Emily Duff Serves Up That Country Soul

L to R: Emily Duff and Dina Regine at Cowgirl. Photo by Skip Duff.

BY PUMA PERL | Emily Duff invited me to lunch. Anyone who has shared a meal with her knows that this statement is less mundane than it sounds. She’s a former chef — and the colors, textures, presentation, and tastes of her offerings are as resonant as her sound. “I respect the ingredients,” she said. “I ask myself, ‘How do I make them shine?’ Respect is the key to everything, the way to authenticity.” Sort of the same approach she takes to her music, and, I imagine, to life.

Duff arranges bright red peppers, pears, cheese, herb rice, and other delicacies on our plates as we chat. “I bet your family eats well,” I commented, to which she replied, “I cook three beautiful meals a day.”

She moved in alone to this 340-square-foot apartment in 1990. Her husband, Skip, their two kids, Henry and Sylvia, and their dog, Banjo, now also inhabit it. Looking around the bright, homey space, I added that they must get along pretty well. “We all like each other,” she replied. “I grew up in this apartment. I am what I am because of the West Village. At age 13, I used to climb out my window and ride the train to the city. One day, I wandered west from Washington Square Park, and I knew that this was where I wanted to be.”

Raised in Queens and Long Island, Duff wrote her first song at age seven or eight, after her mother taught her to play four chords on the guitar. It was about trading baseball cards, and, with its chorus of “Got it! Get it! Need it!” had a Ramones feel to it, although it was only 1973. Fans of the Emily Duff Band, which is rooted in country soul, may not be aware of her wide range of abilities and her early influences, but will be unsurprised by the threads that tie it all together — the aforementioned respect and authenticity. “I used to listen to Cousin Brucie on the radio,” she recalled, “and my mother and I would sing doo-wop. Songs like “Sh-Boom” and “Oh Donna” were my favorites. Sometimes my uncle would join us on mandolin.” She also connected to the sounds of the Brill Building. “Carole King was a hero.”

When asked what she listens to at home, she didn’t hesitate. “Gospel. Every time I see Mavis Staples I can’t stop crying for joy. It was the first concert my kids ever attended with me.”

The Emily Duff Band. Photo by Charles Chessler.

Duff’s musical accomplishments are as diverse as her tastes. “My favorite instrument is the cello,” she noted. “I played and composed from the fourth grade on. I hear the counter-melodies and the orchestra as I write.” She would also love to play drums in a band again. “It’s relaxing when you’re not fronting or conducting. But whatever you do, if you’re doing it right, you’re inspiring. As a frontwoman, my goal is to inspire everyone in the band to have a conversation that brings us inside the song, allows us to inhabit it.”

Cowgirl, a popular restaurant that includes a performing space, happens to be directly below Duff’s apartment. In 2015, she began the monthly Family Round-Up featuring her band, and, in 2017, added the monthly Tuesday Night Music Club: A Songwriter’s Listening Room. “My intention in creating the songwriter’s night was to have publishers come and listen to new original material.” The venue’s welcoming vibe feels like an extension of her apartment, with kids doing homework at a back table and friends, family members, neighbors and fellow musicians gathered together to eat delicious food or drink at the bar.

Sometimes musician friends, like well-known saxophonist Danny Ray, are spontaneously invited onto the stage. “It was like playing in the best country soul sandbox ever,” he told us. “Emily’s a bruja. Her band elevates me every time I go out to see them play.” New York City musician, photographer, and DJ Dina Regine has played in several songwriter circles and performed with Duff in other venues, billed and unbilled. “I can’t count the times I’ve been sitting in the audience to root her on and five minutes later I’m on stage with her,” Regine said. “That’s the way a music community should be — loose, artsy and fun. As a songwriter, Emily is one of the most prolific I’ve met in my long career. No filler tunes with this gal; each song is a mini-novel filled with stories about real people and real life, joys, pain, ups and downs.”

Listeners of the Emily Duff Band’s newest album, “Maybe in the Morning,” agree. Singer, songwriter, and author Rosanne Cash wrote, “This is Emily’s strongest work yet. She’s found a confident, slinky feel and a gritty groove that serves her uniquely original lyrics and gritty voice well. Her stellar band is more than supportive — they’re soulful stars in their own right.”

Emily Duff at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Photo by Tyra Newkirk

It was a deeply spiritual experience for Duff to record the album in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at the FAME Studios. “Going to the place where my favorite music was recorded was like going to church,” she said. “It gave me chills walking through the door.” Duff has hundreds of unpublished songs and is working on a gospel blues album with the working title, “You Better Believe.” Her dream is to return to Muscle Shoals to record. The joy of being there was a factor in “making me become realized,” she said. “I have the confidence to get out there and I’ve become a believer in what I do. All of these years, I’ve never asked for anything, but this is so important to me that I’ve created a GoFundMe campaign to help me get back there.”

Her parting message to the reader is, “Put down the iPhone, say goodbye to the DJ, and remember that great songs and guitars save lives. Go see live music!”

Cowgirl is located at 519 Hudson St. (at W. 10th St.). No cover, all ages. Call 212-633-1133 or visit cowgirlnyc.com. The next Family Round-Up is Tues., Nov. 14 at 6:30pm. The next Songwriter’s Listening Room is Tues., Nov. 28 at 7:30pm. Artist info at emilyduffband.com and emilyduff.bandcamp.com/album/maybe-in-the-morning. To donate to Duff’s GoFundMe campaign, visit http://tinyurl.com/y9dd8smz. Additional shows: Nov. 15, 8pm at Maxwell’s Tavern (Hoboken, NJ; maxwellsnj.com) and Tues., Nov. 21, 8pm at 11th Street Bar (510 E. 11th St., btw. Aves. A & B; 11thstbar.com).

Danny Ray and Emily Duff onstage at Cowgirl’s Family Round-Up. Photo by Charles Chessler.

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