Val Emmich is about as hot right now as any artist in New Jersey. In fact, he's about as hot as any artist in the country. With recent appearances on two different MTV shows ("Advanced Warning" and "TRL") and upcoming guest spots on popular television shows, exposure is not a problem for Val. Neither is keeping true to his music, but it doesn't stop him from worrying about it.
On his latest record, Slow Down Kid, Val has a song called "Panic Attack." He sings it from the perspective of someone that is actually headed into an attack and trying to methodically understand the situation and remain calm. It's an experience that he's been through many, many times.
"I think I had panic attacks all throughout college and even as early as the end of high school, but I never knew what they were so I dismissed them," said Emmich in a phone interview. "In my mind I was only getting them after college, but I think that's when I realized what they were."
"I'm a worrier, that's the kind of person I am," he continued. "I don't know why. I'm also really determined and an ambitious person, so coupled with wanting to go far and worrying about not going far - it was a recipe for diaster.
"After college, I had my degree, but I knew I didn't want to do an office job like my friends. I knew what I wanted to do was music. I was acting part-time just to pay the bills. I felt like I was really floating and had no support, which I think a lot of people at that age experience. Things like not knowing what the hell they're doing with their life. But with my personality it just really started sending me into panic attacks in a crazy way. So, the song I wrote ("Panic Attack") - it's such a simple idea. In the song, I just kind of play it over and over again. It's like me lulling myself from another attack because when in you're in one thinking about it just makes it worse and intensifies it."
It's only been a few years since Val graduated from Rutgers University, but he's learned a lot about what he wants to be and how to achieve it. During the middle of recording Slow Down Kid, Emmich moved out to Los Angeles to pursue acting. It was pilot season, the period of time from January to April when the networks are gearing up for their fall shows and there's a lot of parts to go around. He was on the west coast for two months when he decided he was ready to come back to New Jersey and finish the record.
The title can be looked at as a metaphor for the way Emmich's life is going these days. Everything seems to be pushing him in new directions and he needs to constantly remind himself to slow down and let things happen. He's not about to get swallowed in the media coverage or the wine and dining of the record labels. Emmich wants to model his career after artists like Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder - musicians with integrity and longevity rather than those with one-hit wonder status.
While acting helps pay the bills, it also clouds the situation. Many people recognize him from tv commercials for Burger King, milk and AT&T - but music is his true love and he's afraid that acting may give people the wrong idea about him.
"I would like people to know that the only thing I care about is the creative process. These are my songs. I slave over them. I sing my own words and I take it really seriously.
"I worry about it way more than its healthy. I've even expressed my concern to my acting manager and she, to her credit, won't send me out on anything that we both feel will jepordize my credibility as a musician. Actually, I don't even go out for recurring roles anymore, I just go out for one-offs because I take it that seriously. I never, ever want to be established as an actor - for some reason it seems to be more accepted the other way around. When a serious musician does a few roles, it just seems more accepted. And I would hate for this thing that I do on the side to ruin my credibility as a musician. So, I'm really protective of that."
Val's lyrics bring to mind the openness and brutal honesty of songwriters like John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. Both were artists who also had to deal with personal demons and did so through their work.
One of the criticisms of Emmich's songs has been the idea that he sings constantly of failed relationships and perspectives on life that seem oblivious to most people his age; however, Val seems to have gone through many difficult times and the role of a tormented artist comes naturally to him.
"I don't know why, but I always go to the negative. It's great for writing purposes, but I find it really weird when your work, in my case music, is kind of dependent on your life. You want to be productive in one sense, but you want to be healthy in the other sense.
"I think a lot of my songs are personal. Not every song on Slow Down Kid is about me, but I always put it in the first person. I always use ‘I' because I think it's more impactful. The truth is that I can emphasize with people and I'm most intrigued and excited by people's emotions - especially the dark ones. I think it's just a powerful thing and Lennon was amazing at that. Look at ‘Jealous Guy.' It's such a simple idea, ‘I'm just a jealous guy,' but he did it. No one else did."
Emmich lists musical influences like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Bright Eyes. "At the same time, I think the Beatles were the best band that ever was," he adds.
Along with Andy Gesner, Emmich helped co-found Artist Amplification, an organization that helps local artists get noticed through special shows and compiliation CDs. He learned a lot about the business aspect of music from working with Artist Amp, but he knows there is much more to learn.
"I learned that it's a real fucked up business, but I also learned that the more you know the more chance you have of doing well in it. So, I want to learn as much as possible."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.