REVIEW & INTERVIEW: EMMY THE GREAT

Words and Interview: Emily Ames

 Images: Benjamin Smith

For her first five songs at the Brudenell Social Club Emma Lee Moss of Emmy the Great did not make any contact with the crowd apart from her singing. She changed guitars and shook bells over the mystical sounds played by her band but instead of charming the crowd with sweet “hellos” and “we’re so happy to be here”, she stared mysteriously and almost bewildered at the crowd. For those first five songs, as Emma took us from the magical to the real, the crowd was entirely encapsulated into Emma’s world. Starting the performance with “Eastern Maria” standing solely on the stage with her guitar, the intimacy she projected into the gig along with her poignant, poetic lyrics, set a tone for the rest of the gig. Five songs later, she addressed the crowd with charm and humour asking for a 10 second Morrissey jig and referring to porn websites as “rapemypubes.com”. This switch from a dream-like character to a comedian represents the double dimensions that exist in both Emma and her work.

 

Emma’s second album Virtue takes inspiration from myths, saints fairytales and powerful female heroines that all add up to give it a strong fantastical element. However, underneath those fairytales exists a reality for Emma who wrote the album after her break-up from her boyfriend after his religious conversion. Standing on the stage alone singing Trelick Towers, she laments,“Then he heard the voice I couldn’t hear/ He’s gone to where it sent him/And now I’m praying for this pain to clear/ He’s waiting on ascension,” and shows herself to be both humbled by and challenging of religion.She could come across as an innocent young performer at first glance but not only has she been through a monumental loss in her life, but stripped of the angelic features and beautiful harmonies lie lyrics full of cultural references that show a breadth of knowledge and experience beyond her years.

Emmy the Great ended her gig with the song “we almost had a baby” from her first album First Love. Singing the lyrics, “well you didn’t stop when I asked you to stop” solely on the stage, it is a stark and honest performance of a song one assumes to be about date rape. Ending with this is brave but shows her role as a thought provoking feminist artist in today’s indie scene.  One can only stay excited as to what she will challenge next.

Emmy the Great’s album Virtue is out now on ITunes.

See what Emmy the Great had to say when we interviewed her at the Brudenell:

EA: Obviously this album is very personal due to your fiancé, (Emma wrote the album after her fiancé had a religious conversion and left her for the church) but your last album was also very honest. Lyrically, have you always worn your heart on your sleeve, or was it something that evolved over time?

E: I didn’t really realise I was doing it until people said. It’s just what I thought music sounded like because I listened to a lot of bands that did just that. But now that I’ve realised it, I don’t know what I’m going to do for the next one!

EA: What inspires you the most to write: the mundane or the extraordinary?

E: Probably the mundane. You can make extraordinary observations from every day things.

EA: This album explores religion due to the complications you experienced with your ex. Was it a therapeutic experience writing and recording?

 

Yes definitely. It’s kind of a record of me coming to conclusions while I was writing it. I almost didn’t realise I was writing it because I was so busy trying to work out my life. And when I finished, it was like I had buried all of my sadness in these songs and I didn’t feel sad anymore.

EA: So it was a creative outlet?

E: Yeah, and releasing it was symbolic closure because when I released it into the world it felt like it was all over and I would never have to be sad about it again.

EA: Someone wrote about you playing in places of worship such as the Sheffield historic cathedral. Was this a response to the experience you had with religion?

 

E: It is actually a thing that singer/songwriters are doing at the moment because churches are trying to become cultural venues to make money. So we didn’t do it on purpose but it did fit it really well.

EA: Production wise, how does the new album Virtue differ from First Love?

E: It is more intentional. Everything that we did was more confident because with the first album we were playing it safe and didn’t want to sound hi-fi. This one we didn’t care we just put everything down.

EA: You have been described as feminist pop and your song “a woman, a woman, a century of sleep” explores feminist attitudes to marriage. Who were the strongest female voices for you growing up?

 

E: Patti Smith and Joan Didion. Feminist journalists like Laura Button and Barbara Ellen. Strong Feminist writers like Iris Murdoch, people who just didn’t take shit. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Although Anne Sexton was a bit of a fuck up. Her writing is pushing against these natural female roles so she is strong but she was a victim of her life. So artistically I always looked up to her but in terms of her life I would learn from it rather than follow in her example.

EA: And was the song “a woman a woman, a century of sleep” trying to challenge the classical images of women or was it a personal fear of getting married?

 

It was definitely that. We had just got engaged and he had gone to work and I was in his parent’s house because we had just been on holiday. I just felt like the house was caving in on me and I was just like “nooooo”. Was a bad sign I think.

EA: One of the great things about your music is that it is challenging and thought provoking. Do you have any theories as to why that is so lacking in popular mainstream music?

It is because pop music is meant to be direct. And it’s supposed to be for youth to run around too and be young. So technically pop music isn’t the place where you go to think really hard, books and essays are. So I think that’s fine. I don’t think pop music needs to be massively academic.

 

EA: What about the lack of diversity in radio? Places like France have all types of music on the radio such as jazz, reggae and pop. Do you think England achieves that?

E: England definitely has a real idea of a cultural elite. The radio here is really weird. When you go to America, you don’t have that radio 1 does this radio 2 this and radio 6 that full stop. And you don’t send them a single in America they just pick what they want to play from an album. We do have a crazy system here. But I guess that’s why so many bands try and play it and why so many bands sound the same, because at a certain time they need too or they are not going to get playlisted.

EA: Are there any contemporary artists that you think at the moment are challenging and thought provoking?

E: Saint Vincent.

EA: You were described early on as anti-folk. What was that all about?

E: That is an American genre that influenced a lot of people at the same time I was coming out like Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling. But the moment everyone started calling them anti-folk they all started saying, “no we’re not, we’re this and that.” It’s kind of like the Arctic Monkeys thing: whatever you say you are you are not. Nobody wants to be called anti-folk because it has the word anti in it and the word folk in it. There couldn’t be two more negative words. I would rather be called shit salad than anti-folk.

EA: Were you first interested in writing poetry or lyrics?

E: Lyrics. Poetry is so un-prescribed. You don’t know where to finish the line. With a song you have three minutes to say what you need to say where as with a poem you can write pages and pages. You can write a book.

EA: If you could bring one character from any novel you have ever read into the present to fix the worlds problems who would it be?

 

E: The league of extraordinary gentlemen. Because they are fucking amazing.

EA: Remember in the riots, Waterstones was one of the only shops not looted on a street completely destroyed. Why do you think England is failing at creating a healthy interest in literature amongst young people?

Cutting public services and shutting down libraries is probably not going to help. We need a better system of support for families that have just moved here and for students that are struggling at school. Were not broken, we just need a bit more work.

EA: People seem to view poetry as less accessible. What poet would you suggest for someone who has never picked up a poetry book?

E: Never ever? What are they three years old? Philip Larkin maybe. Actually I would probably just give them some really good lyrics. My teacher tried to get us into poetry by reading us Lauryn Hill. She’d be like (puts on posh accent) “defecating on your microphone.” Nice one, very down with the kids.

EA: You recently have been quoted talking about Spotify in the papers. Do you think there is not enough of a support network amongst artists on issues such as Spotify and low royalty rates?

E: There is not any system in place to reimburse artists for loss of sales because of Spotify. That is a new technology and that needs to be sorted out. Otherwise there will be no good albums out there. There will be three professional albums a year because they are the ones who can afford it, and everyone else will be doing bedroom recordings which is great for some, but a shame for others.

EA: Do you think enough artists speak out about these issues? Lilly Allen got a lot of negative feedback for speaking out against downloading music.

Lilly Allen is that famous that she gets negative feedback for everything she says. If she came out and said, “I think killing people is bad” someone would come back with “YEAH WELL…” Recently there has been quite a lot of attention because people have realised that you get 0.04 p per play on Spotify. People are shocked so journalists are coming out and speaking about it.

 

EA: What characteristic do you like most and least about the UK Music Industry/Scene?

E: It is very success driven immediately. If you don’t have a hit you are fucked.  In America, especially for bands like me in the Indie world, they are much more self-efficient, they keep their costs down and they tour and tour and get really good. They last for a long time with a strong fan base and then on their 5th or 6th album they become huge.

EA: And your favourite?

E: It’s Stockholm syndrome and it’s my life now. I love how everybody knows each other. I love the people I know. I love dj-ing at a stupid club like Notting hill Arts Club. I love hipsters. I love fan boys. I love places like Leeds and Manchester where people really really like music. You go to Manchester and everyone is straight out of a comic book with their 7-inch vinyl. England is a cool place.

EA: Do you think the world would be a better or worse place without social networking websites?

I’m starting to think facebook is evil. But I like twitter. It’s definitely made everyone a bit more childish. There is an author who is my favourite author in the whole world and he tweets pictures of cats. And I love him for that. But collectively we are people tweeting pictures of cats to each other. That is what humans are now.

What is your life goal?

My first goal is to keep making music for as long as I want too. My second goal is to touch success once. I would like to be a member of history. My boyfriend Tim (in Indie band Ash) has had a number one album, and it is probably one of the greatest indie albums of all time. So no matter what he does he has that in the bank. I don’t need the greatest album, but I would like one song, or one gig that I did that was part of something. I just want to be a part of something once and after that everything is just gravy.

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