It wasn’t quite love at first listen with regard to Emmy The Great’s debut album ‘First Love’, purely because we’d become smitten with Emmy’s oeuvre long before her debut. She was probably one of the first artists we’d discovered via myspace (remember that kids? Back in the day before Murdoch’s money poisoned the well rendering it completely unusable?) We were drawn to her wit, her natural melody, her poetic lyricism and her idiosyncratic musings. So in a sense, it was love at second listen in relation to ‘First Love’, an album we also bestowed our much coveted album of the year award upon in 2009.
If ‘First Love’ proved that Emmy ‘s rough demo’s and EP’s scrubbed up rather well, then ‘Virtue’ sees her music in full make up wearing killer heels and stepping out onto the red carpet. It’s an album of such delicate heartbreaking beauty that it would leave only the stoniest of hearts unmoved. Informed by some life changing experiences, it demonstrates a keenness of mind and a hugeness of spirit that is sadly lacking in a lot of big label music these days.
The albums starts slowly with ‘Dinosaur Sex’ a song which is possibly bleaker than catching Morrissey’s worbegone visage refelcted in a coffin plate. But after this rather disquieting opener the album really finds its feet and demonstrates that Emmy has taken her song writing and melodies to a whole new level. Gone is the naive whimsy of some of her early work, and the occasional self conscious pop culture references, replaced by somebody finding a new perspective, taking risks and not being afraid to express their most intimate thoughts. ‘Virtue’ is informed by the spectre of lost love and contains the sort of erudite lyrical observations that elude most songwriters. She shows that just one of her softly sung couplets contains more wit wisdom and insight into the human condition than a thousand overwrought yodels from the likes of self proclaimed ‘people’s poet’ James Allan. Subtlety is so often overlooked in favour of bombast in a lot of modern day music and so we should cherish somebody who’s intelligent song writing deftly holds a mirror up to our own hopes and dreams as she makes an album that is deeply personal and yet universal. The album closes with ‘Trellick Tower’, a building that many perceive as a brutal architectural scar on west London’s skyline which in this instance becomes emblematic of emotional scarring, it’s also probably Emmy’s most personal song to date. The building acts as a kind of austere memorial to a relationship, to a love lost, an implacable spectator that casts a mighty shadow and still prevails when life has moved on. It’s a tale of heartbreak, acceptance, and is a tender goodbye….
So is ‘Virtue’ better than ‘First Love?’ We think so . Is it a contender for album of the year? It will surely be there or there abouts , and does it prove Emma lives up to her nom de plume? Definitely.
Album rating 9.5/10
We had a chat with Emma about the album, weddings and the life changing events which helped ‘Virtue’ take shape.
VP: Hi Emma, congrats on the new album which is fantastic. What made you go down the Pledge music route and how did the experience work for you? Any bizarre pledges to fulfil?
EMMA : Thanks Andy! I went down the Pledge route for a number of reasons. I didn’t feel like I had to demo the songs to record them for the album, and in order to get label funding before we recorded it, I’d have had to. As well as that, you probably know that I was in the middle of some gnarly personal stuff, and the idea of interacting with strangers and possibly expanding my uses as a musician with things like workshops was incredibly attractive. Anything to get me away from my house and my own thoughts. I’m really glad I did it. I met some amazing people. I can’t think of anything bizarre right now but there were definitely unique experiences, like meeting some of the people I now consider friends.
VP: As you know I loved ‘First Love’ but ‘Virtue’ sounds like a much more confident and mature body of work. Without prying I know you had quite a turbulent time personally whilst writing the album, did that provide a seismic shift in terms of the tone of the album?
EMMA : I think I was already heading towards new pastures sonically, but in terms of the personal tone of the record – I didn’t realise it was going to be like that until the second half of the writing, after my wedding got cancelled. If you had told me in March that I’d spend the summer living with my parents and researching theology, I’d have been shocked, but a month later, that’s what happened, and the album became what it is.
VP: The pop culture references from the first album have all but disappeared, ( 24, M.I.A. etc) was this a conscious decision ?
EMMA : There are still references in this record. Maybe they’re less pop culture and more myth and literature, but those things are closely related. There’s Cassandra in Cassandra, and the last verse of that is based on the poster for the original film of Lolita, and there’s Rapunzel in Trellick Tower, there’s Trellick Tower…there are a couple songs based on the Sylvia Plath quote ‘Character is fate’, and Paper Forest is lifted from the last line of a Patti Smith song, which is lifted from the Bible. So there are still pop culture references, they’re just less direct.
VP: I guess ‘Trellick Tower’ is your most personal song to date but what’s the actual significance of the building in terms of the song ? (Apparently it ‘s also the inspiration for High Rise By JG Ballard so you’re in good company!)
EMMA : I lived really close to Trellick Tower when I was engaged and it was something i talked about with my ex a lot. When he did his thing I was there alone and the Tower took on extra significance, like it linked me with him, or with our past. Then as I got over what happened, it became something that was mine. I was the one who was still there; I was the one who still had a relationship with the building etc. I still use it as my personal sat nav replacement when I’m driving in London and need to get home. I’ve been recommended High Rise by a few people now and I’m definitely going to read it.
VP: How’s your relationship with religion these days?
EMMA : It’s funny, because I always thought I’d be really angry at Christianity after this, but I can’t be. When I went soul searching, I discovered such lovely branches of Christians – liberal ones, who actively fight for gay and female clergy – that I can’t possibly be mad at the entire religion. But there are certain types of Christianity that I came across that shocked me. It tends to do with taking the Bible literally and patriarchy/ moral conservatism/ science denial. To my mind there’s rational religion and irrational religion, and rational religion is something I have lots of time for.
VP: Ha the way you go about song writing changed over the years? For example do you sit down and think, I will write till 1.30 , clock off for lunch and then come back and write till five ? Or is it a case of writing as and when you feel inspired?
EMMA : I need routine. I take notes when I’m inspired but I don’t put it all together until I sit down to work. And then, yeah, it’s a case of starting at 11, taking lunch, finishing at 5 etc. It’s not like that’s the only time I come up with ideas, but that’s the time I know I’ll have something solid finished, and that gives me licence not to be thinking of songs when I’m doing other things.
VP: You said that with “Virtue,” it’s the first album that you really wanted people to hear? Could you explain that statement? Is it a question of being more confident in your song writing?
EMMA : I think just being more confident overall. Now that this album is out and I feel like I’ve got a body of work behind me, I don’t mind people hearing First Love either. I was always so insecure that people wouldn’t think that I could move forward, now if people hear the first, and know what the second sounds like, I feel like they’ll believe me that I can do something interesting for the third as well.
VP: And you’ve just played Glastonbury, how was the festival for you ? And how did you come to be involved in Water Aid?
EMMA : I wrote to Water Aid before my first album I think. Not as a musician, just as a supporter. But as it happened Joe and Mel from Water Aid had been to one of my gigs (maybe just Joe?) and they asked me to come down. We were all going to Glastonbury that year so I said I’d spend my free time campaigning. I’ve campaigned for them every summer now. I really love them, as a charity and as people.
VP: I gather from your recent comments that you were a big fan of the Royal Wedding? Let’s face it , it really did unify the nation and make us all forget about public sector cuts and old Etonians lording it over the serfs didn’t it ….erm …nope…
EMMA : The thing I heard most over that period was, “What’s wrong with a bit of escapism?” But the reason we all felt the need for escapism was because the establishment had let us down (repeatedly) and we were watching things like libraries and the arts crumbling around us. In this instance, you’ll have to explain how paying out of our taxes for a couple of already wealthy people to tie to the knot in incredibly regressive circumstances, in the company of a crowd so right wing that ex-PRIME MINISTERS were considered not posh enough to attend, counts as an effective form of escapism?
And I don’t know Kate Middleton, so I don’t know if the focus of the press coverage was reflective of a pathological interest in fashion on her part – but seriously – could there have been just the tiniest story that wasn’t about the make of the her boots and the gloss of her hair?
VP: And you and Tim [ Wheeler] have recorded a Christmas album ?? What can you tell us about that? Are they originals? Covers ? What’s the deal ?
EMMA : They’re mostly puns. We got snowed in over Christmas 2010 – like literally snowed in – and ended up missing four flights between us and so we wrote the songs (or at least the titles) for the Christmas record. There’s only one cover and it’s a full album.
VP: Finally five tips that would help us all become more ‘virtuous’
EMMA : Don’t stray from the path/ Appearances can be deceiving/ Keep your promises/ Do the right thing/ Follow your heart (full version of my guide to virtuosity can be found here: http://emmythegreat.com/details.aspx?id=18.63.Keep-Your-Virtue-A-Handy-Guide)
- Liverpool Sound City Part 2 – Emmy The Great, Kurt Vile, The Jezabels. (vonpipmusicalexpress.wordpress.com)
- VPME Interview 2008 . (vonpipmusicalexpress.wordpress.com)
- Emmy The Great Liverpool 2008 . (vonpipmusicalexpress.wordpress.com)
- Emmy The Great – Dinosaur Sex (vynly.com)
- Emmy the Great releasing ‘Virtue’, IN NYC TONIGHT (brooklynvegan.com)
- Review of Emmy The Great’s Virtue (chromewaves.net)