Kyle Emerson just released his second album as a solo artist, the introspective and thought-provoking Only Coming Down. The songwriter recently relocated back to Los Angeles in August 2019 after a stint back in Denver where he originally came to the attention of fans of psychedelic pop during his stint in the band Plum. For a couple of years, the latter was a bit of a buzz band before it realized that maybe Denver wasn’t the best place to base a band that seemed to have the opportunity expand its reach beyond the local scene, beyond being nominated for local awards and playing the same gauntlet of small clubs and occasionally playing bigger venues like the 550 capacity Bluebird Theater or graduate in draw and popularity to the Gothic Theatre at 1,100. Plum moved to Los Angeles in 2016 and within about a year Emerson had left the band and not long after Plum fizzled out. For some that would have been discouragement enough but not for Emerson who had already relocated once to pursue his dream of being a musician with a career.
Emerson was born in Northern Ohio not far south of Detroit where his father was a worship leader at a non-denominational church. While involved in a worship band Emerson learned some music theory from the group’s leader who also shared his love of Radiohead, indie rock and later era alternative music. Emerson also connected with and studied guitar under a music teacher of a local private school, Patrick Paringer, who had grown up in Seattle and known Elliott Smith. At that time Emerson the current bassist in his live band Dan Volmer who also played in the youth group band.
After high school a number of Emerson’s friends moved to Colorado and Brooklyn. Those that moved to the latter offered to let him join their band and sleep on their couch until he got on his feet. But life in NYC was daunting and Emerson didn’t feel like he was ready to live in the city on his own.
Colorado beckoned in 2014 and before moving to Denver Emerson was blithely unaware of happenings in the state and city. He did not know about the legalization of recreational cannabis or that the city was experiencing its largest and longest period of population growth in many years with many musicians moving to Denver seeking out the opportunity for perceived overnight success of acts like The Lumineers and The Fray or at least to be in a place where music was happening and the scene not yet oversaturated. Emerson’s friend Andrew Bair (now of dream pop phenoms Tyto Alba and other projects), son of the pastor of Emerson’s church in Ohio, had moved to Denver and he felt like with Bair and other friends around he could keep his footing in a less expensive city than New York. So he moved into a two bedroom apartment at Thirteenth Avenue and Marion St. near the former location of the Gypsy House Café and shared a room with Volmer for a few months before moving in with the guys from Plum in the Villa Park neighborhood of west central Denver.
The fledgling band had a lot going for it aside from musical and songwriting talent. Ty Baron was a music business major and did some talent buying at Larimer Lounge, a club where many up and coming acts perform weekly, and Jake Supple had been also playing in Abandin Pictures, a group with some cachet in the local psychedelic rock world (he now performs in Flaural). Both had navigated the local music world both as artists and on the less romantic business end of what it actually means to be in a band that might want to do more than play for a few dollars and free drinks.
But like a lot of bands Plum ran into that often unspoken barrier to a lot of bands from Denver and Colorado generally that prevents most from reaching beyond the local band status. Sure, there are anomalies like the aforementioned Lumineers, The Fray and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and on a smaller scale, Tennis. But outside of jam bands and the EDM world, not a lot of in between being bonafide famous and “local band” status regardless of one’s artistic merits. So even though the move and living in cramped quarters in what was essentially a practice space in L.A. lead to the band breaking up, the decision to relocate was understandable. When you have some hype at home it stands to reason you can build that elsewhere, especially when you’re young.
When Emerson left Plum in 2016 he moved back to Denver where he had some roots and connections and wrote and recorded his moving debut solo album, 2017’s Dorothy Alice. It combined Emerson’s insightful lyrics and storytelling with a folky psychedelia and almost textural atmospheric melodies. The sound has become a bit of the songwriter’s signature sound. Emerson had recently split with his then girlfriend and on top of the other experiences it’s no wonder there is more than a bit of a melancholic vibe to Dorothy Alice that is part of its deep appeal. But recorded with Jeff Cormack of pop band South of France and Justin Renaud of psychedelic rock outfit Sunboy the record reflects Emerson’s renewed hope for his music and his affection for the Mile High City.
“It felt very Denver, very Colorado and it felt great to be back,” says Emerson. “I was living back in that old house where Plum was living. It was like picking up where I had left off in a weird way.”
Emerson didn’t waste any time in writing for his sophomore record nor did he intend for it to come across like a journal entry of the last few years as he moved from Denver to Los Angeles, then repeating that same move and the experiences that framed those moves but it does. In writing the new material Emerson had no working title, which he feels might influence the sound of a record and songs chosen for better or worse, it just came to him one day. “You talk about the come down from anything, a natural high or drugs or alcohol or whatever,” says Emerson. “The more I conceptualize it I don’t know if it gets cooler or more lame but I just think there’s something about if you’re only ever coming down then there was no high on the other side of it.”
Emerson also suffered from a bit of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a kid and the acronym has the same letters as Only Coming Down. It reflects the fact that Emerson feels that music was the only thing that got him out of that head space of focusing so much on minutiae to the detriment of a productive life. Now in the process of writing his third record Emerson realized that he had to grow up.
“It’s not a conscious thing for a lot of people and you dabble in things you know you need to move on from,” explains Emerson. “The last two records are about the woes of growing into yourself. You’re always growing up your entire life. It’s not like you get to a certain place and you’ve arrived. There was something about putting a bookend on a lot of the themes I was writing about and the things I was feeling. The title summarized that feeling in so many ways with just three words.”
The heaviness that many listeners heard on Dorothy Alice is still there on Only Coming Down but the early feedback has remarked on it being upbeat. Whether it’s Emerson’s recent decision to use more electronics on the new record since discarding a purist’s disdain for technology or the more than a hint of hope in his songs that often contrast hope and despair, or the songwriter’s compassionate take on his role as a musician, the new album definitely tilts toward the positive.
“I don’t play party music, it’s not like that,” says Emerson. “But it’s like I stand in front of a room full of people who at the end of the day are just there to have a good time and as artistic as this can get and as some songwriters and musicians think they are I do believe in the power of positivity. I didn’t think about that so much when I was younger but now if you can say yeah this sucks but I’m here for you, it’s going to get better. I think that’s more worthwhile to say than it’s all shit and then we die. I think there’s power and reality in both of those, I just find it a little bit easier living in the first one a little easier.”
Catch Emerson live during his run of shows in Colorado with Houndmouth: