WOONSOCKET – Even after Emily Luther was hired to teach chorus and drama at Mt. St. Charles Academy last year, the 2017 contestant on “The Voice” was still singing every weekend at private functions, parties and corporate events.
Then the pandemic struck, and the work dried up.
“I was feeling so depressed from not working,” says Luther. “I wanted something that would lift my spirits.”
Luther got tired of waiting for a magic light at the end of the tunnel, so she pretty much created one from scratch. The result is “All Wrapped Up,” a recording of six of her favorite Christmas standards, plus an original that she co-wrote with John Guevremont, a fellow teacher at Mount.
But “All Wrapped Up” is much more than a mere album for Luther – it's a reaffirmation of her destiny after a long and difficult journey through the music business. The 28-year-old graduate of Woonsocket High School has recorded music before, but you'll probably never hear it because it's been shelved by the studio that owns it, so self-produced “All Wrapped Up” is the first recording she's ever made that stands a shot at being widely distributed.
“I really felt discouraged for years,” said Luther. “I've had this crazy journey going through the industry and feeling taken advantage of. I finally told myself I was going to do what I needed to do and share the music I love with people.”
With her crystalline vocals and softly lilting intonation, Luther seemed to be on track for stardom after she twice appeared on “The Ellen Show,” in 2011 and 2012, and host Ellen Degeneres set her up with a recording deal.
Luther still finds it hard to talk about what happened next, except that she felt exploited in ways that she found unacceptable.
“Certain things that happened to me in certain situations I would never wish on my worst enemy,” she says. “There was a certain person they wanted out of me. That's not who I am.”
The last straw was starving herself. Even when she got her weight down to “super tiny” the execs at Universal were still shaking their heads disapprovingly and Luther decided enough was enough.
“For my health, for my future, I packed the car and my brother drove me home and I went in another direction,” says Luther.
The experiences in Los Angeles left her disheartened, but Luther says her appearance on Season 13 of “The Voice” helped get her groove back. She's still in touch with Adam Levine, the Maroon Five frontman and her former coach on TV's most-watched search for the next recording star.
Had she not performed in front of a national audience on “The Voice,” Luther says she might not have had the confidence to step up to the challenges of putting together “All Wrapped Up,” which went on sale Nov. 13. But her passion for performance and the economic need sharpened by the pandemic provided a lot of the motivation.
She traces the project to July 24 – her birthday – when she made the decision to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money to pay technicians and musicians to put the recording together. She wasn't particularly optimistic going in, setting a goal of $3,000, but she was overwhelmed by the response. She ended up raising about $4,000 in about two days.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Luther hired a group of musicians to play bass, drums, guitar, piano and cello on the record, including three professors from the Boston-based school.
Like her, many musicians have found far fewer opportunities to perform live during the pandemic, because audiences haven't been allowed to gather in sufficient numbers to support their work.
“We're all out of work,” said Luther. “It's been very, very tough for me and so many other people. For me to be able to call up my friends and say, 'I have a job for you – it doesn't pay much, but it pays' – that brought me so much joy.”
Luther's hoping “All Wrapped Up” also brings joy to her fans during what's shaping up as one of the more bleak epochs of American life in modern times.
The seven cuts on the recording were distilled from what started out as a long list of Luther's favorite Christmas songs. They include such holiday chestnuts as “It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Oh Holy Night.”
Luther, who memorably opened “The Voice” with the jazz standard “Summertime,” gives her choices some unexpectedly soulful twists, especially on “Joy to the World.”
But it's the original song on the record, “Maybe this Christmas,” that gives her the most satisfaction. It's a melancholy song about love and loss. The meaning is open to interpretation, but one reason she sought out Guevremont's collaboration on the piece is that he lost his wife to ALS recently.
“I thought he could relate to those feelings,” says Luther.
Luther says listeners can hear the lyrics as if they're about a broken relationship, but she knows something about the other kind of loss, too. Her grandmother, Anita Denault, died just a few days ago at the age of 90.
Ironically, her funeral took place on the very day “All Wrapped Up” went on sale. Luther was very close to Denault, an Uxbridge resident who worked as the assistant tax collector in Bellingham for many years.
An English teacher, Geuvremont plays piano on “Maybe this Christmas” and he was was instrumental on fine-tuning the chord structure, Luther says.
Because recording artists are virtually all working from home studios during the pandemic, creating “All Wrapped Up” had another layer of challenge. All the instrumental and vocal tracks had to be recorded as solo pieces and then reassembled to make them sound as if they were done together.
It's a lot like what she's doing with the chorus she directs at Mount – another job she loves.
Luther says the school is on a hybrid model, which means students are working remotely on some days. Group singing via computer isn't feasible, because there's a brief delay from the time the sound is created and when it reaches listener digital devices, says Luther.
Students can be taught the melody remotely, but they can't sing together with other students. To create a group project – the definition of chorus – multiple students can sing their parts as solos which are individually recorded. Then all the parts have to be mixed together on a multi-track recording device.
“It's a lot of work,” says Luther.
She and other teachers keep telling themselves COVID-19 is forcing them to develop useful skills that will outlive the pandemic.
Luther isn't so sure.
“That's what we say to keep ourselves sane,” she says.
But landing the position at Mount has been a godsend for her, she says, because if there's one thing she likes to do, it's sing. And the job gives her a chance to do it almost every day.
“Obviously it's been really tough this year, but it's great,” she says. “I love the staff and I love the faculty. It's like a family.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo
“All Wrapped Up” is available in digital download for $10 or as a CD for $12. To get a copy, visit https://emilyluther.bandcamp.com/