Breakout Heroine – An Interview with Emma-Lee

Cadence recently had the opportunity to chat with Toronto-based songstress Emma-Lee on the heels of releasing her rousing sophomore LP Backseat Heroine. Since her soulful debut with 2008’s Never Just a Dream, Emma-Lee has made a career of defying convention and producing heartfelt songs drenched in lucid melodies, awe-inspiring lyrics, and some of the most tender yet powerful vocals from a Canadian singer-songwriter in recent memory. Undoubtedly, there are many acts in Canada that are able to combine such songwriting prowess with true and honest talent, but few – from my estimation at least – have been able to produce such stunning work in such a short span of time. And it would seem that many would be in agreement with such a statement as Emma-Lee and her music have earned the praise of publications throughout Canada and the United States – from the mainstream and alternative public alike – hailing her as no mere flash in the pan, but the real deal in an age of imitation and impermanence.

With her new album – which is available now – Emma-Lee has maintained the earnestness and passion that worked so well in her debut but pushes everything further with lyrics that read like broadsheet headlines, arrangements that are as expansive as the music is deep, and songs that transcend the compartmentalization of genre. Borrowing elements of alt-country, folk, rockabilly, classic pop, and rock and roll, Backseat Heroine has all the trappings of a crossover hit; and as she took the album to the road for a jaunt across her native Ontario, I had the chance to chat with her about her music, the new album, and what possessed her to hitchhike across Toronto with a “Song for Ride” sign in hand.

So, how’s your Family Day going so far?

It’s going okay; not much family involved so far [laughs], but I’m thinking that will probably change later. Gotta work after all.

Work can’t possibly be all that bad though, it actually seems pretty fun. You get to go on stage and rock out and talk to all kinds of interesting people – like me. You’re living the dream!

Oh, but the stage is only an hour of the day. The rest of the day you’re either waiting or doing boring business stuff [laughs].

Interesting; how does the day of a gig typically go down then?

Well, in the case of the gigs that are coming up this week, it’s just a lot of driving and general e-mailing – it’s actually weird how many e-mails I’ve been sending out to people I work with and people who make sure that I . . . well, talk to people like you [laughs]. Right now it’s about focusing on the shows, but when it’s not tour time I do a lot of photography.

Oh cool, this is like the mysterious, unseen side of rock and roll [laughs]. How long have you been doing photography, and is it a professional pursuit like the music?

Oh, I’m not a photographer like someone who would sell their work as a piece of art, but I do photography for other bands actually. Like, I do shots for album covers and promo shots. So it’s still rock and roll, just another side of it [laughs].

Awesome, so do you end up doing your own photos then, or is that just weird [laughs]?

I do, yeah; I do a lot of them. That’s actually a big part of how I learned the craft of photography, by working with myself and learning about lighting and composition and all of that.

Nice, so it’s not like those Facebook pictures that people take with their phone while looking in the mirror?

[Laughs] No, no; none of that. I’ve got a proper set up in my studio where everything is done by remote and there’s actual lighting involved. But then again, I don’t really have much of a chance to take pictures of myself anymore. I used to do it a lot, and there was a grand concept to each picture, but lately I just haven’t had the time because there’s so much going on. I actually really miss it.

Yeah, I’d imagine right now must be crazy – like, you just released the new album, Backseat Heroine, and you’re in the middle of a huge tour in support of it. How are you feeling these days in lieu of everything that’s going on?

I’m feeling really good – we’re doing a lot of things and the beautiful thing is we’re really getting out there and getting the songs heard. So far I’ve been having some really great shows with the new album, so that’s a great feeling. Right now things are busy, but I’m busy in a good way – I mean, you want to be busy when you’re releasing an album [laughs].

That’s a good point; I guess it wouldn’t be a good thing if you weren’t really doing anything right now.

No, no it wouldn’t [laughs].

So how was the process of recording this album in comparison to the first? Because you’ve now been doing this for a few years – does it get easier or are there new challenges to making music as time goes on?

The big difference with this album was that we really wanted to capture the songs through live performance. With [Never Just a Dream], it was put together in bits and pieces as albums typically are – like, we recorded the drums and bass and then we would add piano and all kinds of elements. But with this album, we got the band to track all the basic elements of the song – like the drums, the bass, guitar, and even some of the keys – in the same room at the same time without any editing. And then there are a few songs that I performed acoustically that are live off-the-floor takes, again with no editing. And you know, it takes a certain level of experience with performing where you can reach that point where you can say, “Okay, this is good enough to be released on my album.” And that would be the big difference between this time around and the first album, because I simply wasn’t at that level before.

It sounds like a much more organic approach, taking that live recording route. Did it end up taking longer to record or was everyone just on the money?

Oh, it was way quicker than the first record. The first record ended up being such a long process because everything was so split up, whereas with Backseat Heroine, I was fortunate enough to have a band and producers who were up for committing to a shorter recording schedule. The whole recording process took about three months, and most of that was just pre-production where we all just kind of moved into my apartment and played the songs top to bottom, just figuring out what we wanted to do with them. So by the time we got into the studio, we knew exactly what we were doing with the songs and what direction we were taking them in, so all we had to worry about was performing the songs and playing them well and getting the takes.

I guess that’s the advantage of working with people you trust; it seems on this record you did that, and stuck with familiar faces. I mean, it was recorded with your touring band, but you also had some familiars in the production booth – namely with Karen Kosowski and Marc Rogers as producers. What prompted you to choose them as the production duo for this album?

Karen is someone I’ve been collaborating with on songwriting for a number of years now, and we’ve just always had such a great rapport with one another. And Marc is actually her husband, so I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. When I was having meetings with producers, I met with all kinds of people – some bigger names, some lesser well-known – but I had like half a dozen meetings overall. And I came out of the meeting with them feeling that they “got it,” you know? And I left feeling that they would have the passion that was necessary to succeed with a project like this. I guess when you’re not a big-name producer you feel like you have more to prove, and because of that, you’ll put a lot more into it and you’ll go farther and dedicate yourself more to a project. With Marc and Karen, they just completely exceeded all possible expectations I had – I knew they were the right choice, but they went totally beyond any possible hopes I had; and I am just so happy with what came out of it and the work we did together.

It really is important finding the right producer. Like, from my experience, having someone with the right vision can’t be understated. The producer is almost as important as the band or songwriters themselves because the producer really does set the tone and pace on everything. And in a way, the production booth is the most important instrument because it can fundamentally change everything that has to do with the music.

Oh, completely, and it goes beyond just the idea of what a song may be or the structure or the presentation or the instrumentation. There’s so much more to a producer in terms of being “The Drafter” of a record. They really make sure everything is taken care of so when it’s time for me to perform, I feel comfortable and am prepared and able to do my best work because I’m not worrying about anything else. I think when you’re the artist, you need to let go of some of the details of the production that you really shouldn’t concern yourself with – that people often do – in order to do your best work. With Marc and Karen, I was able to trust them with all of that and do my absolute best with this album.

That’s awesome. It seems on this record that you also collaborated with some outside artists as well on a number of songs, such as Jill Barber on “I Could Live with Dying Tonight” and Luke Doucet on “Today’s Another Yesterday.” What was it like branching out to other artists on this record, and were you approaching them with your songs or were you guys collaborating on writing the songs together?

Yeah, there are a few people I reached out to on this album. Nicole Adkins and I wrote the song “Backseat Heroine” together, as well, on this record. And yeah, in the case of Luke and Jill as well, I just reached out to them and asked if they wanted to write a song. In the case of “Backseat Heroine,” all I really had to begin with was the title actually, and we just worked a song from scratch based on the feeling of that title. And it was the same thing with “I Could Live with Dying Tonight,” where I had a title in mind and the song itself just grew out of it. With “Today’s Another Yesterday,” I had a first verse written, but Luke really helped with making the chorus and added so much more to it. So each case was a little different, but the constant was I reached out to them all because I’m such a fan of their work.

It feels like each song on the album has a constant theme related to the dark side of love heartbreak, isolation; things of that nature. Was that a concept you were trying to look at with this record?

To be honest, I wouldn’t say it’s really about heartbreak – there are a couple of songs on there that are about unrequited love, so that could be a seedy, dark underbelly to it all [laughs]. But that whole thing of being in love with someone who doesn’t love you really only is on a few songs on the album [laughs]. There is definitely a wide assortment of topics that are just about living your life at the end of the day that feature on this record. “Phoenix,” for example, is about overcoming hardship and just achieving personal victory, and the sort of rebirth that comes with that. “I Can Live with Dying Tonight” is ultimately about seizing the day and living your life to its fullest, and asking yourself that question that if today were your last, are you doing everything you want to do – are you okay with it if this were your last day? So with the songs, there are just these themes that are more than anything else about life.

So do you draw on personal experience for that, or do you just write about human emotion and the experiences and feelings within that?

There’s a range when it comes to the actually writing of songs. Sometimes is just comes from a spark of personal experience, and other times – like with a song like “I Could Live with Dying Tonight”, which came from a feeling – it almost writes itself; like you already know what you want to say but it just becomes a matter of filling in the blanks. And then there are even others where I couldn’t even tell you where they come from, like “The Pool of Tears” for example. I barely even remember writing that one, you know? Sometimes they just come out and I don’t even know where it comes from until I’m half way through; it’s like someone’s writing it for me and I’m just putting the puzzle together. It’s just these subconscious thoughts and I have to filter it and make a song out of it [laughs].

I remember once reading an interview with Tom Waits where he said something like that. He talked about how The Muse would visit him and he would just channel her message. But like, there would even be times The Muse would come while he’s driving or something and he would be like, “Not now; come back later.”

Yeah, inspiration comes at strange times. I always try and keep an open eye and an open ear to things like an overheard conversation, because those moments could even come from something like that. It even comes out from my friends sometimes. Like, they’re so amazing, they don’t even realize how inspiring the things they say can be [laughs]. People can be so very poetic without knowing it; and it takes a writer to tune into that and say those things and apply it to music later on.

So does that mean when you’re hanging out with your friends, you’re just kind of there with a notebook in hand, scheming and saying to yourself, “Oh man, that’s gold!”

[Laughs] No, no. Well, at least I’m not so obvious when I’m doing it. If someone actually says something that I think is really strong, I’ll just whip out the i-Phone notepad and jot it down without making it known [laughs].

You’ve got to strike when it’s there; I get that. Gotta make bank, after all.

You really do [laughs]. You have to look for those gems in the rough that are waiting to be polished into a song. The world is full of those moments, waiting to inspire.

This is just my opinion and it’s not to rag on your first album at all, because it was ace but Backseat Heroine seems to be a huge leap forward for you. Like, there are obviously some stylistic differences, but in terms of arrangements, melodies, and vocals, everything’s a lot more complex and expansive. And vocally you just felt a lot more free. Were you trying to do more with this record?

Honestly, not really. First of all, I don’t think I really knew what I was doing with the first record [laughs]. With the first record I was really shocked with the reception – like, it was the first real album I’ve ever done. I had just ten songs for it, and I recorded just those ten songs for it. With this album, I probably wrote something between thirty and forty songs and then narrowed those down to the eleven that I put on the record. So I think just writing more and writing all the time and writing with more people and playing more – these things really made a difference in the music and in my voice. I don’t think I was trying to do anything bigger, but I was definitely trying to do things better and trying to be a better songwriter. The way things came out with the instrumentation and the production really was just how I heard it all in my head and how I wanted it all to come out. But I don’t think I wanted to do anything more grandiose, it was all just about making music that would connect with more people.

I think the main difference between the two albums is that the new one has stronger melodies overall and a lot more songs that are relatable, especially live. Like, they’re more up-tempo and fun, whereas the first album was full of ballads.

Yeah, it was definitely a slower-paced record – a lot more jazz-oriented. With Backseat Heroine, you wear all these different influences on your sleeve, like there’s a bit of rockabilly in there next to some rock and roll and Memphis soul. Were there any particular influences that inspired those sounds or were you just rolling with how you felt?

I definitely wanted it to fit into a late 60s?early 70s kind of vibe. There’s one singer named Bobby Gentry who I’ve been listening to a lot – she put out such a wide range of music that didn’t fit one mould. There were a lot of singers and singer-songwriters in that era that – I like to believe – did what I’ve done in terms of wearing a few different hats. And I wanted to make that kind of classic singer-songwriter album that is really about the essence of the song, but in terms of sound, can walk across genres. Then there are artists like Carol King, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, and CCR, which really influenced the record in terms of the production. And they influenced the record in weird, not-so-obvious ways too. Like, we were totally thinking acoustic Led Zeppelin while recording “Bring Back your Love,” which sounds like a clash; but if you listen to some of those acoustic tracks Zeppelin released, you can see that free-loving hippy vibe to it [laughs].

Yeah, like “Tangerine” [laughs]. Total hippy stuff.

Yeah, there are a lot of different influences like that. Like, a lot of it would be me hearing strings in my mind or horns and just following that because that’s what I want to do.

Right on. Now, I’ve got to ask about the Backseat sessions, because that was a brilliant bit of guerrilla marketing – and I don’t mean to use that term “marketing,” (because it takes the obvious joy you had and the artistic merit out of it in a way), but it really was a really cool grassroots approach to getting your music out there. Where did you get the idea to hitchhike around town like that?

You know, originally I was thinking about what we could do in order to get the music out in an interesting, viral way that hasn’t been done before. And as the album is called Backseat Heroine, and there’s so much imagery revolving around travel and cars, I was planning to hire a cab for a day and sit in the back of the cab, and then anyone who got in the cab would have to listen to me play a song. And my manager then suggested we try hitchhiking instead, which I was a little skeptical about – I mean, I couldn’t help but think no one would want to pick up this crazy girl on the side of the road with her guitar in the middle of Toronto [laughs]. But the person who was most skeptical was my friend Hank, who was behind the camera recording the whole thing – he thought we wouldn’t get picked up at all [laughs]. Because seriously, no one hitchhikes in Toronto; I mean, who does that when there’s a subway system?

So we went out and started on Queen West, and after twenty minutes of me holding a “Song for Ride” sign, we were picked up incredibly enough by a city counsellor from East York, which was awesome because she had this convertible; and we just kind of cruised around in that, playing songs. And after that, we got on a double-decker bus and moved on to a rickshaw afterwards [laughs]. There were a lot of different modes of transport that day. And I’m planning to do it again during Canadian Music Week in March, so keep your eyes open for a crazy girl with a guitar running around downtown Toronto again.

Awesome! I’ll be out and about during Canadian Music Week, so I’ll definitely give you a ride if I see you [laughs].

Sounds good, but you will have to be on camera, just so you know [laughs].

I don’t have a problem with that; I’m pretty good looking [laughs]. So my last question is pretty simple: What’s next? I know you’re in the midst of a huge tour that’s taking you across Ontario and into Quebec, and the album’s just dropped, but do you have any plans after this current tour in terms of taking the songs on the road further or getting back into the studio?

I’ll definitely be expanding the tour – the plan is to take it to Western Canada later in the spring. And we just shot a video for the song “Figure it Out,” which will be released really soon – and I can’t give too much away, but there may be a singing contest related to that song which will be a lot of fun [laughs]; so I’m really looking forward to getting that song out there. And just a lot of touring for the rest of the year, which I’m really excited about. We’re also going to be a part of Canadian Music Week as part of the showcase at the Drake Hotel on March 23.

That’s awesome! I’ll definitely check out that show. Anyways, thanks for the interview and good luck with the rest of the tour.

Thanks a lot! Take care.

For more information on Emma-Lee click here.

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About Asif Hameed