Kyle Emerson has come home.
That is to say, to one of his homes. For the past few years, the singer-songwriter and former Plum frontman has traveled back and forth from Denver to L.A., playing shows, recording new music and generally enjoying himself. Yes, he’s done a lot, but the one thing he won’t do is pick a favorite city to call home. Home is in both.
“Honestly, after Plum broke up, I just kind of had these songs for Dorothy," says Emerson, speaking of Dorothy Alice, his first album recorded under his own name. "But I didn’t know where to record, didn’t know who would be in my band."
Eventually, he says, he started weighing the advantages of both cities. In 2016, after living in L.A. for two years, he decided Colorado was the best fit, at least for the time being.
“I’ve always been interested in having a solo career, and I had more resources for that in Colorado,” says Emerson. “My best friend, who I’ve played music with since I was fourteen, lives here, and [the person] I wanted to record with is here. I thought it would be easier to start playing shows and get this off the ground.”
Colorado is also where he produced his new album, Only Coming Down, which will be released by Swoon City Music. The ten-song record is so dense and layered that it feels much longer; it’s also decidedly more bright and cheerful than his first, something he says didn’t happen by accident.
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“I think the music being a little more upbeat and layered was a conscious decision," he says. "You go on tour, you have to play these songs every night. I wanted to do something a little different so it wouldn’t be so difficult to perform.”
The songs on Dorothy Alice, which is named after his grandmother, are weighty and deeply personal, honoring her life and marking her death.
“My grandmother Dorothy, she lived with my parents,” he says. “It was her decision. She moved in a week before I was born. I never had babysitters, and she bought me my first guitar and paid for all my lessons.”
While Emerson was moving to California in 2014 with Plum, his grandmother, a person who had been a constant in his life from the very beginning, passed away. In roughly six months, he churned out the entire album, which drips with the pain of his loss.
“That was my first real family death,” says Emerson. “The themes were kind of me closing the door on some things. It was a record spawned from a death and the thoughts that come with that. After that, there was a thought like, ‘Well, what do I write about now?’”
He needn’t have worried. When it finally came time to write Only Coming Down, he says, creativity flowed from his mind like a faucet.
“It’s totally a head space,” says Emerson of the artistic deluge that preceded the new album. “Maybe I was a little more in the Elliott Smith realm on the first record. I sort of figured out that there was more to write about than just being sad — stuff that’s addressing the sorrow, the pain, but giving a positive outlook on the situation.”
But he dismisses the idea that Only Coming Down has less emotional heft than Dorothy Alice.
“I sometimes wonder if some of the themes on this record aren’t even heavier,” he says. “I usually have the typical sad-boy thing going. I go back and listen every so often, and the juxtaposition of the lyrics and the music is pretty intense.”
Emerson says he wrote about twenty songs for Only Coming Down, ten of which made the cut. He attributes the outpouring of material to trying as much as possible to stick to his initial take on the songs.
“So many of the lyrics on this record, I do little voice memos on my phone so I don’t forget [them],” he says. “Usually the lyrics wouldn’t be inspired by that version. I found I’d have more luck if I listened to the mush-mouthed original voice memo to see what I was trying to say. I’ve had a lot of success letting it be what it was in first conception. Regardless of how the music sounded, there was a direct correlation to where the song came from.”
Going with the flow, it seems, has become a theme in Emerson’s life. It hasn’t always been easy, he says, but the results speak for themselves.
One of the tunes on the album, “CA/CO,” evolved so slowly that Emerson didn’t immediately realize where it was going. It’s a love song, he insists, but with a twist.
“I wrote that after being back in Denver a year,” he says. “I wrote it on a ukulele at an ex-girlfriend’s house. I usually hate the ukulele, but being at her apartment and writing it on an instrument that wasn’t a guitar...it pulled some things up.”
Those “things” were his feelings for the close friends with whom he’d moved to California. Although he's moved back and forth a few times since, those bonds have never weakened.
“I think I started out writing in an ex-girlfriend sort of mentality, but quickly saw that I was writing about emotions I was having for some friends,” says Emerson. “I’m not one to write love songs, but that’s a very non-traditional way of writing about love."
The first verse, he says, came quickly. But he didn't commit to it for another eight months, until he saw Call Me by Your Name, a complicated story about two young men whose friendship turns to love but ultimately doesn't blossom. Although Emerson’s relationship with his friends is purely platonic, he was still able to draw parallels and pull from the deep well of emotions he feels for them.
“I don’t know if I wrote lyrics down at all,” he says. “I’d have a verse in my head that I’d sing, but it wasn’t until I saw the film that I found the words.”
It came, he says, “from trying not to compartmentalize kinds of love.” Those feelings for platonic friends have helped make Only Coming Down feel like less of a solitary endeavor — as has working with his two new bandmates.
"I would consider Only Coming Down a band record," he says. "It might be under my name, but it would be weird to play without those guys."
Keeping the group small helps keep the vibe personal and lively. Emerson says the group he's playing with now truly gives the live performance some extra vigor.
"There’s something about being in a trio. With five people, everyone is giving 20 percent. There’s a lot of not playing. When you go from five to three, each person has to step up. There’s something about watching three people make as much noise as five people that I find very intriguing. You sort of have to be in tune with everyone."
And as much as he loves Colorado, Emerson says living in L.A. has more than a few benefits for a musician.
“I love L.A. for different reasons,” he says. “People are working their asses off to get to have a career. You can come to this city to be anyone you want. The anonymity mixed with that environment, sometimes you feel like you’re really getting your ass kicked, but I see it differently. I feel like, ‘Oh, I could try a little harder and have more discipline.’”
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For now, Emerson says he’s content doing what he’s doing with the people he’s doing it with. And now he truly feels like a man with two homes.
“They both ground me in different ways,” says Emerson. “I hope I never have to choose.”
Kyle Emerson’s new album, Only Coming Down, was released on November 1. Emerson plays the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, November 8. He also has shows at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins on November 7, the Fox Theatre in Boulder on November 9, and Memorial Hall in Manitou Springs on November 10.
Hear Kyle Emerson and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.