Your Next Favorite Band: Emma Back

Colorado native Emma Back’s music hit me like a ton of bricks the first time I happened to stumble across it. Starting her song “Qui Tomber” instantly transported me into this romantic, film-noir Parisian back alley with its interesting and dark lines in the strings, simple piano accompaniment, and intriguing and haunting lyrics. Back has this knack of bringing you in and making you want to delve further and further into the stories she weaves. She’s the Hotel California of songwriters. (Just to be clear, I mean that as a compliment.)IMG_0434

I got the chance to talk to this amazingly talented violinist/pianist/singer/songwriter about her experiences in making music.

Germ Magzine: Hello and thanks for agreeing to this interview!

Emma Back: Thank you so much for reaching out to me!  I think it’s amazing what you are doing here at Germ — empowering young creators! A place for female artists to be heard is SO necessary!


GM: Let’s start with how you got your start in music, and what made you want to pursue this?

Emma: Music has always been there, and from the time I can remember, I’ve known this is my path. I have been blessed with a family who has always cheered me on — providing me with music lessons from a young age. The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was strange to me because the answer was always: “I’m a musician, now and forever.” Besides studying classical voice and violin, I also grew up singing with a world music teen choir called Village Harmony that is based in Vermont and also takes young people from all over the world on international tours. With them, I was exposed to amazing music from the Balkans, South Africa, Appalachia, and more. I went on to study Balkan music for two summers with the Eastern European Folk-life Center (EEFC) in Mendocino, California. Growing up, I played any instrument I could get my hands on: harp, flute, recorder, oboe, hand drums, sax (for a day), piano, guitar. If it was in a room, I would try to play it. But violin and voice have always been my true loves.

This all being said, I have gone through tumultuous periods of debilitating self-doubt. I suffered an injury my first year of college that almost took me out completely, and I spent many years healing from the emotional trauma of that; I really believed I’d injured myself because I wasn’t good enough and didn’t have what it took to put in the hours and be good enough. Because I couldn’t play at all for about 9 months and then spent another two years fully recovering, I had to really go within and look at my self-doubt, be with my insecurity, and embrace that this is my true path. I had to discover what I wanted to say and be as an artist because I could no longer just repetitively practice what I was told and had to choose very carefully what I spent my practice time working on while I healed. I transferred to Naropa University during this time and am so grateful to my teachers there who really provided the container to do that inner work. It took a long time to fully trust my voice and what I have to offer; I think mainly because I never “fit” into any category. Naropa gave me the space to fully explore and play with sound without any pressure to be something or do anything a certain way.

The big moment that was perhaps my “start” was my undergraduate thesis project. I recorded my E.P. “C’est Nous” and did my first major show for the CD release. That show was the first moment I allowed myself to fully look at what could be possible — what it was like to really have this be my career. It was the first time I performed a whole set of my own music outside of just a coffee shop gig, at a real theater with lights and everything, sold tickets and had the whole focus of a show be on my music…. I remember one of my teachers coming up after that show and saying, “Emma, you’ve arrived.” And it really did feel like coming home.


GM: That’s really amazing. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Emma: I am very committed to my spiritual practice and path, and a lot of my inspiration comes from this. Music, for me, is a way to express my constant inquiry of what it is to be human, my interest in self-growth, and the questions that arise on the spiritual path. I have a morning practice where I move from the quiet space of meditation to tuning into my body and playing with vocal sounds and vibration, and then I slowly move this into whatever official “music practice” I am doing for the day. Coming from this space, I feel I can more easily access the voice within and invite HER to be expressed. I used to try to “do” the creative process, but now it’s more an experience of receiving.

Specifically, what inspires me is the dharma — spiritual teachings from the Buddhist tradition — as well as my own process of connecting to and invoking the sacred feminine. I am always asking questions and seeking to understand HER (the sacred feminine) as well as what it means in today’s world and what it has meant through the ages to be “woman.” I am very inspired by books like Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarlissa Pinkola Estés and Red Hot and Holy by Sera Beak and the many conversations I have had with my dearest soul-sister-friends over glasses of wine and bars of dark chocolate.

I am inspired by my Jewish heritage, stories and memories passed down as well as my spiritual connection to Jewish tradition. I went to Israel for the first time last summer and wrote a lot of songs around what came up for me being in this sacred land and also witnessing the pain and heartbreak ever present there. In fact, my upcoming album is filled with songs whose topics can be tied to Israel and what it means to be Jewish. I write a lot about war and the question: “Why war?” I’m fascinated by human connection and its opposite — to be disconnected. War is the ultimate disconnect. My songs often ponder the questions: “How is the kind of separation, fear, need to control, and need to possess possible to the extent that war becomes an option?” “How have we come so far from the truth that we are one?”

I write about the human paradox — our fear, our anger, our neurotic habits — that seems to be what is controlling a lot of the pain on the planet today. I am inspired by my own deep heartache for other’s suffering. I’m inspired by cultures, sounds, languages, nature, seasons, and, of course, many, many amazing artists — the most recent being my obsession with My Brightest Diamond.


GM: If you came across someone who had never heard your music, how would you describe it for them?

Emma: Ooo, I love this question! I definitely don’t fit into a box, and it’s been a fun challenge over the years to figure out how to describe my music, as it evolves. I usually try to have something succinct to tell people, like, “I’m a Gypsy-Folk-Pop Songstress, fiddler and live-looping artist.” Then, if they are interested, I’ll elaborate: “I have a one-woman show where I use a loop pedal system to layer percussion, vocals and violin. My music is a mélange of Klezmer, Balkan, and Americana Folk sounds with an avant-guard, operatic twist.”

And today, I feel like telling you that I love playing with weird sounds and rhythms mainly using my voice and violin, but I’m always adding new mini-instruments, the most recent being a stomp box and hand drum. I also just discovered this really cool sound: If I hit the back of my bow at a specific point on the strings, just above the finger board, it makes this amazing percussion sound with harmonics and funny squeaks mixed in. Then, if I move the bow up just a bit, I get a super bassy-drum sound.


GM: Love it! I’m constantly talking about women in the music industry because it is far too rare, and so many female artists deserve so much more praise and recognition than they’re getting. What has been your experience as a female in this male-dominated industry?

Emma: Here’s what I think is missing in the industry: a real understanding and valuing of the FEMININE. I’m not talking about just women here, but valuing energetic wisdom qualities that are feminine in nature. This includes receptivity, nurturing, chaos, emotionality, community, and collaboration. It’s so strange to me because, in a way, you can’t really be an artist — male, female, or otherwise — without tapping into these qualities. And yet, as an industry, what is emphasized is this aggressive, masculine way of being. What I find for myself and the women I work with in [She Sings Out Loud]’s programs, is that when we step into this field, in order to be heard and experience being powerful (onstage and off), we have to literally fight to prove ourselves and become really aggressive.

Now, I’m not saying that we should not value experience, the years put in, the knowledge accumulated. Yes, if someone is brand new to performing and being in the professional music world, they will probably have to keep going and grow in order to be recognized fully. But the dynamic and expectation on women to prove themselves is WAY off base and out of balance compared to our male counterparts.

I once walked into a music shop and was looking at a piece of gear. The sales clerk conversed easily with my male musician friend, and then turned to me and said, “This could be uninteresting and confusing to a non-musician.” I was so shocked, I didn’t say anything except: “I am a musician.” That in itself was a powerful claiming of my truth. But, I wish I’d had the courage at the time to call him out on how not-okay that was. I wish I had let him also know how debilitating his assumption could have been to a woman just starting out, not yet able to claim “I’m a musician” and how easily she could have used it as proof that she’s not really allowed to be here, doing this. I don’t think people realize the harm they cause when they assume.

I think a lot of the challenge women face also has to do with our sensitivity and feeling of not belonging. We are still caring this biologically inherited experience ingrained in us over ages and ages that our voice is not wanted in the world. Our creative power and ability has been denied for so long, and, whether we know it consciously or not, many of us are still struggling internally to feel allowed to create and express.

The patriarchal nature of the music industry is tied to the old social order of silencing women. I’m not saying anyone is actually trying to keep women from expressing ourselves; there is simply a very old, ingrained pattern at work. I think we have to both work on change within — on our own claiming of the stage and our right to be heard — and we also need to speak out and bring awareness to this issue. I don’t think anyone in the industry means to put us down or not recognize us fully. I think it’s just habit and lack of awareness. There is a lot of opportunity for women to be recognized, and Germ is a great example of the work many organizations are doing to empower women creators.

I have struggled so much with the male-dominated energy of the music world. I used to feel like I was constantly being asked to “show up” in a masculine way, and having to deny a deep feminine part of myself.  I’ve worked with some amazing men in the industry. And I’ve also worked with men who seem to easily communicate in a way that is beyond me and don’t take the time to fully listen to women or to change their communication styles to work with us. I often feel like I have to be aggressive in order to be heard. Or, if I want something done a certain way and ask for it straight out, I am told to “chill.” I used to take this really personally, and it felt like I was being told: “You’re not really allowed to be here,” or, “You’re being a diva, and you’re not really good enough yet to be asking for that.” This can be a very frustrating experience.

Where I’m at now is I’m just not interested in fighting or proving anymore. I refuse to have to take on a masculine way of being in order to get recognized and heard. I prefer to own my badass, sexy/sensual, grounded, receptive, chaotic, sensitive, emotional nature and let all of that show up onstage and in all my communications in the industry. I’m no longer interested in apologizing for what I don’t know and where I’m at on this journey.

What’s interesting is, as soon as I decided to own all of this, things that had been stuck in my career for a long time started moving. I feel way more heard by men in the industry then I ever did. As women, it is our responsibility to claim our right to be heard in a way that is not defensive or aggressive but is rooted in our feminine strength. If we want to be recognized, we have to stop catering to the disempowered masculine (which is what patriarchy is) and work to empower the sacred feminine and the masculine.


IMG_0436GM: Speaking of female musicians, you have a lot of new things happening soon, to include a free e-course for video and audio training. What can you tell us about that?

Emma: YES! First of all, let me give you a brief introduction to SSOL. SSOL is pronounced “soul” and stands for She Sings Out Loud, a community I founded in 2012. SSOL helps women performers move beyond the barriers of fear, doubt, and shame that are impacting your experience of being heard and seen and keeping you stuck in a limited experience of your true creative voice and self-expression. In sacred women’s community, we work to support you in embodying feminine wisdom in the creative process so you can own the stage with power and poise and courageously take the next step to impact the world with your sound. We believe that simply because you long to express yourself through song, you have an extraordinary gift to offer; and, we are here to help you discover it, trust it, and develop it to reach your full potential as an artist committed to the transformation and healing of yourself and the world.

So your question above about women needing to be more recognized? That’s why we come together as a sisterhood in this supportive container. Women have “held counsel” in sacred circles for ages and ages. It is my intention that women musicians, performers, singers, and artists have a space to do just that while also learning valuable tools — rooted in feminine wisdom — to take into their creative process and artistic development as well as the building of their careers (if having a career in music is their longing).

The free e-course I just created is on the “Receiving Practice” — one of the core pieces of the work we do in SSOL. I teach this in a lot of SSOL’s introductory workshops and our free community events, and it is a key way we work on claiming the stage with feminine power and owning what we have to offer in all of SSOL’s programs. It is most powerful when practiced in a group, but I wanted to make it accessible to women who can’t come to a live SSOL event and who I know could benefit from learning this technique. I wrote an article introducing some other key concepts and ways of thinking about the sacred feminine and the challenges of being a female artist and put the whole thing together in this e-course. If this work speaks to you, please come and get your FREE copy [here]. It’s best if you have a close girl-friend to go get a copy too so you can practice together.

Oh and by the way — if you are reading this and you are not a performer, you can still get a lot from this practice as it is really about being powerful anywhere in life where we long to be fully heard, struggle to feel wanted and valued, or experience a lot of self-doubt in speaking up and expressing your truth.


GM: That’s great. I know so many women will be impacted by this in a big way. Do you have any advice for young writers and creators?

Emma: Yes. Looking you straight in the eye, seeing you fully, I want to tell you: Simply because you long to express yourself through art, you have an amazing gift to offer. Keep trusting that. Come back to that. Let the gift reveal itself to you instead of forcing it. Work on letting go of any feeling that you need to prove yourself, be or create in any specific way. Let your inner artistic fire show you what it wants to be and keep being open to receiving it.

Work to trust your creative inclinations, the tiny nudges that tell you what to create and that are your inner voice offering its truest gift. Own your doubt and your fear. LOVE your doubt and fear. They are further proof that you were meant to do this. It’s part of what it means to be an artist (and human). You only have doubt and fear because this matters; it matters so much that you create. Just keep showing up, waiting, looking, receiving, and opening to the creative process. Find a process that works for you. Find teachers and a community who you can trust to support you the way you most need and who are there to remind you of who you are when you forget. Do whatever it takes to keep remembering who you are and who you were born to be: a creator.


GM: Great advice! Finally, where can we find you and your music?

Emma: I’m at or Please say hi on Twitter @emmabacksong or @ssolwork, and I’m on Facebook and YouTube.

I’m about to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to finish my album and would love to have you part of that process! There are some really amazing rewards, including 1:1 sessions with me, house concerts, and inside views into my creative process via special supporter-only videos and audio streams. And you can pre-order the album too! If you’re inspired please come over to [my website] and you can sign up to be notified when the party starts!

Other upcoming things:
I’ll be at the Northern California Women’s Music Festival on October 23rd and 24th teaching a SSOL workshop and playing. I would love for any of you to come participate! It’s going to be an amazing celebration of women artists! Check it out at their website or come to either of my websites.


GM: Thanks again for being a part of this. You’ve got some great things going on, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it!

Emma: Thank you so much!  Again, I just want to say I am thrilled with what Germ is doing.

We are in this together! Pioneering ways for women artists to fully experience being heard! So thanks for hearing me today. Shelby, you are a rockstar! I love your questions and all you are doing!


Check out Emma’s video for her live-looping perfomance of her song “Home”:

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