Boundlessly Talented and Newly Sober, Emily Wallace Is Back on Top

The St. Louis singer-songwriter is charging full speed ahead into 2023

Jan 5, 2023 at 11:48 am
click to enlarge Emily Wallace and her band will play the Harold & Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz later this month. - VIA THE ARTIST
Emily Wallace and her band will play the Harold & Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz later this month.

This is the best place I've ever been," Emily Wallace says.

We are sitting in a South Grand gelato joint, but this is not the place she means. No, Wallace is referring to a current wave of emotional and physical wellness that has kept her in a steady state of enthusiasm and productivity lately. Then again, brimming as she is with positive energy, she seems pretty pleased with the gelato place, too.

Indeed, Wallace, as one of St. Louis' most respected singer-songwriters, has a lot to be excited about: a recent series of well-received solo shows; a comeback with her band the Sleepy Rubies; an upcoming studio session to record a set of new original songs; her status as the St. Louis music scene's reigning guest vocalist par excellence; a two-night stand at Jazz St. Louis later this month; and the fact that she is in the best shape of her life.

It hasn't always been such smooth sailing, to say the least. Over an hour-long chat, Wallace opened up about her life and career, a tilt-a-whirl of a journey as a working — and often struggling — musician, one that has been equal parts elation and nausea.

Wallace was born in Pensacola, Florida, to musical folk — her biological mother was a talented singer who once attracted the scouting attention of Clive Davis — and was later raised in tiny Winfield, Missouri, an hour northwest of St. Louis. A musical natural, Wallace caught the singing bug early.

"Everyone was always, like, 'Shut up!'" she laughs. "I was always singing."

As a child, she turned heads with her ability to belt out Whitney and Mariah songs, and Wallace never doubted that she was destined to be a professional performer.

In the eighth grade, she asked her parents for a guitar.

"They paid $50 a month for it. That was a big deal. They'd throw that shit in my face, man," she laughs. "But I remember learning a G chord and playing it all the time, and I'm still playing that G chord."

Then came a major turning point: She struck up a friendship with Winfield High classmate Ali Ruby, who, like Wallace, was a burgeoning vocalist.

"It was just like magic," Wallace remembers. "We were both carrying around all of this energy by ourselves, and once we found each other, we were, like, 'OK, we can relax.'"

The girls' connection was deepened by a palpable musical affinity, and the two started writing and singing together almost immediately.

Wallace and Ruby were like sisters. Then they became actual sisters.

Wallace shies away from specific details of her home life with her biological mom but describes it as a difficult time of isolation and unrest, one that ultimately had her seeking deliverance, which she found in her new best friend. Ruby's parents welcomed Wallace into their home and officially adopted her when she was 17.

"It 100 percent saved my life," she says. "It's when my life really started."

Even when talking about tough times, Wallace is quick to laugh and break into a million-kilowatt smile that has become a staple of her playful-but-put-together on-stage personality. At the gelato shop, though, this is a makeup-free, baseball-capped, freshly rained-on Wallace straight from the gym. Regardless, her smile gives her a star quality, and she flashes it through memories both good and bad, something she perfected as a jovial performer and party animal who was, it turns out, hiding considerable amounts of pain.

But high school with Ruby had its share of good times. Like their sisterly bond, their vocal harmonies came naturally: Their voices — Ruby's smoky, Wallace's sweet — intertwined perfectly, as though the two were born to sing together. Performing Simon and Garfunkel-style with Wallace playing guitar, the girls started landing gigs in the St. Louis area when they were only 15 and 16 years old.

"We had a Post-it Note with four songs on it that I stuck on my knee for our first show, and it just grew from there," Wallace recalls.

Billed simply as "Emily and Ali," the girls attended Winfield High by day and played smoky beer halls by night, driving the two-hour round trip to St. Louis three nights a week.

"We played everywhere — bars on the corner, craft bazaars, book stores, pool parties," she says. "We were 17 years old sitting in the corner playing guitar and singing, like, 'Landslide' and shit while these people were trying to party. They were, like, 'Can you play something we can dance to?' And we were just these country girls with our Post-it Notes."

After high school, the sisters said farewell to Winfield and moved to south St. Louis in 2002, continuing to gig constantly, supporting themselves with retail and restaurant jobs while, in Wallace's words, "trying to make it, whatever that means." While the music work was steady in those years, Wallace says the duo never quite broke into the established St. Louis music scene.

"We were hidden in sports bars," she says. "We would be playing, like, next to a Golden Tee while people were playing the Golden Tee. People weren't there to hear music."

From ages 16 to 23, Wallace and Ruby were inseparable — sisters who lived, worked and sang together — which eventually left them feeling overdue for some time apart.

"We needed to branch off and find ourselves separately," Wallace says. So in 2009, the girls took off for different coasts — Wallace to Florida, Ruby to California — but the girls' singular bond would inevitably pull them together again two years later.

Once back in St. Louis, Wallace and Ruby were determined to redefine the band with a fresh start, throwing themselves into songwriting with a renewed fervency. The hard reboot also came with a name change, as the girls decided to trade their first names for their last: They were now the Rubies.

Not quite satisfied, they decided that their new moniker needed a modifier. According to Wallace, "A hurtful thing at past shows had been when we would be on stage pouring our hearts and souls into something and some drunken idiot would come up and say, 'Can't you play something upbeat?'" Therefore, to let audiences know what to expect, the duo became the Sleepy Rubies.

"We wanted people to go, 'These motherfuckers are sleepy!'" Wallace jokes. "'They're going to be up there nodding off! They might fall off the stage!' Because it's going to be slow and heartfelt and full of emotion. That's the vibe."

The Sleepy Rubies got on a roll. The duo recorded their first EP, 2016's Great Big Love, backed in the studio by guitarist Jim Peters, bassist Shawn Hart, fiddler Mark Hochberg and drummer Tony Barbata, ace musicians who would make up the Sleepy Rubies' live band. Festivals started calling: They were invited to play the main stages at LouFest and the Open Highway Music Festival, their largest showcases to date. A second EP, Big Mountain, arrived in 2018.

The 10 tracks across the two EPs finally captured studio-polished recordings of the women's voices — Wallace's buoyant range and wide-open tone, Ruby's velvety alto and honeyed finesse — and their confluent harmonies on a series of elegant ballads and intoxicating folkicana songcraft. Critics loved it.

But just as the duo was gaining serious momentum, they ran into some significant roadblocks. First, the nature-loving Ruby fulfilled her longtime dream of moving to Colorado. The second obstacle was more serious: "I was a massive drunk," Wallace says.

For several years, Wallace tended bar in a local tavern, drinking heavily with customers and living a life of well-oiled performances and booze-soaked after parties.

"I've always abused alcohol," she says. "I wasn't wrecking cars or punching people in the face. But Ali and I have a lot of stories of me being hammered."

The oft-pickled lifestyle would eventually take a serious toll, even if at times she reveled in the debauchery.

"Look, 250-pound, hilarious, drunken Emily Wallace was a fucking badass," she says. "She would drink you under the table and beat you at Skee-Ball and hug you and sing you a song, and it was fun. But it was also really miserable."

Wallace now sees that her boozy life-of-the-party hedonism was masking deep anxieties and unresolved pain from her past, part of an overwhelming desire to hide from her own feelings.

"When you have the amount of trauma that lives inside of my skin, it's a crushing shame that follows you," she says. "You don't even know it's there because you've always suffered."

The contradictions between her merrymaking persona and her inner turmoil would show up in her songs. Take "South Side Girl" from Big Mountain: "South Side girl / drinking five shots of vodka an hour / Working 80 straight bartending hours / You're just fine / Don't beat yourself up all the time." But she wasn't. And she did.

When COVID-19 came, things got even worse.

"When you're behind the bar taking shots with customers, you're not really seeing the amount of alcohol that's going into your body," she says. But home every night during the lockdown, Wallace was able to see how much she was actually drinking. "It was two bottles of tequila a day that I was putting into my body," she says.

With all of her money going to tequila, Wallace was broke, physically wrecked and caught in a continuous loop of drinking to oblivion, waking up with debilitating shame, and repeating as needed.

Then one day it all stopped.

"This sounds like some hokey-ass hippie shit," she says. "But I was driving down Kingshighway. I was super hungover. And I heard a voice inside me say, 'You have to quit drinking.' It was some sort of promise between myself and the universe or Baby Jesus or Baby Satan or whatever it was. It was a voice that said, 'If you can give up the booze, we will take care of everything else.'"

That was August 10, 2020. She hasn't had a drink since.

Once Wallace got sober, the universe or Baby Jesus or Baby Satan made good on the promise; Wallace's life fell into order. But perhaps Wallace had something to do with it herself: She replaced tequila with a daily gallon of water, started exercising an hour every day, left bartending behind in favor of focusing on her musical career, experienced an artistic resurgence of songwriting and painting and lost a whopping 100 pounds.

As a performer, Wallace is everywhere these days — singing with everyone from the Funky Butt Brass Band to Dave Grelle's Playadors to the Mighty Pines to Sean Canan's Voodoo Players — and finding a renewed joy in performing.

"I'm getting it back," she says. "Because I felt like I had kind of lost it."

She is also hitting her stride as a solo act. At last month's Phillipalooza, the annual holiday festival at Old Rock House, Wallace delivered a powerful solo acoustic performance that left the crowd speechless.

"That set was the best I've felt yet," she says.

Recent single releases — "Best Outta You," a duet with the late, great Roland Johnson, and the soul-blues banger "My Little Girl" — have brought the best out of Wallace's blue-diamond voice. She returns to the studio this month with the ambitious goal of releasing a new single every month until her 40th birthday this October.

And the Sleepy Rubies? They're back too. The duo will join forces with esteemed composer and pianist Adam Maness at Jazz St. Louis this month to perform jazz-based interpretations of Rubies originals with help from members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The duo are also busy writing new material and have some soon-to-be-announced live dates on the books.

Wallace credits this surge of accomplishments and newfound confidence to simply being kind to herself.

"When you start realizing that days add up, and all you have to do is show up for yourself, it's just bizarre how your environment and your body and everything just molds to what you're doing in your mind," she says.

And with that, Wallace says goodbye and strolls out of the gelato shop and back into the rain-slicked St. Louis night. It's been another good day added up, and another one waits to be seized tomorrow. 

Catch Sleepy Rubies at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 27, and Saturday, January 28 at the Harold & Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz (3536 Washington Avenue, 314-571-6000, Tickets are $22 to $27.