‘Sometimes your mind is a tough place to be’: Emily Nenni Talks ‘On The Ranch’, Work Ethic & Fall Records

Self-help types argue that you’re the sum of the five people you hang out with the most. If that’s true, Emily Nenni is making healthy life choices. These days, she’s on the road with Kelsey Waldon, Charley Crockett, and Teddy and The Rough Riders, all artists with Album of the Year nominations on deck. But the Nashville-via-Bay Area Nenni is far more than the sum of her tourmates.

She arrived in 2018 with Hell of a Woman and followed with two EPs, I Owe You Nothing, a good-time collaboration with Teddy and The Rough Riders, who are her de facto backing band, and Long Game. This year she returns with On The Ranch, a record that delivers wholesale on the promise of her auspicious debut.

Along with producer and co-writer Mike Eli, she wrote much of the album at a Colorado ranch, an exile from Nashville and its COVID-related anxieties. Here, she was rescued by fellowship and the taste of productivity. The results: On The Ranch, Nenni’s own entry into the best-album discussion. It is a record obsessed with heavy lifting and the satisfaction of a job well done.

Songs like “Useless” and the title track come with timecards, cold beers, and front porch reflections. At the time, the album is a welcome gender flip, a challenge to traditional male-centered narratives. Kick-off “Can Chaser” celebrates the ladies of the rodeo, the often-ridiculed women called barrel racers or can chasers; “In the Mornin’” offers a version of the one-night stand that runs counter to FM rock staples. And there’s a Waylon-inflected ABBA cover, “Does Your Mother Know.” These are wonderful times, my friend.

CF- So you’re in Denver right now?

EN- Yeah, I’m a little bit outside of there. We actually just had breakfast with Kelsey Waldon and her band. It was so nice.

I know you’ve also played with Charley Crockett and Teddy and The Rough Riders. Does sharing the stage with acts like that bring its own special kind of inspiration?

Oh my gosh, of course! I don’t normally get to share a stage or share a bill with another woman. It has a completely different feel. It’s very inspiring. Kelsey has just been so encouraging. I’m just so grateful that she’s had us along for the month.

Thinking about your song “Long Game”, do you think you’re still preparing for success in the long run, or do you think you’ve paid your dues, that you’re on the verge of the next level with the release of On The Ranch?

I don’t know if I’ve completely paid my dues. I’ve definitely been working hard. There’s been some ups and downs, but I feel like I’m in a great spot right now with New West Records. I’m so excited about this record coming out. And I’ve got a really good team working with me, which I’ve never had before, so it’s it feels really good.

What does a good team bring to the table? I’m not sure a lot of listeners understand what goes on behind the scenes and what a quality support system can do for an artist.

Honestly, it’s just a lot of people who know what they’re doing, who are specializing in PR or any sort of design, or getting me in touch because I don’t have a lot of contacts, sending your stuff out. For years with my self-releases, which I’ve only ever done, I was sending my stuff out to different publications in hopes that other people can hear my music. You’re not gonna get much follow-up with representing yourself, unfortunately. I’ve got a really good team who really cares about the music and the record and cares about me, which is so special.

Listening to songs like “Useless” or “In The Mornin’” and then reading about you waitressing and working on the ranch, it becomes apparent that work is very important to you. I don’t know if I’ve ever come across someone whose work ethic shines through in their songs in such a way. I’m not sure people usually celebrate that aspect of it, and that’s something that rings loudly with your songs. Have you always had a strong work ethic like this?

Oh yeah. I moved to Nashville when I was 21. I went to school for about a year. I’ve had parents that have always been very encouraging, and I’m very lucky with that because not everyone gets that. But when I decided to discontinue school, they just said, “Okay. Well, it’s up to you now. You gotta work hard, and if this is what you wanna do, you gotta make it happen for yourself.”

Everyone in my family works so hard to get to where they are. My dad has worked in radio and has worked his butt off for decades. My mom has with him raised three kids and worked a full-time job. I’m proud to work as hard as I do because it’s a good feeling when you get to put out a record. But also I’m writing about my experience, which is working in a restaurant, or I’m also now working in retail, selling cowboy boots. I still work full-time when I’m not on the road, and that’s just the reality of it. Yeah, it’s not like, “Wow! I’m so unique and working a full-time job!” Everybody does that.

Did you catch the music bug early in life because of your dad’s career in radio?

I did. I mean it kind of sounds like he and I were very similar kids. He would just sit and listen to the radio and write down every song title and artist that they would play. He grew up in the mid-50s, early ’60’s, so he was just obsessed with music, but my mom is the same way. Music was always playing in the house, and it definitely has always been a part of me. I was just thinking the other night that to get to play shows, I never would have imagined that I’d be doing what I’ve been in awe of all my life. It’s been a really cool experience so far.

How does the reality of it all compare to the dreams you may have had?

It’s been an adjustment. When I was in Nashville before these tours, I’ve really only played at American Legion and Double Wide Trailer [Santa’s Pub] and friends’ bars, so playing for Charley Crockett’s audience, which was starting at 800 people for the first night, it was, honestly, very scary. But then it’s an incredible feeling because everybody is there to support you. But yeah, it’s pretty surreal.

How do you juggle working and being creative at the same time? How do you carve out enough time, and when you do have time, ensure that you’re not overwhelmed or just completely exhausted when it comes time to write or collaborate?

It’s a lot of caffeine. But honestly, going to the ranch when I wrote this record, I was there for a couple of weeks where my friend was working. I took time off from the restaurant. I knew I could stay there for free, and it would be a safe place from a big city where COVID was running pretty wild. I forced myself to disconnect from feeling that need to be working all the time and really clear my brain because if I’m not working, I feel like I should be. But it is still working– you’re writing; it’s just different, working different muscles. But I don’t think I’m really capable of doing both at once unless it’s playing a show. I’ve definitely worked a double and then went straight to play your show, so it’s doable. It just takes a lot of caffeine. I’m not 21 anymore, so it was a lot easier to be staying out till 3:00am, five nights a week. 11:00 is a good bedtime for me. And being a tour is a completely different schedule. I’m up early, so I can have a little time to try to feel a little normal with the routine, but it works for me.

Is the road life something that you think is essential for you at this point? Have you done enough touring where you’ve developed road lust, gotten hooked on traveling?

I know it’s really necessary for what I’m doing, and I enjoy going to these new cities and meeting people that are fans of the music. It’s also really encouraging to keep going because you only know so much about who enjoys what you’re doing when you’re in the city where you’re based out of. But being on the road, I mean if I’m with Teddy and The Rough Riders, my backing band, they it makes it so easy because we get along so well, and it’s just so fun. We just laugh in the van the whole time, you know? I’m really lucky to get to tour with them.

What was the ranch like? From what I’ve read, it seems like an idyllic situation.

It was beautiful. I was there for a month when we were writing. I was in a wrangler house with five other women. I would sleep on the couch and drink beer on the porch while they were working with horses and cattle. I have the view of the Great Sand Dunes Park from where we were. It was such a great way to clear my head. It also made me feel a little guilty because working at a restaurant during COVID, I was so fortunate that I got to do that for a month. But then I went back for another couple of months to work about 9 months later, still serving food, but I was just talking about it last night because we’re in Colorado now and just that sunset here is so beautiful. Even though I was running around hauling huge bags of trash, and cranking this bear-proof dumpster and all that stuff I was like, “Look at where I am!” Even if I’m doing that, it’s a nice to change of scenery.

Do you think you’ll need a similar kind of seclusion when you begin work on your next record?

I’d really like to. I got a bunch of ideas, but until I say, “Here’s some time that you’re really gonna focus on writing,” it’s only then I kinda open my brain again. But I think I definitely would like to, even if I bring a couple of the boys with me to work through some stuff. I think it would be a really special thing to get to do.

How did you juggle dealing with COVID during the writing and recording? I’m not sure if you consider On The Ranch your “COVID record,” but it is an album that is particular to its era. Or could it exist minus the circumstances?

Honestly, the song “Useless,” I got the idea for the first verse and the melody once I hopped back in the car after my first shift back. They only invited four of us back to work at the restaurant as take-out delivery, working in your mask for thirteen hours type of thing. I thought to myself before the pandemic, “Oh man, if I had free time, I really could be writing a bunch,” but it wasn’t until I went back to work that I actually felt inspired to write again. So that song is like, “Oh man it felt good to be literally of use.”

What about the song “Get On With It”? Is that a pandemic rally cry?

That’s definitely my pandemic song! It’s not like any of the stuff that was going on was anything new, any of the police brutality, the ugly racism. It wasn’t anything new, but I think. at least for some people, they really had that time to sit with it and feel angry about it and wanna safely do something about it. I definitely had a lot of time to sit and think about that, and there was a lot of power in that time.

I love that because it’s of the time, but not so preachy or topical that it’s off-putting or instantly dated.

Well, thank you, I appreciate that so much. I would have felt that I don’t think I’m really in the place to be too preachy. But I do care, and you care, and you think about something enough and you’re a writer, it’s gonna come out sometime.

What about your narrative style on songs like “Matches”, “Rooster In The Hen House”, and “Gates Of Hell?” How did you develop that sense of storytelling? Or perhaps those are autobiographical…

They are! Those are all about one relationship I had in my early 20s. I had a lot of time to think when I was on the ranch, so all these old, old feelings would really come up. Sometimes your mind is a tough place to be, but it was very therapeutic to get that stuff out.

What about “In the Mornin’”? With its ’60s vibe, it’s a bit of an outlier—and I mean that in the best way. I keep thinking of Donovan every time I play it.

We were definitely thinking of Bobbie Gentry, so it’s definitely like’ 65. She’s incredible– wherever she is right now. That sound was really inspired by turning the one-night stand narrative on its head. I’d heard it a lot. I love The Faces and Rod Stewart and a lot of ’60s and ’70s rock, and that’s a really common theme. I was like, “You know what? Let’s turn the tables because what year is it?”

It’s such a gender flip…

That was honestly the inspiration. The vibe of it– I don’t really know how it came to be, but we were in the studio, and to get the sound of a guiro, we used a stack of Dixie cups and Sharpie. (Laughs) It was very DIY, but it worked for us!

I have to ask about the ABBA cover, “Does Your Mother Know.” I flipped when I first heard it because they’re one of my favorite bands. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

I truly love most every genre. I was definitely listening to a lot of ABBA at the time. But we were thinking how Waylon Jennings could have covered that because it has that confidence like he has with The Ramblin’ Man. We were like, “Man, we should try to do it like Waylon.” It didn’t really turn out with a Waylon-vibe. It was definitely more Dolly Disco, but I think that’s fine, too.

We’re finally experiencing fall weather. What are some records that remind you of this time of year?

We definitely listen to The Band a lot in my household, because of The Last Waltz, but then any of their records are very fall to me.

The last time I talked to Teddy and The Rough Riders, they were talking up The Band’s Cahoots, and I’ve had that on my turntable quite a bit since then.

We listen to a lot of The Band in the van. We’ve also been listening to a lot of Waylon and Jerry Reed, but I don’t know if that’s specifically fall. But I would say primarily The Band is very fall to me. I actually like to listen to a lot of ranchera; it’s very fall and winter, like when it starts to get a little gloomy, it’s a nice kind of mood lifter, once the sun goes away a little. Actually, my friend I went to high school with, Marina Allen, she’s in a new group, Sylvie. There’s a song that she sang with them called “Falls On Me” that’s really fall to me. I heard that last year, and it was really… Autumnal.

That’s a great word…

I love that word.

On The Ranch is available to order now from New West Records!

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.