She was born in Flushing, Queens and raised by a pack of cigarettes. With only four chords to remember her mother by, she took her love of vintage guitars, muscle cars, and old man bars and pursued music without ever looking back. She sang lead vocals for Gary Lucas’ Gods & Monsters, and opened for Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at Jones Beach Amphitheater with her band Eudora. After taking a break to grow, get married and raise some lovely kids, she turned once again to music in 2015 to release her debut solo album Go Tell Your Friends. She is Emily Duff. A wife, mother, and artist who managed to find happiness and become a role model despite never really having one herself. A couple more albums and some TV and film projects later, she is now looking back at the past with the confidence and wisdom from motherhood and marriage in her new record Born on the Ground.
This illustrious musician sings nine “love” songs that represent nine different breakups from her past. With time and self-love, she looks back on these experiences without anger, instead, she wants to examine them with the maturity she has gained. While the songs on Born on the Ground refer to Duff’s past relationships, she points out that breakups aren’t always romantic, one can break up with friends, careers, and even bad habits. They’re hard, but they can be the seed that turns into a better understanding of yourself. The universality of what Duff is discussing is reflected in Born on the Ground. Her songwriting shows an expert command over the genres of country, roots, soul, and rock and as a result, the album is a well crafted, classic set of accessible songs. Rock and blues are established by the drums, country is brought in by Duff’s voice, and the bass, guitar, and keys drift in between. Her sensitive lyrics are graced with sophisticated metaphors, and there’s a guitar solo in every song.
Some tracks are more straightforward, like the opener “We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, with the line “Oh honey get off the train, we ain’t goin’ nowhere” talking about a dead end relationship. It has a bluesy-rock sound to it from the piano and underlying harmonies, but it also has a kind of deep earthiness to it. “There Is A Way Out” urges someone to deflate their ego, telling them that they don’t have to be so self centered. Lines from “Knuckle Sandwich” such as “how ‘bout my fist down your throat” and “how’d you like if I opened up a can of whoop-ass” make her message crystal clear. “Forever Love” tells of a supposedly undying love that ended anyway. But accessible as they are, these songs are far from boring. “There Is A Way Out” has a fun piano solo and the bridge is almost anthemic with its full harmonies, cymbal crashes, and guitar solo. “Knuckle Sandwich” is just an explosion of energy, driven by the spirited guitar, supported by the drums and ornamented by the lightning-fast piano glissandos. It contains itself just for a moment towards the middle of the track only to come back stronger, with unbridled energy that persists right to the end. “Forever Love” is pretty classic in its blues/country sound. Yet it has almost gospel-like harmonies in the chorus, which has this congregational sound to it that compels you to sing along with it. The clarity of these songs creates a sense of knowing between you and them.
The rest of the songs on Born on the Ground are more puzzling. The title track has some ambiguous lyrics such as “Put on my favourite red party dress, and dance with the devil in five-inch heels” and “when you’re born on the ground, you’re dead inside.” The bass in particular but also the mood of the song in general has a darkness to it, suggesting that something may be going on underneath the surface. In a similar way, “No Escape” hints at something alluring, from the 1920’s blues club feel of the music to Duff’s sultry voice. But the electric organ and lyrics like “I would do most anything if you would only disappear” denote something sinister– right down to the expressive ending. “Something Sexy” has a classic rhythm guitar part and a strong country vibe, and the lyrics chide someone for not understanding a “phenomenal” girl. Perhaps the girl in question is Duff herself, looking back at a relationship with a renewed sense of self-worth… but perhaps it means something else entirely. “Killer” still has the same kind of sound as the others, but it also has a wistful quality from the fuzzy bass, electric piano and held chords that soften it. Duff sings “there’s a killer among us, tearing at this happy ending.” It’s unclear what exactly is going on, but seems as though there’s something poisoning her relationship. The final track, “Easy Go!” has a fun rhythm in the guitar, which is great for bringing ‘er home. The lyrics seem to be about warning someone not to love her, “lovin’ me’s like diving into flames,” but at the same time implores her lover not to haunt her.
The songs that you find puzzling and straightforward might be different from mine, but no matter how you interpret it you can expect Born on the Ground to be both relatable and thought-provoking. There’s more to this album than meets the eye, much like Emily Duff herself.
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, and recorded live in Brooklyn featuring the Emily Duff band and guests Eric Ambel on guitars and vocals & Syd Straw, Mary Lee Kortes & Tricia Scotti on background vocals, Born on the Ground will be released on June 26th. You can also see Duff doing her “virus escape” live stream from her Hudson street fire escape every Sunday at 4 PM EST on her Facebook page, and watch the video for “We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” here.