Rik Emmett has seen it all during his 40 years in the music business. Between 1975-1988 the Toronto guitarist was front man and principle songwriter for the successful power trio Triumph, whose hits “Lay It On the Line” and “Fight the Good Fight” helped albums like Just a Game, Progression of Power, and Allied Forces top the pop charts.
But by 1990 Emmett was flying solo, exploring jazz and acoustic-based material on well-received discs like Absolutely, Ipso Facto, and Spiral Notebook. He was one of the first bona fide rock stars to embrace the Internet as a valid forum for communication with—and distribution to—his fans. He jumpstarted his own record label, contributed regular columns to Guitar Player magazine, and notched a Juno Award for Best Jazz Guitarist while following his muse. His instructional book For the Love of Guitar—available for download via his website—was recently named the #4 must-have tutorial for guitarists, just after titles by The Beatles and perennial bestseller Hal Leonard. Emmett is also a college professor; he serves as Artistic Director of the Songstudio Songwriting Workshop at Humber College in Ontario each year.
Emmett reunited with Triumph drummer Gil Moore and bassist / keyboardist Mike Levine in 2007, when the band was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, but since then he’s been gigging with fellow singer-guitarist Dave Dunlop. The string-pickin’ pair—conducting business as the Strung-Out Troubadours—won awards for Album of the Year and Best Duo / Group at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards in 2007. Their 2009 effort, Push and Pull, was released to acclaim, as was the recent covers disc, recovery Room 9.
Emmett and Dunlop return to Cleveland’s Winchester Tavern for a pair of “unplugged” shows on May 9 and 10th. Rik’s traded his flying-V guitar for Godin acoustics, but fans can still expect some familiar Triumph tunes—in addition to a plethora of Troubadours material and latter-day Emmett songs.
We had a chance to catch up with Rik last week for a few words about his remarkable career as a performer and educator.
Cleveland Music Examiner: First off, thanks for fielding a couple questions about your recent work and forthcoming Cleveland appearance at The Winchester! Appreciate it! Could you explain a bit about Marco’s Secret Songbook, the idea behind your new project and how it got started?
Rik Emmett: I went looking for a storyline / concept that I could hang a lot of different styles of songs and guitar playing on. I imagined it originally as musical postcards that two travelling brothers were sending to each other from their adventures / journeys. I pitched the idea to Steve Howe, actually, and he passed. So, it came back down to a one-guy storyline. It was like building a puzzle: I had some songs I could plug in along the storyline. Other places, I needed to write songs to fit. Other places, I would twist the story a wee bit so that I could fit in a song that added a bit more tempo/vitality. (I had plenty of ballads, slow tempos, and guitar pieces.) I was a real fan of concept albums back in the day, a la Yes and The Moody Blues (who had spoken word / poems with orchestra segues). So I guess I was trying to knock something off my Bucket List.
CME: How does the new work carry on from prior acoustic-based projects you’ve done?
RE: It’s more of a singer-songwriter concept piece. It ties back, in my mind, to albums like Good Faith, and Spiral Notebook.
CME: Can you discuss meeting up with Dave Dunlop some 20-plus years ago, and how you worked together over the years to create the “Strung-Out Troubadours?”
RE: Dave and I shared the same college guitar teacher, Peter Harris, except a decade apart. Dave was teaching at a summer guitar workshop where I came as a guest artist. He was already on a Harris-recommended short list of guitarists I might hire, if I ever needed one. My bassist, Steve Skingley, then recommended Dave and a drummer named Troy Feener as last-minute replacement guys to make a road trip to Louisville, Kentucky with us.
CME: It’s the 30th anniversary of Triumph’s Never Surrender. Can Winchester fans expect a couple of acoustic gems from that album, like the title track (as covered on “Then Again…”)?
RE: Yes. Most of the stuff on “Then Again” will show up. We’ve got two nights, so the nostalgia catalog will get a pretty thorough visit.
CME: Back on the aptly-named re-Covery Room, you interpreted some familiar classics in your own way—and I for one happen to love all the original songs to begin with. So how’d you go about settling on these tunes by Billy Joel, Sting, Springsteen, etc.?
RE: They were songs we loved too. But we had a much longer list: and in the end, we played them all down, then settled on the ones that [a] seemed to have a spark of our own creativity / originality in the arrangement / sound, and [b] maybe offered a different perspective on the song than the original recordings by the original artists had, and [c] had been captured in Dave’s Room 9 Studio with enough energy & quality that we were able to say, “Well – some folks will hate us for messing with the original perfection of these songs and their recordings: but these takes are good enough for us to say, damn the torpedoes … ”
CME: I’m aware you have a “campfire test” that helps determine the strength of new songs. If they hold up well with just voice and guitar, they pass. I think David Bowie once described something like that. He didn’t call it the campfire test, but he advised that aspiring musicians strip their work down to either a guitar or piano + voice. Can you explain how this litmus test works in a way non-players might appreciate?
RE: A campfire test, just guitar and voice, strips the song down to its bones, and its vital organs. Barry Gordy used to make many Motown writers pass his own version of a campfire test. Lionel Richie tells a famous story of a meeting in Barry’s office, where Lionel was reticent to play his new tunes without the surrounding comfort zone of his band: Gordy insisted that, if Lionel couldn’t sit at the piano and make the song work, without the help of all the Commodores – they couldn’t be good songs. Good songs should be able to stand up for themselves, without a fancy arrangement & orchestration. Which is NOT to say that fancy arranging and orchestrating isn’t often a part of making good records: it certainly can be. But good songs must function on an emotional level: they communicate accessible ideas to a listener. Many writers (of many styles of music) will tell you that good songs start out as good folk songs. Same idea.
CME: I know you admire the work of Ritchie Blackmore and Joe Pass. You’ve also cited Steve Howe as an influence. He’s a fave of mine, too, and you both seem so versatile and juggle styles so well. Do you have any favorite Yes / Howe songs or bits? I even enjoy his work on the under-appreciated albums like Topographic Oceans, Relayer and such.
RE: The Yes Album, and then Fragile, were huge influences and provided a real turning point in my life. Just yesterday, I played Close To The Edge in its entirety and played air guitar (and air bass – and also TRIED to sing along, which is totally impossible now, but I could get close as a teenager). Once my own music career was starting to take over my life, I simply didn’t have the time to be as much of a ‘fan’ of new album releases, so I didn’t have as much connection to Topographic Oceans, and Relayer, etc. But I used to play Mood For a Day and The Clap during acoustic solo sections of live bar band sets, and in the band I was in before Triumph, ACT III, we used to do a Yes medley, that had chunks of Perpetual Change, Long Distance Runaround, Heart of the Sunrise, and Roundabout. (We were a trio, with no keyboard player: except the drummer would occasionally lean over his floor tom and play a Solina string machine.)
CME: Apart from writing and performance, you’ve gained a reputation as a skilled and knowledgeable music educator. You wrote columns for Guitar Player and offer on-line lessons and advice. But I was wondering what kind of work you do Humber College?
RE: I co-teach the Music Business course to 3rd and 4th year B.A. students; teach a songwriting class that’s an elective, often for 2nd and 3rd year students; and I’m also a Directed Studies Advisor, wherein I get six 4th-yr. students assigned to me every year and ‘mentor’ them through a bunch of reporting on the progress of their recording projects. Kinda like being equal parts cop, mentor, producer, A & R man, and psychiatrist. Somewhere between Anthony Robbins, George Martin and General Patton. I often tell ’em: here’s a whole lotta rope. Go, and try not to hang yourself. But if it looks to me like they’re picking out a high-hanging branch, and making a noose, I step in and offer a thought or two of caution and gentle advice. After all, I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes myself, over the years, with a few surprising successes here & there. Maybe that experience could be of benefit to some young folks.
Rik Emmett and Dave Dunlop play The Winchester (12112 Madison Ave. Cleveland, OH) on May 9 and 10, 2013. Tickets are $20 for each show at the door.