Emmy the Great is the band name of London-based singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss, and she is fiercely independent. When the media lazily lumped her in with the wave of young, attractive, female English singer-songwriters to surface over the past five years and swept her into some anti-folk scene, Moss distanced herself from it all, doing things her way. Rather than taking the opportunity afforded by the British media’s “next best thing” hype to land a cushy but restrictive major label deal, Moss released her full length debut First Love on her own label Close Harbour Records and turned to her fans to help fund the upcoming Virtue, offering rewards such as songwriting workshops, private gigs, signed CDs, and postcards for donations via PledgeMusic.
The music of Emmy the Great is characterized by delightful melodies intertwined with lyrics that combine clever wordplay with brutal honesty and juxtapose youthful naivety with beyond-her-years maturity. Moss is also a music journalist, having written for Drowned in Sound and The Stool Pigeon, and actively involved with charitable causes such as WaterAid and the movement to save libraries in England. One Thirty BPM writer Frank Mojica interviewed Emma-Lee Moss a couple hours before she and band mate Euan Hinshelwood took the stage at New York City’s Pianos for a rare American performance.
One Thirty BPM (Frank Mojica): So what’s the story behind your stage name?
Emmy The Great (Emma-Lee Moss): Back before I thought I was going to be a singer/songwriter, I had a group of friends at Uni and we would do rap battle names. Every week it would get bigger. I’d be like “Yeah, well fuck you; I’m Emmy M-Styles the Upsetter today.” And one of them was Emmy the Great. They weren’t actually funny, but we really felt we were hilarious because of this drink at university called Snakebite, which is, like, university classic: half cider and half beer. So we really thought we were funny and had these silly names and one of them was Emmy the Great. It became my email address and I put my email address on my demos, and it just became my name. But now it’s my band name. It’s so great; it encapsulates two people. Em-Dogg – I actually used that one. A lot of people did. I think when I was DJing for a while, I was “Emmy M-Styles, aka Emmy the Great,” and I was also Emmaroids. Like, “you got Emmaroids.”
From now on, I am going to refer to you as Emmaroids.
Please do, I wish more people would.
What was it that inspired you to become a songwriter?
It actually just came out of me. I was really a bit of a mess at school and at uni, and I was hanging out with bands and I think I was just in danger of becoming a vacuous groupie. I used to come back from these weekends of partying, like I’d sit down and feel like “Oh my God, I feel like I’m going to write a song.” And then it would just happen, and eventually the songwriting became more fun than the partying and it became the only thing I found interesting, so I pursued it. And the funny thing is, now I go to parties to play songs and I don’t really want to be involved in that, so through pursuing this more serious, more worthy pursuit, I actually ended up living my dream life as a teenager.
More rewarding than partying? Lasts forever?
That’s what I think, yeah, but maybe one day I will let loose and actually become a fun person again.
And “groupie” is such a politically incorrect term. Isn’t the preferred nomenclature now “band aids”?
Oh, we were the worst groupies, me and my friend. We were so bad, we wouldn’t put out. We would drink all their beer when they were on stage; we were terrible. So they didn’t like us, but I think that’s normal, that’s a part of it.
Tell me about your involvement in the movement to save libraries back home. Are they in danger of closing down?
Oh for fuck’s sake, yeah, I mean, it seems ridiculous from an outsider’s point of view. There are huge cuts going on in the UK and one of the penny-saving things that lots of councils are doing is they’re trying to shut down the smaller libraries within the borough. These libraries are really important because they tend to be in areas where it’s run down, they need the community space, and maybe they’re not the flashiest looking or have the best books…
They’re the communities that need them the most?
Yeah, they really have a purpose. And if you look at the numbers, they save money in the short run, but think of all the people that are losing their literacy programs, their access to learning, access to books, and to other people who can help them with that kind of stuff. In the long run, those are the people that will be depending on the state even more in 10-15 years.
They’re creating a situation where people will make less income, which means less tax revenue, and increased dependency on the state.
Yeah, we’re all very confused at home. Why, why is this happening? Why target libraries? That’s like, who is the most loved person in the world?
Me? -laughs- No, it’s like trying to fix the zoo by getting rid of the penguins. “Oh, not enough people are coming to visit the zoo. Let’s get rid of the cutest animals with absolutely no unredeeming features.
Bye bye penguins, so long monkeys.
Let’s just keep this weird rat that only comes out at night and the children hate it.
It’s like that here with the Tea Party. Apparently teachers are greedy and their pensions are under considerable scrutiny.
The Tea Party is hilarious from where we are.
I know, it’s terrifying here, isn’t it?
It keeps me up at night.
Oh God, I woke up this morning because I had a dream about David Cameron. I was so upset, I got up at six, I was so stressed.
A producer who we did an album with, I was saying “It’s the end of the world.” And he said “When I was your age, I thought it was the end of the world, too.” But one day it really is going to be the end of the world.
This month, apparently.
I know! The 21st of May. I’m terribly busy that day.
So speaking of zoos, what is your favorite animal when you go to the zoo?
I don’t really know. Isn’t it unfashionable to like the zoo?
I think penguins, but the thing about the zoo… no, I think fish and lizards and the domestic animals, because you don’t have that guilt. I cannot look at the bears. The giraffes seem okay. Where I used to live, near Regent’s Park Zoo, you can see a lot of animals if you just walked around it. You can always see the giraffes, they always look great. They’re really happy and docile. I don’t truly know, I’m not saying that I know how the giraffe is feeling and I don’t want to presume, but…
Yeah, but I always felt the bears and the wolves looked really sad. Because they’re evil. They can’t kill people because they’re in the zoo. They’re desperate to kill.
Your new album Virtue was produced by Gareth Jones. What’s the story behind that partnership?
We saw the stuff he had done. There was a list of producers and I just went “Him. Him.” We just loved him and when we met, he was so cool. He was like a guru and you want your producer to be a guru, and he was a sensitive guy. We loved him.
Is he the kind of producer that helps you realize your vision, rather than enforcing his upon you?
Absolutely. And we’ve worked with the latter and never liked them as people. Won’t name any names, but YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. -laughs-
I can look up the producers you’ve worked with.
No no, these are the ones that never came to anything. I canned it all; bottled it.
How does Virtue contrast with First Love?
First Love is an adolescent record for me. I’ve been very adolescent for a long time, since I was 13, right into my twenties and hurdling towards my thirties. I just grew up as a person between the first and second record, I hope, and I hope it reflects in the music.
What’s the story behind “A Woman, A Woman, A Century of Sleep”?
I knew I was about to get engaged. Guys think that they are going to surprise you, well, the certain type of wild gesture guy, but I had known for ages. I was freaking out because the engagement is like a psychosis. I was giving into this role. I was like, “I’m going to do this, I’m getting engaged to this guy and I’m going to be the best wife in the world. I’m going to do everything that makes him happy ever,” and it made me feel really claustrophobic. I think in the verse it gets really claustrophobic, but there also these incredible pools of calm when it was just the two of us and there wasn’t handshaking and meeting parents, and stuff like that. There were these moments where you’re like “I don’t care if I feel weird right now because I love you so much.” And so I think the song contrasts between the isolation and claustrophobia of being a female fiancée with the roles and traditions and the years and years of other female wives to be just crushing on your shoulders and then the understanding that you don’t care because there’s more to come.
How did the engagement and the subsequent breakup shape the writing and recording of Virtue?
I’d written half of an album and then I was like “Well, it’s very general and I don’t know where I’m going and worried it’s a bit kitsch.” And then this happened and the whole thing was written very soon after, and then we went to record it. Usually when we go away to record, I’m like “I miss home and I’m not sure this is what I want to do.” But this is all I had. I was like “I don’t live in my house anymore, I can’t afford to live on my own, my ex is somewhere very far away. I don’t even know who he is anymore. My parents have moved back to Hong Kong and this album is all I’ve got.” And so I threw everything into it and I think it’s better for it.
I get a churchy vibe from “Century of Sleep”, with the choir and imagery in the lyrics.
It’s freaking churchy, the whole thing. I don’t know how it’s happening because I sometimes think that it’s a sign that I should convert, too. But no, it is very churchy, but I think that’s part of my musical influences; choirs and stuff like that… we keep getting asked to play gigs in churches.
I notice you have a few church gigs coming up in London, all sold out.
Every time they offer us, I just look at the paper and go “Oh God, it’s a church!” I’m so close to becoming a nun. -laughs-
Churches aside, any particular venues or festivals you’d like to play?
I love the festivals that we do play. I love English festivals. I think I’d like to try an American one that’s not SXSW. It would be a dream to play any of those, but I think I’d get scared and really want to go back to England.
Actually, your name has appeared on some of the fake lineup posters fans make for Coachella based on rumors and their own guesses and wishes. I believe I’ve seen your name on at least four of them.
Aww, that’s so sweet.
And I only made one of them.
Oh, that’s fantastic. Thank you, three other people.
It seems that Glastonbury seems to have a personal significance to the artists more so than the other festivals, and that it’s not just another gig, paycheck, or promotional appearance for them. Why do you think that is, and is that true for you as well?
Well, I wouldn’t be in a band if I hadn’t been to Glastonbury.
Why is that?
Because that was when the groupie thing started. I finished my A-levels and got this call from this old dude, and I hope he never sees this, and he was like “I’ve got a spare ticket to Glastonbury” and so I just went. We had a wild time and he dragged me to another festival in Japan two weeks later. Like, “This is going to be my life and I’m going to hang out with bands forever.”
Was that the Fuji Rock festival?
It’s been a dream of mine for years to attend.
Oh damn, you’ve got to go. It’s so amazing and well-organized. At that first festival, I went past the New Bands Stage, now it’s the John Peel, and I was like “Oh wow, I wish I could play something like that. It would be so cool to be on that stage.” I think at the time I was thinking about making out with one of the bands and maybe they will let me on stage. And now I’ve played the John Peel twice and I love it.
What band was it that you were following around?
It was me and my older gentleman and then I separated from him at Fuji Rock. It was like “I want to do this on my own.” It was The Get Up Kids and I want to find them because they were the ones that were like “If you want to come back, you’ve got to start a band.” And I actually want to find them and be like “Guess what? I started a band.”
Imagine you’re curating your own festival. What artists do you book?
Okay, I know this one. So, I would get bands to play their seminal albums, like Weezer to do Pinkerton and The Lemonheads, maybe they would do Come on Feel the Lemonheads and just a whole bunch of classic albums. I’d really like PJ Harvey to do her latest one. I want art installations all around the site and I want readings and events that are more immersive with the audience. And a poetry tent, I definitely want a poetry tent. And comedy tent. And I want Ash to play.
How would you prefer you music to be described or labeled in the media?
I don’t know. I don’t really mind.
I’ve seen you grouped into the whole “anti-folk” movement.
Oh, I don’t like that.
So I’ve gathered. And comparisons to Laura Marling.
No, I don’t like that, no. Other than that, I don’t mind.
So what have you been listening to lately?
The Bangles. Four Bangles albums so I can compare them in order.
Any particular reason?
I really love them. But no, I really love her, and you know who I mean: Susanna Hoffs. I don’t love it when the other Bangles sing, but I thought maybe I was being ignorant. If I just listened to all the CDs, maybe I would like the other Bangles, too. No, I like Susanna Hoffs. Most people say All Over the Place is their best. I love them all, really, except for the one “Eternal Flame” is on.
Are you coming back to America anytime soon for a tour?
Hopefully in the fall. We are going to start touring proper from September onwards.
If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
I don’t know. You would think your friends; you would just be hanging out the whole time. But maybe it would be good to tour with someone amazing like The Bangles or Suzanne Vega. I love her.
You’ve also done music journalism. Do you think being a musician affects your perspective when you’re doing interviews and reviews?
I think it’s helpful to do interviews because you know what questions piss people off and you know how to phrase something so it’s not annoying or patronizing. But reviews, it makes it so hard because you emphasize so much with them. You can’t dislike something because you’re like “Oh God, if this was me…” So album reviews or even live reviews make it much, much harder, and I find that all I can do is praise indiscriminately. I might as well file the same review for every CD. But with interviews, it’s great. You kind of have an instant rapport because they’re not suspicious. I don’t know why people are so suspicious of journalists, but I fucking love journalists because they’re like rock stars to me. Also, they’re helping you out and doing you a favor by writing about you. I’m fascinated by them because the amount that you have to research enough to write an article, you must know loads about something. Something random.
Which do you prefer, being the interviewer or the interviewee?
Why is that?
Because you forget questions. I do. I always lose a thread, don’t you? Because you want to ask a question based on what the answer was, and you forget what you wanted to ask and it’s kind of like trying to have a conversation while you’re on the internet. You’re constantly trying to keep up with the conversation at hand, but trying to remember what was said.
What’s the question you hate to be asked the most?
I don’t know. I think if someone said it, my heart would sink. It’s probably about those folk bands. I’m not even going to say their names because it’ll just get on the internet.