The title of "singer-songwriter" doesn't sit well with Emily Pinkerton, and it's easy to understand why. Rather than the near-pathological urge for public self-expression that seems to drive many singer-songwriters, Pinkerton's journey through several musical worlds -- and fiddle, banjo, guitar and Latin American instruments -- seems driven more by curiosity and creative inquiry.
Pinkerton has called Pittsburgh home since 2005; she currently teaches undergrad Latin American and world-music courses as an adjunct at Pitt, and directs an "eclectic" music ensemble at the Shadyside Unitarian Church. In Pittsburgh, she found a supportive home -- and for a time, employment -- through the Calliope folk-music society, and a chance to pursue her solo career.
"It's been a place where I've been able to have the time, resources and support from people and organizations to do my album, to make my music," Pinkerton says.
Yet her musical roots lie worlds apart: her hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana, where she grew up and studied classical and old-time music, and Valparaíso, Chile, where she's immersed herself in Latin American music. Sharing a name, the two towns had exchange programs bringing students back and forth, Pinkerton says, and with them, culture. That sparked Pinkerton's interest in Latin America, and while working around a degree in voice from the University of Texas, she eventually found ways -- and funding -- to "apprentice myself to Chilean musicians."
During her second year-long visit to Chile, in 2004, she studied canto a lo poeta, "a rural tradition, although people are doing it more and more in the cities too," she says, similar to the urban folk revival in the United States. "It's this thing with a long history, and the point of it being to relay both secular and sacred stories through either memorized or improvised poetry."
She also picked up the guitarrón, a Chilean guitar-type instrument, and the cajón, a drum used in flamenco. "It's a box made out of wood, with a top that's loose that kinda rattles," she says. Those two instruments feature prominently on Valparaíso, her full length album being released this week, which fuses musical flavors from both Valparaisos into Pinkerton's original songs in both English and Spanish.
"There's a couple of songs where I explicitly [said], 'Let's see what happens if I fuse this traditional Chilean song with banjo,'" says Pinkerton, "but then several of the songs are real straight-up old-time, or countryish, songwriterish." Indeed, apart from Pinkerton's high, clear voice, "Bluebird" sounds like something from The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as does "Open Bottle," with its fiddle and banjo in counterpoint, and the lines "so drown your heart and drain your soul / if your throat's not dry, it overflows."
Pinkerton's transcontinental style comes across most on "El Cerro" and "Kingdom Down," two songs "overlapping in ways, though you don't necessarily hear it," she says. While sung in Spanish and featuring the cajón drum, the gorgeous "El Cerro" ("The Hill") was inspired by Pittsburgh's scenery, especially the lonely stairs that climb its hills. "It's one that talks about a landscape as if it's an emotion," she says, "a sense of needing to get up to the hill, to get away, and sensing whether its safe to come back down or not."
The album-closer "Kingdom Down," on the other hand, is sung in English and has an earthy Americana flavor, yet it relates to her experience of sleeping through earthquakes in Chile. "You sometimes sleep through things in life too," she muses. "You don't realize how long the ground has been shaking."
Three songs on the album are Chilean canto a lo poeta, rearranged by Pinkerton, who also performs nearly all of the instruments, and recorded it at her home studio. Her husband Patrick Burke plays guitar and sings backup on a couple of songs, and Trish Imbrogno plays upright bass.
But to play live, she's been assembling a group of musicians -- "I have a cajón player lined up, and a couple of bass players I gig with," she says. For her CD release show on Sat., Sept. 13, at Lawrenceville's Your Inner Vagabond Coffeehouse and World Lounge, she'll perform both solo and with a full band. Afro-beat project Machete will play before and after, "In case people want to dance, or just hang out and celebrate for a while," she says.
Although Pinkerton has every reason to celebrate Valparaíso, she won't be kicking back for long: In November, she heads to Chile to play a couple of concerts, along with scattered U.S. dates. And then there's the informal Chilean-music jams right here in Pittsburgh. "The Chilean community here is not huge, but man, it's been great!" Pinkerton says. "We've formed a music group in the past couple years -- about once a week I hang out and play Chilean music."
Emily Pinkerton CD Release with Machete. 8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 13. Your Inner Vagabond Coffeehouse and World Lounge, 4130 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $7. All ages.
- Get up to the hill: Emily Pinkerton