The Liminal Artist: The Many Lives and Works of Val Emmich

Photo by Andrew Holtz

Photo by Andrew Holtz

Val Emmich will not be put in a box. His most recent novel, The Reminders, which will be available in paperback later this month, weaves a tale of healing and a search for understanding through the eyes and mind of a girl with infallible memory. It’s now available in paperback. If you haven’t read Val’s prose, you’ve likely seen him on shows such as 30 Rock, Ugly Betty and Vinyl. Val is also a musical force, creating songs that get their hooks in you and hit hard with their immediacy.

Since hearing Val’s indie rock powerhouse Sunlight Searchparty in 2006, I’ve been blown away by his ability to convey the human experience in seemingly whatever form he wanted. What follows is a window into his methods, philosophy and process.

Modern artists seem to be encouraged, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, to pick an art form and stick to it. As a musician, actor, and writer, what has driven you to work across so many forms?

I felt that same pressure to pick a lane for most of my career. But at some point, I had to accept reality: I do lots of different things. So be it. When I was only focusing on a music career (which I attempted first, before the acting and writing), it was taboo to be anything other than a musician. Being an actor? Forget it. That was career suicide. No one felt you had integrity as a musician if you were an actor. This was the Nineties. Things are a lot different now. No one cares. For me, it wasn't calculated. I fell into acting while attending college and I had some early luck and was able to pay my bills by landing commercials. Then I caught the bug and wanted to take the craft more seriously. Writing fiction was always something I wanted to try but it was more of a distant, dormant desire--until it wasn't. There's a pressure in our society, not just in art, to be one thing. A teacher. A lawyer. I'm a hyphenated person. I am many things. I'm interested in many different areas and I'm really lucky that I've been able to explore a few of those as careers.

What did it take for you, emotionally and mentally, to part ways with Epic and step out on your own as an independent musician? What did that feel like? How has it informed the rest of your career in not just music, but everything else?

I was heartbroken when my contract with Epic went sour. I mean, honestly, I was damaged. I received a phone call from my manager who told me that after I had just spent the last six months writing songs with hitmakers around the country--something I didn't want to do but which ended up being a great learning experience--and after wasting tens of thousands of dollars on travel and recording and audience testing, the president of the company believed that I still didn't have a "hit" and I should write more. I got that call and I burst into tears. I had been pushed so far from who I thought I was, and for what? I played their game and it led me nowhere. I was so angry, I begged my lawyer to get me off the label. I still had an album I owed them, but my lawyer negotiated it so they had to pay me to leave. It was a real bright side to the nightmare. I took the money and I made the album Sunlight Searchparty, which was for me a statement record. I needed to make that album probably more than any other album I've ever made. Maybe Aide Memoire comes in second in that regard. Just making art in a specific way because it felt true to my heart. I've done it that way ever since but the urgency I felt back then after failing on a felt like life or death. Ever since then I've pretty much been left to make art on my own terms. It's good and bad. I still have regret. My dream as a teenager was to be playing my songs in stadiums. I thought signing to a major would bring me one step closer, but obviously, in the scheme of things, I never really got anywhere close to realizing that dream. Those days still haunt me.

What did your writing process look like for The Reminders? What does it look like for a song? Do the two inform each other? Is your acting background in the mix, too?

With songwriting, I'm not very disciplined. I don't usually sit down with the express intention of writing a song. Rather, songs just come out of me when they're ready to come out. I can go months without writing a single song and then write five in a day. It's that unpredictable. It doesn't have to be that way, but I've found that the best songs come out when I don't force them. But you can't do that with something like a novel. You can't just sit around and wait for the muse to come. You'll never finish. There's a saying among writers: Put your butt in the seat. When I was writing my novel, I had to treat it like a job. I had to force myself to sit down and work, even when I wasn't in the mood. Because I was responsible for a young child when I began writing the book, I'd have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to write before she awoke each day. I needed those few hours to myself, just creating, so that I could deal with being a father for the rest of the day.

One of my main characters is an actor and the other is a songwriter. Plus, much of the book has to do with writing a song, so I definitely used what I know for the story. I had written two previous books that didn't ever see the light of day and I think part of the reason why they didn't work was because I was shying away from aspects of my own life. With The Reminders, I used parts of my reality. It seemed to work.

I suspect, like most artists, you've had to cope with failure and rejection. How have you done it? What works for you? And how has failure influenced you as an artist?

I touched on this in one of my earlier answers. It's weird for me. I'm pretty traumatized by failure and yet I don't let it slow me down. I go on auditions for acting all the time and 99% of the time I get rejected. It's a terrible feeling every single time. But I keep going and I keep trying to come up with new ways of failing. In fact, that exact feeling is what inspired a song I wrote called "Resume" from the album, Looking For A Feeling You Never Knew You Needed. Tangent, sorry. Anyway, sometimes I think I'm really pathetic for not quitting long ago. I want to be the best, and when that's your goal, failure is almost a mathematical certainty. Only one of us gets to be the best at any one thing and many times "the best" is a subjective determination. But I know that failure is part of any success story. I try to remind myself of that when I'm feeling optimistic. And I also remind myself that success is a word with varied definitions.

What is your biggest fear as an artist, or biggest vulnerability?

I'm still susceptible to what other people think of me and my art. I think that's a real vulnerability: caring what others think. At the same time, though, I think that helps me make art that hopefully speaks to people. I'm aware of an audience. I want it to be a conversation between me and them and not just me talking to myself. I guess my biggest fear is being ignored. I'm not sure, though. I have many fears.

You can only take one book, one record, one movie, and one guitar (and amp, if it's electric) to a desert island (that apparently has electricity). What are they and why have you selected them?

I'm not good at these types of questions. To make it easier, I randomly picked a year (1997) and limited my answers to releases from that year. For my book, I'll take Don DeLillo's Underworld; it's a long one and will keep me plenty busy. I'll bring Boogie Nights to watch; Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers and that movie just keeps on giving. For my record, Radiohead's OK Computer came to mind first, but I'm going to leave that one home. I'll need something to lift my spirits so I'm going with Pavement's Brighten The Corners. Guitar? Doesn't matter. Something that can hopefully withstand the elements.

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