Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, better known as the politically charged musical duo Emma’s Revolution, don’t like to tie themselves to any one genre.
Of course, when they perform live as a duo, their acoustic guitars and interweaving melodies plant them firmly in the folk realm. Their three studio recordings paint a fuller picture, quite literally — with full band arrangements, the duo stretches out into soulful rock, vocal jazz and even show tunes.
“We really let the songs dictate what style they’ll be in,” Humphries said recently from the duo’s home in the Washington, D.C., area. “We don’t sit down to write with an instrument, and since we’ve been influenced by so many different kinds of music in our lifetimes, all that information is just kind of stored in our cells.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Eighth Step, Underground at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
How Much: $24 (door); $22 (advance)
Slower pace pays off
“Revolutions Per Minute” (2011), the duo’s latest album, takes the genre-hopping to a new level. While maintaining the acoustic guitar-based thrust of their live show and their previous offerings, 2004’s “One x 1,000,000 = Change” and 2007’s “Roots, Rock and Revolution,” the new record’s 14 songs vary wildly, from the swinging “Let’s Go Swimming” to the folk rock of “Not My War.” And on the album’s lead-off track, “Change,” Humphries had to get comfortable in a style she’d never attempted to play before — funk.
“When I first wrote [‘Change’], I tend to be sort of the speed demon and go fast, although otherwise in my life I’m not at all; I’m really slow,” Humphries said.
“But after a while, I really enjoyed slowing it down, as I got to know the song better and to feel it more familiarly in my hands. Funk is not a style that I sort of grew up playing, although it’s a style that I really love. But once I really got that feeling of the notes in my hands, that real familiarity with the feeling in my hands, I was more comfortable just leaning into that really nice kind of back beat, the slow back beat that is so characteristic of funk.”
The songs have grown even more over the past year of touring. On Saturday night, the duo will bring the album to the Capital Region for the first time, for what is being dubbed a “CD release” show at The Eighth Step in Proctors’ Underground theater.
“We’ve probably been to about 20 states, something like that, in the year since [the album’s release],” Opatow, who goes by Sandy O. in the duo, said. “And we’re actually working on getting to all 50 states at some point — we’re in the low 40s now, so we have a little bit to go. These are the kind of milestones we get to set for ourselves as independent musicians, to give people a sense of the range of what we do.”
Humphries and Opatow are regular visitors to The Eighth Step — their last appearance there was in December of 2010. In 2008, the duo performed there with folk luminary Holly Near, with whom they also recorded an album, 2009’s “We Came to Sing.” But Humphries has been playing the venue even longer than that, stretching back to its coffee house days in Albany.
“I started singing at The Eighth Step when I was working as a soloist — the first time I played there was somewhere around 1986 or 1987,” Humphries said.
The duo first hit in the indie folk world in 2002, when their song “We Are One” won the grand prize in that year’s John Lennon Songwriting Contest. But they had been performing for some time before, and got married in 2001 in New York City. During the recording of “One x 1,000,000 = Change” in 2003, the two finally settled on the name Emma’s Revolution, from a quote by women’s and workers’ rights activist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Over the years, the two have honed their songwriting, both together and separately. On “Revolutions Per Minute,” most of the songs were written separately and arranged together. In the studio, the duo worked with recording engineer Charlie Pilzer, Raining Jane percussionist Mona Tavakoli and Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perr, who also worked on the duo’s previous album.
“One thing that was kind of wonderful for me — I haven’t heard the songs that Pat’s written before we hone them together,” Opatow said. “So when Pat first wrote ‘Not My War,’ and asked me to come into the song and hear it, I heard it the way any audience member hears it the first time — and there’s such an amazing turn at the end that is really, really moving to me. For me, as her partner, to hear it in a way that people will hear it in the audience, it’s just a great test of the song right off the bat.”
Status quo not acceptable
Humphries and Opatow have long been involved with women’s rights and peace activism, and the lyrics on “Revolutions Per Minute” continue in this vein. The title is a reference to both to revolutions that have occurred throughout the world in the past few years, and to the rising Occupy movement in the U.S.
“There’s obviously still a lot of change that needs to happen, and some of it is sort of chaotic and difficult to see happening, but people are not sitting still for the status quo, and I think we were responding to that in our songwriting,” Humphries said.
“Starting with ‘Change’ — it’s a gentle critique, really, of the Obama administration. He made lots of campaign promises, and of course you get that with every candidate, and there’s only a certain number of things that can ever get fulfilled in a term. I wrote that at about the end of Obama’s first 100 days in office, as we were beginning in the progressive movement to say, we really need to turn up the heat on this administration. We really need to keep turning up the heat on all of our legislators, and keep making sure that our needs are being considered.”