I met up with Emma-Lee Moss aka Emmy the Great before her gig at The Fleece in Bristol for Epigram.
Whilst trapped in Sussex last Christmas, Emma-Lee Moss and her boyfriend Tim Wheeler, lead singer of Ash, decided they should make their own Christmas album. ‘I just sent him a text one day saying “But what about Mrs Claus?”, because people always talk about Santa Claus and ignore his wife. Then we talked about writing a song, and when we got snowed-in over Christmas, we started working on a whole album.’ The result is a true Christmas cracker. From the Weezer-inspired ‘Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing)’ to the War of the Worlds style ‘Zombie Christmas’, This is Christmas is the perfect blend of Moss’s humour and Wheeler’s alt-rock background, with plenty of sleigh bells thrown in for good measure. Rather than avoiding the cheese element found in many Christmas favourites, Moss and Wheeler have embraced it, injecting puns and irony into their songs to avoid sounding too twee. What could so easily have been an album of indie covers of tunes of Christmas past in fact only features one cover, ‘Marshmallow World’, the most famous version by Darlene Love and Phil Spector, which sets the tone for an album which could well become a Christmas classic itself in years to come. The pair, recently named ‘the indie Posh’n’Becks’ by the Independent, originally called their project ‘Sleigher’, but worried it wouldn’t look as good on paper as it sounded, ‘so we’re saying it’s by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler. If it was the other way round, everyone would read it as Tim Wheeler featuring Emmy the Great, whereas in reality, it’s all about me,’ Moss jokes.
This is Christmas comes just a few months after the release of Emmy the Great’s second album, Virtue. Moss has not shied away from the fact that much of this album was written in the aftermath of her fiancé leaving her after finding Jesus, shortly before they were about to marry. ‘I wasn’t worried about the personal questions the album would provoke, in fact singing about what happened acted as a sort of therapy. Straight after, I moved back in with my parents, and within a few days I was back to normal, as if it hadn’t happened. It wasn’t until I was writing the second half of the album that it all came out.’ Much has been made of the fact that Virtue is tinged with Christian and biblical imagery, however listening back to Emmy the Great’s debut First Love, you find that it, too, is littered with mentions of god, angels and other religious imagery. ‘I think that’s why he tracked me down, you know. I think he heard all these questions about God on my first album and thought that I must be going through the same existential crisis as him.’ I wonder what Moss means when she says he ‘tracked her down’ and it transpires that her ex pretended to be filming a documentary to meet her. Just nine months later, the couple were engaged. ‘I could tell it was coming. Guys always think it’s going to be this great, romantic surprise, but I’d been expecting it for a while’. Was it going to be a church wedding? Moss rolls her eyes, clearly still frustrated by the situation, ‘eurgh, yes. And then he said he wanted hymns, so I was like “yes, okay, hymns. I want songs by Weezer, The Pixies, Lemonheads, Ash” but he said “no, proper hymns.”’ Moss was raised in an atheist household, but was curious about religion, and Christianity in particular, which was a curiosity she shared with her former beau; ‘I never actually turned to religion though,’ she says dismissively. I tentatively enquire whether he’s now working in a far-flung missionary, ‘who knows,’ sighs Moss again, ‘I hear different things from different people. Besides, he’s done this before. God is like his get-out clause.’
Moss could never be accused of singing about conventional subjects. Topics covered on First Love include a pregnancy scare and a car crash, while Virtue contains references to dinosaur sex and Trellick Tower, one of London’s ugliest tower blocks. Her hobbies are equally unusual. As well as writing science fiction stories for her own amusement, Moss teams up with Elizabeth Sankey of pop duo Summer Camp to resuscitate teen-fiction legends Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the infamous twins of Francine Pascal’s cult American series Sweet Valley High. ‘We were asked to perform at a word festival, so got brainstorming about teen fiction. Elizabeth mentioned Sweet Valley High so we started to list all the things we knew about the books. Two hours into the conversation, we realised we were basically academics on the subject.’ The pair keep a blog chronicling the escapades of the twins. Recent entries include an audition tape to be the new singer of Bloc Party, which features Moss and Sankey dancing around in animal onesies, and a trip to the Guardian offices. Moss was able to use her quirky talents to fund the recording of Virtue, ‘our record company wasn’t sure if they’d be able to put another one of our albums out, so we decided to use PledgeMusic to finance it.’ Fans could donate as much as they liked, or pledge a specific amount of money for an exclusive experience. Experiences ranged from a signed copy of the album right up to touring with the band for the day and a guitar lesson with Moss and Emmy the Great collaborator Euan Hinshelwood.
On stage, Moss has transformed from the slightly awkward, plaid-wearing singer-songwriter that she was in the lead up to the release of her debut album, and become a more polished performer, no longer staring at the floor and mumbling between songs. ‘I think I felt that I had to look that way to be taken seriously, that if I didn’t look like some grungey musician, then I wouldn’t gain people’s respect. Then I realised that I was in my mid-20s and I was still dressing like a teenager, I had an album out so I didn’t need to prove myself anymore.’