Emmy McDonnell Explores Music and Nostalgia With Her Radio Show 'Are You Okay?' | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Emmy McDonnell Explores Music and Nostalgia With Her Radio Show 'Are You Okay?'

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Published May 3, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Emmy McDonnell - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Emmy McDonnell

The Burlington home of Emmy McDonnell is distinctly her own. Adorning the living room floor is a royal blue carpet with the image of a snow leopard down the middle. Pendulous pothos plants frame the substantial front window, and young adult fantasy novels fill the bookshelves. An antique bust that doubles as a lamp is topped with a rave light bulb and illuminates some of the concert posters that embellish every wall in her home — Bon Iver, the Lumineers, Brandi Carlile, Shakey Graves.

Evident in McDonnell's décor is the formative nature of music and literature. This nostalgia propels the 24-year-old's moonlight career as a musician, radio host and bedroom producer.

When not working as the small business advocate at the Office of the Vermont Attorney General, McDonnell produces a radio show, "Are You Okay?," which airs every Thursday on 99.3 FM WBTV-LP through local organization the Media Factory. The music and talk show explores how the songs we listen to throughout our lives shape who we are. A burgeoning songwriter, McDonnell probes similar themes in her own music.

She first took an interest in the Media Factory as a senior at the University of Vermont. McDonnell was writing her capstone thesis on radio DJs, always secretly hoping to be one. Shortly after graduating in 2021 as a public communications major, she moved back to her childhood home on the seacoast of New Hampshire.

Since her parents were then residing in Miami, McDonnell lived alone and worked from home while the world was still in the throes of COVID-19. With her newfound free time, McDonnell rediscovered her love of books from her childhood. Within the pages of the Twilight and Divergent series, she felt safe to be emotional in a familiar place.

When McDonnell moved back to Burlington in 2022, the first thing she wanted to do was get involved with the Media Factory. "Are You Okay?" was born that September.

The show's title stems from McDonnell's youth: She was often asked if she was OK because she listened to a lot of sad songs. One of those songs was "My Eyes," from the Lumineers' 2016 album, Cleopatra. While the album and most of its songs are sad, both continue to bring her joy. She now starts every show by asking her guests the inevitable question, "Are you OK?"

"People surround their lives around books that make us cry or music that makes us sad, and we all chase repeating the nostalgia that comes from that," McDonnell said. "It's not a coincidence that I do my best writing when I'm sad."

On "Are You Okay?," she interviews authors, life coaches, local musicians and other personalities. While the show centers on music, McDonnell invites both musical and nonmusical guests to figure out why people are so attracted to hard emotions and to understand the motives behind creative endeavors.

McDonnell's on-air presence is airy and inquisitive. She weaves wit into the dialogue while still keeping a serious yet relaxed space for people to share their experiences. In a recent episode, McDonnell interviewed Maleek Gillard and Ella Yentsch of Fresh Pressed BTV, a group that promotes local music. The guests discussed the community that they've created by emphasizing startup artists and people who are new to the industry — including McDonnell herself.

"Emmy and her show are Burlington treasures!" Gillard and Yentsch shared via Instagram. "This was our first public interview so we were nervous at first, but Emmy welcomed us with open arms and was so kind and easy to talk to."

As a woman-identifying artist, McDonnell admits that she feels new and uncomfortable in the Burlington music scene. While she is no stranger to the Queen City, she views other people as more established — she has never even taken music lessons. But she believes that, regardless of skill level, everyone should have the chance to be heard.

"It bothers me so much that more people don't sing," she said. "We have created such a hostile space where you have to be the best singer in the room to sing, or you have to perform an amazing dance routine to dance, and it bothers the fuck out of me."

While playing her first live set at Burlington's Radio Bean, she initially felt paralyzed by fear. Because she didn't consider herself a singer, McDonnell spent her entire childhood only playing guitar, not even singing while she was alone.

"Instead of waiting until I get so good at singing, I'm just gonna sing," she decided. "Who says I can't? I've spent so much of my life not singing — what a sad thing to do."

"Cheers to Feeling Stuck!," McDonnell's first single, is a step closer to the music she has always wanted to create. It took her almost a year to record and get to a point where she was ready to share it with the world. The song is a fresh take on the singer-songwriter subgenre. Over electronic beats, she fuses elements of indie rock and hip-hop with the influences of musicians such as Bon Iver.

Her vocals are fiercely original, with layers of staggered, dulcet harmonies. Electronic beats and samples illuminate McDonnell's lyrics while also elevating the song with upbeat horns and synthesized waves.

"I've fought so hard for everything in my life, and I'm not afraid to take up space," she said. "Music is the only thing where I haven't felt confident to sell myself in — until this song."

The inspiration for the song's title came from a night spent with old friends. "We were eating dinner and drinking wine and feeling sorry for ourselves, and we all cheered our glasses to feeling stuck," she recalled. "I just thought to myself, That's a song."

As a lyricist, McDonnell considers her words to be the most important part of her music. In "Cheers to Feeling Stuck!," she feels like a close friend urging you to chase whatever it is you feel is important.

"Fell in love with the fight," she sings at the refrain — a reminder that even though life is tough, it can still be rewarding. "The glass is half empty / But I'm feeling half full," she sings, her fiery voice and harmonies highlighted as the instruments fade out for a moment.

A persistent synthesizer keeps the beat while she sings, "So meet me / to cheers to feeling stuck / celebrate our fantasy."

While the line is surely a nod to nostalgia and the memories that resurface in her songwriting, it is also indicative of a relatable moment. It may also be a reassurance that it's OK not to know what's next; there is value in simply trying something new.

"For now, it's just the one song. But I'm always writing," McDonnell said. "I used to say I'm working on an EP, but in reality, I'm just writing to write."

"Cheers to Feeling Stuck!" is streaming on all major platforms. "Are You Okay?" airs Thursdays from 4 to 5 p.m. on 99.3 FM WBTV-LP.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Feeling OK | Burlington musician and radio host Emmy McDonnell explores how music shapes identity"

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