Homecoming queen: Emmy the Great

London-based folk singer Emmy the Great is inspired by her Hong Kong roots, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 2:25pm

One rainy day late last month, Londoner Emma-Lee Moss, better known as recording artist Emmy the Great, was back in Hong Kong where she was born and learnt her first instrument. (The guitar, she says, but then confesses to repressing years of piano lessons.)

The modern folk singer was in town to play two shows: a private party for Chivas and an outdoor concert at K11 organised by Clockenflap. At the second event, she intended to debut new songs. "If you guys don't clap tomorrow at [any of the] songs, then maybe I'll change it before I record," she says. "You have a lot of power."

The foundation for Moss' life in music began in Hong Kong. "I'm kind of stuck in the twilight zone of Canto-pop," she says. "So I really like Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, Leon Lai Ming and Faye Wong, and I don't know about anyone post-'97."

More influential were local bands and touring acts. During the 1990s, she saw the Cranberries, Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Weezer in concert in Hong Kong. "When I was growing up in Hong Kong - and after I left I would come back in the summer - there was quite a strong band scene. Pretty much all of those kids left around '97, but there was a lot of punk bands in the '90s."

These memories make playing in Hong Kong all the more satisfying. "The first show I ever did here at Grappa's was pretty special because at that time my album had been put out internationally but I didn't know how it would do," she says.

"Then coming back after years away, it was all sold out. There was a lot of talk before I came that it was like a homecoming album and I read really nice reviews that said stuff like that. But it wasn't until I got onstage and saw all these people [who] look just like me - I don't mean as in we're all Chinese, I mean indie kids in Hong Kong. And I was like, 'Oh man. This is where I'm from'."

Her first two albums, First Love and Virtue, are witty and charming. Moss is comfortable writing lyrics and meshing her melodies with electronic enhancements. Her third album, which she is about to record, began life two years ago in Japan, while she was on tour for Virtue.

There's no point in making music if there's no need for that song to be heard
Emma-Lee Moss

"I started writing lyrics about heat because it was really, really hot," she recalls. "It was 35 degrees Celsius. Heat and futuristic cities. Then I forgot about those lyrics for a while. When I finished touring I sat down with what I'd written in Japan and I was in Hong Kong, and again it was a hi-tech-looking city and I started to have this idea that I would like to write a record that reflects the world I see now.

"I've always written quite pastoral records because at the time of my first record I was [dealing] with life in the English countryside, where I had spent half my life. But over the past four or five years of touring I've come to reconnect with the me who grew up in Hong Kong in a very hypermodern world. That's kind of what I'm trying to reflect now in this third album."

She was challenging herself to take her music in a new direction, to grow her sound. "I'm finding a way of saying something that actually represents me, that isn't a lie," she says of her latest material. "I often think to myself, 'Do I need to be singing this?' There's no point in making music if there's no need for that song to be heard. It needs to have a point to me. If I was listening to it, would I just switch it straight off and be, like, the world doesn't need another song like this or would I still listen to it? Would I keep it on?"

So what makes a song good or meaningful? "I think it's honesty. And I don't mean honesty like, [singing] 'I've got my period today.' It's more like, is it a true reflection of what that person is? For example, Beyoncé singing a Beyoncé song is a very honest thing or Bonnie Prince Billy singing a Bonnie Prince Billy song is a very honest thing. Is that person trying to be something other than themselves? That's what I look for in music."

Has she ever wanted to act in Hong Kong? "You know how there always used to be a third runner-up, second runner-up Miss Hong Kong who grew up abroad, comes back and doesn't speak Chinese? And everyone votes for her because she can't speak Chinese and it's really cute, and then she goes into film and TV here? I always thought I could be that person," she says playfully.

The next day, the rain let up just in time for Moss to play in the K11 plaza. She performed new and old songs, and the crowd applauded enthusiastically; when she ended her set, her fans wanted pictures.

Later, Moss went to Lan Kwai Fong to watch a busker play just off Wellington Street. She had met the young man and his girlfriend after her set at K11, and had promised to stop by. Before he began playing, she was worried the loose bills left by passers-by would fly away, so she placed coins on them to keep everything in place. Then he started playing. A look of delight crossed her face as he began singing. He asked her to join him, but she declined: it was his moment.