Emmy the Great on ‘Virtue’
August 16, 2011 | by Peter Terzian
Emmy the Great is the stage name of Emma-Lee Moss. (The moniker was a university joke that stuck.) The twenty-eight-year-old Anglo-Chinese musician first began to attract attention in the mid-2000s, when a set of her acoustic demos, recorded for a school project, began floating around the Internet, and she subsequently became associated with a group of young London-based folk revivalists that included Noah and the Whale, Johnny Flynn, and Mumford and Sons. Her debut album, First Love (2009), was built around acoustic guitar and her bright, quavering voice. But her early songs also reshaped classic indie pop and girl-group tropes into funny, wordy tales of romantic disappointment: a boyfriend who whiles away his life watching back-to-back episodes of 24; a girl who has a one-night affair with a guy who plays her the song “Hallelujah” (“the original Leonard Cohen version,” the narrator makes clear). Moss’s new album, Virtue, is both more mature and more heartbroken. The songs were written around her real-life breakup with her former fiancé, who left her on the eve of their wedding to join a religious order. We met one July morning on London’s Oxford Street (“About to meet Serious Journalist from Abroad … At Top Shop. #igottopickthevenue,” she tweeted) and went to a Soho café.
Musicians often say they don’t want to explain their lyrics or talk about the autobiographical elements in their songs because they want the listener to be free to project his or her own stories onto them. But with this album you’ve talked openly to the press about the breakup of your engagement and how it led to these songs.
It was the weirdest year of my life—I actually want to talk more about it. When I wrote the first half of Virtue I was in the middle of my wedding preparations, and thinking, “I’m so in love, I’m so happy, I have a boyfriend who’s my soul mate and we’re going to get married.” And then sometimes I would fall asleep while writing the songs—it was literally this dream sequence of writing them—and they’d come out and I’d think, “It sounds like I’m worried about something.” It was as though the songs were telling me stuff I wasn’t aware of—they were like messages from me to me. And then the breakup happened, and the rest of the songs just wrote themselves.
Had you been reading a lot of fairy tales when you wrote the songs?
After I broke up with my fiancée and moved back to my parents’ house there was really nothing to do. I spent entire days reading, because I was supposed to be getting married and I had time off from performing. I was reading some feminist fairy-tale fiction, like Angela Carter, but it wasn’t until after I started writing that I began to notice the fairy-tale themes in the songs. And I wondered why I was thinking in fairy tales. I eventually realized it was because I was the bride-to-be. A lot of fairy-tale heroines are about to embark on the next stage of their life, which is usually marriage.
So many of the new songs mention specific characters by name: Juliet; the prophet Cassandra; Sylvia Plath.
Christians have protector saints that they can turn to, and I don’t have that. I thought that the women in the songs were my personal patron saints, who would look after me. A lot of fairy-tale characters are young women who keep their cool in difficult circumstances, and make it out the other side. They don’t have a great deal of knowledge about the world, but they have a moral compass and enough common sense to navigate through their predicament. Sylvia Plath could have been a fairy-tale heroine. She didn’t quite make it out the other side, but she was a very strong and complicated character in a very uncomfortable time and situation.
Do you have musical patron saints who influenced the album in some way?
Suzanne Vega. She’s so unapologetically literal, and very sensible! She’s not motherly, but sisterly. There’s a woman named Faye Wong in Hong Kong who did a lot of Cocteau Twins covers. Liz Frazer of the Cocteau Twins—she could be in a classical Greek myth, where something happens to her and all she is afterward is a voice.
You were born in Hong Kong and lived there until you were eleven, and then you moved to rural England. Do you still have roots in Hong Kong?
My parents just moved back there last year, and I go back quite a lot to play shows. When my first record came out three years ago, people there really responded to it. There’s a very small indie music culture in Hong Kong, and supposedly no one had ever done anything international.
Growing up, did you ever feel a conflict of cultures?
Everything I picked up from Hong Kong was culturally American. People talk about kids’ programs they watched here [in England] and I literally don’t know what they are. I remember Cheers and Saved By the Bell, because that’s what we had. I grew up on MTV.
Did American culture make its way into your music?
I sometimes think it did. The bands I loved, like Cake and Weezer, were very ironic. When I first started making music, I was very ironic, and people didn’t understand that here. But that’s because they didn’t grow up in the nineties in an American cultural colony.
In interviews, you’ve tended to distance yourself from the new British folk scene.
I think it’s that Arctic Monkeys thing: whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not. I distanced myself from the new-folk people because I felt like I was separate—older and inspired by different bands. They were being very straightforward about folk and the idea of bringing back folk, whereas I was really about finding my way toward Weezer. Which maybe doesn’t come across in my music.
I imagine it’s tiresome to always be mentioned in the same breath as the same few bands.
It is, but it’s been about five years now, and lately I’m starting to think that way. When my new album came out, I was like, How does it look against Mumford and Sons?
Your new songs are clearly autobiographical. What about the songs on your first album, First Love?
In the first album I was writing a story with my real life and my friends in it. I have a song called “Edward is Deadward.” That’s my friend Ed, who’s not dead. I just wrote him into it because he’s so pretty. And my ex-boyfriend Adam was cast as a lot of the cads in the songs. I didn’t really think widely about audience when I first started writing. I was just thinking about performing to my ten friends. I knew at least one of them would be interested in the song, because it was about them.
Did anyone ever get upset with you for putting them in a song?
This is a credit to Adam. He was amazingly casual about it, to the point where I’d be playing him mixes after we’d broken up and I’d say, “This song is basically about what a dick you are—but what do you think of the guitar?” And he’d be, like, “Too loud.”
Can you tell me about your side project, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield? It’s inspired by the Sweet Valley High series of young adult books, right?
I have a blog with Elizabeth Sankey, who’s in a band called Summer Camp. The premise is that we think we’re the Sweet Valley twins, and we interview people as if we are teenagers from the nineties. And then we do this lecture series about the books, and some songs as well. We have a song about how we’ve done all these amazing things in Sweet Valley but we’ve never had sex, since it’s an all-American morality tale. And we have a song about Regina Morrow, a girl who dies at the beginning of the books because she does a single line of coke. The main joke is that I’m not blond, and Elizabeth’s not blond, and we’re not twins, but we really strongly believe that we are. The reason we did this is because we discovered that we were Sweet Valley experts. I’ve never been an expert at anything, and when you’re good at something, you just want to go with it.
Emmy the Great is performing at the Trocadero Ballroom in Philadelphia on Wednesday, August 17, and at the Studio at Webster Hall on Thursday, August 18.