The theatrical glamour of the Duke of York’s Picturehouse is the perfect setting this evening. Eventually the curtains draw back on the screen as a short video begins, the photography and narrative telling a story about a girl who goes to China and doesn’t want to get married. The locals think she is weird and the Buddha turns her into a tree, where a man she fell in love with then rests under her branches. There was a bit more to it than that but, in a nutshell, the video sets the scene nicely for the show’s theme – that Emmy does things very much her own way, although she is guided a little bit by the universe too.
For those who don’t know, Emmy The Great is the moniker of Emma-Lee Moss, an indie-pop-folk songwriter who originally hails from East Sussex, and has recently been to China as part of the British Council’s and PRS for Music Foundation’s ‘Musicians in Residence’ programme. This initiative sees artists live in different cities for six weeks, exchanging ideas, creating new work and developing bonds between the two countries. Imogen Heap and Arun Ghosh have been previous participants so it is quite a prestigious opportunity. This performance is what has come from that residency.
As Emmy takes to the stage, she quickly makes it clear what else she has been up to in the past year. “Take photos – this is the baby’s first time on stage, so you can’t write a bad review”, she proclaims gleefully, just the tiniest hint of a bump on her petite frame. The audience softly chuckles, as she begins what unfolds as a spoken monologue of the places she has seen and the people that she has met during her travels.
Famed for being as much of a spoken word performer and blogger as she is a musician, Emmy deftly weaves tales about the mystical Chinese force that dominates her new material, a force she calls “thing jam”. Basically, she has been on a journey of self-discovery, both on a personal and professional level, apparently leaving herself wide open to allowing higher forces to shape her destiny. It is pleasant to listen to her speak so enthusiastically and eloquently, bringing the culture to life in an assured, endearing and humorous way, with refreshing vulnerability. However, given that she is also an acclaimed songwriter with three solo albums under her belt, where is the music?
When songs do intersperse the speech, they are as stunning as might be hoped for, despite Emmy needing to start the first one twice before she finds the right chord, then stopping to blow her nose. Her lyrics largely make a statement on the Eastern way of life, where there is an expectation for women to be defined by a man. It is a message that still actually resonates globally so it is interesting to hear her take on the subject.
Simply using electric guitar, samples and beats to back her flawless vocal and yearning melodies, the few tracks provide an ultra-intimate glimpse into both her ability as a musician and her thoughts as a woman. It’s just a shame that she only plays four songs in total, particularly as she is joined onstage by fellow resident, Quinta, at the end of the show, wielding a musical saw as an accompaniment. It is a captivating partnership and a welcome surprise, Quinta’s own accomplishments needing no introduction due to her previous association with Bat For Lashes, to name but one.
The Q&A that follows clearly displays a relationship between two women that obviously inspire each other. The moment is special to observe, though, after a while, I do feel more like a voyeur, watching a conversation that should also be meaningful for the spectators but takes on a bizarre self-indulgence at times. Again, I would rather have heard another few songs than discover that Quinta has an interpretive chart of Chinese words that also makes noises, that she has fun experimenting with. I suspect I am not the only one who is disappointed. When the microphone is turned to the audience, someone asks Emmy, “Have you written the new album?” She says no, with no explanation.
Regardless, I finally ask Emmy, “What advice would you give your unborn daughter after what you’ve learned from your adventures?” She admits that she doesn’t have advice, only a great deal of fear. As I wish her luck, she says to think of her vagina in three months’ time when she is giving birth. As laughter once again fills the small gathering assembled, one thing is certain – her daughter will be brought into an immersive and exploratory environment.
Despite the fact that it was not what I expected, it has been a memorable evening that leaves me longing to see what Emmy The Great will do next as she continues to make sense of the world. Watch this space.