Emmy the Great’s frontwoman stops to talk Cantopop, Sweet Valley High and Samuel Beckett with Oisín Kealy
Emma-Lee Moss has been ‘next year’s big thing’ since 2006. This year, she’s more of a buried treasure. It seems folk was last year, with Noah and the Whale omnipresent on the radio and Laura Marling feyly slinking her way into every top ten list. If you dig beneath the identikit electro peddlers set to soundtrack this summer, however, you may find something in this unassuming young woman’s music that was lacking in her forbears, an honesty and immediacy that isn’t hidden behind ukelele or overwrought lyrics.
Working within her own timeframe, she released her debut album First Love in February, almost three years since her first single Secret Circus. Much of the press surrounding the release of the album seemed to insist, rather unfairly, on emphasising the length of time it has taken as if something must have went wrong, as some sort of mistake. With youth and artlessness fetishized in the music industry at the moment, there have been quite a few victims of the prematurely expanding career. Moss has evaded this danger, quietly honing her sound for a number of years, and it has been well worth the wait. Meeting her before her Valentine’s day gig in a tiny and very angular King Tut’s dressing room, I ask if she found the impatience of the music press as ridiculous as I did.
She screws up her face and bats away the idea with her hand, “I feel that way but … one person says it and then everyone picks up on it. Some people feel like it’s been a long time because they’ve been aware of my music since the beginning”. Indeed, through steady touring and intermittently released EPs, interest in Moss’s music has remained consistent, if slow burning. The degree to which she has matured as a singer and songwriter between her first EP and tonight’s gig vindicates her decision to play it slow, as easy as it would have been to exploit her youth for an earlier record deal. “It feels pretty natural. I think it’s because I was coming out of the same scene as Kate Nash and she went absolutely massive” — she is not in it to reach Nash levels of success, though, softly adding “Some people just have a different part”.
Moss is not playing her part alone, and encourages recognising the moniker she plays under as a referent for the whole band, and not just a stage name for herself: “Everyone has their own projects, but this is a project we all contribute to”. When asked how the differing styles each member plays when apart from the band adds to the aesthetic of Emmy the Great, she emphasises with no small degree of pride “It is Emmy the Great”.
Looking on her Myspace, you can follow each band member back to their own projects, each following divergent genres. You can also follow a link to a bewildering Youtube video for Cantonese pop star Aaron Kwok, dancing in various states of undress and peppering his song with awkward bilingualism. Moss’s face lights up at the mention of his name, half disbelief and half glee, and she starts humming the refrain for my benefit. “It’s like my favourite song in the world.It’s funny because it’s cheesy as fuck and it’s got no irony, and Cantopop stars don’t seem to know people are laughing.” There is an air of pretension that follows around many of the musicians that have emerged lately from the same London scene that Moss is a part of, but she frankly admits interests credible or otherwise. “The thing is, I can laugh at Aaron Kwok here in this dressing room, but he is one of the biggest stars in the world and is probably really really happy”, she muses with a decided chuckle.
As a writer for Stool Pigeon she has become used to being on my end of the Dictaphone. This is good for me, as she obviously has sympathy for those who interview taciturn performers suffering from tour and press fatigue, being unaffectedly engaging and talkative throughout our meeting. She had spent the week previous editing the UK based music website Drowned in Sound, and her interest in writing reveals itself through her assiduous crafting of lyrics. Though more well known for her musical ventures, writing was Moss’s primary interest for much of her youth.
“I used to distribute newspapers around my family home, I edited the school newspaper and I wrote a play at school”. The two go hand in hand though, “It’s never been one passion. It’s been more like I love writing songs, but tomorrow I might want to write only diaries”. When asked if this is a career path she would consider for the future, she once again displays unashamed honesty in admitting her current literary concerns. “I kind of want to write generic teen novels. I’m reading Sweet Valley High at the moment and I’m feeling so inspired”, also confessing to reading “a fuck of a lot” of Buffy tie-in novels. While the future may be littered with the low brow, one current scholarly preoccupation is esteemed at least as much as anything from the Sweet Valley High canon.
“Samuel Beckett wasn’t really a literary influence, it was just that one story that gripped me”. The title track of her album retells one of Beckett’s lesser-known short stories, also called First Love. In it, a homeless man befriends a woman in a park, she falls in love with him and becomes pregnant, only for him to abandon her as she gives birth. “I think I’m quite and open minded person; I think Arab Strap is a celebration and I think (Charles) Bukowski can do whatever he wants to women and it’s fine — but I was offended by this novel. I thought ‘Jesus fucking Christ, he really hates this woman!’ “. True enough, a cursory reading of the novel vindicates these accusations of misogyny, at one point the narrator thinking of his lover, considers “Kicking her in the cunt”. Despite the arresting quality of the book, Moss claims it was not entirely intentional at first to use the narrative as a basis for the song.
“I thought about that book so much, and when I started writing that song I realised what I was writing was basically the story”, only seeing how her failed relationship paralleled with the novella when her ideas overlapped. She is wooed in the song by a cassette playing ‘Hallelujah’–”The original Leonard Cohen version”. The luck of timing would have it that this album was delayed from September, when the obvious oppositional version would be Jeff Buckley’s, until February, after two months of forced acclimatisation to Alexandra Burke’s sacrilegiously vapid performance of the song. “I read on the internet that it’s a cosmic joke”, she laughs; but Burke, like Kwok, will be laughing all the way to he bank after inking a 3.5 million pound contract. Moss is flippant, “Yeah well, she’ll probably sell 3.5 albums”. Alas, If only that were the case.
With three religious refrains on the album (the aforementioned Hallelujah, Kyrie Eleison and Gloria in Excelsis Deo), it seems pointed that Easter Parade gives a pretty disillusioning description of religious tradition. “I think Easter Parade is more about Idealism. It’s about these girls growing up in a religious community, and they suddenly realise the things they are told are not always true. It’s not specifically about Christianity, it’s more about how not everything works out the way it should”. It seems the album is full of songs along this vein, the spectre of a failed relationship influencing the overall tone.
She has, however, got back together with the very man that is so pilloried in songs like ‘24’, ‘Dylan’ and first single ‘We Almost Had a Baby’. This move to confessional songs is a bit of a departure from her earlier work, which followed fictional narratives rather than real life events. “I might go back to writing general actually because I feel sometimes as if I can’t look my boyfriend in the eye it’s so bad”, understandable, with lyrics which by turns make him sound patronising, pretentious, careless, lazy and money scrounging — often in the same song. It is also understandable that Moss would want to expose his faults upon break-up, but the unprecedented reconciliation has been affected by her candour. “It’s definitely meant that he’s not as supportive about my gigs as he used to be” she reveals with a nervous laugh. “At the time it made perfect sense, I was reading a lot of Anne Sexton and Anais Nin, and I was thinking this is my contribution to that genre, this is all about my fucking vagina”, she finishes, unable to keep a straight face as she exposes the sentiment.
In the spirit of the evening, and in light of the genital preoccupation, I ask what her favourite love song is. She answers without hesitation, “The Saturday Boy by Billy Bragg. It’s about the first love you when you’re in school, I swear there is no more passionate love than the person you are in love with at school who doesn’t know you exist, it’s so sad!”. Asking if I’ve heard it, she gets out her laptop with enthusiasm and opens iTunes, leaving me to listen to it as she does her sound check. It’s a touch more poignant than romantic, Bragg having to look up the word “unrequited” in the dictionary, but it seems a distinctly apt choice for Moss in Light of her album. He conveys the masochistic, self-pitying and disappointing nature of first love, the very nature Moss expresses with her new release. It gives the evening a very anti-Valentine’s feeling, but the lonely hearts beaming at her throughout the gig don’t think of complaining.