Emmy the Great
This month’s next big thing is no Lily Allen or Kate Nash, writes Tony Clayton-Lea
THE SNOW is lashing at the windows of Emma Lee Moss’s tour bus. Emma – otherwise known as Emmy the Great – is traipsing across the length and breadth of Britain during the worst snowstorms the country has experienced in 20 years. Emmy, however, is decidedly half-glass-full about the weather: “It’s like being in a different country,” she remarks, agog at the white sheets of countryside and the dearth of vehicles on the road as she heads from Dunstable to Falkirk in Scotland.
Welcome, readers, to another hotly-tipped female singer-songwriter. Before you yawn to kingdom come, however, consider this: Emmy is no Lily Allen or Kate Nash clone; she is not a reminder that Adele has gone into hiding, and she is not a voucher holder for an identikit Laura Marling. That’s not to say she isn’t a chip off someone else’s block, but when that block is one (or three) of the foundation stones of British folk, you’ll understand why we say that Emmy is different from the norm.
For starters, there isn’t the whiff of a hype machine gearing into overdrive; no publicity stunts being cranked out, no hint of anyone capitalising on the irony of the stage name. Rather, there is the slow burn of the rising profile, from an early-afternoon appearance at last year’s Electric Picnic – where a highly amiable Emmy could be seen making friends on and off stage, and accidentally getting her picture taken with the wives of famous soccer players – to supporting the likes of Bright Eyes and Martha Wainwright, and being the featured singer on Norman Cook’s new band’s latest single, Seattle.
It’s a long way from Hong Kong, her birthplace, and where she was raised for the early part of her life. In her head, though, England was never far away. Spending her summers in the English countryside prepared her for a future of pastoral proclivities. “I always felt as if I was English,” she says, “and felt out of place when in Hong Kong. I felt very awkward, as I was the only white girl in a Chinese school, and because I went to a Chinese school, all the Western kids I knew thought I was weird. So I was an isolated person, but I think I always had it in me to be really sociable and happy. When I moved to England full time, I knew I could finally talk to people. Coming here was more like coming home.”
The blend of peer-pressure, isolation and innate sociability was a good mix for Emmy, despite the struggle to align them. “I’m really happy being on my own all the time, but when I’m with my friends I remember I should spend more time with them and other people. And yet when I’m with them, I also feel I should be on my own writing and reading. There is a balance, though, and I think I’ve found it. Being on tour is good, because you’re forced to be in other people’s company while simultaneously being creative and playing music in front of an audience.”
Regarding the growth of coverage of female singer-songwriters in the past few years, Emmy reckons the level of success for some has happened all too soon.
“With me, it has never been an explosion, but rather a slow growth. I feel the area that I’m in is not the pop star one, anyway. My band and myself are not pop stars, we’re working musicians. We’re hanging in there, and I’d be doing this the same way and at the same level, probably, if there had been an explosion of male singer-songwriters or punk bands in the past few years.”
Does it annoy her that she seems to be continuously lumped in with the likes of Lily Allen and Kate Nash, despite, stylistically at very least, having little in common?
“I feel an affinity with Kate Nash,” she says firmly. “Because she’s a really hardworking songwriter who writes songs for the times we live in. and she writes quite different songs, too. It’s when I’m lumped in with the folky singer-songwriters that bothers me. Maybe that’s because of the style of songwriting I engage in.”
If Emmy the Great is close to any one school of songwriting it’s Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior and Annie Briggs. This is something, says Emmy, that she hasn’t noticed herself.
“People have said that the music is rooted in a kind of old-school folk, but I’ve never listened to folk music – although I know and really like Bob Dylan’s material. The actual process of making my music has been quite accidental and coincidental. I can’t second-guess what people might like, so I’ve always found that if things are done by instinct at least you’ll have done something that is entirely for yourself and not for someone else. That way, you won’t get caught out.”
It’s a fair point made by a woman who entered the music business because she wanted to hang out with skinny boys in indie rock bands. Yet the more she tagged along with the boys in the bands, the less she liked what she experienced. Emmy has grown up under her own terms and conditions. “I started to write my own songs; the more I wrote the more I liked it, and the less I wanted to meet up with boys in bands, because by that stage I had met so many.
“Now it’s just me and friends/musicians. And the best thing is that it has happened by accident. That’s cool.”
Emmy the Great plays Cork’s Cyprus Avenue, Friday March 6th, Dublin’s Crawdaddy, Saturday March 7th. Her debut album, First Love, is released next week.