By Jessica Jordan-Wrench
Emmy The Great is wonderfully fantastical. She indulges her imagination – immersing herself in inspiration, playing make-believe, creating new worlds “out of anything you take a delight in”. In short: “curating her version of reality”. But her celebration of wonder is in no way infantilising. Make no mistake – Emma-Lee Moss is a bright and capable woman, well versed in the ways of the world. In fact, it is her capability which allows for the exploration. Abandoning the awkwardness of inexperience, she reaches for a fresh perspective with the benefit of hindsight.
This duality is reflected live. At a recent gig she gave us a confidently considered, mesmeric performance – before bounding off the stage to offer us a slice of cheese cake ( “it is SO good”). We caught up with her recently, coinciding with the release of her new album, “Virtue” (Close Harbour, 2011), last month.
Your first album was self-funded – and a lot of this was funded via Pledge Music – what was the thought process behind not going with a major label?
We’re not anti-label. It’s not anti-label, what we do. But in the creative bit – making the record, actually going in to record it – we would like to retain our rights. We want to do exactly what we want and then show it to people as we want it to, so that they can decide after we’ve made it whether they want to back us. Before that process – before we’ve made it – they might try and influence us to go in a certain direction. Because they want it to be safe, or they want it so sound like something else where they have had success. It’s just easier for us to make the record first then to show it to the label, to have complete creative control.
To what extent are your lyrics auto-biographical?
All of my songs start with something I’ve observed, seen or been a part of and then they get fictionalised - but every now and then a real image or a real scene will come back in. So maybe at the beginning of a song it’s about this relationship I’ve had – and then it goes off into this strange world - and then I’ll throw in a power station I saw on tour, or something like that. So it’s very fun – writing these songs – because I can curate my own version of reality.
So, would you say your songs are quite image-based?
I think so yeah. The stuff that I have been writing recently has been very much inspired by pictures that I have taken then stuck up on my walls, or movies that I have forced myself to watch in a row so that they really swamp me.
If your music could be the soundtrack to any film – what would you choose?
I would really like to soundtrack a Kar Wai Wong movie.
Did he do “In The Mood For Love”? That’s an amazing film.
Yeah, it’s my favourite soundtrack of all time. Yeah, maybe I just want to copy that soundtrack. I like his movies because there is a certain type of Old World glamour. That period of China, Hong Kong and Singapore where Western influences are coming in but there is still this Chineseness to it. These two cultures, which are littered with beautiful things. Like those cheongsam outfits, the hostesses giving everyone a good time and the chop sticks and the noodles and the noisy restaurants. But also the fancy hats from the 30’s, the trains and the ferries that they had back then…
You spent your childhood in Hong Kong before moving to the UK – how rooted in that culture is your music?
I have never really approached my Asian side in my work, but I am now starting to feel more Asian. My parents have moved back to Hong Kong recently – so I had to go back and visit them – and I thought: well this is a whole fascinating new world that I’ve never really explored as an adult. Now I’m free, I can explore it how I want. I don’t have to go to a Chinese school, or sit awkwardly while my parents have dinner parties. This is me, in my world, and I can reclaim Hong Kong.
I understand you’ve done a few covers recently. How do you find interpreting other people’s words, when lyrics are so integral to your own work?
When I fall in love with a song I want to wear it, you know? I’ve covered songs on Garage Band just for me. I record it and put some parts to it, just so I can get to know it. Sometimes I love an old song – “In The Mood For Love” for example - and people are like “who is it by?” and I’m like, “I don’t know”. People used to just write a song and send it out there and lots of people did versions of it because it was a great song. And that is amazing because the song didn’t go to waste or disappear: it keeps having new life; it keeps being resurrected or reinterpreted. That’s why I think covers are healthy.
Talking about covers I understand you and Elizabeth Sankey (Summer Camp) are collaborating on a project, impersonating the Sweet Valley High Twins?
Yesterday I spent the whole day at her house being Jessica and Elizabeth. And we started our twitters as well. On the way here, on the bus, I was tweeting people as Todd and Jessica. It’s really annoying because Elizabeth has managed to out-source Bruce’s tweeting to her boyfriend. But my boyfriend doesn’t know how to use Twitter so I have to be Todd and Jessica.
So what do you want to do with that project? Have an online presence?
I think we’d like to be two crazy people who really think we are those two people. But at the moment – the way we’re developing it before we completely lose our minds – is that there’ll be music and I think we’ll do the lectures again. Because it started as a lecture.
At the library?
Yeah as a show I did at the London Word Festival. But the joke, I think, is going to be that Elizabeth and I think we are the Sweet Valley Twins. You guys know we’re not and occasionally we are really confused – although we’re in character we’ll suddenly be really confused like, what is this weird computer you can shut like a book? You know? We’re just developing it and having fun with it.
Kind of like performance art piece?
Going back to films and visual art, would you class many of your influences as being outside of music?
Yeah, definitely – but for the lyrics. Musically – we listen to a lot of music for the arrangements – but yeah, for the lyrics. In order to finish a song I need to get a moment of intense inspiration, you know? You’re watching a movie or a play and you’re like: I need to go home and dance or draw a picture. I tap into that to write songs. Do you ever get that?
Whilst I was reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy, I was always playing the banjo and talking about horses.
[Laughs] Yeah! I think people really want songs to be about the personality of the writer, but what I love about music is that you can create another world – for the period that people are listening to your album – with your songs. You can make that other world out of anything that you take a delight in. Emmy The Great would love to score a Wong Kar Wai film. Who wouldn’t? In the meantime, she keeps composing lovely pop songs with poetic lines, like the ones in “Virtue”, her new album. Now it’s time to read what she has to say about it all.