Welcome back to Uncharted, an Uproxx original series highlighting the best artists you haven’t heard of, yet. With the support of our friends at Honda, we are following some of the best emerging talent as they follow their dreams and make great music.
Do me a favor and picture a rock star. Not just an everyday drummer or a local gig guitarist, but a true blue rock n’ roller. Follow that image in your head offstage after a raucous gig. Put them on a plush couch in a green room or standing in a hotel suite just waiting to being trashed.
Now, tell me, what’s in their hand?
If you’re anything like me, your hypothetical traveling musician has a firm grip on a bottle of something fermented, distilled and gut-rottingly strong. Alcohol and rock music are intrinsically linked in the cultural imagination and with good reason. The vast majority of the genre’s icons spent their salad days pickling their insides. But that’s not the case with Emily Wolfe. The Austin-based musician only found how to properly rock out after kicking a rocky alcohol addiction to the curb.
Though you wouldn’t know it if you saw her on a stage now — playing a vicious brand of rock and roll that would make her idols Jenny Lewis and Jack White proud — Wolfe was painfully shy about performing well into her young adulthood. Even though she started playing guitar at the age of 5, Wolfe said she was always uncomfortable performing for a crowd.
“I never liked to sing in front of people,” she tells us. “Even in church, I felt like I sounded weird.”
Wolfe fell into an appropriately quiet style, writing folk music songs with her college roommate. And even though she wrote all the lyrics, she couldn’t bring herself to sing because she was “too afraid.”
“I played guitar and she sang… That was the first band or project I was in that allowed me to be on stage as a guitar player,” she says. “And we got booked at [Austin venue] Spider House… we sat down cause we were too afraid to stand up and play.”
Wolfe did sing though, when she was writing her own music and lyrics — she played the songs to herself inside the closet of her apartment. It was around after she graduated college that Wolfe fell into habits more associated with hard rockers than folkies. She says that she felt “super stuck” in both her music and the office job where she was working and that led to raw, alcohol-soaked writing sessions.
“I was working a boring day job. I’d work 8 to 5, come home, toss a bunch of drinks back and write bad songs. It was a very emotionally driven, drunken and messy process,” she confesses.
Wolfe describes the songs that came from this period as the work of a “clearly depressed” person. Though she was drinking like a stereotypical rockstar and writing sorrowful songs, Wolfe had yet to make a turn toward blues music’s most famous offspring.
The drinking eventually crept into her daily life with Wolfe sneaking drinks at her day job and downing as much as a half-liter of tequila every single day.
“After a while I was putting whiskey in my water bottle,” she reveals about her past. “Who’s gonna notice? They didn’t say anything if they did.”
Wolfe explained at first, drinking all day at work and coming home to drink even heavier just seemed like something that a musician was supposed to do.
“I was ashamed of it, but it also felt like it was what I was supposed to do…I thought it was the way to be a badass musician,” she admits.
Through she was able to write in this state — producing some dark and heavy folk tunes — such a punishing lifestyle could never last. The drinking eventually caught up with Wolfe. Bruises began to form all over her body. She was hospitalized several times for alcohol poisoning and began to have seizures thanks to a bad mix of medication and spirits.
After one of these seizures, doctors discovered via CAT scan that Emily had blood on her brain. They had to perform emergency surgery to drain it. However, even such a traumatic event wasn’t enough in and of itself to stop Wolfe’s drinking. She began to drink again just weeks after being released from the hospital.
That’s where her girlfriend and manager Brittany Durdin came in. She gave Wolfe an ultimatum: alcohol or their relationship.
“My girlfriend said, ‘You can’t do this anymore. She is the best thing in my life and I didn’t want to lose that,” Wolfe said.
Rehab left Emily with a clean slate that extended well beyond just alcohol consumption. Suddenly, she felt repelled by the softer acoustic style that had soundtracked her darker days.
“When I first started playing the electric guitar, it brought me into a different realm. I don’t connect with the acoustic anymore. I hated it,” she remembers. “I was in a box with that acoustic and folk stuff. I was drinking a lot and the music that came from that was emotional and super vulnerable.”
“Once I got sober, I approached things in a different way,” she adds. “It felt like it was the real me and it was a lot more rock.”
That newfound clarity has found its way into all parts of Wolfe’s life, even as her music gets fuzzier. Gone are the nights where she raised a shot glass to pictures of drunken troubadours and hoped for a decent song.
“Now, I’ll start with a melody or riff in my head,” she explains. “I’ll have that core of the song and the way the song comes together is much more calculated. it has the big picture in mind. It’s better to have that idea in my head rather than just vomiting onto a whiteboard and hoping some of its good.”
She’s also pared down her team, leaving almost all managerial tasks to Brittany and falling in with a backing band of locals that she feels a true connection with. The straightening out seems to be paying off, with larger tours at bigger venues forthcoming and her first rock n’ roll full-length on the way. She still thinks her voice sounds strange for rock, but rather than shy away from that or numb the nagging doubts, the newly confident Wolfe has decided to form her own lane.
“I want to be the core of a new genre. Sometimes I do wonder if my ambitions are too big, but I want to be a pioneer of a new genre,” she boldly proclaims. “I’ve always wanted to leave a legacy that’s undeniable.”