Every lilting vocal and atmospheric guitar line on Emily Rodgers' new album Bright Day evokes a hazy memory, the earliest being her Mennonite upbringing in the small Indiana city of Elkhart. "Everyone in my hometown was in a praise band; they sing in four-part harmony," she recalls. "I was never in the choir, but I remember when I was in sixth grade, I taught myself to sing the alto part. That opened up a world for me."
Rodgers landed at nearby Goshen College, a largely Mennonite institution, and honed her chops covering Over the Rhine and Gillian Welch at the college coffeehouse. She hosted a radio show on the college station, which at the time ran classical during the day and folk music at night. "There were people in the dorms listening to Ani DiFranco or Indigo Girls," she says, "but what stuck with me was whenever I heard something interesting vocally."
Rodgers is just one of several Goshen alums who've ended up as regulars in Pittsburgh's acoustic scene: Brad Yoder, Heather Kropf, Keith Hershberger and two members of Boca Chica. "I knew people here who were doing Mennocorps [youth service], and liked what I'd seen," Rodgers says. "Pittsburgh is comfortable and small, though when I first moved here it felt big, figuring out the driving."
With a background in creative writing (she attends Chatham part time for an MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction), Rodgers turned to penning original songs. "Something opened up, and I remember having words come to me, noticing things on the streets and writing them down. My life was more solitary, and that gave me some freedom."
She released her debut, Emily Rodgers and Her Majesty's Stars, in 2005. Among her mentors and co-conspirators at that time were guitarist John Paslov (whom she met online), violinist Megan Williams (of Local Honey and Public Domain) and fellow singer-songwriter Kevin Finn, with whom she had a relationship and a split EP in 2006. Since then, Rodgers has become engaged to lapsteel guitarist Erik Cirelli and fallen in with prominent indie label Misra Records, which boasts artists like Great Lake Swimmers, Centro-matic and Shearwater.
Getting noticed by Misra was a two-year process via two central figures: famed producer Mark Kramer (of Shockabilly and Bongwater, and who engineered for the likes of Galaxie 500 and Low) and John Antonuccio, who had worked with locals Lohio and Misra artists Southeast Engine. Kramer had sent Rodgers a MySpace message out of the blue, expressing an interest in working with her. "Eric said, 'Oh my God, do you think that's really him?'" she recalls. "But when we were ready to do something, I contacted him, and since then he's become a good friend."
On Bright Day, Kramer imbued Rodgers' band, including Cirelli, drummer Paul Smith and bassist Austin Osterhout (since replaced by Alison Kacmar), with a shimmer similar to that of the Galaxie catalog or Mazzy Star. "This is the sound I always wanted. It's reverby, ethereal," she enthuses, admiring the unique vocal stylings of Michael Stipe and Kristin Hersh. "I like that big sound, based around a distinct, unusual vocal."
Similarly, Bright Day offers Rodgers' languorous elision of lyrics in what sounds like a Southern drawl, with a bit of the lonesome call of Edith Frost. "I lived in Georgia when I was 5, so maybe that's part of it," she says. "But I didn't really hear [the accent] until someone pointed it out to me."
The publicity materials sent out by Misra strive to position Rodgers outside the hyped alt-country and freak-folk trends, which is fine with her. "I don't want to compromise and create a sound that I think people will like. I've tried to be authentic, and I'm pleasantly surprised when people respond to that." Her band members share that perspective, she says. "We're on the same emotional wavelength, and I can trust them to let me crawl inside the song, because I know they're going to be there."
Besides setting a wedding date with Cirelli in March, Rodgers is poised to take advantage of the attention generated by the Misra release and its distribution through ADA, by planning an East Coast tour in November. "We all have real jobs, so our goal is to do an extended weekend once a month, and we've all committed to that -- it's just a matter of getting into the routine."
Emily Rodgers CD release with A.T.S. and Darryl Fleming & the Public Domain. 10 p.m. Fri., Oct. 16. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $5. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net