A Paisley Underground rocker who opened for R.E.M. on a national tour. An introspective, jazz-inflected singer/songwriter. A filmmaker, poet, and sought-after composer for film, video games, commercials and television. Berkeley’s Steven Emerson has worn all these hats, and in his latest incarnation he’s balancing a burgeoning career as a composer for hire with his resurgence as a performing artist known for incisively crafted songs.
With his background in film, he possesses a rare sensitivity when it comes to crafting sonic settings for visuals. “When I started doing music for film and television I really discovered the power, the alchemy that happens when the right music is matched to the right image,” Emerson says.
Laying down sound in Ever Studio, his Berkeley Hills recording studio, Emerson is a composer with a gift for creating just the right vibe for any situation. In recent years he’s written music for blockbuster games (NBA2K), commercials for major companies (Apple, Sprint, Visa, and Ford), and television productions (MTV’s 16 and Pregnant). In early 2016 he completed scoring The Nine, a documentary by noted photographer Katy Grannan that explores the lives of marginalized people in California’s Central Valley, and The Outcast of Beauregard Parish, a documentary short by the award-winning team of Jason Cohn and Camille Servan-Schreiber (Eames: The Architect and the Painter).
Emerson has come a long way since he got a heady taste of the rock ‘n’ roll life as a member of the influential Paisley Underground band True West in the 1980s. He grew up in Davis, California, and started teaching himself acoustic guitar at the age of 12 (first tune learned: Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”). Later, he took up electric guitar, but by high school he had switched to drums, a move that eased the way into more established local bands.
During his three-year stint with True West, Emerson appeared on the album Drifters (on drums), and then played guitar and wrote tunes for True West’s swansong, Hand of Fate. They were true road warriors, touring across 45 states and 12 countries. “We toured the college circuit and caught the attention of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck when we played in Athens, Georgia, and we ended up opening for their Fables of the Reconstruction tour,” Emerson says.
After personnel changes led to the band’s demise, Emerson moved to New York City, where he began attending shows and performing at Greenwich Village open-mic sessions. He eventually found himself in the inner circle of veteran New York troubadour Jack Hardy’s informal West Village song swaps, a spawning ground for artists like Shawn Colvin, John Gorka, and Suzanne Vega.
His efforts started gaining recognition, including an ASCAP songwriting award, though his most evocative work, a stripped down duo album with cellist Peter Lewy inspired by Nick Drake’s sonic minimalism, has yet to be released.
His six years in New York yielded other creative dividends, most importantly Second Person, a feature film written and directed by Emerson that was selected for the San Francisco Film Arts Festival. He also published a collection of poetry.
In 1994 Emerson relocated to Berkeley, and released his first solo album the following year. Featuring a cast of Bay Area jazz heavyweights, it was described by Acoustic Guitar magazine as a captivating collection of “romantic yearnings and blue musings”.
Set in Motion, a blend of ‘60s cool jazz and ‘70s soul that received widespread acclaim, was released in 2000. SF Weekly likened the slinky sound to the “early ‘70s soul of Al Green,” while noting that it’s “Emerson’s voice that makes the music intimate and inescapable.”
These days Emerson finds inspiration close to the home he shares with his wife, designer Erica Tanov, and their two children. His current queue of projects includes releasing the score album for the film The Nine, a culmination of all his musical explorations: playing drums on a thrashing rock song, experimenting with ambient soundscapes, writing a song and lyrics for the end credits. He is also heading up a collaboration with Creative Growth artist studio in Oakland, and finally preparing for release the album he recorded in New York in 1992.
After a long creative journey, Emerson approaches each new musical undertaking as a quest for the ideal melodic phrase, the most expressive groove, or the perfect chord. Precise but unfussy, stylistically open-minded and equipped for expressive lyricism and unfettered thrash, Emerson is a composer for all seasons.