Emmy the great finds true love
By Jenny Zhang
For a decade, Emma-Lee Moss has been steadily making weird, moody, melancholic music under the moniker Emmy the Great that has been referred to as nü-folk, anti-folk, synthpop, and, most of all, literary. If her first two albums, First Love and Virtue, were breakup albums before the colonization of emotions via emojis and likes and shares, then her new album, Second Love, is about falling in love and making real connections in the era of screens. Despite the reoccurring scenes of alienation in her songs, Emma proposes that the antidote might simply be love. She sings it 37 times on “Hyperlink,” though not without cynicism — she interjects “I’m a comfortable liar” between assertions that “love is the answer.” Nonetheless, love was the answer the night I first met Emma in the basement of an East Village bar on Lunar New Year. She and the poet Sarah Howe had organized a night of poetry, music, and dim sum after they realized we shared similar origin stories — all three of us were born in 1983 in China (Emma and Sarah in Hong Kong and me in Shanghai) and subsequently moved to the U.K. and the U.S. at young ages. We performed together to a crowd of mostly Asian-Americans, switching between Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, inhabiting all the various worlds we normally keep separate.
Emma’s music has always slipped between different worlds — too rapaciously witty to be the pretty ingenue and too full of rage to be the sad girl — but as the world moves into a new phase of understanding the multitudes of identity, so has Emma. She recently enlisted her family to help translate songs into Cantonese and Mandarin. She recounts recording “Constantly” in Mandarin with her mom in the studio: “She would be like, ‘No, use more of the front of your mouth,’ and I’d be like, ‘I’ve never used this part of my mouth to speak ever.’ It made me realize if I had been a Mandarin speaker, I would have a different mouth.”
When Emma and I meet again on an especially gloomy spring afternoon in Brooklyn to discuss everything from falling in love to social media to dystopian literature to our Chinese families, we bounce noncommittally from optimism to pessimism. “It’s such a mental effort to not tell people stuff,” she says of the very millennial dilemma between wanting to be alone with our feelings and wanting to reveal them to everyone immediately. The very next day, we learn along with the rest of the world the devastating news that Prince has died. We commiserate over text and agree that it’s best to step away from the computer, only to then simultaneously confess we were both scrolling through Twitter at that very moment, looking to be comforted by other people’s grief and trying to figure out a way to share our own.
When it comes to love, maturity often gets a bad rap — second love is boring, it’s practical, it’s what our parents feel for each other. Your first album was called First Love, and now, seven years later, you’ve titled your third album Second Love. Is this a more grown-up Emmy? Are you in your second love?
Emma-Lee Moss: Love is broken. In a way, it was. That idea of love — that’s gone now. I remember during my first love the realization that love is not enough. It was gutting. I was willing to be anyone, a completely different person if it meant I could hold onto it, but I literally couldn’t. But first love is all about them and then you go through a painful period where you have to love yourself. I think I’m in my second love but it’s about being over 30 as well. It feels like a functional thing where you are taking the things that went wrong in your previous loves and you’re very honestly coming together.
You no longer pin your hopes on someone saving you from yourself.
Moss: That’s so dangerous.
In the three years it took to make this album, you’ve moved from London to L.A. to New York, recording songs all over in different friends’ homes. The sounds of your friends talking are audible in the background. Why did you decide to leave their conversations in?
Moss: We were just about to finish. It had been two and a half years. I was like, “I don’t want to leave this bubble.” I realized I wanted to put conversations with my friends on the album because it’s like coding and it’s like tapestry. It’s like sewing someone’s hair into your lavender pillow during wartime. I wanted them to be with my album as it went out into the world so they could be its patrons. It was easier for me to let go after I threw everyone’s voices on it and it makes me happy when I hear it because I’m like, that was the night when we said goodbye to this person and that was this Skype call with my friend Jeanie and she didn’t know where it would end up. She was giggling about River Phoenix and I’m thinking, Hee hee, I’m stealing your voice! It was very Ursula of me.
It also feels like the world we live in.
Moss: That’s so true. It’s always noisy.
And the idea that everything is material, every interaction. The cynical way of looking at it would be to conclude that every interaction can be commodified and part of your brand. But the more beautiful way of thinking about it is that we now live in a world where we can incorporate every part of our lives into what we make.
Moss: Have you read The Circle by Dave Eggers? Or Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart?
No. Should I?
Moss: Maybe, yeah. Both of those books imagine a future where we’re broadcasting all the time and you’re in trouble if you aren’t. It’s not a huge stretch. I like the beautiful definition. I like it but I fear the dystopian version where you feel bad because you didn’t post “I love my mom” on her birthday even though she doesn’t have an Instagram.
Or when something catastrophic happens, you didn’t really mourn unless you post on Facebook: “I’m so sad that this has happened.”
Moss: Whenever a celebrity dies, I get nervous. I was already nervous about Leonard Cohen dying without feeling like the world’s going to attack me with their personal opinions of what’s going to happen. But at the same time, say for David Bowie, I did feel really sad and I felt bad for feeling really sad because I didn’t know him. But everybody felt that way and they just wanted to write about it. Maybe his family found that really comforting. Maybe not everyone, but maybe there were a couple of people in his family who actively searched for it and were like, This feels good.
So many of the things people posted about David Bowie were about themselves, and that felt appropriate, because that’s what happens at a funeral — you’re talking about what it feels like to be you after this person who meant something to you has died. It’s just odd because now everyone can go to David Bowie’s funeral and give a speech in public.
Moss: We’re on the way to everyone having their own newspaper. It’s an awkward, adolescent stage that feels excruciating sometimes. Like when an earthquake happens in another part of the world and someone writes, “Oh no, I feel really bad because I once went to this place.” But maybe the next step is that it’s accepted, and yes, we do have to make a comment on everything that happens [laughs].
You recently debuted two videos for your single “Constantly”: one in English and one in Mandarin. In each video, there are two of you singing, each occupying half the screen, with simultaneous English and Chinese subtitles running underneath. I kept trying to follow your lips to figure out which Emmy was singing in Chinese and which was singing in English. I couldn’t do it!
Moss: I wasn’t even using my throat, so it looks really random. I’ve recently been looking a lot at videos of weird news reports from China. I can’t really understand what they’re saying and there’s writing all over the screen. It’s chaos. Whoever edited it brought that into place which I thought was quite cool because it keeps switching between who’s doing English and who’s doing Chinese.
I know you have an English dad and a Chinese mom. You were born in Hong Kong and moved to England when you were 11. You’ve lived between so many different places, cultures, and languages. How does identity play into the “Constantly” video?
Moss: Are you bilingual? Do you feel like there are two people inside you all the time?
All the time. I can’t merge them.
Moss: You’re not supposed to. I don’t know if it’s this universal thing. Maybe everyone has a little bit of two cultures inside them. For me it’s very much: I had me in Asia and I had me in England trying so, so, so, so, so hard to appear like I’m from England to the point where I buried myself. Now that I’m older and feeling comfortable, both these sides are living inside me proudly. I saw in a movie — I’m imagining it was a rom-com and Diane Keaton was in it — where someone said, “Marriage is not 50/50, but 100/100.” It’s such a good saying. I’m definitely going to use that in a speech one day so I have to find out if Diane Keaton actually said it.
And that’s what being bilingual and being from two places is like. No one can ever understand what it was like to live there and no one can ever understand what it’s like to live here. You’re 100 percent on both. It’s not anyone’s fault. Everyone has their own thing that I can’t understand, but this is the thing that separates me from other people because I’m always holding the hand of the person who is not present.
It’s so connected to love. Thinking like, If only someone would fall in love with me, then all my selves could exist at the same time and I could be seen.
Moss: It’s about being seen.
And realizing you have to build a home where you can be 100/100.
Moss: You have to present it as well. It’s my responsibility to show people I’m not ashamed. When I was a kid, I was always making jokes about being Chinese because if you make the joke first no one else gets to, so I had some serious comedy sketches, like, “This is what people sound like when they want to eat noodles.”
I would do the same thing! Whenever I passed by a Chinese restaurant in a car, I’d joke to my friends, “Oh yeah, my uncle owns that place.”
Moss: I used to say that! I used to tell taxi drivers that Jackie Chan was my uncle.
Oh my god, I did too! [Both laugh.]
Moss: I once got a free taxi ride because the guy was like, “That’s amazing!” I love Jackie Chan so much.
I do too. He’s my psychic uncle.
Moss: He’s everyone’s psychic uncle. Do you know the singer Anita Mui? She was called the Chinese Madonna. On her deathbed, the only other person there was Jackie Chan. He’s like the godfather of Hong Kong people.
Actually, I’ve seen you perform twice now and each time you’ve mentioned your uncle and the guitar he left behind for you. Tell me about him.
Moss: My uncle Ron drove a Hong Kong red taxi. He had crazy long hair and he had cut a demo tape in the ‘90s. He was a poet. He used to show up to family dinners with a fan like this [gestures wide with hands] with his poetry on it and he was that uncle. When he passed away, he left us all a bit of money. I had wanted to get a guitar so I went to a shop and they showed me a flashy guitar and I was like, “No, that’s not right,” and then I looked at this little ‘90s Tele that was the color of imperial yellow, that kind of mustard color. I was like, “That’s my Uncle Ron’s guitar and I’m taking it around the world and me and my Uncle Ron, we are gonna play songs in English and Chinese, and like, fuck it. We’re touring now together.”
I love all my family, but my Chinese family — it’s just such an intense experience. They used to all live in the same house. My cousin used to be called Michael Jordan. He chose his own name. He went through a five-year phase where he was Michael Jordan and he’s a World of Warcraft champion. In English culture, nobody lives with their whole family, whereas my ideal life is to live with my whole family.
Living with your whole family — that’s true love. In your song “Hyperlink,” you say “Love is the answer.” Do you still think so?
Moss: I really do. I listened to a lot of lovers rock and Marvin Gaye–era soul while recording the album. I don’t believe in a religion. I believe in stories. I believe in culture and I think ultimately you have to find something to believe in, otherwise you will go crazy. I guess what I believe in is love.