Emma-Lee Moss – better known as up and coming folk troubadour Emmy The Great – has just started recording the interview we are conducting on her mobile phone. Under normal circumstances, most journalists would be worried that either: a) She was going to make damn sure that you quoted her correctly, followed by a threat of legal action or b) that this self-confessed “frustrated journalist” outside her day job was about to start asking YOU some pretty difficult questions.
Thankfully, it doesn’t seem that ‘normal circumstances’ tend to cover this most beguiling of singer songwriters. “I just want to make sure you get the whole thing,” she offers politely.
It becomes clear over the next 20 minutes that little in the world of Emmy The Great is particularly conventional. If there is a polar opposite word to “meteoric” that it probably best describes her career to date. Feted by the music press for well over three years, the half-English, half-Hong Kong singer has only this week brought out her self-released debut record, First Love after a seemingly endless parade of gigs, festival appearances and short run EPs. So what happened to 2007’s next big thing?
“I think the whole ‘next big thing’ is silly,” she says, playing a little self-consciously with a discarded cup of tea in front of her. “All the press attention was last year, and I don’t think people like me as much now. When you release an EP they (journalists) only have to listen to the title track, now they have to listen to the whole thing, and maybe they don’t like it so much. I’m a slow songwriter anyway – unless the song expresses exactly how I was feeling when I wrote it, then I don’t finish it.”
“We wanted to be separate from all of those people who do agree and have anti-folk influences. And we put those influences aside a long time ago.” – Emma-Lee Moss
One of the most striking things about her First Love, the title taken from a brutally misogynistic Samuel Beckett novella, is Moss’s lyrical dexterity – it is impossible to imagine Little Boots or Lily Allen turning in a record with the line “And underneath your pastures green/ There’s earth and there’s ash/ And there’s bones” (The Easter Parade). Surely her intensely character-driven songs, like new single We Almost Had A Baby’s protagonist pretending to be pregnant to have one over on an ex, or M.I.A.‘s car crash victims, can’t all be autobiographical?
“It’s mainly books that I take the style from,” she says. “Some from Philip Larkin books, and for the more menstrual songs, from people like Anne Sexton. I get the feel of the songs from the countryside, and from train rides, and from flowers. I fetishize the British countryside.” Is this because of her transcontinental roots (She moved from Hong Kong to Britain at the age of 12)? “Because I’m from another place, I can be really pro-Britishness without appearing a total racist like Morrissey can. Not that he is a total racist, but if you are brought up here a super white guy, it’s more difficult.”
She seemed to arrive fully-formed two years ago into a burgeoning anti-folk scene in London, and quickly drew comparisons with Jamie T, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn and Noah And The Whale et al despite going out of her way refute the similarities. Is releasing her album only now a way of distancing herself from the scene?
“The only act that I feel there’s any comparison with is Noah And The Whale because I used to live with (lead singer) Charlie (Fink) and he used to sing in my band and I used to sing in his. But the reason we haven’t spoken for a year is because we had such different ideas of making music, and there was a lot of pressure when people were lumping us together – and we didn’t agree with each other, so we violently split. I’m really happy for their success, but it doesn’t mean we’ll have what we had before. That’s why we wanted to put the record out now – because we wanted to be separate from all of those people who do agree and have anti-folk influences. And we put those influences aside a long time ago.”
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the critically lauded record had to be self-recorded and released through her own label, Close Harbour. “We produced the album as a band because we didn’t really want anyone to put their stamp on us – because we’re right at the beginning of figuring out what we want to sound like. It was so difficult – it turned out that none of us had produced a record before. And we never wanted to have a record label, it’s just a necessity. It’s not like we’re going to go and sign anybody. I don’t even think I should have signed myself. I think I’m a liability – I heard my demo and I didn’t like it!”
Does this jobbing journalist subject herself to the same scrutiny that she would any other musician? “I have reviewed my own album, to myself. I gave it a six. A good first effort, a marker of things to come, but I think I need to stop being a journalist while the album comes out because I’m being really super critical.” Isn’t she being a little unfair on herself and an ecstatically received record (we gave it four stars)?
“I want to make a new album and redeem myself asap! I’m going to make it record it better next time – I was so adamant that I didn’t want the record to be Hi-Fi that our entire album sounds like it was recorded in a refrigerator.”
It is difficult to reconcile the cheerfully geeky girl in the interview – one who seems happier discussing the relative merits of Adam Sandler movies and comedy show Arrested Development than her songwriting – with the one whose dark, visceral vignettes include lines like “They pulled a human from my waist/ It had your mouth, it had your face/ I would have kept it if I’d stayed” (City Song). But then again, as previously noted, nothing to do with Emmy The Great seems particularly conventional. What would real success look like to her, now she’s no longer the next next big thing?
“All I want is a room that I can write in, with a kettle. It doesn’t matter what kind of kettle. Maybe a red one. One of those stylish 1950s ones. And a dog.”