His latest recordings speak for themselves: With Swing Shift, Rik exposed his jazz and blues roots, and now his all new Handiwork reflects his explorations into world, folk, Latin and acoustic jazz styles. Again, one man, many faces but all of them his own.
Modest and friendly, yet incredibly clever and savvy in matters of the music business, Rik is quite the opposite of what you’d expect from a former power-rock icon. A family man since his earliest days in Triumph, Rik has always made his priorities clear; and one of those priorities is to do the music he wants to do, when he wants to do it. The scary thing is, he does it all so well.
I was very fortunate to have a great talk and Q&A with Rik, who enlightened me on matters of music, hard work, family, and the pursuit of happiness in doing music driven by your own heart: not by the demands of an ever-changing music industry or a seemingly lacking pop culture.
JazzReview: I was just listening to Handiwork, and enjoying it very much. What’s amazing is your ability to really span so many different styles so well. How have you managed to avoid the single-style trap that many composers, and especially guitarists, have fallen into?
Rik Emmett: It’s a difficult thing to say how it would work for someone else, but for me it’s just a question of finally having gotten comfortable with my own organic nature musically, and then organizing myself in collections and piles. I pretty much look at everything I’ve got in front of me, and say "here's a pile that’s singer/songwriter, here’s one that’s all electric guitar, here’s one of jazz-rooted material, etc." These are the things that I grew out of in my youth. When I first started playing, was I doing singer/songwriter, rock band things, or finger picking things. Now that I’m older, the wheel comes back around, and you tend to recycle back to your roots. The key is to just try and be true to yourself and your own nature, that’s the big aspect of it.
Now, if you ask me where is the root of that, I think it comes from a writing perspective more than a technical one, and it’s really has nothing to do with what’s popular, or what’s happening on the charts. It’s purely a case of following my own instincts and my own tendencies and allowing the music to take it’s own form and shape, and let the music sort of dictate to me what the technique is going to be. Just like everybody, I have severe human limitations and in the end I’m like "Ok, let’s try not to show too many of your weaknesses [laughs]," and I concentrate more on my strengths. I knew that certain songs were going to be one style or the other, but I didn’t write them for that purpose. It just came out that way. From an engineering point of view, a song like Knuckleball Sandwich was a bitch to record, while Thumbs was a breeze because I had been playing it for so long.
I do think that certainly because we’ve had such a huge change in the world of the music industry, the process of demographic slicing the audience is always a concern...but now the Internet and digital technology have made it so that you say ‘who really cares about record companies anymore.’ Consumers hate them, artists hate them, and so on. Now you’re wondering what’s going to happen, and who knows, but at least for an artist like me, I can say I have the freedom now to make an eclectic record and allow people to find the logic in it because it was me, not a producer or label telling me how to package it. It’s me deciding to do what I like.
JazzReview: You’ve really been one of the few artists of your kind who’s taken a full grasp of the Internet as a new and more effective method of communicating directly with your fans, and bypassed the ‘big machine.’ Tell me about some of the advantages (and disadvantages) you’ve experienced using the web as a direct line of communication to your fans.
Rik Emmett: The metaphor I revert to always is the one of owning a small bakery. It’s what it is very much like. Your web site is a store open 24/7, and you don’t have to pay for heat and light. However, the problem becomes creating traffic and getting noticed. There’s so much competition and so much noise in the marketplace from other things far more spectacular than you and your music like the WWF, Hollywood, and games. There’s all this stuff that’s competitive, glitzy and noisy and in people’s faces. You have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t compete in the same way. You have to compete by whispering, by being very selective and being happy with that.
It’s very much like a little bakery on a little side street. The thing that makes people come to your bakery is your fresh baked goods, but you have to get up at 4 am to make them that fresh. The catch is that you have to wear so many hats yourself: producer, engineer, liaison to publicists and labels. There’s always this ongoing business that you have to maintain.
Same as being a small business owner - you have to have fresh stuff. That’s the key, and to achieve that you really have to kind of kick your own ass and be prolific. From a commercial point of view, will you be consistent? No, but so what? If you show people your weaknesses, they start to see your human frailties and you have to be able to accept that.
We live in a world of images where pop stars are fabricated, and kids buy them the same way they used to buy Spiderman and Batman. If you’re a real musician and running your little bakery, in the end it’s like you’re a novelist and people are watching your creative process from book to book. How many people care about that? Not many, but it doesn’t make the process any less interesting or valuable. It teaches you that humility is a large part of the process.
JazzReview: Unfortunately, you have to be able to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is what the commercial market, especially smooth jazz radio, seems to be doing.
Rik Emmett: Funny you should use that term, because I said something in an article once in regards to smooth jazz stations, which is that the denominator is so low, the format has become a floor mat. The great thing about living a creative life is that I always get a shot to take a shot at the highest common denominator. I try and remind people that just because it’s all about a format, don’t turn it into a floor mat. It’s there to allow you that same probability of reaching the high common denominator, not just the lowest.
JazzReview: A family must be a wonderful source of inspiration for you each day. There are many accomplished musicians like you who self-admittedly never have found time for a family. I also understand you’re daughter is musically talented, and even joined you on your last record. How have you successfully achieved that balance, and what are those guys missing out on?
Rik Emmett: Yes, she’s great. She’s in her second year of music school. She’ll most likely be a high school music teacher plays flute and piano, and she reads like crazy! She sight-reads stuff, and I can’t sight read.
I guess in the end, what matters to me is that I try and have as full a life as I can possibly manage. There are choices that everyone makes. For me the choice, even when I was young, was to find someone that loved me despite my faults, and to have kids and raise a family. It’s an incredibly middle class kind of thing, but it’s what I really always wanted.
JazzReview: And yet, you’ve really been able to have that kind of existence, but be successful in the music business.
Rik Emmett: The career of music was only something that was going to be part of my existence; I didn’t want a music career to be a rock star and live the high life. I dreamed about being at little league games and being around the pool. I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve got that and I’ve always tried to honor that. In the end, great music making comes from being able to bring the balance of living into the art, and that’s one of the things [Pat] Metheny does well. It’s not just about a technical exercise. The common man has to be able to find a feeling and emotion they can connect to in your music. That dynamic is even what is at work when Lou Perlman [manager/producer, N*Sync, Britney Spears, etc.] decides to put together a boy band. Even though it’s a manufactured kind of thing, it speaks to kids emotionally.
JazzReview: It reminds me of a guitarist/writer named Wayne Krantz [former Steely Dan sideman], who has a cult-like following in NYC here. He is amazing, an extraordinary player who creates and plays extraordinary music. The only shame is that people are not more open-minded to it, because something tells me they’d connect to it.
Rik Emmett: Musicians can tend to get lost to a degree, to a point where only what they like is good, which is ridiculous. It’s like a teenage girl saying [John] Coltrane is stupid. I’ve always embraced things like plurality...that inclusion is better than exclusion, and diversity is a good thing. Making this record was a big thing for me, because it makes me feel like I’ve done something right.
The world is changing, and I think that it’s going to work for people like Wayne Krantz, because his thing, as a result of the Internet and more things branching out of the commercial machine, will be more accessible to the common man.
JazzReview: You’ve accomplished so many great things, and you continue to surprise your fans and critics alike. What’s next for Rik Emmet? Is there any uncharted territory that you’ve been thinking of exploring, possibly for your next record?
Rik Emmett: What I hope for in the future is that I can keep doing what I’m doing, which is to keep putting out these eclectic records. When I started Open House [Emmet’s own label], I did 3 records, and now I’ve done Handiwork, which borders on kind of Latin jazz, world folk, smooth jazz, but meanwhile, I keep stockpiling ideas. I don’t discriminate in my writing process, so I’ve got lots of singer/songwriter stuff, and rock riffs. So, the next record I want to do is most likely a singer/songwriter style record.
I’ve got some fans from the Triumph days who are asking ‘Where’s the Marshall, where’s the rock riffs?’ And yeah, all I can say is that may happen again. When I’ve gotten out there and played with good musicians, doing festivals and outdoor stages, I say I remember, ‘this is a good feeling,’ and I can swear I’ll be back doing it again someday.