For the summer issue of Razz, Emma, my co-editor, and I interviewed Emmy the Great. We really enjoyed chatting to her and loved listening to her new album, Virtue, which came out in June.
Razz editors Emma and Ellie interview singer songwriter Emmy the Great.
How did you get the name Emmy the Great as a stage name? At my university my friends and I started giving ourselves increasingly hyperbolic rap battle/ MC names as a joke. At that time I was changing my email from hotmail to gmail and needed a new name (the old one had the number 69 in it), so I used a shortened version of my most recent nickname – ’emmy emstyles aka the great’ – for the gmail account. When I made demos to try and get singing jobs in bands, I used emmy the great. I’ve since read people saying that it’s a nostalgia thing, or a hark back to comic strips, even Calvin and Hobbes which is my favourite, and I like that. I often tell people that the ‘great’ bit isn’t ‘great’ as in ‘fantastic’, it’s ‘great’ as in ‘oh great I’ve lost my bankcard’.
We love the lyrics of your songs because they’re quirky and earthy. They’re obviously really personal, but at the same time we find them relatable. What inspires you to start writing? I want to tell people how I feel without having to explicitly tell people how I feel, maybe? I get these feelings when I see or read or hear things, like a sense of being outside of my own experience, for a tiny second, and I want to frame that feeling, rearrange what I saw/heard/read and turn it into something that’s mine. It’s probably something to do with ancient cave paintings…
Do you feel vulnerable from drawing on your own experiences and putting it out there? I often feel stupid. I use my songs to get over things, and when it comes time to put the songs out I’m so far over it that I’m sometimes embarrassed for people to hear. But those really personal songs probably mean the most to the people who are going through something similar (hopefully).
How important was your time at university in relation to your music now? In terms of having space to learn how to live outside of school, and to meet people and be indulged as a person with my own mind and infinite potential, it was incredibly valuable. It makes me depressed that there are about to be generations of people who will be put off by tuition fees or won’t be able to afford to have what I had (for a ninth of the price), and to have that time of freedom and experience.
Even at university, it’s hard to know what you want to do with your life! When did you decide that singing was what you wanted to do? About December 2010! I felt like I was drifting from the moment I left University – I wasn’t sure if music was what I wanted to do, or if I should have studied something more academic, or pursued something with actual job security. It was terrifying. But I think I realised that no one really knows for sure what they’ll end up doing, or where their work will lead them, so I decided to throw myself into this and enjoy the opportunities it gave me, like seeing the world and meeting new people all the time. I think when you leave university you think you have to be on a career path by the time you’re 25, but none of my older friends, or my parents’ contemporaries, who are happy and/or successful are doing what they were doing when they were 25. They also don’t regret what they were doing at 25, which is another reason why I try to enjoy my job – it might be the thing that leads me to my destiny, or it might be my destiny.
How and when did you first get into singing and song writing? I sang harmonies with my dad a lot when I was growing up, just family stuff, but I wanted to be a journalist so I was casual about music. I did some singing at ‘pop’ assemblies at school but focussed on other stuff. Then after my A-levels I encountered boys in bands and decided to get in that world by being in bands myself. At the time I partied a lot and didn’t care if my band was good, as long as we got to play with those that were. This lost its interest very quickly. Around the time I stopped over-indulging I started writing songs for real, and then my demo got around the Internet and this sort of happened.
What advice would you give to students who want to get into music? Work extra hard, meet lots of other musicians, listen to a lot of music, rehearse and write as much as you can. Don’t be snobby. Use the Internet. Do things that excite you, not that you think will excite other people.
What other music inspires you? Most stuff. For example the other day I heard a Britney song on the radio and I thought it was boring, then at the gym I saw the music video and it was really colourful and erratic and when I got home I wanted to write a song. It didn’t sound like hers.
Do you have any other creative outputs, or is music the only one? I do a lot of writing. Some journalism, some private stuff. I wrote a show with a poet called Jack Underwood last month for a festival, which was a fun experience. I used to write stories for the kids in my family but that’s lapsed.
How would you describe ‘Virtue’, your new album, in three words? So Last Year.
One of this issue’s themes is culture. As you spent some of your childhood in Hong Kong before moving to Britain, how far would you say these two cultures have influenced your music? Longing for the British summer time, which meant freedom from the stifling discipline of Chinese school, left me with a heightened sense of the English pastoral (Jerusalem/Arcadia etc). That’s what I used to associate with happiness, with freedom. So when I first started writing, it was with this very classic English/romantic aesthetic. Because I’ve spent most of my adult life as a Londoner, and because of travelling the British countryside and seeing the beauty in distant power stations and motorway cafes, when I came to the second album my idea of a romantic landscape was less strictly rural. And now that I’m happy in myself and have gotten over that feeling of being the odd one out in Hong Kong, I’m starting to embrace my mum’s culture, and have been thinking about the things that make being Chinese, or being from Hong Kong interesting to me. So far I’m watching a lot of Wong Kar Wai and listening to Cantopop. It might lead to something.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend? Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would you pick? Porridge.
What was the most recent addition to your wardrobe, and where was it from? A black vintage handbag from the Buy Sell Trade shop on Notting Hill Gate.
If a stranger asked you to razz their berries, what would you reply? I’m allergic.▪
Razz previewed Emmy the Great’s new album…
best track of the album Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)
listen to it when you are feeling stressed/mellow/sleepy or having relationship troubles.
best lyric “Dinosaur sex led to nothing, and maybe we will lead to nothing”
it’s for you if you like Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling, Slow Club, Lisa Mitchell, Tilly and the Wall, Cat Power, Belle and Sebastian, or Feist.
Published in the Summer 2011 issue of Razz My Berries magazine. www.razzmag.blogspot.com