Hong Kong-born Emmy the Great embraces her Chinese side
A new EP and tour are proving a rebirth of sorts for the singer, now living in New York, who says she's found her voice and stopped trying to show how British she is
Emmy the Great sometimes wakes up to voices lingering from her dreams. She then grabs her phone and records brief a cappella lilts in a state of semi-slumber.
"I write text messages to myself sometimes, too," the 31-year-old singer-songwriter says. "I make a note of stuff. If an idea keeps coming back to me, I'll look for it wherever it is."
These fragments of sounds and words, as close to a flash of inspiration stereotype as most musicians will get, will eventually become Emmy's songs; it is how she has produced her two albums, First Love and Virtue. Her latest release is an EP titled S.
Emmy the Great (real name Emma-Lee Moss) was born in Hong Kong, was educated from the age of 12 in the UK, moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career, and now resides in Brooklyn, New York.
We meet at a hipster hangout in the borough's Williamsburg neighbourhood where Moss has lived since last August with her boyfriend. "I hate it," she mutters, her eyes scanning streets toppling with twee gentrified bars and men with twirly moustaches. "Have you ever heard people scream on the subway? They're screaming because this city has driven them mad."
Although New York is her temporary home, Moss keeps strong ties with her other homes — when we meet, she discusses a book of Anglo-Chinese poetry she's reviewing for The Guardian (where she is a contributor on books and music) and airs her views on last year's political unrest in Hong Kong.
"Everyone I spoke to, from one 72-year-old cousin to another cousin who is a sorority girl, and friends on Facebook who were in the protest, thought it was dreadful," she says.
Moss speaks in a measured, British-inflected voice — she's quiet and her words are cuttingly insightful and dry ("Putting on a show is like how people describe having a baby, and everyone is screaming and the baby comes out on the bathroom floor," she says sweetly).
This translates well to her music, too — on one of the four tracks on S, she implores of her ex-lover "please don't get over me" while name-dropping all the writers he should stop talking about for a moment in order to have a real conversation with her.
Originally pigeonholed into folk, Moss' progression has revealed a maturity in content as well as style.
Swimming Pool features sonic echoes, a spare, minimal kick drum and layered guitars that sound as if they're rising up from the deep, rushing to meet Moss' voice. It's a progression she is eager to recognise, too: "I found my voice," she says.
Her favourite track from S is Solar Panels. "It seems to be the song most people don't like at all," she says with a laugh. "It's a weird house-type song … the lyrics transport me to the time when I wrote it, a world where stuff is happening that's not just one place, but it's a composite of places."
Much like Moss' own life as an itinerant traveller, the song references the kinetic nature of energy and its ability to be in multiple zones — from the solar panels in the California desert to Japanese companies harnessing the power. The four tracks are loosely based on the subject of the modern age of communication.
Perhaps it's because her second album was so traumatic in both its inspiration and the consequent heaviness of the songs that Moss is now able to bend the other way — a rebirth of sorts.
Virtue (2011) was the result of a woman coming to terms with a break-up — Moss' fiancé at the time found God and then dumped her. "I went so deep in on my second album," she says. "I had such a powerful journey, like reaching the centre of the earth. And so I was like, yeah I have to go back … and then I surfaced and I felt like there was so much more to say on the other side. I had run out of emotional terrain in some ways. That break-up was an event horizon kind of break-up — I don't feel like I have anything to give on the subject any more."
Other things have changed over the years, too — she now embraces her Chinese side more readily, something she attributes to her age and growing up.
"A lot of people I know who have any kind of Chinese in them and moved from England to Hong Kong would really try to establish how British they were, so I was always trying to establish that," she says.
"Now I'm less uptight about people thinking anything about me. I lived there for 11 years and I know it so well. I mean, how amazing it is to be in a place and your feet know exactly where to walk to."
Emmy the Great EP launch, June 20, 8pm, Love Da Cafe, 14/F, 114 King Fuk Street, San Po Kong, Kowloon, HK$180. Inquiries: 2264 1025