When Austin musician Elizabeth McQueen was growing up in Columbia, Maryland, she thought she would become a professor. She didn’t expect to make a living as a musician and certainly never thought she would one day perform a live duet with Willie Nelson.
“I never thought I would make a living as a performer because I didn’t know anyone who did,” McQueen said. “It didn’t even seem like that was something you could do.”
McQueen developed a love for performing when she was young but didn’t decide to pursue it as a career until after she graduated from college. She wanted to escape the East Coast’s fast-paced lifestyle, so she headed to Austin in 2000.
“I came down here thinking, ‘I want to be a musician,’” McQueen said. “That was my plan.”
McQueen spent eight years as the front woman for the Grammy-nominated band Asleep at the Wheel. During this time, she performed with Willie Nelson, released three solo albums and had two children.
Her latest project is recording an album as EMQ, a band she formed with old friends — guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Greene. On Thursday, EMQ and local artist Jerome Morrison will launch an exhibit at the Museum of Human Achievement called “Infinity + Infinity.”
Infinity + Infinity is an interactive art project in which audience members’ body movements control holographic images projected onto structures Morrison built. EMQ will play live music while spectators walk through the projections.
McQueen said the project is conceptually complex because it combines electronic music, jazz and 1920s songbook-style writing with holographic art.
“I don’t know exactly what [the music] is, and I don’t know how to describe it — but I like it,” McQueen said. “And I like playing it.”
McQueen said she has always been a fan of experimenting with her approach to music. On her previous albums, she explored a variety of genres including Americana and pub-rock. She asked Gurgiolo and Greene to form EMQ with her so that they could experiment musically.
“I just keep expanding and changing,” McQueen said. “I guess I’m just not the kind of person who is going to make the same record over and over again.”
In addition to writing and recording her own music, McQueen is a DJ once a week for KUT. In her podcast, “This Song,” she asks artists about songs that have had an impact on them.
“It’s not your favorite song — it’s the song that made you realize you could become a musician, or play an instrument, or what influenced your latest project,” McQueen said. “It’s about who inspired us and whose shoulders we are standing on.”
McQueen said the most important song to her is “Empty Cans” by The Streets. She said the song taught her it is possible to be emotionally honest and open with her music.
“When you get really emotionally honest with your music, you are opening up the door for people to really feel something,” McQueen said. “I don’t think I’d ever thought to really attempt to try something that emotionally honest until I heard that song.”
She said her goals for her music career are always changing, but, for now, she wants to focus on emotional honesty.
“My ultimate goal as a musician is to make music that makes people feel something more than just having a good time, but makes them really feel,” McQueen said. “But that’ll probably change next week.”