The Texas-based singer and songwriter gets sober and finds her voice

Emily Wolfe makes the kind of rootsy, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll that sounds best played in a Nashville dive bar, or, in this case, her hometown of Austin, Texas. So it’s a little surprising to see her compared to a “Southern-twanged Vampire Weekend” in a 2013 review from The Austin Chronicle.

Wolfe, who was driving from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Alive caught up with her, laughed at the mention.

“Yeah, it's weird. There have been some artistic growing pains over the [past] few years,” she said. “The past four years, I think I've really honed in on what I sound like, and that’s straight-up, power-trio guitar stuff. I'm not trying to be anything I'm not anymore. It's a lot more fun.”

Although it took Wolfe some time to discover her sound, it did not take her long to discover music. She started playing guitar at age 5 after seeing one in a store and begging her mom to buy it for her. “I'll never forget the first time I saw it,” Wolfe said of her first guitar, which she still owns. “I was like, ‘That is what I want right there.’”

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Wolfe said she was shy growing up, so she only played music alone in her bedroom. That changed during her freshman year of college when she met her roommate, another guitar player. Around this time, Wolfe got serious about music and released an acoustic EP in 2012 and two more in 2013. They did well locally, but Wolfe wasn’t 100 percent happy with her sound.

In 2014, two big things happened for Wolfe: She nailed down the type of music she wanted to make, releasing the EP Roulette, a harbinger of more good music to come (which sounds nothing like Vampire Weekend). And she got sober. Wolfe credits the latter with helping her find her path musically.

“I was like, ‘I'm gonna cut the things out of my life that don't need to be there or don't really work,’” Wolfe said. “Some of those, naturally, were band members that weren't great. Then I was like, ‘All right, I'm going to see how much of the sound I can fill out with just my guitar and a rhythm section.’

“When I wasn't sober, everything in my brain was all over the place. I was just going in so many different directions in my life. Without all that, I'm going straightforward and pushing ahead and not looking at what’s behind me. It's a lot better now.”

All of this led to Wolfe’s self-titled debut album, which she self-released last year. On it, Wolfe uncovers a formula that works for her, and her sound is clear from the first guitar lick of album opener “Violent Veins.” This is an unabashed guitar rock album full of emotional storytelling and some impressive as hell playing from Wolfe and her bandmates. (Wolfe also managed to work the word “fisticuff” into the first song, which is an impressive feat all on its own.)

While Wolfe may have simplified her sound through the years, the songs are far from simplistic. Each sounds different musically, from the quick-tempo, defiant “Missionary Son” to the quiet but still electric closer “White Collar Whiskey.” Through the entire album, Wolfe’s voice, which has just a hint of a Southern twang and a little bit of a rasp, stands out alongside her guitar playing. (Wolfe, who fell in love with the blues in college, plays an Epiphone Sheraton, which she called a “more affordable version” of B.B. King’s famous Gibson 355, named Lucille.)

The last year has been big for Wolfe. Besides releasing her debut album, she also got married. The next year looks to be much the same. The musician turns 30 in May, and in the fall she plans to release her second album. It’s a long way removed from 2012, when she was playing in her dorm room.

“That was when I was like, ‘OK, I'm gonna see how far I can get with this,’” Wolfe said, and laughed. “And now I'm here in a van.”