A Paisley Underground rocker who opened for R.E.M. on a national tour. An introspective, jazz-inflected singer/songwriter. A filmmaker, poet, and sought-after composer for documentary films, video games, commercials and television series. Berkeley’s Steven Emerson has worn all these hats, and in his latest incarnation he’s balancing a burgeoning career as a composer for hire with his resurgence as a performing artist known for incisively crafted songs.
Rather than seeing his various creative pursuits as discreet chapters in an ongoing journey, Emerson brings all of his far-flung experiences to bear on each new project, making him an invaluable collaborator across an array of media. With his background in film, he possesses a rare sensitivity when it comes to crafting sonic settings for visuals.
“When I started doing music for film and television I really discovered the power, the alchemy that happens when the right music is matched to the right image,” Emerson says.
Laying down sound like an aural painter in his Berkeley Hills home studio, Emerson is a composer with a gift for creating just the right vibe for any situation. In recent years he’s written music for on-line games (iZombie), commercials for major companies (Apple, Sprint, Visa, and Ford), and television productions (MTV’s 16 and Pregnant). Among his current projects he’s scoring The Nine, a documentary by noted photographer Katy Grannan that explores the lives of marginalized people in California’s Central Valley, and The Outcast of Beauregard Parish, a documentary by the award-winning team of Jason Cohn and Camille Servan-Schreiber (Eames: The Architect and the Painter).
Emerson has come a long way since he got a heady taste of the rock ‘n’ roll life as a member of the influential Paisley Underground band True West in the 1980s. He grew up in Davis, California, and started teaching himself acoustic guitar at the age of 12 (first tune learned: Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”). Later, he took up electric guitar, but by high school he had switched to drums, a move that eased the way into several neighborhood bands.
After attending college in Santa Barbara, Emerson returned to his old Sacramento stomping grounds in 1984 and joined True West, first as the drummer, but later as guitarist. During his three-year stint with the band he appeared on the album Drifters (on drums), and then played guitar and wrote tunes for True West’s swansong, Hand of Fate.
“We toured the college circuit and caught the attention of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck when we played in Athens, Georgia, and we ended up opening for their Fables of the Reconstruction tour,” Emerson says. “We were true road warriors, touring across 45 states and 12 countries.”
After personnel changes led to the band’s demise, Emerson moved to New York City in 1988 looking to find new avenues of expression. Inspired in particular by a show at St. John the Divine Cathedral featuring the then-unsigned Shawn Colvin, Emerson began attending shows and performing at Greenwich Village open-mic sessions. He eventually found himself in the inner circle of veteran New York troubadour Jack Hardy’s informal West Village song swaps, a spawning ground for artists like Colvin, John Gorka, and Suzanne Vega.
“It was a temple for songwriting where people offered constructive criticism of the songs we each brought in,” Emerson says. “It was a time to get feedback and advice.” His efforts started gaining recognition, including an ASCAP songwriting award though his most evocative work, a stripped down duo album with cellist Peter Lewy inspired by Nick Drake’s sonic minimalism, was never released.
His six years in New York did yield other creative dividends however, most importantly Second Person, a feature film written and director by Emerson that was selected for the San Francisco International Film Festival. He also published a collection of poetry. But with daily life in the Big Apple wearing him down, Emerson decided to move back to the Bay Area, settling in Berkeley with his fiancée in 1994.
The next year Emerson released his first solo album, Until, a captivating collection of songs featuring a cast of Bay Area jazz heavyweights. Described in Acoustic Guitar magazine as a project marked by “romantic yearnings and blue musing,” the album opened doors to important San Francisco venues like Café du Nord and Bruno’s where Emerson collaborated with stellar musicians such as Norah Jones bassist Lee Alexander, Tom Waits drummer Andy Borger, and Charlie Hunter and Ratdog saxophonist Dave Ellis.
The creative ferment of this period led to Emerson’s 2000 album, Set in Motion, a blend of ‘60s cool jazz and ‘70s soul that received widespread acclaim, including a description in SF Weekly that likened the slinky sound to the “early ‘70s soul of Al Green,” while noting that it’s “Emerson’s voice that makes the music intimate and inescapable.”
These days Emerson finds inspiration close to the 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 most recent album, Song of Love, a ballad-laden session he recorded in his home studio.
The hard-won self-knowledge that suffuses his music informs every project he works on. After a long, meandering creative journey, Emerson approaches each new musical undertaking as a quest for the ideal melodic phrase, the most expressive groove, or the perfect chord. Precise but unfussy, stylistically open-minded and equipped for unabashed lyricism and unfettered thrash, Emerson is a composer for all seasons.