Country fans who watched last night’s America’s Got Talent may have been surprised to recognize the first auditioner of the night, Emily West. Indeed, she is a veteran of a major label deal with Capitol Nashville and a nominee for 2010 Academy Of Country Music Vocal Event Of The Year. So is Emily West a ringer (and does it even matter in this age of the Voice inviting people with past major label experience like eventual winners Javier Colon and Cassadee Pope to join the show?)? Here’s some of her backstory.
Emily Nemmers (who performs as Emily West) spent over 8 years signed to Capitol Nashville, with 3 singles and a self titled EP released from 2007 to 2010. With country radio not much more open to females that didn’t bring a fanbase with them (from a TV show, the internet, or another genre) than it is today, none of the three singles cracked the t30. “Rocks In Your Shoes,” cowritten by Emily with Dave Berg and Kathleen Wright, peaked at #39 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart:
“That Kind Of Happy,” cowritten by and previously released by Sherrie Austin (an Australian country singer who scored a t20 US country hit in 2003), Mallory Hope (another female country singer/songwriter whose major label deal was felled by country radio’s resistance to women), and Will Rambeaux, did not chart.
Then in 2010, Capitol Nashville released for “Blue Sky,” a beautiful, passionate, & poignant song Emily had written with Gary Burr for her mother about the breakdown of her relationship with Emily’s father, and a song she had performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 2008:
Knowing the uphill climb for women at country radio, Capitol Nashville brought in country superstar and eventual Idol judge Keith Urban for harmonies on a new radio version.
During that time, West also launched her West Side Stories web series, which showcased her personality, especially her quirky sense of humor. Emily has also appeared in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice. Check out this video from the 2010 winter season of Celebrity Apprentice. Two Capitol Nashville rising acts were tapped for a makeover-themed episode where the 2 teams would work on their look and promotional materials to help “brand” them and advance their careers. One act was Emily West singing “Blue Sky.” The other? Luke Bryan singing his 1st major label single, “Rain Is A Good Thing,” whose chorus goes “Rain makes corn, corn makes whisky, whisky makes my baby feel a little frisky.”
Despite that, despite critical acclaim for her talent and music, and despite a subsequent ACM nomination for Vocal Event Of The Year, “Blue Sky” reached its airplay peak of #38 after 12 weeks on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Meanwhile, Luke Bryan has ridden tailgates and trucks to country music superstardom.
Subsequent to the end of “Blue Sky”‘s chart run, Capitol Nashville and Emily West parted ways. In this frank interview with Engine 145 from late 2012, West was gracious about her time with the label, noting her need to find and speak in her own voice as an artist, and talked about having been signed to a publishing deal with Sony/ATV just as she lost her deal, her second deal after having been signed to BMG Songs Nashville:
Sony/ATV signed me as a songwriter right as I was dropped, but just as a songwriting publishing deal. They were wanting me to write as a staff writer for other artists, which I didn’t understand. I had no real idea what they were wanting me to do.
You don’t want me as an artist, but you want me to co-write with other artists? How does one even do that?
That mismatch resulted in the end of the publishing deal as well, as West notes. She did guest on the ABC show Body Of Proof, where she performed the Trent Dabbs/Gabriel Kelley/Peter Zobranos cowrite “Head On”:
Since her time with Capitol Nashville, Emily has self-released a variety of music that explores a variety of music influences, only some of it country. In late 2011, came the I Hate You, I Love You EP – the title track has that classic pop songwriter feel and a passionate, soulful vocal from Emily:
She has collaborated with singer/songwriter K.S. Rhoads for a Christmas-themed EP (which you can download download here) and the darkly gorgeous original “Rainbow,” which they cowrote (you can stream it on Spotify).
Last October brought the True North EP, an alt-pop project . More recently, Emily released a raw, heartbroken, bitter and poignant “Made For The Radio,” cowritten by Emily with Nelly Joy and Jason Reeves, a song which has to be seen as a response to her struggles to get heard on that medium.
The underlying heartache of “Made For The Radio” makes clear that, in fact, Emily would like to be heard by people, and it’s in that context that Emily’s decision to audition on America’s Got Talent makes sense. Last month, Emily posted a response to a fan who hates the idea of these singing competitions:
And I salute you for your honesty. Sadly, this business (like many) is an ever-spinning wheel of cruelty and let downs. The politics can make anyone’s faith be buried where their hope can be plummeted. It’s been like this from day one AND it’s getting tougher because of where we are all at with technology.
I’ve experienced it the ‘old school’ way and my mission to be actually seen and heard by the masses was sadly not in the cards.
It was not my time. Music means the world to me. Bringing joy to people bring me to a place of belonging to something bigger than fame and fortune. I’ve learned that is no longer my mission. Fame and fortune. It is a business. And tv business is no pony ride either. No business is. I’m not in this circus for the peanuts and the hot toothless black hearted carnies. Because the highs only last a minute (if you’re lucky )and your lows can last a lifetime if you let it. It can break your heart. I let it break mine. I lost myself and allowed it to steal my mission because I just thought it was to get famous and have money.
With time, and youth carrying me onto a higher path, I got on a hill, and prayed asking God I for a Second chance. Two days later I got an audition to sing in front of an audience. I’m not complaining. I want to sing. I want to sing because it brings me and many others joy. It’s a great platform and a lot better than ‘talking’ about how one day I am going to be singing again. I’ve opened my heart. Please Open your heart. Realize life is to be lived. Whether it is filmed on tv or on a YouTube video. Singing makes me happy. With the The experiences I’ve been given, I am fortunate enough to know who I am, and WHY my heart wants it. Following my heart and no longer over thinking.
Reality shows and radio are the same thing. They are not bad things. They are platforms. This business isn’t peaches and cream. I’m not here for the ice cream, I’m here for the journey. Getting a second chance and to keep moving toward whatever happens next. I think I’ll let God take it from there. No one else is calling.
Fear is not in my vocabulary these days.
Tune in and find out what happens.
And Nancy, I hear you. But go with it, I’m in show business, I date boys….both of these things have let me down. Trust me when I say that I can handle another broken heart. But I use it, and let it go.
So, is Emily West a ringer, or maybe somebody who’s had her share of chances and therefore doesn’t deserve the reality show launch? She has been candid about the fluidity of her musical influences, so is that the obvious explanation for why she hasn’t had that breakthrough to the masses? I think Emily West made her way into the music industry into a system (within the country genre) that was particularly stacked against new female acts (an issue that we discussed here and here). She may have had major label promo, but she was on a label that has not been able to break a solo female single into the t30 in over 10 years. So yes, she technically was given some chances to break through, but it’s hard for me to get worked up about it when the deck was that stacked against her and she’s about 4 years of low profile work removed from those opportunities.
None of this is meant to diminish the opportunities Emily West has had to hone her craft as a major label act and subsequently as an indie singer/songwriter. She’s acknowledged having developed connections within the entertainment industry. Maybe that facilitated her path to America’s Got Talent. But where past major label opportunities often have us side-eyeing “plants” and “ringers” on these shows, I see Emily West’s case as different. This isn’t some cynical grab by show production at an easily packaged trendy act with a built-in fanbase. This is an artist whose disillusionment is up front and present in her music and her point of view but who remains hopeful that putting her heart out there will mean something to people. Whether or not America’s Got Talent winds up telling that story, I think it’s what makes Emily West interesting both in and outside the context of the show.