It’s been a few years since Janet Emma Garbe wowed the DC alt-country music scene with her debut solo record “Ghostfields.” Now Garbe is back—re-energized and inspired by her collaboration with Austin, TX-native and well-known DC area songwriter Kevin Dudley.
Garbe and Dudley make their debut, with Garbe’s band Seven West, Sept. 9, as part of the Waterford Live! concert series—in the western Loudoun village where Garbe got her start in music.
“It’s a coming home,” she said. “There’s no prize at the end other than sharing the music with the community that I love. … Without Waterford, I don’t know if I would ever have been able to do what I’ve done in music.”
Waterford will always feel like home to Garbe, who lived in and around the village for years. It’s where she got her start as a singer with the Washington Area Music Award-winning band One Horse Town. And it’s the perfect spot to launch her new musical endeavor with Dudley, she said.
The setting of the concert is even more poignant since just a few months ago, Garbe was considering a move to Austin and had even spent time in the Texas music capital in June looking at housing options. She took a musical hiatus during her mother’s illness and death last year and felt she needed a change.
But instead of going to Texas, Texas came to her in the form of Dudley and his Austin-influenced songwriting style, warm “Texas smothered” baritone, and serious guitar chops.
“I really didn’t want to go and leave my family, but I felt like musically I couldn’t stay here,” she said. But all that changed when she quickly clicked with Dudley after meeting him at a songwriters’ event in Maryland this summer. They began collaborating right away and have been working up a repertoire of originals and carefully selected covers.
“We immediately hit it off because it turns out both of us have the same sensibilities toward music and mutual admiration from the get-go,” Dudley said. “We like a lot of the same artists, but there’s more to it than just that. It’s about the writing and good melody and she’s got a good ear for that. She’s a good singer. She gets how to do it.”
The pair quickly decided that their musical chemistry was worthy of duo work, and in addition to performing with Seven West, they plan to hit the area’s winery circuit and other small venues as an acoustic duo.
Garbe, the Italian-born daughter of a Danish mother and a German father, moved to the U.S. as a young child and to Northern Virginia as a teen. She settled in Waterford in the early ’90s with her then-husband and drove a Waterford Elementary School bus route for the county’s public school system for 17 years before retiring in 2012 and starting a career in real estate.
And driving those western Loudoun back roads helped her find inspiration in the everyday. One of her most popular songs, “Stained Glass Heart,” came to her one winter morning while warming up the school bus, she said. “Sometimes I feel like a channel for things and as long as I don’t block it—it’s not always about being so great at anything but about just letting it come.”
In the mid-’90s, Garbe operated the popular Americana Stage music venue in downtown Leesburg. The connections she made there have served her well. But as her own daughters grew up, Garbe decided it was time to step out on her own in music.
“I woke up one day at 38 years old and realized that I had to express in some way, whatever is creative. And it wasn’t for anyone else’s approval as much as for me. It had to be done so that I leave this world knowing I tried to do it,” she said.
Dudley, who grew up in Austin and spent time between Texas and Virginia as an adult, settled in Northern Virginia in 2008. He lives in Arlington with his partner Valerie Makepeace, a photographer whose work will be on display at the Sept. 9 show. He released his solo album “Texarkana Diner” in 2011 and continues to work on his own material while collaborating with Garbe’s co-writer, mentor, bandleader and friend.
Garbe’s vision for Seven West involves a rotating cast of players with herself and Dudley at the band’s core. The Waterford Live! Seven West lineup includes top area musicians like Mike Aubin on drums, Patrick Thornton on bass and Gantt Kushner on guitar. The show is slated to start with a set of Dudley’s material with some back up from Garbe, followed by a full show of the “rockin, alt-country, gypsy jazz-ish thing that we’ve always done,” including favorite originals from “Ghostfields,” covers like their soulful version of Chip Taylor’s “Let’s Leave This Town,” and maybe a taste of the new material they’re working on together.
And for Garbe and Dudley, it’s just the beginning of a beautiful musical partnership.
“Both of us have gone through life experiences that are a wellspring of topics to write about,” Dudley said. “When you write from the heart, when you’re genuine about what it is that you’re writing about, and you can present it in a universal way that people get it, then you really touch people at that point.”
Janet Emma & Seven West, with an opening set by Kevin Dudley, play the Waterford Old School Friday, Sept. 9. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and music begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $22 at the door. The event includes a cash bar and food will be available for sale. Advance tickets are available at www.waterfordfoundation.org.
For more information on Janet Emma & Seven West, go to janetemma.com. To check out Kevin Dudley’s page, go to kdudleymusic.com.