22nd December 2014

Interview: Emmy the Great

Cordelia Milward speaks to Emmy the Great about writing songs in Hong Kong, finding hope in the direst of situations and controlling emotions

In 2009, Emmy The Great’s debut album First Love brought her to fame with its innocent charm.  On account of the sweetness of her voice and the simplicity of her music, she found a route to making dark and often morbid subject matter sound somehow whimsical. Songs that depict car crashes, faking pregnancies and the fear of her own mortality,  compliment her childlike manner and exhibit a curiosity rather than melancholy. Her unconventional disposition, sometimes defined as ’emo-folk’, sees Emmy straddling the bittersweet balance between sickly kitsch and plain misery.

I caught up with her after the release of her new single ‘Swimming Pool’, and in anticipation of her EP S, released in January. Anyone familiar with Emmy’s previous work would assume the seemingly ambiguous title for the new EP, to be riddled with her familiar irony. Yet (although flattered by my assumption there existed a deeper meaning to S), Emmy, giggling, explains, “There’s nothing clever about it. I went through this stage where you could name any object beginning with S and I’d manage to make a song about it.” Yet it is the natural innocence she so self-consciously exudes, that enables her to voice such misanthropic tales. “Perhaps I’m lucky in that sense. But then again if I sung about cute things maybe it would be an overload.”

If reality is stark and grim, Emmy is unlike many songwriters who might feed off this fact of life and wallow in gloom, instead she proves that there is always hope in even the direst of situations. “On this new album there have been occasions when the producer had to remind us that it’s about optimism. That’s our filter for every song. It sounds so cheesy, but it is Christmas.” At this point I cannot fail to mention This is Christmas, Emmy’s festive album with her partner Tim Wheeler, also frontman of Ash. Cringing, as if I’ve just uprooted an embarrassing karaoke video from some drunken night out, Emmy responds, “Urgh, I thought we’d gotten away with that.” Regardless of her wincing memory of this 2011 cracker, songs such as ‘Zombie Christmas’ and ‘Sleigh Me’, with their perfect combination of twee and gore, sum up Emmy The Great so perfectly.

Swiftly diverting conversation away from the past, Emmy explains that she and Tim have not had time to talk about “that chapter”, since they’ve both been working on their own records. Understandably,  Emmy has been exceptionally busy this past year.  Writing songs in hotel rooms all over the world from Hong Kong and Utar and finally compiling it all together on top of a hill in LA. Even though the album may be finished, it is difficult to accept finality. “Until there’s a release date I really doubt we’ll stop working on it.  There have been times when the record’s literally going out to the shops and I’m calling up trying to retract it. Anyone who has worked with me has probably received a call the day before saying, ‘what if’”. With this being her third album, it is clear to Emmy how she has developed in the process. Whereas previously, she would wait to have a feeling, write about it and get it out, now she’s holding back somewhat to try to keep making it better. “At some points when you’re ¾ of the way in, it feels like you’re looking at something that used to be your arm but now it’s been cut off and you’re not really connected to it anymore, but you have to keep using it”. Having been hardened by years of working in the industry, Emmy no longer feels the same pressures, as long as she doesn’t forget why she chose this to be her job. “You need to always remember why you love making music, otherwise, what’s the point”.

With her previous album Virtue released back in 2011, the newest single ‘Swimming Pool’, reveals Emmy’s development since then, with her voice carrying a deeper and more authoritative tone. “The music is less complex, but the hard thing for me is to put less information into the lyrics, forcing people to come to their own conclusions.” As she embarks on tour in the new year, I wonder whether it’s difficult to play songs from her past with real conviction. Surely her sentiment must have grown up from the anxious 24 year old who wrote them. “I try and reign in the feeling and enjoy my control over the emotion that used to have control over me. The distance away from them means I can praise them, almost as someone else’s experiences.” This ethos certainly rings true in her approach to the new record, with Emmy detaching herself from any set interpretation. No longer is Emmy telling grim tales exactly how it is, but having trained up our cynical minds, she’s now relying on our gruesome imagination to interpret her ambiguity for ourselves.

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