He collaborated with prolific bassist/producer Jon Evans on 2000’s Set In Motion, while performing with Berkeley High alumni like saxophonist Dave Ellis and trumpeter Erik Jekabson.
In the dozen years between Set In Motion and Song of Love, Emerson has concentrated on expanding Ever Studio, his full-service music production operation. He’s not disheartened by the slow down in recording and performing his own songs as much as he is resigned to the vicissitudes of a life in the arts.
“When I moved out the film got in the festival and screened at the Castro,” he says. “I was playing around and got written up in the Express. I was being courted by a label, but it went out of business. Now there’s no master plan. I’m feeling like playing more, and the last show I did was very encouraging.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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