With The Grain: Settin’ and Sippin’ with Cindy Emch of Rhubarb Whiskey

Whistle PigWhistle Pig 100-proof, straight rye whiskey, aged for at least ten years through a unique double-barrel process. WhistlePig was released in the summer of 2010 to great critical acclaim. WhistlePig embodies the perfect combination of proof, purity, and age — hitting “the sweet spot” in all three categories. In short: more rye, all the proof, and the perfect age.

cindy1I recently sat down with the talented Cindy Emch (Emchy) for some virtual sippin’ and convo.
Emchy is the affectionate nickname of accordion player and poet Cindy Emch. Emchy is a cat person who fervently loves her dog, a midwestern girl who is hella west coast after 15 years in the Bay Area, a punk rocker who loves country music and experimental jazz, and a walking bundle of contradictions. For day jobs she’s burnt beachside hot dogs, patrolled cemeteries, worked an old school phone switchboard, done accounting for a kinky leather shop, programmed films for one of the world’s biggest film festivals and worked for MTV and Yahoo!(among other things). Cindy’s writings have been been published in the Can I Sit With You project, LodeStar Quarterly, There Journal, Tough Girls 2: More Down and Dirty Dyke Erotica edited by Lori Selke, It’s So You: 35 Women on Fashion, Beauty and Personal Style edited by Michelle Tea, and numerous chapbooks. She also founded, hosted and curated San Francisco’s Queer Open Mic from 2004 – 2008.
She believes that art can create change in the world and that it’s not so hard to be nice to people. She also thinks that dirt smells like magic and gets lost in the woods on purpose

Popa: Besides Rhubarb Whiskey you are involved with many other projects, right off the bat let’s plug them and maybe make some news?
Cindy: Sure, I love talking about my projects *laugh*. There are five total. I guess I like to be busy! First would be Vagabondage,  which is a mixture of stompy drinking songs and beautiful soul shaking maladies with balkan and punk influences. I play accordion and do secondary vocals in that band. The press has said some really nice things about us, and those guys really make me laugh just all of the time. We’re releasing our fourth recording early in 2014. Next would be the Oakland Wine Drinkers Union, we call our music drinking songs for the proletariat. Just a trio on acoustic instruments having fun. We trade off who writes what and who plays what and make little love songs to our time with pals in Oakland. A newer project is a true Rhubarb Whiskey offshoot. Sizzle la Fey the Rhubarb fiddle player and I put together a project called Sinners Tonic . The sound is a bit like if Mazzy Star and Jane’s Addiction had a country band. We’ve got our EP recorded and are planning to release it early in 2014. Last would be my solo project, Emchy, I called in some favors and some of my favorite collaborators from Canada and the Bay Area and got a nice 5 track EP recorded. It’s called Feral, since I kind of went rogue on my other musical projects while I was working on it, and it’s very rootsy and (as usual) a bit dark. It’s in the mixing stages now, but it should be fully born in 2014 sometime.
Popa: What/who influenced you to pick up the accordion and strangle that unique Emchy sound out of it?
Cindy: Well it’s a funny thing. My mom played accordion when I was young and I used to sing along to her practicing. It’s part of where my love for old 1920’s music and culture came from I think. But also how I learned to follow pitch, read music, etc. She tried to teach me when I was seven, but man, accordions are big and heavy. I just wasn’t up for it yet. Fast forward a couple of decades and I was running an open mic. A friend emailed me in a panic, some musician friends of hers had their SF gig cancelled last minute and could I throw them on the bill for my show. I said sure, and so Yankee Sheila (a side project of the Dandelion Junk Queens) brought their musical saw / accordion magic to my stage. I was enchanted. I hadn’t heard music so magical and surprisingly fresh / honest / sincere in a long time. A few days later my friend Whitney asked her people to celebrate her birthday by joining her at the Monsters of Accordion show. Playing were Jason Webley, Mark Growden, Geoff Berner, and a few others. Again, I was blown away by the accordion itself, the sounds that these people were making with it, how powerful and passionate the music was. So that night I went home and blogged about it, mentioning that I wanted to learn how to play it. Within a day I had an offer of a free accordion and someone who wanted to start a band (that band became Vagabondage). From there it all just came from improvisation. Aside from a few weeks of lessons from the amazing Skyler Fell (Accordion Apolcalype / Hobo Gobbelins) I’m primarily self taught. The way you play it though – how the buttons are laid out, how to get the best sounds, it changes how you write music completely. For me it pulls me into the sad beauty of minor chords all of the time, even when the songs are about happy things.
Popa: Rhubarb’s songs come from some dark corners of bars and life, obviously the three of you couldn’t drink all the time and get anything accomplished, what is the creative process between you and your bandmates Sizzle La Fey and Boylamayka?
Cindy: Well with five bands I do tend to be in bars too often *laughs*. Primarily how it’s always worked is that I write some lyrics down and bring them to Boylamayka and we figure out how to extract the melody from my brain into instruments. From there we start to workshop the song as a trio and the arrangements are born. For us, mostly, you can assume that whoever is singing wrote the song. Boylamayka is also an accomplished horn player and ex-punk rock guitarist, so often his song drafts come to the band more fully formed and then sometimes I help massage words so the phrasing works, or in songs like Whiskey Neat, he just has a perfect piece of music and brings it to the table for us to learn and put our stamp on it. Covers are always hilarious for us though, because nothing ever stays in its normal key, and we’re always trying to figure out what to do to make it Rhubarby – aside from just turning it minor of course. It’s been really fun playing with harmonies, vocal gender roles, and things like that to really turn and bend the songs into something that sounds like ‘us.’
Popa: I’m a huge Greta Garbo fan, besides blues and folk you list German cabaret as an influence, that seems far removed from what others list as influences how did that come about?
Cindy: Well like I mentioned earlier, singing along with my mom’s old songbook with its 1920’s songs definitely turned my aesthetic in that direction. The other thing is that I’m a huge film buff, and for whatever reason films set and made in the 1920’s and 1930’s just capture my imagination. The height of decadence that was Weimar Berlin before the Nazi’s took over. The wildness of the American speakeasies. Perhaps some of it lies too in the sudden freedom women were taking for themselves by joining in the party without apologies, smoking, drinking, gambling, performing, and just embracing life outside of the uptight Victorian corsets of the generation before. I find it fascinating. And the music – it was gorgeous. How American blues and romani rhythms and the oomm pah pah of German drinking songs all started coming together to make this new hybrid of cabaret music. Oh it’s just so sensual and intoxicating to me, even to this day.
Popa: You’re a veteran of the SF Bay Area punk rock scene are you a SF native? I also wonder what you may have been like as a younger youngster, were you a rebellious hellcat?
Cindy: I’m not a native to SF. I’ve lived in the Bay area since 1995 and the first place I lived was a big punk rock house in Berkeley with about 10 other people. One of whom was actually Boylamayka though he was in his punk band Subincision at the time. As a youngster I was… a bit of a hellion. Primarily I was a political agitator I would say with rowdy musical leanings. I was also a competitive dancer and (still am) a poet. So I was always keeping up with things academically while raising as much hell as I could. Let’s say I was the friend who helped make sure we all got away with it and got home alive.
Popa: Ok some whiskey questions, this is a with the grain series.
A. What’s your favorite whiskey?
Cindy: Whistle Pig is my favorite if my wallet is fat. Otherwise I go with Old Overholt Rye or Bulleit Rye.
B. Sipping or slugging?
Cindy: Always sipping. Preferably with one rock.
C. What bartender has the fattest three fingers? (without getting them into trouble)
Cindy: Dave at Broken Record in San Francisco, Everyone at Honor Bar in Emeryville, Amber at Lucky 13 in Alameda, and the very nice gentleman with the tattooed face at Eli’s in Oakland.
D. It’s last call what do you order?
Cindy: Ha! If I’m driving I get tonic water. If not, it’s a rye on the rocks every time. Gotta go out with a bang!

Same Sad Day is an album of dichotomies. It is the glint of a switchblade held to your throat; it is the friend whose flask is always full and whose shoulder is always there to cry on. It puts new spins on old songs, and makes new songs sound timeless. From the sad and beautiful title track, Same Sad End (with guest vocals by Carolyn Mark) to the rowdiest, most foot-stompin’ version of St. James Infirmary Blues you ever heard, this album has it all – dark, sexy killing songs (Gravedigger), boozy ballads (Mendocino), off-kilter anthems to drinking with pals (Bottles), blues-grass with a danceable groove (Knock ‘Em Down), and country weepers (My Rifle, My Pony, and Me; Ella). It will break your heart and heal it all over again – and you’ll love every minute of it.
Released 23 January 2013
Conceived of, written, and performed by Emchy, Boylamayka Sazerac, and Sizzle La Fey.

groupEmchy: accordion, vocals
Boylamayka Sazerac: guitar, mandolin, upright bass, vocals
Sizzle La Fey: violin, mandolin, banjo, piano
Special Guests:
Carolyn Mark: backing vocals
Lulu Darling: backing vocals
Whitney Moses: backing vocals


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