During a 2015 interview with Bitches Who Brunch, James Harrison and Emma Lynn White (singer-songwriters who perform together as James & Emma) clearly articulated their professional aspirations. Harrison noted that personal fame is not their primary objective: “Our main goal is still to be songwriters. We have dreams of hearing our songs on the radio sung by other people.” However, their debut EP Sea Mountain Highway showcases the Nashville-based duo’s skill as both composers and performers, proving there may not be any better voices to represent their artistic vision than Harrison and White’s own.
Producer Justin Ray Miller helps to bring that vision to life by adeptly balancing majestic instrumentation with the intimacy of the pair’s vocal performances. Sometimes it’s easy for singers to be overshadowed by larger than life production; on Sea Mountain Highway, the scope of the production manages to underline the depth of Harrison and White’s vocals. Mixing elements of pop and country, Miller crafts a recording with mainstream sensibilities while still highlighting the duo’s individual and shared talents. While this sound may not appeal to those who favor traditional country, listeners must ultimately decide whether to embrace an album based on its strengths, and overall, Sea Mountain Highway is well-produced, well-written, and well-sung.
There’s an effervescent quality to White’s voice; it’s youthful but not immature. Throughout Sea Mountain Highway she ably captures the sense of wonder, innocence, nostalgia, and heartbreak that the duo’s compositions require. Harrison’s steady, soulful harmonies provide the perfect complement to her tender phrasing. While other artists might rely on affectations to carry a song, there’s a natural vulnerability in the pair’s delivery that offers a welcome respite from the posturing that’s crept into so much modern pop and country music.
White and Harrison’s expressiveness anchor the songs on the EP. Rhythmic opening track “Stars” compares the disintegration of a relationship to a heavenly light burning out. “You’re the ghost that fills the sky/There’s no escaping you/A memory right in front of me,” White and Harrison lament together, an acknowledgment of yearning even as they recognize that the brightest romance can be destined to “[fall] to dust.” Emphasizing both the narrator’s fragility and perseverance (“I’m chasing/Chasing you/But you’re fading/You’re fading” the duo quietly observes in the bridge) as she attempts to move forward lends an additional dimension to the song.
Despite beginning with a song about heartache, Sea Mountain Highway is generally upbeat. “This Is Our Moment”, co-written with Aubrey Wollett, is a soaring declaration to seize the day while the breezy “Palm Tree” similarly points out the importance of enjoying the present.
Best of all may be the gentle ballad “Rainstorm”, a shimmering love song co-written with Michael Edser. Featuring wistful imagery and a gorgeous melody, the song closes the EP on a sentimental note. Sweet without being cloying, it’s one of Sea Mountain Highway‘s biggest highlights and seems destined to become a fan favorite.
Although Harrison and White may not be interested in being stars in their own right, Sea Mountain Highway is still a worthwhile album for listeners seeking out new and intriguing voices. And if they ever change their minds, I suspect they’ll find themselves with plenty of support.