In conversation: Emmy the Great

Earlier this year, Emmy the Great released her third album Second Love, an observational study of people's dreams in today’s interconnected society, which TMF loved enough to award nine stars. We’re deeply grateful to Emmy, aka British – American based – musician Emma-Lee Moss, for taking time from her busy schedule to answer our questions.

In ‘Second Love’s press release, you described its three year production process as having “led me to almost every good thing that has happened to me in the last three years”. It’s important for listeners to have a sense of your emotional investment, thanks. Can you explain how living in and travelling between various cities during these three years influenced the album. Are tracks written in New York tonally different from those written in Los Angeles?

Haha, I usually describe the songs written in LA as being like, “Isn’t life wonderful?” and the ones in New York as “ARGHHH HOW WILL I PAY MY RENT.” I think the liner notes by Jon Ronson are the best resource for how that period of rootlessness led to the unified result of this album. I was searching for something during that period of my life, trying to pin down the album. And when you’re not paying attention to your personal life, it just seems to provide.

Despite your deep involvement, you’ve credited production to Dave McCracken, Ludwig Goransson and Neil Comber. Can you describe how the production process progressed your own skills, and do you think you’ll choose to self-produce your next album?

I feel like I was on an unofficial apprenticeship with those three cornerstones of the album, as well as Leo Abrahams, who played guitar on a lot of stuff and gave me a lot of advice. He told me, actually, that you should always be intimidated by the people you work with, and he was totally right. I now have better tools and more confidence to produce my own stuff, which I went on to use for my contributions to ‘Mystery Show’, and I’m definitely going to keep producing my own stuff, but I would never rule out working with collaborators, because, for me, that’s when the process comes alive and becomes memories.

Bearing the previous question in mind, are you relishing the challenge of performing the album live outside of your studio environment? Or after a while do you think you’ll be itching to get back there?

I loved touring in both the UK and US with different band lineups. At the moment, I have musicians I can work with and play with in many places and that suits my mobile studio!

I read how your close family were also involved in the production and creative process. I imagine they also offered important emotional support. Did they also offer perspectives that we can hear on the album?

My dad has always taught me so much about confidence and process. And he was such an inspiration throughout this album because he had just started his own successful ventures as a fine artist, and published his first book. Both my parents are always busy, always working, and always there for me to inspire me and offer practical and emotional advice. I am really lucky to have them. My brother Robin also played guitar on the record and we did a lot of playing through songs together. It’s a dream to be surrounded by people who you look up to and love at the same time.

During the album’s gestation process you wrote for publications such as The Guardian and Vice. Did your journalistic and lyrical writing feedback into one another, and if so how?

It was really helpful to write for people because it meant being edited and having deadlines, and when you’re working on a formless, endless album, it helps to remember the act of filing something on deadline. It also really helped me get out the ideas that simply wouldn’t work in songs, and it provided a valuable side income when album recording ran over significantly. Also it took me on adventures and to new places, and that always helps with songs.

The track ‘Constantly’ paints a beautiful picture of how modern lifestyles can create heartache between caring people. It’s also especially catchy! Did you make much of a conscious decision to release ‘Swimming Pool’ as the first single to signal how your musical style has changed since your second album?

‘Swimming Pool’ was the first song to be recorded and released, and it’s the first song on the album. It had to be the first thing out, it was the beginning point in so many ways.

And that song gorgeously brings alive in my mind the setting of David Hockney’s famous painting ‘A Bigger Splash’, which describes his state of mind and sense of freedom on leaving England for California. May I ask if you had this in mind while writing the song? Regardless, I’m sure he’d love to hear it.

Actually I do think of that painting quite a lot when we rehearse it. It’s probably the most beautiful depiction of that kind of scene, and it’s from a time when that kind of lifestyle could be simplistically beautiful, instead of now, when it brings to mind concerns about drought and privilege. It’s nice to long for simple times, even if they’re only in a picture.

You’ve said the album is about life and love after initially intending it to be about technology and the future, but I wonder how important your album’s technological aspect remains. I ask because ‘Social Halo’ has a modern social media anxiety, but ‘Never Go Home’s warm nostalgia echoes more transistor radio than Bluetooth speakers. As the last generation who’ll know both a pre and post-hyperconnected world, do you think it’s important to make the most from your generation’s ultimately unique ability to look from both of these perspectives?

I just wanted to write the world as I see it. I don’t know what will happen next, and I don’t want to fall into a trap of thinking I am somehow from a chosen, or particularly important generation. Every generation is the chosen generation. I wonder if the Internet is finite. Maybe we’ll leave it for something better.

Understandably you don’t predict whether we’re headed to a hyperconnected utopia or dystopia, but in ‘Shadowlawns’ I get a sense of frustration projected into the future with the hand life’s dealt your character. Can love always be the answer, and at this fundamental level is hyperconnectivity relevant?

‘Shadowlawns’ is sort of a stab at LA, a sub-tweet kind of thing. I loved LA so much but there was such a spotlight on physical beauty and aspirational luxury and comfort. In answer to your question, i think love will remain a constant, no matter how we find it.

Like many, I love your second album ‘Virtue’. With ‘Second Love’’s nomenclature and other nods to your first album ‘First Love’, do you worry this has relegated ‘Virtue’ to ‘Emmy 1.5’ in the role its played in your personal and professional journey? Is there some element of “been there, done that”, wanting to make a clean break for ‘Second Love’?

‘Virtue’ saved my sanity, but it was a detour. It was something that happened when my life, and process and creative plan got derailed, and I want it to be standalone for that reason. I feel that ‘First Love’ and ‘Second Love’ are very much connected. ‘Second Love’ has the sound ‘First Love’ would have if I had made it now. I also see a distinct difference between the naivety and drama of first love, and the quiet vastness of second love. I think in some ways I was also joking.

You’re a vocal supporter of the television series ‘Frasier’. Eddie the dog has a keen observational sense about him, perhaps even an album’s worth of work. Considering your own excellent work on ‘Second Love’, would you be available for creative or technical assistance? If so, be careful he doesn’t stare you out over the mixing desk as I hear he can be rather intimidating.

Eddie was actually two dogs and unfortunately I feel like he’s probably passed away twice now. But I’d be interested in any member of the cast of Frasier coming to my house, or hanging out with me in any way.

Second Love is available from all good record shops, including from the Bella Union label. And you can catch Emmy the Great on her U.S. June tour dates and UK August festival appearances. Details are available on her website.

Photo Credit: Alex Lake

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