Feature: Emmy the Great

Photo courtesy of Flickr and Uncensored Interview

Photo courtesy of Flickr and Uncensored Interview

EMMY the Great fidgets in her chair, slurps her coffee and, with wide-eyed insistence, declares: “Steve Martin should be in the world hall-of-fame for geniuses”. She pauses, thoughtfully, gazing intently with her dark eyes which are framed by delicate pixie-like features. “He’s definitely a genius, and that’s not a term I use lightly. I’d only put Stevie Wonder and Brian Wilson in there with him.”

Comparisons between offbeat American comedians and legendary musicians would seem ludicrous from most people, but when the words are uttered in the American-tinged twang of the real-life Emily Moss, they sound quirkily charming. After moving to London from Hong Kong at the age of 12, the now 22 year-old singer-songwriter became a cult fixture in the ultra-trendy Camden underground scene before finally taking the plunge to record and release her debut album, First Love, in February this year. The result was a winning combination of coquettish folk and heart-on-sleeve lyrical sentiment equally capable of inspiring girls to pick up guitars and breaking indie-boy hearts in bedrooms across the country.

Not that Emmy herself is impressed by her own rapidly ascending star . Today, dressed in a scruffy blue denim jacket and jeans, she is decidedly unmoved by her success. “I’m always disappointed with what I have now, but strangely optimistic about what will happen in the future”, she grins. “I’m never satisfied. I’ll probably be sitting in my house at 90, telling myself: ‘this is the year when everything works out’.”

For a girl who endured a lonely and miserable childhood and looked towards music as an escape, however, releasing a critically acclaimed album and touring the country to an expanding and devoted fan base must be delightfully surreal. The daughter of a Chinese mother and English father, Moss found herself isolated between two cultural identities until she escaped to England as a teenager.

“I was so fucking miserable as a child”, she says. “I went to a Chinese-speaking school, and I wasn’t Chinese enough for any of the kids there. And then I was too Chinese for my friends who went to international school. I had no friends and used to get bullied. I remember telling my Mum, and she was like ‘Don’t be silly! Chinese children aren’t mean!’.

“It was only when I moved to London I started to fit in. I had an American accent, which people liked, and I tried really hard—probably too hard—to be cool. I was one of those annoying scenesters at gigs that everybody hates, but I had friends, and friends in bands, and I felt cool for the first time”, she laughs, before adding: “Now I know I’m not very cool anymore.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr and DG Jones

Photo courtesy of Flickr and DG Jones

After picking up the guitar at a young age and teaching herself to play (“I only knew three chords for about seven years”, she admits today), Moss started to write and perform her own song. Originally inspired by the alternative punk bands she idealised as a teenager—Weezer, NOFX and Green Day—she slowly cultivated her own warmer, idiosyncratic identity. First Love combines lovelorn romanticism, such as the jilted lover’s tale of ‘Everything Reminds Me Of You’, to painfully accurate everyday occurrences where Moss’ acidic tongue mocks past boyfriends for either being dull (the TV obsessed couch potato of ‘24’) or pretentious (the preening wanna-poet of ‘Dylan’). Then there’s the title track, which uses the refrain from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ as a backdrop for a bitter love story as Moss recalls a tape given to her from an old lover which “spat out a broken Hallejujah”. To most, it’s a beautiful, innovative way of exorcising a broken relationship. But to Moss…

“I am so fucking unoriginal”, she groans. “That song is everywhere. Maybe I should have chosen something else”. Pausing, she adds: “At the time I was really happy with the album, but now…those songs are so immature. It’s not what I’d do now, but it was necessary for me personally.”

Despite her constant self-flagellation, however, Moss’ wit and charm sparkle through. As she offers her views on everything from fellow Leonard Cohen-coverer Alexandra Burke (“I’m surprised she’s able to sing in between all the sobbing”) to FaceBook (“I’ve created a fake account so I can avoid all the people I used to know”), she also confesses to feeling hurt by criticism. “I used to get a lot of it on the internet”, she sighs. “Really bitchy stuff. People really get their claws in about the smallest things—like my name. It’s just an old e-mail address, but everyone would say ‘Oh, she must be really arrogant’”. She shakes her head. “You just have to not let it bother you.”

As Moss gets up to leave, talk turns to her future plans. After a summer of playing festivals, it’s onto the second album. “We have a lot more options now”, she says, “and it would be great to use some famous producers, but maybe I’ll end up just doing it myself. There’s a path everyone expects you to take, and it would be great to defy that by doing things differently”. Collecting her belongings and disappearing out of the door, she smiles and confides: “I always think you’ve only made it as a musician when you’ve made three albums that don’t suck, so it’s a big challenge”. It may be tough, but Moss is already one third of the way there; and the best, hopefully, is still to come.

~ by benjaminhewitt on May 2, 2009.

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