Emmy The Great
I saw Emmy the Great live for the first time few years ago. It was 2008 I think, she opened for Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly.
This is Emmy then. Shot on B&W 35mm film. I never published this shots anywhere, never even scanned until today.
She hadn’t published any album too, at that time.
She wasn’t very much known, surely I hadn’t heard of her.
But I never forgot such a “bold” name. I misread it as desire of an ambitious future, which is not, it intrigued me.
What I remember of that short set, was that Emmy was… erm… great. Great, cheerful and funny. Very funny.
I loved the self-confident, brave attitude of a twenty-something girl, alone on stage, strumming her acoustic guitar and telling funny stories in front of an audience that hadn’t heard of her.
I remember of going online to know more, finding some photos or videos or something (can’t remember now) with kitten. I love cats, so that bound me to her.
Not too tight, really. It took until 2011 before our paths crossed again. I wanted to see her own, solo live show.
In the years Emmy kept playing, touring and recording. She made two albums and found her place in the crowded London singer-songwriter area.
First Love, her debut, made the Top Ten album of New York Times, which is an achievement for an English young artist.
Virtue, her sophomore LP out for a few months now, confirmed the many virtues of this young artist.
…and this is Emmy today.
She finally arrived at the tiny, yet sold-out, Junction2 in Cambridge.
The situation is different now. People come to listen to her.
Thanks to its renowned Folk Festival, Cambridge is a kind of UK capital of acoustic and folk music. Audience is demanding and the setting is important.
Emmy (Lee-Moss, her real name) knows. She arrives on the big stage elegantly dressed. Backed by her full band. The audience is in a cavity in the stalls so that, for a change, the all-seated area is below the stage level.
The show opens with Eastern Maria, follows with Dinosaur Sex and goes on for a while without speaking a word outside the lyrics.
I thought something changed in the years. That young girls became a woman, that jaunty cheerful attitude I remembered got lost in the smokes of success.
I was wrong. Emmy only needed to break the ice (maybe this is an Italian only expression? Whatever).
Few songs melted it. The chats, the jokes and funny anecdotes arrived to complete the night and made the show as entertaining as I remembered. More.
Emmy surprised me with her music. Her songwriting is bright, the songs tell simple stories but are beautifully written.
The apparently frivolous Dinosaur Sex, the opening song in Virtue isn’t as light as its lullaby suggests. I think “…and dinosaur sex led to nothing” is a brilliant verse.
As everyone is emotional about first love, but few managed to talk about it so candidly “Now the thought of you is burnt on my body from the first time you did rewind that line from Hallelujah. The original Leonard Cohen version.” It seems to be in that room. To hear that Cohen line.
Emmy words are never banal. Plus Emmy the Great music has melody. Songs are arranged and sophisticated and her guitarist does a superlative work on guitar to move away from clichés.
Cliché? Yes, because the music press easily confined (and confused) Emmy as a member of the anti-folk (alt.folk, whatever.folk) scene. A mistake. It doesn’t always work as: a girl plays acoustic guitar, the Guardian loves it, bang! It is alt.folk stuff. No, it’s not.
Emmy goes beyond. She may start from somewhere close to Jony Mitchell or Martha Wainwright but she goes further. The declared love for Weezers, which reads ‘the alternative american scene of late eighties early nineties so crucial to rock history’ permeates the soul of her music. And is in the chords of her band.
Emmy was born in Hong Kong and grew up in London. Out of this exotic cocktail the songs come as juicy and unpredictable as picking Dim Sums at random from a menu written in Chinese. They are all different, they all taste good.
There is no reason to compare Emmy the Great to Laura Marling (who is much less original in her songs’ structure) or Lily Allen (whose lyrics may be as direct but talks about a different world). Emmy Lee-Moss is a different artist.
In a bright balance between sensuality and feminism her voice knows how to reach unexpected height, as when the band leaves her singing an almost a-cappella version of Trellick Tower. Intense to the point of being touching. A rarity.
She left her most autobiographical song for the encore.
We Almost Had a Baby is a girl manifesto. Simple as a manifesto must be, not banal as such arguments risk to be.
And this is Emmy best virtue. She sounds a very down-to-heart person, as a girl and for the stories she sings, but she is never obvious in the way she does it.
“well you didn’t stop, when I told you to stop
and there was a month when I wasn’t sure
if the next time I saw you out on the road
I’d have something to say, other than pay
all of the money that you owe.
and I would have liked to have something above you
to have something to hold
and know I could choose to let it grow
and I would have called you and I’d have said hey
you know I’m in control and I’ll let you know
if you have to come and choose a name
and I will think of you now that we are apart
I put my hand across my gut I plan to feed it with a heart
I ‘m not the girl that you remember from the start
I was only a baby now I am what you made me
and once you left me in the spring
and twice you left in fall
and once I tried to make a life
to keep myself in yours
do you think of me when you are playing the one and five in four
is country music what your life is for?
We Almost Had a Baby”
It doesn’t happen often that I buy a CD after a gig; it rarely happened that I have bought two. This was the very first time I got out of the venue only after Emmy signed both of my copies.
If live music was always so good on surprising me I’d go to a concert a night.
This was a bit unusual.
It is normal that a stage is elevated compared to the audience, but it is not normal that this happens because the stalls are below the theatre level.
When the Junction 2 ‘The Shed’ is set into its all-seated option, this is what happens.
From the audience, the perspective doesn’t really change much, from the photographer it does a lot.
I was on the same level of the stage, which is good to have a non tilted perspective, but I couldn’t stand central without blocking audience’s view.
With the addition of the delicate, almost acoustic sound of Emmy’s music, the situation gets trickier.
What to do?
Stand on one side. Choose in advance, I mean before the show starts, the best. It’s not nice to walk in front of the artist while she’s on playing. Don’t.
With a right handed guitarist, usually the left side (looking at the stage) is better.
Luckily enough I was allowed to shoot for the entire show, so I waited for the encore to change side. Just in case, the last couple of songs were taken from the right.
Bring your long telephoto. Being close doesn’t always translate in wide-angle. Actually I used my 70-200mm most of the set. It is a good lens for solo artists, when single portraits are more important that full band shots.
Wait for the loud moments. First important rule of concert photography, one that amateur often miss is: Best photos are not happening during the best songs. There is no correlation at all. Second the most annoying photographer is the one shooting in the quiet moments. You disturb everyone, from the artist to the audience. Theatre’s acoustic amplify every sound, the shutter become an irritating automatic weapon. For a couple of songs can be acceptable, but when staying there for the entire show it’s e no.
Wait for the louder bits and snap during those moments.
You may miss some good shots but surely you gain the respect of the musicians and their fans. Which is more important than any concert picture.