Survival Guide, by Robert Alleyne

Emily Whitehurst has a long history in the Bay Area music scene. Born and raised in California, she joined the beloved North Bay punk band Tsunami Bomb during the late '90s as Agent M. She was then a member of the Action Design, which formed when Tsunami Bomb disbanded. Her constant need for printing while playing music in the Bay Area lead her to open the Petaluma print shop Loud & Clear, in 2006. Her latest project is Survival Guide — a fun, free-form music project that replaces the punk-rock guitars of her previous bands with a fusion of electronica and indie. The debut record, Way To Go (released in 2015), is an ode to this and mixes ideas effortlessly — it was an opportunity to escape the confines genre and capture how she was feeling at the time, “when writing the first record, I was always writing whatever seemed good at the time,” she says of her process back then, “I [wasn’t] thinking in genre terms.”

When we meet at the beginning of summer, she explains how she has already started working on the follow-up — though it has not been a straightforward endeavor. “I’ve never written a record by myself,” expresses Whitehurst. “The first Survival Guide record was [written] with guitar player, Jaycen [McKissick]...so it's been daunting, to say the least,” she shares. When she talks about the challenges of writing her second album as Survival Guide, she does so in a way that endears you to her work. Even for a seasoned musician like Whitehurst, who has always had musicians to collaborate with on her past projects, this one is a new personal challenge. “I want to do it, and I know that I can...[but] deep inside [I’m] kind of scared that it's going to suck,” she says followed by a lighthearted laugh.

Survival Guide, by Robert Alleyne

“I am one of those musicians who writes and creates so that I can perform; it's my favorite thing about being a musician,” she says joyfully when we discuss her live shows. “Usually, I try and play every show as if it's completely packed; sometimes the smallest shows are the ones where I can really let go and go for it,” she says.

The first time I saw her play was towards the end of a packed line-up at Brick & Mortar Music Hall. By the time of her set, the audience had started to thin and yet she gave a soaring performance full of energy and passion. At times it was dramatic, the use of the telephone to add further distortion to her voice sticking long in the memory. She is a great performer; one that make a sparse room seem fuller than it really is — it even encouraged me to dance along to songs I had never heard before.

Since that performance, Survival Guide has turned into a solo act after McKissick left the band. “I had to take it over,” she says. “That was the only thing I wanted to do, as opposed to trying to find somebody else. [I did] it mostly because I knew that I could.” She shares how being a solo act has made her better musician, even if it comes with some unique setbacks - "It's fun, but it's also kind of restricting physically,” she says only half jokingly.

We talk about her spring tour with Lungs and Limbs and she tells as story about another of the potential perils when performing solo - computer problems! It all started when her computer began to stop working at unexpected moments. “It feels like an eternity, being up there and having all the music drop out, so it's just keyboards and vocals left,” says Whitehurst. “I thought it was a fluke. And then it started doing it more and more...I started having nightmares about it afterwards,” she shares. These technical hitches did not stop her from performing and even encouraged some banter throughout a particular show in Flagstaff. She fixed the problem with a new drum pad, and some crash-courses lessons from Lungs and Limbs while on the road. Tour was not all about misfiring tech, however, as she did enjoy nights in a hot tub on the balcony of an Austin, Texas, high-rise.

Survival Guide, by Robert Alleyne

A few weeks after our interview, Whitehurst announces the details for her West Coast Tour. It is met with a more somber note on her Facebook page which mentions the show, at Cafe du Nord, will be her last show in San Francisco for some time because she is moving to San Antonio, Texas.

We catch up over email later, and she mentions how excited she is to be joining a new music scene (and even hopes to open another small business) once she settles in Texas. Whitehurst has been making music in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, and I think about all the people she has made music with, the tours, the bands, and the venues, and it feels like we will be experiencing a loss. While she may be leaving one community, Whitehurst is excited to explore the San Antonio music scene, as well as focus on Survival Guide a bit more.

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask her what success looks like, and she ponders the question before giving her response: “Being able to continue making music...And building a community of people who appreciate it,” she says. A simple response from musician who may have just been doing that for close to two decades.

Survival Guide, Lungs and Limbs, Rabbit Quinn
Cafe du Nord
August 25, 2017
8pm, $15

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