EmiSunshine is a genuine country music wonder girl. Emi, whose full name is Emilie Sunshine Hamilton, began singing when she was four years old, or, as her mother Alisha Hamilton said in an online interview, “as soon as she was old enough to harmonize.”
“I have been surrounded by music all my life,” Emi told me when we talked by phone. “My grandmothers were in a gospel group, my mom is a songwriter, and my dad writes and plays,” she said. “Music is just a part of who I am.”
At five, together with her mother, Emi wrote her first song, “My Time to Fly.” By the time she was eight, she had learned to play guitar, mandolin, and ukulele. And, in 2014, at the ripe ol’ age of nine, Emi became a certifiable sensation after a video of her performing spread as quickly as a dry-grass wildfire.
“In 2014, I was playing and singing with the band [her father Randall Hamilton on stand-up bass, brother John Letner on mandolin, and 'Uncle' Bobby Hill on drums] at a flea market in Tennessee, and a fan, who’s also a good friend of ours, recorded it and put it on YouTube.”
The video went viral, posting thousands and thousands of views and likes. “I was kind of surprised,” she said of the video’s instant popularity, “and really excited. It was life-changing.”
Life changing, indeed, as that video led to an invitation for Emi and her band to play on NBC’s “The Today Show,” which enjoys a million-plus viewership. Now, only a few years later, Emi’s YouTube site has had more than 14 million visitors and half a million folks follow her on Facebook. She and the band play more than 50 shows a year – at festivals and venues across the country – and have performed a dozen times at the esteemed country music palace the Grand Ole Opry.
In the September 2017 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Emi was listed among the “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” and in April an episode of “Little Big Shots” that features Emi and the band will be broadcast. That was a thrill for Emi, too. “Being on the show was a great experience,” she said, adding that she really enjoyed “getting to meet the other kids” and the host, Steve Harvey. “He was so nice,” she said, “and very kind to my family and my band.”
Later this spring, Emi and the band will perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a choice gig for an artist of any age. “My dad told me about New Orleans when I was young,” Emi said, “and my parents took me there for my birthday.” But playing Jazz Fest is something very special for Emi. “I’ve been dreaming about that for a long, long time.”
When talking with someone Emi’s age, you might find a bit of irony in a statement like that and be tempted to ask: How long is a long, long time when you’re 13?
But Emi is clearly an old soul, with a level of experience that normally doesn’t come so early in life. Not only do her talent and stage presence belie her age but she also possesses a sensibility rarely found in someone so young.
In fact, when I asked Emi about her songwriting process and from where her inspiration comes, she responded in a wise-beyond-her-years way.
“Everyone has their own formula for writing songs,” she explained. “It doesn’t have to be the same as anyone else’s.”
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but this does not sound like the standard teenage philosophy.
“I started young and I was able to learn at my own pace,” she said. “I never felt like I had to rush it.”
I asked Emi if there are any artists she would like to collaborate with in the future. “Oh, my gosh,” she said. “I’d love to work with Chris Stapleton, Darryl Scott, Jamey Johnson, Tyler Childers – these guys speak my language and they write what my mama and I try to. I love writing with Mama. She has all the words for a good story like she’s lived 100 lives.”
Emi has also become part of a writers’ circle in Nashville, with the likes of Vicki McGehee, Kyle Jacobs, and Jeffrey Steele. “That’s big for a small-town girl like me,” she said.
Emi’s first love was the music all around her as a child – “the older, more traditional country sounds” – but she says her musical tastes are expanding. “Lately, I try to ‘absorb’ music – the variations in lyrics, phrasing, and composition – and explore some of the newer country artists as well as older blues and rock.”
When you are a professional artist, it can be hard not to think of music as your job, so I asked Emi if she still listens to music for fun. I love her response.
“Music IS fun!” she said. “If we’re not singing or playing, we are listening to music.” Her favorites span a wide range – from Tom Petty, Levon Helm, some Bad Company, and newer favorites Government Mule and Grateful Dead. And she told me that if you looked at her phone playlist right now, you’d find a lot of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Jason Isbell, and Buddy and Julie Miller. When she is in a drawing or painting mood, she looks to John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Kris Kristofferson to inspire her.
While these may not be a typical 13-year-old’s musical choices, the music that Emi listens to is a direct reflection of what she is living and learning.
“I just love the kind of music that goes into your soul and makes you feel good,” she said, but this sentiment does not mean that Emi’s songs are one-dimensional or artificially bright and sunny. “Some of the darkest music can make you feel good and speak to your soul,” she said. “Sometimes you have to get through the sadness to get to the happiness.”
And she added, from the perspective of a young woman with a strong spiritual side, “if God wants you to say something meaningful, He will give it to you.”
I asked Emi to let her imagination run wild for a minute and tell me about whom she would love to share a stage with.
“The top of my list would be “Dolly Parton • Emmylou Harris • EmiSunshine,” she told me. “Beyond that, I’d like to play with Bob Weir, Buddy Miller, and Jim Lauderdale,” she said. “Oh, and Rod Stewart would be great too!”
“They are all my heroes,” she said. “They always give 100 percent, and that’s what I try to do. ”
From talking to Emi, it’s obvious that a huge part of what gives her self-confidence, self-assurance, and the ability to be such a polished and professional performer is that she has always had her family behind her. “They are so supportive,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what I would be doing right now if it weren’t for them.”
And, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Emi describes herself as having “a normal life.”
“I’m home-schooled, but that’s not new,” she said. “I do a lot of the same things other kids my age do.”
This includes hobbies like drawing and painting – “my life revolves around art” – and a more recent passion for the hula hoop.
But music is her heart and soul.
“I love it so much,” she said. “I believe it is why I was put on this earth.”
Editor’s Note: Emi’s March 30th show at the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University Center for the Arts was cancelled. Keep an eye out for a rescheduled date!