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By Aimee Cliff
Emmy the Great is a people watcher. If you didn’t already get that impression from the candid crackle of her lyrics, you’d know it from chatting to her as she sits in a Brick Lane café on a weekday afternoon; she chuckles as she describes to me where she is, and moments after our interview she’s already tweeting about the people that have just walked in. Listen to her latest album, Virtue, and you might get what I’m talking about – Emmy is wickedly perceptive, sticking a pin into a map of human nature with each fresh word she says.
Although she’s soaking up the vibes of her London setting, Emmy’s just back from performing in Asia, and a discussion about homes and places leads into the realisation that she’s a roaming spirit, comfortable to call multiple places home. Having had best friends who lived and worked in Oxford – one on a canal boat – Emmy has emotional ties even scattered here. “Oxford used to be my most inspirational place,” she tells me. “I was heartbroken there.” The place, for her, becomes synonymous with the emotions she felt there, the people she loved, and that rings through her songs with a crisp truthfulness that’s hard to find elsewhere. The recent trip to Hong Kong and Japan has clearly wriggled its way into her song-writing consciousness, as she tells me, “there will be more heat in the new record.”
So how does the song-writing happen? “I usually get the melody first,” she explains, “it’s like filling in a puzzle. The melody informs what the words can say.” Melodies seem to be a mode of getting things out for Emmy – the personal significance that comes with Virtue is apparent as she tells me, with flippant honesty, “I really needed it [Virtue]. I was in a terrible hole, and I decided I was gonna get out of the hole. It was symbolic.” Riddled with her personality, her own bubbling catharsis, the songs of Virtueripple and burst with alternating sadness, anger and hope, inviting the listener into a personal story with the openness and ease of a chat with a best friend and a glass of wine. In the same sense as a heart-to-heart with a friend, it’s the product of emotional difficulty, clearly tinged with honesty and heartbreak, and yet still light and fun, reminding you of everything that comes after, and everything there still is. Emmy’s voice is inviting, encouraging and gentle, and it settles over the record like a comforting, familiar hand.
“The album had no manifesto when we started,” Emmy tells me, “it was more natural.” Unfolding unpredictably like life itself, the album grew from a spurt of ideas; “I would say things like, I want it to sound like the characters are underwater, like they’re trapped. It was really, really fun.” Cutting and yet playfully cheeky, lyrics like “dinosaur sex lead to nothing/ and baby we will lead to nothing” show a writer dealing with a crisis through a fit of creativity free from bitterness. You’ll have someone in mind when you listen to these songs – and you’ll smile as you agree with everything that Emmy says about them.
One motivating manifesto which some listeners have believed to be behind Virtue, though, is feminism – when I ask Emmy if this is a label she would give to her music, she’s keen to tell me how proud she would be to carry that torch. “Feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, it’s a very loaded word,” she tells me, but she wants particularly emphasise that boys can – and should – be feminists too. “Women’s issues are not just a woman’s issue.” She also tells me that she’s been listening mostly to Kate Nash’s latest album recently, saying with urgency that “more people need to listen to it, it’s a really amazing punk-feminist record.” If the weighty punch of the hyphenation of the words “punk” and “feminist” isn’t enough to convince me, the childlike insistence of Emmy’s voice would be the utmost persuasion.
When I speak to her, Emmy’s on her way to shoot a video – the excellent, granny-dancing, spirit-soaring short film that accompanies her song Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture) – so we get into a discussion about which of hers is her favourite. When I tell her that I love the video for We Almost Had a Baby (in which a hapless protagonist mislays the baby he’s meant to be looking after, and runs frantically around town searching for her), Emmy giggles in enthusiastic agreement, exclaiming “That’s my favourite too! They wouldn’t put it on TV though, they said it wasn’t a real video.” She’s not bothered, and why should she be? The fitful happiness that springs into her voice when she talks about shooting the video suggests that the very fact she made it is enough for her.
I get a similar impression with her approach to Virtue, and the Christmas album which she tells me is in the pipeline. With periodic outbursts throughout our interview of phrases like “I had so much fun!” and “I can’t wait!”, it’s clear that Emmy the Great is in love with everything she does, and that she does it specifically because she loves it. The honesty that prickles through her song-writing comes from someone who has a million things to say, and wears them all boldly on her album sleeve. Emmy is not afraid to face the world, and tell them exactly how it looks from her little spot in London, Oxford, Hong Kong, or wherever she so happens to be.