With a voice that could coo like a mockingbird or melodiously declare the wisdom of Atticus, Nashville-based songwriter Emily Otteson’s music lilts effortlessly between the spirit of Ella Fitzgerald’s lullabies, the fiery integrity of Loretta Lynn’s ballads, and the irresistible groove of modern bluegrass.
To the untrained eye, she could appear to be a new age flower-child: mandolin in hand, green eyes hidden behind Jackie-O shades and golden locks, strolling through Nashville’s hip neighbourhoods with a happy-go-lucky air… But to hear to her sing is to immediately realize that despite her utterly disarming stage presence and outrageous level of charm, Emily Otteson is no sweetness-and-light, cookie-cutter songwriter. She means business.
Emily has sung and performed music ever since her childhood in the pines of the Pacific Northwest, and many never questioned that her life would follow its current path. But it wasn’t until she attended a Nickel Creek concert at age 13 that she realized that music would forever be her calling. "From the first pluck of the upright bass, something inside me was viscerally moved, and I was hooked" she recalls, "I knew that somehow, in some way, I would be playing music for the rest of my life".
In the following months Emily embarked upon her musical journey, saving up $75 dollars to buy her first mandolin, which she tellingly named “Odysseus,” after the mythical ancient Greek traveler and lover of sirens. Ever a devotee of stories, Emily’s own journey continued to develop as she was soon mentored by her church musical director, who recognized Emily’s innate musical talent and knack for communicating with audiences. As her confidence grew, she began to write her own songs and developed a devoted following within her church community, and when Otteson was 19, she realized that she wanted to reach beyond the pews, and she decided she was going to become a performing artist.
Fast forward a few years to 2015, and with a management contract, a killer EP, innumerable concerts and many binders of songs under her belt, Emily Otteson rolled into Nashville on a whim whilst traveling across the country with her mother. Within 24 hours she had wowed audiences at an open mic and immediately bagged a support slot with rising star Morgan Myles as part of CMA week. “I just knew in my spirit it was the right place to be,” says Otteson. “And so I went home, tied up my loose ends, baked my cookies, sewed up my garments… waxed all my cars.” she intones, smiling wryly.
Since taking the plunge and moving to Nashville earlier this year, Otteson has confirmed shows at CMA week 2017, is currently recording a new EP, and has garnered an impressive cult following in a town that is notoriously hard for independent artists to break in anything under 5 years.
With international tours and a new record on on the horizon, Emily remains unfazed by the whirlwind pace of change in her life over the past year. “I always just say Tally-ho and head onto the next thing,” she rhapsodizes frankly, whilst pouring a little cream and sugar into her strong black coffee at one of East Nashville’s hippest cafés. “It’s something that I learned whilst a kid reading Robin Hood, and it’s kind of become my motto. Overcome the hard times, and just ride on.” Just like one of the heroes of her childhood stories, it’s hard to guess exactly where Emily Otteson will end up, but one thing’s for certain: it’s going to be the journey of a lifetime.
-James Riley, Nashville-based artist and writer
Photographer: Maria Lamb