Emily Nenni’s “Drive & Cry”: Distinctive Vocals and Confessional Lyrics

Emily Nenni

Emily Nenni sings with a Southern twang bigger than a 25-pound largemouth bass, to use a regional expression. The East Bay, California, native now living in Nashville has embraced the sound and expressions of classic country with a strong passion. One can hear the echoes of past honky-tonk stars like Hank Williams and Kitty Wells in Nenni’s singing voice.

However, her conversational voice has no accent. My initial shock upon hearing her speak reminded me of first hearing the Beatles being interviewed. On their early records such as “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they sang with American inflections. When they spoke, their charming British brogues identified them as something much different and special.

The Beatles sang that way to show their respect for American rock and roll, not to mention that this was a way to make more money and have a larger audience. Nenni performs with a drawl for similar reasons. Talking over the telephone from her Tennessee home, she said she sings that way to pay tribute to her heroes, such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

“I know some people have negative stereotypes about someone who has a twangy voice,” she said. “They presume the person is dumb or a redneck. I am from California and don’t have that kind of voice, but I have friends from Nashville that tone down their Southern accents lest others make assumptions about them. I sing like that because I like singing like that!”

Because she comes from outside the area, she sees the value of having a distinct identity of which one can be proud. When Nenni sings, one can clearly hear her influences.

Some inspirations may be harder to discern. Nenni began her career as a songwriter, not a performer. She was (and remains) guided by the classic girl group sounds of the 1960s—especially Motown. She cited the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland (responsible for many of the Supremes’ greatest hits, like “Baby Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”) as an important influence. Nenni’s latest record, Drive & Cry, marks the first time she has written songs without a collaborator. The disc features 11 original compositions and a cover of artist-songwriter Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway.”

Drive & Cry is truly autobiographical,” Nenni confessed. “I dug deep into myself to write these songs. The older I get, the deeper the feelings. Even though some of the material is meant to be humorous or observational, the songs were the songs I wanted to write and represent where I am as a musician today. That’s why I recorded it in Nashville with Nashville players I know and love. This is my home.”

One can catch Nenni with her backing band Teddy and the Rough Riders on June 15 at xBk Live in Des Moines. She’s played in Iowa many times before and recalls a past tour where she played four or five different venues in the Hawkeye State during a one-week period. Her current schedule has her appearing only once in Iowa this circuit. She has performed nationwide as well as in Australia and plans to play in Europe this summer.

According to Nenni, the biggest drawback of being on the road is the time spent in the van between gigs. “We listen to light podcasts. We are not trying to educate ourselves, just pass the time, and there are certain records we listen to over and over again.” She cited four albums by The Band that get played on repeat, and cited the song “The Shape I’m In” as a favorite. This is an odd choice. It was written by The Band’s guitarist-leader Robbie Robertson about pianist Richard Manuel, who suffered from depression. (Manuel committed suicide in 1986.)

“I favor upbeat songs that have darker messages,” Nenni said. “They are the ones one can dance to and still think about and even find therapeutic and relatable.” As the title song of Drive & Cry suggests, weeping can be a liberating act that frees one from feeling bad. The other tracks on the album have similar themes.

“I am an optimist. By that I mean that I am a realist,” Nenni declared. “Life is hard and only gets harder. I am an optimist because life is so much harder the other way. One has to push through and look forward if one is ever going to have a good future.” Nenni is just being practical. Her songs describe the suffering that comes one’s way, especially on the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of “Greatest Hits,” which refers to the term’s musical association with “best of” rather than the more literal definition of “strongest blows.”

Nenni does hope her new record will achieve “greatest hits” status in terms of sales. She has made it available across digital platforms, compact disc, and standard black vinyl. A limited clear and teal-blue vinyl edition autographed by Nenni will be available via Heady Wax Fiends. An autographed compact disc edition as well as a limited clear-pink vinyl edition autographed by Nenni will be available via independent record stores worldwide and is available for order.