Headed by singer and writer Emma-Lee Moss, anti-folk act Emmy the Great have achieved cult success, but have yet to be embraced more widely. Described as a lyricist who can talk about emotion without resorting to blunt clichés, Moss’s intensely personal songs use the voices of archetypal female protagonists and her lyrics are said to be the act’s secret weapon. Vicki Ell reports on a live performance at the Women of the World Festival 2012, London Southbank
If there was any justice in the world of music, Emmy the Great would be enjoying massive success by now. A cursory glance at any music publication will tell you that female vocalists and female-led bands are allegedly big business right now, from Adele and her recent all-conquering award ceremony success with second album 21 to the ubiquitous Lady Gaga who was recently ranked at number four on Billboard‘s list of top moneymakers of 2011. Artists such as Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding and even the much less obviously mainstream Laura Marling, have all enjoyed both critical and popular success to varying degrees. Emmy the Great, however, have retained much more cult than popular success so far, despite garnering positive reviews for both of their albums to date. And this is a travesty because they are awesome.
I say ‘they,’ but actually Emmy the Great refers to both a solo and collaborative project fronted by singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss and usually supported by guitarist Euan Hinshelwood and a rotating collective of other musicians. Emmy’s debut album First Love was released in 2007 and is a collection of gorgeous fragile songs about life, death, love and loss, with the occasional musing on how to pronounce the name of singer M.I.A. I purchased the album based on excellent reviews at the time but got distracted and relegated it to a shelf unlistened to. This was until I caught Emmy during a rainy setlist at Glastonbury the same year and lost my heart.
Follow-up album Virtue was released last year and paid for via fan-funded music platform PledgeMusic – a sign that Emmy the Great are very much about being in charge of their own destiny. The resultant album is – by a long shot – my album of 2012. Described by Emmy as “mixing themes from myths, fairy tales and saints’ lives, using the voices of archetypal female protagonists, and mixing classical images with the modern industrial images that have replaced them,” the songs manage to be both intriguing and obscure at the same time as being intensely personal. This can probably be attributed to the fact that the album was inspired by and recorded in the wake of Moss’s relationship break-up with her fiancé, who has been described as undergoing a sudden religious conversion. This resulted in a last-minute cancelled wedding and, more fortuitously, an outpouring of beautiful songs; most striking of which is the heart wrenching final track ‘Trellick Tower‘. As a fellow member of the jilted-for-God club, I lost my heart yet again when I heard this. So when I discovered that Emmy were playing the final night of the London Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival this year, the decision to get tickets was a no-brainer.
By Sunday 11 March when Emmy are scheduled to play, the festival has already hosted live music from Annie Lennox, Emeli Sandé, Katy B and Sinéad O’Connor amongst others. On stage Moss jokes that she persuaded her family to attend tonight by telling them she was playing with Annie Lennox, adding “Look! We’re headlining” but, in reality, the venue is sold-out and hopeful people trying to acquire tickets are turned away from the door while I’m collecting my reserved ones.
Emmy are supported by Amanda Applewood, previously better known for playing guitar and keyboard with indie rock duo The Boy Least Likely To. Despite her somewhat self-deprecating manner, Applewood plays a low-key but impressive set of songs from her debut album I Love Boys which has enough clever, quirky lyrics and catchy tunes to send me scuttling back to Spotify the next day to check it out again. And as an added bonus, she’s funny and keeps the crowd engaged throughout; not always an easy task for a support act.
But make no mistake, tonight is Emmy the Great’s night. The show opens with the hauntingly beautiful ‘Eastern Maria’, which is sung almost a capella, and then it’s on to a setlist comprising a good mix of songs from both albums and a couple of new ones thrown in for good measure. Most notable is an untitled tale of homoerotic unrequited love, with the haunting refrain ‘William Blake’ which plays over and over again in my head for days afterwards. Despite having just completed a fairly extensive tour to support the release of Virtue, Emmy are sounding fresh and on top form tonight. As a special feature for the Women of the World festival, the band are also joined by an all-female choir and string section with special arrangements of Emmy’s songs by composer Bridget Samuels, the standout of which has to be the lush 1960s girl-group treatment given to ‘We Almost Had A Baby’.
At the start of the show, Moss surveys the crowd, somewhat dismayed, commenting on the fact that the venue is all-seated and thus people might want to consider consuming a lot of alcohol and sitting on the floor to make the whole experience more bearable. She also jokes that the seats could get uncomfortable during the lengthy reading from classic feminist tracts she has planned for later in the evening. In the event neither floor-sitting nor alcohol are required; the setlist is fast paced and crowd-pleasing and Moss herself is witty and engaging. She repeatedly chats with the crowd in a casual manner, throwing in surreal remarks here and there and at one point musing on the possibility of the band’s family members engaging in a Harry Hill-style fight after the gig. This tendency to talk actually leaves me and an increasingly irate man trapped out in the lobby for several minutes after briefly leaving the auditorium, as the door staff are under strict instructions not to allow anyone back in until they hear clapping, signalling the end of a song. Luckily for me the next song is the lush and delightful ‘Exit Night/Juliet’s Theme’ which elicits lots of clapping at the end, so I’m not doomed to spend the remainder of the gig outside reviewing through a closed door!
And all too soon it’s over. The setlist finishes on ‘Trellick Tower’ before Emmy return to the stage for an encore that includes the quirky and fabulous ‘Canopies and Drapes’. This features the key line: “My head hurts, I wish I’d never woke up. I feel worse than when S Club 7 broke up.” Really with a line like that, what’s not to love? The group finishes on a sumptuous and haunting rendition of Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’. I stumble outside, still with no idea why Emmy the Great aren’t enjoying the popular success they clearly deserve but with a certainty that I’ve lost my heart all over again.
Photo by Oliver Lopena, shared under a creative commons licence. This shows Emma-Lee Moss performing with guitar at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (10/21/08). She is wearing a long sleeved black top with white stripes on it.