Without the troubling story behind “The Dress,” premiering exclusively below, it’s possible Emily Scott Robinson might not have become a full-time artist with a third album, Traveling Mercies, that’s due out Feb. 22.
The transient singer-songwriter, who travels the country with her husband in an RV, was raped after being drugged at a bar when she was 22. Like so many assault survivors, she did not report the rape and fell into a period of depression, but she eventually began healing through a variety of therapies and went on to became a social worker and crisis counselor before dedicating herself to music full-time about three years ago.
“The Dress” is a song she started working on a few years before her career change. “It was really hard for me to write,” Robinson tells Billboard. “It took a very long time. I didn’t rush it — there was no rushing it. Even when I finally finished it, I wasn’t ready to perform it. It was a long journey.” But after a friend and fellow artist received positive audience reactions for a song about her own abuse experiences, Robinson felt emboldened to try “The Dress” on her crowds.
“For survivors of sexual assault, men or women, part of the issue is we have a lot of shame wrapped up in those stories, and a lot of fear and trauma. So we expect them to be received negatively and expect it to be uncomfortable,” explains Robinson, who titled the song after finding the white dress she was wearing the night of the assault while assembling donations for Goodwill (she threw it away instead). The listeners’ reactions were just the opposite, however. “There were so many beautiful things that happened, which was people coming up to me — men and women, old and young — and looking me in the eyes, holding my hands, all of them crying, saying ‘Thank you for that song. I needed to hear that. Something like that happened to me, too.'”
By sharing her story she found she was helping others. “Not all my songs are autobiographical like that,” she says, “But whether they are or not, my goal is turning them into something that can be of service to others. That’s central to what I do.”
Robinson does add that “The Dress” initially included a final verse that had a happier ending inspired by her own healing. “There was that extra verse on the end where it all turned out OK,” she says, “but every time I sang that to myself, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to wrap this up in a bow like that.’ Everybody has their own way of working with this stuff in their life; It may not look like mine, and it often remains unhealed. So I cut that last verse out and let the end be kind of open.”
Robinson recorded Traveling Mercies in East Nashville with producer Neilson Hubbard, who she says “was very careful with me” while recording “The Dress.” “We kept trying different things and putting other instruments in, but nothing really felt right,” Robinson recalls. “He gave me a lot of space around it and said, ‘Let’s do it so it’s comfortable for you.’ We ended up cutting almost everything we put on it and kept a version that’s mostly just me and guitar.”
And while “The Dress” will provide an entry into Traveling Mercies, Robinson — whose touring takes her to the Folk Alliance International conference during mid-February in Montreal — also hopes that it won’t eclipse the album’s other songs and the rest of her repertoire.
“I feel as if I don’t get to own my legacy or what people see me as,” she says, “so I won’t mind if people know me by (‘The Dress’). But I’ll be honored if this is their introduction to my music, and I’ll be delighted if once they’re into my music they find funnier songs, lighter songs and love songs and things that represent a broader range of emotions.”