In Conversation—with Emay Holmes

The Poet and the Deep Blue Sea

Houston’s Emay Holmes found his calling as a singer-songwriter while deployed with the US Navy in the Arabian Gulf, not suspecting that he had any musical talent until the long solitary hours at sea prompted him to start putting his thoughts to music.  Since returning from deployment in December of last year he’s been working on his debut EP, Deep Down (listen to the title track here), set to be released June 1, exactly a year from the time he was first deployed.  The video for “The Deployment Song” has so far received more than 7500 Facebook shares.

Recently while staying in Washington to look after the boats and work on his EP Holmes took the time to answer our questions about his life, his music, and how a sensitive, creative person endures the long, solitary hours at on the ocean.

What are the advantages of being on dry land for you right now?

It’s a lot easier to work on the music now than a year ago.  At sea I was just playing my guitar on the boat.  Now I can go to a studio or record something in my house.

Was music a big part of your childhood?

Growing up I wasn’t really a musical person.  My brother was a Christian rapper — he got into that when I was about nine.  I saw him live, going on tour, doing a lot of big things.  I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 19 or 20.  I was always into art and music, but I never really committed to an instrument.  Maybe I was just being a kid and living that life.  I was really into video games.  Now when I hear someone saying they’ve been making music all their life I think, “Man, you lucky bastard!”

In 2014 I picked up a little forty-dollar plastic ukulele from a guitar center.  The goal was to play the guitar, but that was way too complicated.  I wanted to start small.  I struggled with the ukulele for a few months, then I picked up a classical guitar and just fell in love with everything about it — the strum, the sound, everything.

How did the navy help you become a singer-songwriter?

By the time I got into the navy I was making real songs.  I was in a situation that forced a lot of blues out of me — sorrow, depression, anxiety.  You wanted to sing through it, to do something to try to make sense of it.

When you’re on a deployment you get tired of seeing the same people all the time.  It gets really old.  With the exception of your close friends, your brothers and sisters, it gets isolating.  Every day you wake up and it’s just water everywhere.  There are times when that’s really therapeutic and great for songwriting and being reflective, but 80 percent of the time you feel very distant from your own world.  It’s kind of like solitary confinement, where you’re in a situation that you literally can’t get out of.  You’re just there.

The second month was when it got really scary.  The mundanity and drudgery had really started to kick in, especially at night when it was quiet and time really dragged.  I experienced depression, anxiety, and really bad thoughts.  I’m almost positive I got PTSD because of that.  We were working really long hours in the heat in the Arabian Gulf.  It wasn’t just me; I know there were a lot of people on the boat that experienced that side of the navy.

So why did you join the navy?

I was very lost and confused regarding what to do with my life.  I’d been working in a seafood restaurant in Texas called Pier 61 and loving it.  They were great people.  I worked there for about three years, and then after I picked up guitar I went to college for a couple of years.  But I kept switching majors, and my GPA was constantly dropping.

I thought, “Man, I gotta figure out what I want.” I’m the kind of person who likes to have a plan, with steps and things in front of me.  I don’t like feeling lost.  I decided to join the navy to kind of figure things out.  I really didn’t have a surefire plan for anything — I just wanted a different situation that was going to steer me somewhere.  I’d figure out my way after that.

What’s the story behind “The Deployment Song”?

Sometimes when you’re on watch your head just drifts off.  I think of songs all the time when I’m on watch.  For example I had a friend who was getting engaged but his fiancée was getting really nervous about them getting together like that with a deployment coming up.  She felt like they weren’t going to make it, which lead to a lot of hesitation.  That really inspired me because I felt like he wasn’t the only one in that situation.  There were people who were married five, ten years and had kids.  I wanted to write something that would give people that reassurance.  “It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be rough, but it’s also going to be over eventually, so stick with me.”

Does the internet help?

The internet does make it easier to stay connected, but some times we’re off the internet for like two weeks.  When we do have the internet it’s sometimes that one email or text that keeps some of us alive and keeps people from losing their minds.  It’s really hard to be in the navy and be an independent artist, so when I get messages saying, “Hey, man, keep making music,” that really helps me.  These are from people I’ve never met, maybe 20 states away from me.  It’s really beneficial to be supported like that.

How did “Cell Block 68” get written?

“Cell Block 68” was the second song I wrote while I was in the navy.  I wrote that one towards the end of my first underway — December 2016, I think.  Sometimes at night it would be kind of boring.  Me and my mentor would pull out our guitars and jam all night.  The others would be sipping coffee and listening to us.  It was like being in an all-night café.  I think in the future I just might create some kind of space for that.

One night I cut in with a riff.  Then I came up with the first line and got out a piece of paper and wrote it down, Then we passed the paper around, everyone writing down a line about what it meant to them to be deployed, for example one guy wrote, “My son grows up without a father.” They did the first half of the first verse and I did the rest.  This song literally came together in the middle of the ocean.  It was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had.  After that I’d play the song and people would record it on their phones.  People now come up to me and tell me they fall asleep to that song.  It’s a great experience to touch people like that.

How did you learn to sing like that?

Three of the songs from the EP were recorded in Houston and two in Seattle, so when we were doing “The Deployment Song” we were back in Houston and I was kind of missing some of my boys.  They hadn’t heard me sing yet, just a rap a little, so when I first got into the studio they were like, “Whoa, bro, who are you? You’re in the navy with these kinds of vocals?”

I normally get the vocals right the first time, but I do four or five takes anyway just so I can pick the best one.  The hard part is the guitar.  I love playing guitar, but playing guitar in the studio is a whole different beast.

When I was growing up I didn’t even think I could sing.  I didn’t like the sound of my voice until a few years ago, and it was only seeing the responses from other people that convinced me I could do it.

You need that nudge.  I don’t want to say you need people to believe in you, but you need some affirmation.  Even the talent you’re born with takes a lot of “curing.”

Where do you get the ideas for your lyrics?

I’m a huge fan of rap and hiphop.  I used to rap about clothes and cars and women even though I was in a place in my life where none of that was true.  I was talking about all the stuff I didn’t have.  Many people do that and it doesn’t hurt their conscience, but for me I could put out dishonest music for only so long.  It wasn’t genuine.  I was a lot more comfortable with rapping when I focused on my own issues.

When I write a song the words and music come together almost at the same time.  I’ll think of a line and it just brings its own music with it.

That comes from a history of reading and writing a lot of poetry.  When I was 17 or 18 I’d be in bookstores every other day, just reading poetry books, nonstop.  Some of my favourites are Hafiz, Rumi, Pablo Neruda, and Charles Bukowski.  Then there’s the Instagram poets like Christopher Poindexter and Drake.  Stephen King wrote a book called On Writing that really changed the way I approach life.  For me the best part of being on the boat was being able to read so much.  Reading really helps you deal with your issues and connect the dots.  I read a lot of Robert Green, like Mastery and 48 Laws of Power.  I read The Alchemist like for the tenth time, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k by Mark Benson.  All kinds of stuff.

What’s coming after the EP launch?

I’m working on my second EP, Two Tornadoes.  I’m also working on a poetry book, which I’ve wanted to do for years, as well as trying to get my Youtube channel up and running.