It’s an often wondered-at paradox that to write meaningful songs, songwriters have to have significant life experience, yet as a professional musician that experience can be hard to come by. So when Emma-Lee Moss’ atheist fiancée suddenly left her for the church, amongst all the pain there was a small but crucial silver lining.
‘It was extraordinary. It happened overnight. I cried for days and days – and then I thought, oh god, but this is going to be so good for my career! All these emotions are such great material!’ She is able to laugh wryly about it now, but the pain of the situation is evident.
The album she had tentatively begun changed tack as she realised ‘that it had to be about this.’ Writing became a way of regaining strength, a ‘great comfort’: ‘It had to save me from what happened and keep me going. Writing an album allowed me to express what I thought and felt. It made me feel like a person again.’ The title of the album, Virtue, expresses what the album meant to her. ‘I’ve noticed that in fairy tales, women only make it through the woods when they keep their virtue. Little Red Riding Hood could only escape the wolf if she didn’t stray from the path. And that’s how I felt that summer – I could only get through this terrible thing if I stuck to my path’.
While the album obviously had to be personal, she never wanted it to be all about her. The album contains a backing vocals from a whole cast of characters, given names such as The Protagonist, Hysterical Ladies and Nuns, a deliberate decision: ‘They could be both me and not me’. The characters take their basis from stereotypes which she felt herself fitting into and reacted against. ‘We were only two months away from the wedding, and at that time I felt so much like a woman – I was a bride, one of the oldest and most universal cultural roles, and my experience of getting engaged is that you really feel the age of that tradition, the sheer volume of people who have been in your place with your feelings and anxieties and hopes. You can feel a million movie scenes, images of Diana, Jackie O, your own family mythology with its wedding photos down the generations, and to an extent you can say that you know exactly how they felt, because you felt it too. And then I was a jilted lover, and I’ve never felt so feminine. The first thing that pulled me out of my post-engagement funk was that the sense that we all have an opportunity to represent our gender in a positive way, and sitting about crying and not moving on with my life was not that. I want to write, like they say, what I know, and what I know is what it feels like to be a female in my situation. I don’t want it to be exclusively for women, though, I think if I’ve been as honest as I could about my feminine reactions to things, or concerns, then it should be interesting for men too.’
Her last album, First Love, contains many narratives which are often shocking, notably one about a woman who has been raped and decides to keep the baby. Yet she has said that these situations are imaginary, for who could be alive if all these things had happened to them? This attitude to song-writing has continued: ‘I’m able to take a true situation and then change it how I want it. It can have its basis in reality but it doesn’t have to be the truth. Who’s to know? The Cinderella story goes back so many generations, and everyone has a different version, no-one knows which is the “real” version.’ Faced with a situation over which she had so little control, being able to manipulate situations like this must have been extremely empowering.
Fairy tales, Greek mythology and saints’ lives are important inspirations, creating a poignant mix of gritty reality and otherworldliness. ‘I love saints’ lives. They’re like the Hello magazine for past times. They’re what people fed on, they’re inspirational. When I was deep into reading about saints’ lives, I loved the idea of having a patron saint – a protector – but I was secular. I started to think about what my protectors could be, totems or emblems that made me feel watched over, and I started to pull these ‘protectors’, or personal saints, out of the songs. Sylvia and Iris (who wasn’t originally supposed to be Murdoch but it sort of works I guess), Trellick Tower, Cassandra, Hansel and Gretel (that one didn’t make it on the record)…They did genuinely make me feel stronger and I do genuinely still think of them alongside the album. I almost called it ‘Personal Hagiography’!’ She makes a face.
From hearing Emma speak, coming to terms with her fiancee’s new-found Christianity seems to have been a character-forming experience. ‘I read and read, I armed myself with knowledge so I could be totally informed.’ She even did an Alpha course, yet the deeper she got into religion, the more she found herself reacting against it. ‘I’ve been to churches where people have gone up to the front and claimed to be speaking through God, and I just want to tell them they’re wrong!’ Yet there is a spirituality to Emma, and she would not call herself an atheist but agnostic. ‘There are so many beautiful stories in the Bible, but they need to be taken as metaphor.’ She was turned off Dawkins having heard a story of his writing to a seven-year-old on her birthday to tell her that there was no soul – for Emma the soul is important, and is what can be nourished and bared through art. ‘Art is a window into the soul, a way of leaving something behind and expressing yourself.’ Yet she is not a poet: ‘You can get away with a lot more as a lyricist.’
Despite the success of her first album, a career in music is not set in stone for her. ‘I’m still deciding what I want to do with my life. I wonder if I should be a musician because music isn’t my whole being – I don’t care about the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Books are my thing really, I’ve wondered about going into publishing. But if my music is pleasing others then that’s great, and it feels like the right thing to be doing now.’
In early days she sang backing vocals for Noah and the Whale, and has often been linked with the ‘nu-folk’ scene of artists including Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons. But when I mention this she pulls a face: ‘I don’t understand why people always lump me together with them. I don’t see similarities between my music and Johnny’s music, though I like him very much as a person. I’d rather be likened to singers like Adele or Lily Allen. I wish people would ask me about other musicians – Lightspeed Champion, who made me, or Euan [Hinshelwood, her long-term musical collaborator who came up with the guitar palette for the album], whose band Younghusband is literally the other half of Emmy the Great. It’s weird I’ve never been linked to Three Trapped Tigers, when Tom and I have been working together for four years and he wrote all the piano parts for our music, but I do get linked to all these people who I have met a few times if at all.
‘I understand it’s a stylistic thing, but we feel like comparison is redundant because we were coming at the ‘folk’ (singer-songwriter is more appropriate) aspects from a different angle. We think in decades, we’re not trying to write in a particular style. I don’t mind what someone wants to term us as it’s personal to them, but ultimately I think the term ‘pop’ carries more opportunities. If we’re ‘folk’, I think it’s in the way that Leonard Cohen was ‘folk’, not because of our instruments or politics, but because the songs are lyric or story driven with a singer-songwriter at the centre of the arrangements. When we started out we wanted to sound like Glasgow-indie or Chamber pop, now we want to shake that off and move forward in a different way. I don’t know where we’ve ended up though. I always liked our Myspace music description “Salutations to the Goddess Mooncup”.’