PORTLAND, Ore. -- A Bohemian, mostly under-30 crowd filled the hole-in-the-wall Laurelthirst Public House on a recent Sunday night. Over vegetarian munchies and organic craft brews, they sent up a cacophony of loud conversations. Few seemed to notice as a big brunette with a six-string went to the microphone on the small stage at the far end of the bar.
"Remember the night," she sang, a cappella. "The time we fell in love, with my stomach on the mattress and you whispering from above."
The noise level dropped by half and faces in the center of the room swung toward the troubadour like weather vanes hit by a sudden wind.
Emma Hill's strong, smooth, pitch-perfect alto has a unique personal timbre that commands attention. Her tone, while flirty, possesses a sense of maturity unexpected in a 21-year-old, a blend of punky confidence and bluesy anguish with an undercurrent of pleading uncertainty.
Her alternative folk ballads use basic chords in mostly major keys and perky, hummable melodies. Her lyrics brim with casual sex and alcohol.
"There's been too many boys in my bed lately, cuz I was never any good at keeping my own secrets, especially after a bottle of wine."
Some might call her plain and plump, or as she says in one of her songs, "I know I'll never be that Hollywood girl of your dreams." But as she swayed with her guitar, in a simple knee-length, sleeveless black dress accessorized only by a polychrome scarf from Value Village, every male in the house stared at her with wide and hungry eyes.
Her range, which seldom ventures into either low notes or soprano territory, was more limited than usual at this show on account of the flu. She cut songs short and broke off one soon after starting it. "I've never sung so sick in my life," she told the audience, sounding apologetic and, with a national tour about to start, a little worried.
Yet she managed to keep singing for 45 minutes. Bit by bit, one table, booth or barstool at a time, the chatter quieted down. When she finally called it quits -- sweating, shaking, her voice sounding like sandpaper -- even those standing along the walls by the door were focused on her siren call. A sympathetic and appreciative cheer went up from about as many people as live in her hometown: Sleetmute, Alaska.
No movies or malls
Sleetmute, on the Kuskokwim River, has fewer than 100 people. The closest road is on the other side of Mount McKinley, some 250 miles west. Gas is $7.70 a gallon and a pack of 18 eggs costs $9.
Life there is a culture of snowmachines, subsistence fish and, until recently, honey buckets and outhouses.
"You don't go to movies, you don't go to the mall," Hill said.
Henry, her dad, is a bush pilot. Her mom, Bambi, was a teacher in Sleetmute's two-room school when Emma was born, Jan. 29, 1988. The family lived in a 12-by-16-foot cabin. They heated with wood and hauled water.
"The heating and insulation was just terrible," Henry recalled. "It was really tough."
Eventually Henry cut and milled enough local lumber to build a bigger house.
The house also served as the village store. Today the Hills' operation includes fuel distribution and a lodge that, for Bush Alaska, is downright luxurious; for example, the toilets flush.
Growing up in Sleetmute (and, for couple of years, downriver in Aniak) little Emma sang along to tapes of James Taylor and the Eagles.
"Even when she was 4 years old, she told us she was going to be a singer," said Bambi.
At 14 Hill moved to stay with relatives in Palmer, a relative metropolis.
"Palmer High had a really good music program," said her sister, Sarah Phipps. "She sucked it up, participating in everything she could, eventually winning a state vocal competition."
Hill graduated from high school a year early and earned a full music scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage. In the big city she teamed up with other musicians, playing in little cafes, schools and open mike events. She garnered a small but astute following, drawn by her punk-folk lyrics and a singular voice that Daily News reporter Melodie Wright described as a "Sarah McLaughlin-like warble."
"Hill has the lungs," wrote local music critic Brandon Seifert. "She's occasionally stunned crowds into startled silence -- in a good way. Some compare her to Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez."
Two years ago she relocated to Oregon, where she just wrapped up her junior year as an English major at Portland State University. The move to the Lower 48 put her in a place where she could play more gigs, meet more musicians and get heard by more people.
Next week, Hill starts a national tour to promote her new CD, "Clumsy Seduction." She and her backup band, the Gentlemen Callers, will take off in a renovated church bus named "Patsy Cline."
In less than 40 days, they'll perform at more than 30 mostly small venues from Puget Sound to the Great Lakes to Boston and New York before returning to Oregon via Tennessee, the Southwest and San Francisco.
The annals of pop music are rife with talented waifs who set off on the bright highway to fame only to have it turn into an ambiguous dead end. What does Emma Hill bring to the game that might make her succeed where so many fail?
For one thing she's been here before. In 2007 she produced her first solo CD, "Just Me," then arranged a tour that took her all the way to Texas, singing her songs and hawking her disc to small crowds night after night.
"My parents put the money up front for that CD," she said. "I had to make the money back for them."
"It cost $8,000," said Bambi. "She sold them for $10 each on tour and we've actually made back everything we spent on it."
The support of a dedicated family that believes in her dream is another plus. Bambi is the de facto manager of Kuskokwim Records, Hill's label. Sister Sarah helps with the bookings. Big brother Zach, now working on a doctorate in microbiology at the University of Washington, runs the distribution of the CD from his Seattle apartment.
Also her penchant for penny-pinching should help the shoestring project's bottom line.
"I told the band that I'll pay for all tour experiences," Hill said. "But don't expect any luxuries. No stopping at the diner three times a day. We'll be packing groceries and snacks for the road, camping in the woods at night and looking at the stars."
"Emma's famous for her work ethic and frugalness," said Phipps. "From the time she was 8, she worked in the family business, put in real hours and had to save part of (her) paycheck, contribute part to the family and keep one third."
"There was never an idea that wasting money was OK," Hill said. "All my clothes come from thrift shops."
Phipps speculated that this attitude came from the fact that Dad had to grow, catch, shoot or fly in just about everything the family needed.
Hill said she was glad to have grown up in the Bush, but added that Sleetmute is behind her now.
"It was a great place to be a kid. You can run around, climb a tree, know everyone. Until I was 10, it was heaven on earth.
"But then you begin to realize that you're stuck in a mile-long town with the same 100 people."
In a poem titled "Kuskokwim" she depicts the Bush as a land of bullets, crying children, quarrelling lovers, "where people hunt caribou, moose and whiskey."
"Villages are very destructive," she said. "People get trapped there."
"Billy," one of two songs on "Clumsy Seduction" that hints at her Alaska roots, tells of a childhood friend, now dead. "I moved away, but Billy had to stay around."
All the kids in Sleetmute had dreams and goals at one time, she said. "Then it came to a point when I realized that none of those people wanted to do those things, let alone try, that they'd been set aside for failure.
"I moved to Palmer because there was a lack of hope. I moved so I could feel like I had a real life. I left a lot of friends, but I had to burn those bridges to move on."
"I can't talk with a lot of people down here about it," she said. "People who haven't lived in the Bush don't understand."
She still enjoys visits home, however. Despite its "social misfortune," Sleetmute remains "absolutely beautiful" she said.
What's past is past. What's ahead is what life's all about. The only thing that has her worried is the band's upcoming stops in the South.
"Give me 20 below and I can handle it," she said.
"But what they're telling me about the heat and humidity -- I've never been in that kind of weather before."
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
Emma Hill and Her Gentlemen Callers ‘Clumsy Seduction’ tour schedule
• June 17, 8 p.m., Portland, Ore., Thirsty Lion Pub (with Matt Hopper and the Roman Candles)
• June 19, 8 p.m., Olympia, Wash., La Voyeur
• June 20, 8 p.m., Seattle, Skylark Cafe and Club
• June 21, 8 p.m., Spokane, Wash., Rocket Market
• June 24, 9:30 p.m., Jackson Hole, Wyo. Mangy Moose
• June 26, 3 p.m., Sheridan, Wyo., Sheridan Inn
• June 27, 8 p.m., Deadwood, S.D.
• June 29, 8 p.m., Minneapolis, Acadia Cafe
• June 30, 8 p.m., Madison, Wis.
• July 1, 8 p.m., Chicago, Ill., Quenchers
• July 2, 8 p.m., Columbus, Ohio
• July 3, 8 p.m., Buffalo, N.Y.
• July 5, 8 p.m., Cambridge, Mass.
• July 6, 7:30 p.m., New York City, Googies Lounge, above The Living Room
• July 8, 8 p.m., Philadelphia
• July 9, 8 p.m., Richmond, Va., The Camel
• July 11, 9 p.m., Johnson City, Tenn., The Acoustic Coffeehouse
• July 12, 9 p.m., Nashville, Tenn., Music City Bar
• July 13, 8 p.m., Nashville, Tenn., Blue Bird Cafe
• July 14 , 8 p.m., Memphis, Tenn.
• July 15, 8 p.m., Denton, Texas
• July 16, 8 p.m., Santa Fe, N.M.
• July 17, 8 p.m., Salida, Colo., Bongo Billy’s Salida Cafe
• July 18, 8 p.m., Telluride, Colo., Sheridan Opera House
• July 20, 8 p.m., Provo, Utah
• July 22, 8 p.m., Reno, Nev.
• July 23, 7:30 p.m., Point Reyes Station, Calif., Dance Pallas — The Old Church
• July 24, 8 p.m., San Francisco, Calif., Plough and Stars Pub
• July 25, 8 p.m., Arcata, Calif.
• July 26, 8 p.m., Ashland, Ore.
• July 27, 8 p.m., Eugene, Ore.
• July 28, 8 p.m., Bend, Ore., The Back Alley Ranch