Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson ’09 will perform a live concert through Furman’s official Instagram page beginning at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 9, in honor of the Furman class of 2020.
“I am really genuinely so excited to talk to these students, especially the seniors, and play for them,” said Robinson, whose album “Traveling Mercies” landed on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 40 Country and Americana Albums of 2019.
Like other artists, Robinson has embraced virtual technology as a way to continue to perform after the novel COVID-19 virus stopped her tour in its tracks earlier this year. Though at the time there were only 20 documented deaths in the U.S. caused by disease, when she was readying for her March 8 show in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, there was a palpable sense of unease in the music world that the distant threat of the novel coronavirus wasn’t seeming quite so distant.
“Even then, we were starting to not touch people at the merch (merchandise) table,” Robinson said. “It seems hard for me to imagine this now, but I used to shake hands and hug and was doing that for the first week or two of the tour. And then as news was spreading about the coronavirus, it became like, hey, we’ll do an elbow bump or we’ll just say ‘hi,’ but we’re going to keep a bit of a distance.”
Robinson was on the road in support of “Traveling Mercies” and seemed to be turning a big corner in her career. But as she prepared to board a plane bound for home in Flagstaff, Arizona, there was a feeling a much larger corner was looming.
“The last flight we took we were obsessively washing our hands in the airport,” Robinson said. “My husband and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘I don’t think things are going to be normal for quite a while.’”
She was right. The Wisconsin gig turned out to be her last as venues began cancelling show after show. In a matter of days, concerts that would have taken Robinson through Greenville and then Europe were put on hold as the world ground to a halt in an effort to thwart the spread of a disease that has now killed more than 245,000 people.
As is the case for almost all professional musicians, live performances account for the overwhelming majority of Robinson’s income – more than 70% she estimates – but she nonetheless considers herself fortunate to have been able to finish the first leg of a tour that had started in January.
“I feel really lucky I made a chunk of money, and we can pay our bills for the foreseeable future,” she said. “Some of my musician friends are not so lucky. We don’t have anybody on our payroll, but there are bigger musicians who have full teams and bands, who have a lot more responsibility for other people. Which I think is legitimately scary for them.”
Robinson has never been in more demand thanks to a sophomore album Stereogum included as one of The 10 Best Country Albums of 2019. Robinson is “a writer who could evoke the empathy of Patty Griffin,” Rolling Stone wrote, while also comparing her to Richard Thompson and Brandy Clark.
“Better With Time” has been listened to more than 2.9 million times on Spotify, while “The Dress,” the eighth track on “Traveling Mercies,” is a powerful song based on Robinson’s own experience as the victim of sexual assault. Rolling Stone ranked it 13th among its 25 Best Country and Americana Songs of 2019.
“It took me a long time to write that song, but I knew that it wanted to be out there in the world and it had a purpose that was bigger than me,” Robinson said. “A couple of times a week I get a message from somebody saying, ‘Thank you so much for writing this. This reminds me so much of my experience. I’m still healing, and I just can’t tell you how much this means to me.’ I’ve lived for those moments.”
A talented clarinet player in high school in Greensboro, North Carolina, Robinson earned a music scholarship from Furman, where she double majored in history and Spanish and envisioned a career as a social worker. Though she also discovered a love of playing guitar and singing for friends in college, it wasn’t until nearly 10 years after graduation that Robinson enrolled on a whim for a songwriting camp in Colorado and realized her calling.
“I got into this environment where there were a bunch of aspiring musicians and musicians who are actually doing it, and I saw that it was possible to actually do this for a living,” she said. “I seriously thought I was not meant to be playing music anymore, that I had lost the spark for it, and for the first time in years I got that spark back. It was like the seed of this dream was planted in me.”
In 2016, she recorded her first full-length studio album, “Magnolia Queen,” and her career has only continued to gain momentum. Robinson says she’s using the unexpected down time caused by the pandemic to better understand her business and finances, write and explore sharing her music in ways she had previously disdained.
“I’ve pivoted to doing online shows, which I never used to do because I didn’t like playing to a laptop computer screen,” she said with a laugh. “People are watching Facebook and Instagram concerts more than they ever have before, and it’s this wonderful light in the darkness. I’ve been given an opportunity to explore this medium of online shows and connecting with people this way because we don’t have the option of getting together in person, and I have had so much fun.”
Robinson hopes to resume her tour May 29 in Flagstaff and has a slew of dates scheduled through November, but that’s only a hope.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to play shows again by June or July. I just have no idea,” she said. “I thought for sure we’d be back to some form of normal by summer, but because of the lack of (virus) tests available and the inconsistencies between different states and regions, I doubt it.”
Listen to “The Dress” below and check out more of Robinson’s music by visiting her website.