When Emily Roig moved from St. Louis to Nashville to pursue a music career in 2014, she wasn’t looking to make it big. She wanted to see if she could make an honest living with her music, and she wanted to learn. When she left everything she knew and a steady job for the unknown, she did it with a hope and more than one prayer.
Many people take off for Nashville to start pursuing music as a career when they’re just out of high school or college, but that wasn’t the path Emily took. In fact, it didn’t even occur to her to move there until she was nearly 30 years old. But Emily has never taken the normal route when it comes to pursuing music.
Emily and her brothers grew up in a home where it was impossible not to be musical. Her parents met while studying at a conservatory of music, and they’ve been highly involved in musical pursuits ever since. Her mom is an elementary music teacher, and her dad is the music director at a church. Emily says her dad is more of an artistic, creative musician and songwriter, while her mom has always been the interpreter of other people’s songs.
She started taking piano lessons when she was four or five years old, and her piano teacher and mom quickly realized that she didn’t look at the music when she played. She learned some theory, but in Emily’s words,
“My ear was much faster than my eyes when it came to sheet music.”
When she was practicing at home she would get frustrated by her progress until she had her mom play the piece. After hearing it, Emily could easily play it herself. Thankfully, her piano teacher didn’t want to squelch her unusual talent and methods, and he quickly allowed her to start playing original songs.
The lessons didn’t last many years, because Emily wasn’t progressing through the curriculum, due to her unique style of playing music. But she had a good foundation, and she figured out the rest by playing by ear and discovering her own style, which is in no way the classical style.
But she kept playing, because she simply couldn’t help it. Her mom recently told her, “I don’t remember a night when you were growing up that you didn’t sit down at the piano for at least a half hour. You needed to just sit there and allow yourself to emote and process the day through your singing and playing.” And Emily says, “Sometimes I feel it in my fingers that I need to play right now.”
Emily also has always felt a need to try new instruments. After piano, she learned to play the drums. Then she took private trumpet lessons for six years. Eventually, she picked up the guitar. Her dad explained how chord charts worked, and Emily taught herself how to play. And more recently, she has been teaching herself to play the ukulele and banjo.
She Writes the Songs
Emily started writing songs when she was around seven years old. Her dad helped her with her first song, “Jesus Will Come Again.” “He just gently nudged me,” she says. “He was such a good teacher in that sense. He didn’t do it for me. He would say, ‘What about this melody?’ or ‘What about this rhyme?’ He’d give me bits and pieces here and there but allowed me to just have the freedom to make the final decision.”
Songwriting for Emily has always gone hand-in-hand with playing an instrument. Some writers start with lyrics or a poem, but Emily starts with the melody. She explains it as having melodies swirling through her head that need an instrument in order to come out. She started out writing on the piano, but once she learned to play the guitar, she would also write with it. She says her style of music is a bit different when writing with a guitar than with the piano. Her guitar music has more of a “folky” vibe, while the piano is more soulful.
When asked which two of the songs she has written are her favorite, Emily says that’s akin to asking a parent which child is their favorite. But she does have two that stand out, mostly due to the experience around writing the songs.
The first is a song she wrote in Spanish called “Las Alturas,” which translates to “The Heights.” Emily double majored in Spanish and Psychology in college, and she had the opportunity to study in Spain.
She says, “At the end of college I discovered this dueling passion of mine. Music is a thread that is with me no matter what my life course. But another passion is Spanish, but I didn’t discover that until a little later.”
While she studied in Spain, she realized how much she loves exploring language and culture. And so she put her two passions—music and Spanish—together into writing songs in Spanish.
“Music is already the universal language. But to be able to do it in another language just felt different on my lips and it brought out a different part in my songwriting again.”
After getting some great feedback from native Spanish speakers, Emily recorded the song, and it appeared on her very first album.
Her other favorite song, “Skin,” was written after the events in Ferguson, MO, in 2014. It happened not far from where Emily lived at the time, and it had a profound effect on her. “Skin” is an honest cry for racial reconciliation, an attempt to make sense of the long and messy history of racial injustice and oppression, and Emily’s own admittance that she has played a role in this history and the prolonging of oppression. She wrote the words and melody in a matter of minutes, which she says is a very rare occurrence.
Around the same time, Emily moved to Nashville, and she brought the song to a songwriting circle, where various artists gather together to listen to each other’s music and give feedback. She was encouraged by the fact that the others didn’t comment at all on the melody, which meant it passed the test. They did have some feedback on the lyrics, which Emily processed and incorporated.
Then she put “Skin” out into the world, which she admits took some courage. “I’m this white privileged person who is writing about race. It was scary to put it out there, but some of my black friends were really encouraging.” Even after playing the song countless times, she still enjoys performing it because it lives beyond her and has inspired lots of good conversations.
After Emily graduated from college, she lived in the Dominican Republic for six months, where she worked at an orphanage. But before she left the US, her alma mater, Westminster Christian Academy, contacted her about a Spanish teaching position. Emily had no teaching experience, but the school thought she had a great personality for teaching, and they knew about her experience studying in Spain. At the time she had no interest in coming back to the US after moving abroad, but she interviewed for the job anyway just before the she left the country.
Three months later, the school contacted her and offered her the job. Still, she had little interest. “I was having this life crisis,” she said. “I’m abroad and I want to continue to be abroad. I don’t want to go back to St. Louis. But my mom reminded me: ‘You’ve never taught before. Do you think teaching will be easy? You think you need to be abroad in these harder environments, but do you have any idea what it’s like teaching? That’s pretty risky too. It’s hard. Maybe this is a sign, the way this has all come about.
“‘It seems pretty outside of your plans, and the Lord is probably ordaining this. Maybe you should pay attention.'”
Emily listened to her mother’s words of wisdom, and after some soul-searching, she decided to return to the States and accept the job. For five years, she taught middle school and high school Spanish, and she loved it. “There was a lot of creativity involved and a lot of camaraderie with other teachers and a lot of purpose in that work.” She also worked with the school’s worship band, and two years in, she took on a part-time position as a worship leader at a local church.
She was feeling very fulfilled in her work, but she wanted to take her Spanish to the next level. She applied and was accepted to a four-year summer Master’s program at Middlebury College in Vermont.
She also wanted to take music to a place she hadn’t been before. The spring before the first summer Spanish program, she released a new music album called Zeal & Passion, and she put more effort and money into this one than she had for previous releases. She created a website, and she started to explore what it would look like to be a singer / songwriter.
After returning from her summer studying Spanish in Vermont, she was invigorated about Spanish again, and she started looking into potentially moving to Spain for a year-long Master’s program. However, at the same time, she played some music at her parents’ church, and she got a lot of great feedback on an original song she sang. One man who had been a musician in Nashville asked why she hadn’t moved there to pursue music as a profession. So she began to wonder what that would be like. “Yes, I can put out albums and be a songwriter,” she thought, “but are there other aspects of the music business that would fit me well? Could I actually make a living off of this?”
So again, she had her dueling passions of music and Spanish pulling her in two different directions. Music won out. Emily had always wanted to live in another city in the US, and Nashville wasn’t too far away. She also preferred its indie music scene to what she might have found in New York or Los Angeles. Plus, she was able to convince her roommate, Sarah Haas, to move with her. Sarah was (and still is) a freelance film producer, and as she could live and work anywhere, she decided to take the leap with Emily.
Emily says of the decision: “It was difficult and challenging, because I knew what I was getting into. I wasn’t naïve. I knew I was going to be a small fish in a big pond of amazing, incredible fish.”
A Nashville Education
She moved to Nashville without any form of income waiting for her, so her first task was to find opportunities to teach Spanish. She contacted schools and eventually a tutoring center, where she not only tutored kids in Spanish but also in standardized testing. She also helped kids with study and life skills.
Then she started to seek out music opportunities, and thus began what she calls her “Nashville education.” She played gigs at restaurants and bars, she learned how to be her own booking agent, she discovered how to best market herself, and she acted as tour manager for a friend as well as playing in that friend’s band. She recorded, licensed, published, and did all the other things that were necessary to promote the Emily Roig brand. And it was hard. Emily says, “At one point I felt like I wasn’t doing any one of them well. But I was glad I was able to try them all.”
Emily also discovered that she wasn’t cut out for the late-night life of playing gigs at bars and other typical music venues. She didn’t love playing late at night, and it was frustrating even trying to get those gigs. In addition, most didn’t pay well—not even enough to make it worthwhile. “That Nashville education was hugely important to help me grow not just in music but as a human being. Anytime humility happens, that’s a good thing.” But though she grew as a person, she didn’t have a sense of purpose in her music.
She found that one of her favorite things to do was support other artists by providing background vocals or playing instruments. Why? The pressure was off. She eventually realized that making herself the focus didn’t feel genuine for her. Sustaining the Emily Roig brand wasn’t doable for her.
Then she started getting opportunities to lead worship. She finally felt like she was doing something that was bigger than herself. Some of the churches allowed her to bring her own originality to the songs, which invigorated her. As more of these opportunities came along, she realized that worship leading was where God was calling her.
Landing Her Dream Job
At the same time, she had been toying with the idea of recording an album, and she had enough songs for multiple albums, but they were in varying genres. She decided her best option was to record a worship album, and she worked with a producer to co-write and record it. She loved the process and it helped her realize she was heading in the right direction with it. She finally felt like her gifts were being used in the best way. Her worship album, Refuge, released in March of 2017. (Note: Information on where to find Emily’s music is included at the end of the post.)
Meanwhile, she decided to start looking for a full-time worship leader position in a church. Her search led her to a church back in St. Louis. She made it to the final two, but the church chose the other candidate. However, in the process of applying for that job, she was required to set up an online profile with a church staffing website. Another church contacted her early on, and she was intrigued by the position.
“I looked at the job description and was blown away. It was my dream job. I had no idea something like it existed.”
There was one problem: the church was in Richmond, VA, and she was focused on heading back home to St. Louis.
Once she learned she hadn’t gotten the position in St. Louis, she was at a bit of a loss. She loved the idea of the position in Richmond, but she didn’t want to go that far from home. Again, Mom came to the rescue. “We’d love you to be in St. Louis,” she said. “I think you need to be out of Nashville, but that doesn’t mean you need to be in St. Louis. I just think you’re ready for another place.” A friend also encouraged her to check out the position in Richmond, because she had nothing to lose.
So she contacted them, and they were still looking to fill the job. She did an online interview and was soon on a plane to Virginia for an in-person interview. She still wasn’t convinced she wanted to go to Richmond, but over the course of the weekend there, she knew it was the right place for her. “The Lord’s peace was all over me,” she says. “I’ve never felt more sure of something. By the time I was done I was like, ‘I want this, absolutely. This is exactly where I think I need to be right now.’”
She hadn’t been back in Nashville for 24 hours before the church called and offered her the job. Six weeks later, she was starting her new life in Richmond.
Her job at Hope Church includes a variety of tasks. In addition to leading worship, she gets to write original songs. She also oversees the music volunteers, sets the weekly schedule, and is in charge of community care for the team members. She helps design all of the church’s experiences—not just Sunday services, but also special events, sermon series branding, and designing spaces within the church.
“Music is the heavy part of my position,” she says, “but I work with a team of people who are involved with all the fine arts. I’m getting challenged in the creative aspect and trying to think outside the box. How do we tell stories? How do we engage?
“It’s all revolving around the church and bringing the gospel to people. It’s really fulfilling and really cool and I had no idea it would be this good.”
She’ll be recording a hymns project in the near future. It will have her name on it but with Hope’s stamp. “It’s so cool that it’s part of my job. I’ll get to use the creative aspects of my whole team. It’s really inspiring. It doesn’t feel like it’s for me, because it’s not for my own financial gain. It’s for using the gifts God had given to the fullest extent and use the community here to be as creative as possible because that’s what He has created us to be.”
It’s a huge relief to not have to worry about the financial aspect of making music. “It’s so freeing. For my personality it helps me be more creative. The pressure of it [in Nashville] was too much. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel like I made good art in Nashville. I think I did. I’m really proud of a lot of the songs I wrote there. But it was hard to get my mind off a paycheck and money. I really respect all my friends who are doing that in a way that feels genuine to them. I am not that person.”
She may not be that person, but she has found the right place to be the person God created her to be. Now she just needs to figure out how to throw some Spanish into the mix!
Emily’s Tips for Young People Interested in Pursuing Music
- Be willing to be a small fish in a big pond. If you’ve never experienced that, while it’s really hard, it’s the very process that makes you better and helps you know what’s out there. It opens up your mind to other opportunities and people. This doesn’t necessarily mean moving to Nashville. Just be willing to take risks by reaching out to other musicians, co-writing, and being vulnerable.
- Be willing to fail, and be willing to face rejection. I know you’re thinking: “What if I mess up completely in front of accomplished musicians?” Chances are, you will. For me, that helped me to search my heart and understand what my motivations were. It helped me figure out the direction I wanted to take with my music.
- Try out a variety of things. I was so grateful to my parents that they allowed me to experiment with so many instruments and test all the waters. They encouraged me to be in choirs, musicals, bands, etc. Some people like to stick with one instrument and go full-fledged and become an expert. While that may work for some people, I think my parents saw that was not going to work for me. And that leads to …
- Get to know yourself and your personality. Discover what’s going to work for you, whether that’s doing a variety of things like me or focusing on one area.
- Take opportunities as they come. That doesn’t mean you should never say no, but if it’s something you could even remotely be interested in, say yes. You never know what it could lead to or what you could learn from it.
- Seek out new opportunities. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s out there until you start looking.
- Practice, practice, practice. Music is a skill, and you have to be constantly practicing and testing the waters with new things.
- Find a mentor or two. Take a risk and be vulnerable by asking people you admire to give you advice, meet with you regularly, and/or periodically provide you with opportunities to be a guest performer or worship leader. Finding people who can mentor you in that way is really important when you’re pursuing music.
- Observe people you can’t actually meet. With the Internet, we can all learn from musicians and worship leaders who share their stories. You can observe, listen, take note, and apply that to your own story.
- Listen to podcasts. One that has been really helpful for me for worship leading is called “The Beyond Sunday Worship Leader Podcast.” They have all sorts of well-known and not-so-well-known worship leaders and musician within the Christian field who share their stories.
- Be curious. Don’t act like you know everything. Nobody does. Ask lots of questions of people and just be a learner.
Where to Find Emily Roig and Her Music Online
Listen to one of the songs from Emily’s Refuge album: