As a member of a noteworthy UK garage collective, E.m.m.a and her debut LP “Blue Gardens” could easily be mislabeled as just a curious experiment in grime. However, Emma certainly doesn’t brand herself as that sort of artist; in fact, she’s hoping to “break down the barriers between scenes” and reach outside Keysound to elder generations and even soundtrack connoisseurs. I sat down with Emma last week from across her (well, her landlord’s) zebra-striped sofa, and teased out the tale of one girl, one music-writing software, a few key friends, and the dozen or so melodies that turned Keysound’s heads. Join us as we discuss the connection between spaghetti westerns and surf rock, the epic melodies of Doctor Who and Clockwork Orange, the finer points of a girly Milton Bradley game, and more…
I heard that you did – was it your first DJing stint with Fabric back in April?
Oh, yeah, that was back-to-back with Moleskin. Yeah, I’m not used to the DJing game, so it was quite intimidating going back-to-back.
Yeah, I can imagine. So how’d it go?
It went well, considering we were on early doors, so…Moleskin brought more of a grime element to the set, and I was just playing my own stuff, which is kind of on the edge of UK funky synthy music, so it worked well, really.
OK, good. And has that been your only DJing gig since then?
Well, I’ve been kind of practicing…I had my album launch, which was on the 14th of July. I headlined that…and was a Keysound night, because Martin (who owns Keysound) launched this night over in East London, and it was absolutely mental! I think it was more because I don’t really play out a lot, and because the music I was playing from the album has more of a love it or hate it, go big or go home kind of vibe. People really got into it, which is nice, because I didn’t really know what to expect.
Are you enjoying the DJing process? Do you like it as much as composing?
It’s interesting, because when I was in university, I used to go out all the time, and I used to really appreciate other people DJing, and being part of the whole culture, and the people you meet. And then the whole vibe was lost when I left uni and I felt like all the fun disappeared. But playing a Keysound night, it recreates those nice vibes, where it’s all chilled out, and everyone knows each other, and there’s no pretense, and it’s just friends playing music, really. So that kind of environment, I do really enjoy it. But I do prefer producing, definitely, because…I feel that my music’s got elements of dance music to it, and the rhythms work well in a club, but the arrangements don’t lend themselves to mixing easily, unless you pad it out with other people’s intros. So in terms of playing my own stuff, I want to do a live show, because I think of a tune as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, and when I’m mixing it, it feels fine, but it feels like I’m watering it down a bit, and I want people to hear the tunes in their entirety, as they’re supposed to be heard.
Cool…because I read about that [the gig at Fabric] not too long ago, and I wanted to make sure you were OK!
Yeah, I was really nervous about it, because I’ve gone from being unknown to headlining the launch. It felt like a lot of pressure – like school exams, or something.
How exactly did you get into mixing and electronica in the first place – and especially the grime aspect of it?
Well, I’ve always approached it with a humorous aspect. In terms of my access to the software, it’s through Fruity Loops. I just thought the idea of me producing grime was funny for the friends that knew me, since it’s quite aggressive, and though I do come across as quite aggressive on the internet, I’m really all about peace and tranquillity offline. (I’m just a keyboard warrior!) Also, grime is really easy to make, because it’s really as simple as that, although some people may disagree.
Yeah, it really does seem that, on the album, you have more focus on the melody and your rhythms, and the beats are just thrown in to make the genre.
It’s difficult, because I haven’t grown up in that culture of revering drum patterns, which is part of this thing that I’m a part of, which I know will probably annoy some people, and some people will spend ages trying to find the groove when they’re producing, and umming and rrring and listening to loops. But I can’t work like that, because I’m a busy person, and I just want to get my ideas down, and my ideas are all melody-based. I originally wanted to make a splash by filling in the gaps of what I wasn’t hearing, and I wasn’t hearing any kind of complex melody at all. They’re not to everyone’s taste, but I feel that people that like it really connect to it, which is what I wanted to do. I wanted to produce something for people who could really enjoy it. But the grime beginning has continued, but it wasn’t conscious? Like, [for] none of my tracks would I say, “This is grime”, apart from Kingfisher, which I put a few claps in because I’d been listening to the Newham Generals and I was like, “Oh, I really want to do something that just intimidates people”. But that didn’t even make it onto the album!
Well, maybe next time. But how long did it take to make Blue Gardens? You started with Dream Phone, and then you made the collaborations…and it seems that it’s taken a while for it to come together, hasn’t it?
It seems like fifteen years, but even longer, since I finished it – actually releasing it seems like ages. What happened was, I released “Dream Phone” in February 2012 (and there’s a VIP version of that on the album), then I made “Marina” and “Shoot the Curl” in March/April, sent it to Blackdown, since he played “Dream Phone”, but I’d already made Mood Ring in 2011, and “Jahovia” at the end of 2010/2011, or an A-version of it. So I sent all those to Martin, and he was like, “Oh, could we have the album finished by October?” And this was in August, and I was like, “Yeah!” And then I still hadn’t finished it until May 2013. I haven’t got hundreds of tracks that were rejected or anything…in terms of what I’ve produced for the album, I’ve got only two that didn’t get on. And one of them on the album actually wasn’t going to go on, until I practically put Martin in a headlock and said, “Green Light needs to go on the album!” I mean, I was a bit surprised, I usually just roll with the punches, but that one, that was my favourite.
Now, I know you’ve said in previous interviews that your melodies are inspired by more concrete things, like Coney Island and spaghetti westerns and sci-fis…could you elaborate on that?
Yeah…I have a weird connection with American nostalgia, and lot of American dream things, and I know every says that, from Lana Del Ray to the Eagles, but…I do have family in New York, and I know how it’s affected them, very tangibly. And Coney Island, just the general nostalgic fun fair, the colors and the melodies that you’d here there, and people just generally having a nice time there and their memories. And with my own influences – like Delia Derbyshire, who was [with] the BBC Sound Workshop, and did the Doctor Who theme. You know, sci-fi things. That’s one of the most epic tunes of all time, and the fact that she was involved in that, and basically stood the test of time…
I’d like to talk a moment about “Dream Phone” – and not just the track, but the video, too. You have these girls playing this girly game, and then you have these women wrestling and doing unfeminine things. It’s cool – I dig it – but what’s it about?
The video was made by my friend Letty who sourced the footage around the fighting, and I sourced the American high school video camera stuff, spliced with the footage of the game. I don’t think we intended it to be that kind of sinister when we set out to do it, but the way Letty edited it, the song almost took on a whole new meaning.
It’s just the idea that – well, I was a regular kid, and playing the game Dream Phone, trying to find out if this guy wanted to be your boyfriend, or [hearing phrases like] [using girly American accent] “He looks good in whatever he wears!” or “He wears yellow, and hangs out by the surf club!” We all thought it was amazing, because we loved America, and McDonalds, and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air…and it was really fun, but looking back, I’m like, “Hang on a minute. Who bought me that, and why the hell, as a child, was I concerned about who wooed me?” It is quite dark, but innocent – since now, we regard dolls as more sexual – but it’s one of those things where, if you remember it, it brings a special meaning to the tune, which is always nice.
With the rest of the album – you have an intro and an outro, and titles like “Marina”, “At Sea”, and the outro has the sounds of the tide coming in. Do I sense a maritime theme with this album?
It’s kind of accidental. I was watching “Point Break”, with Keanu Reeves – and after I did that, I made “Shoot the Curl”, which is surfer’s terminology for catching a wave. I really love the idea of surfing – I surf myself, I go down to the coast quite a lot. Also, you know the surf music of the 60s? I like how that culture had its own music – you don’t really get that anymore, you just get people playing big massive club music on the beach. And I’ve lived by the sea in several places. Although the Western link comes in, because there’s a link between the twangy guitars you hear in spaghetti western music and the surfer dude music in the 60s. So that crosses over, because they were around at the same time. And “At Sea” is a phrase from a western that I was watching – this guy was like “I’m all at sea”, which means he didn’t know what to do. That track, I thought it sounded like the sea, because it’s got the big drums; equally, it could be the opening to a western as well. So it’s a weird line that I tread, between the power of the sea and westerns in a weird, oxymoronic ways.
Oh! [Let’s talk about] the two collaborations. First, Nostrum, with Sully? Ace. How did that come together?
When I was making the album, I was talking to Sully quite a bit about “Oh, I’ve got to fill in the gaps” and all this, and then I just thought, I had one track left, so I said to Sully, “Hey, Sully, could you help me out? We could do a collaboration.” And I’ve known him since about ’07.. So he sent me project files in Fruity Loops of a little drum bit, and he was like, “Have a go at that.” So I put my little melodies in it, and – I tried really hard on that track, harder than on any of my other tracks, really, because I liked Sully, and – if we’re going to do something, it can’t just be average, it’s got be as good as it can be. So when I sent it to him, he sent it back with all these other bits and bits of melody, and he really “got” it.
The other collaboration is really cool, too – “Jehovia”, with Rebel MC. It’s a really good collaboration, because I can hear both of your influences there, very strongly. So how’d that come together?
I randomly met him through some of my friends, and he basically had his “92” album in his hands, and was like, “Yeah, I really want to get into remixing these things.” And I was like, “Can I do one?” And he was like, yeah! Because I put my CD in his letterbox (old school) of my pre-album stuff, because he thought about the music, he doesn’t look at things like, “Who’s this?” He just looks at things in an equal measure because that’s the man he is.
So you have this album now – how are you going to promote it? I mean, it’s not like you’re in a band that goes around touring and such…what will you be doing?
Well, I will be playing around, out and about and do more of those things, because I previously haven’t done that. I wanted to build up a bit of suspense, because I’ve got a full-time job, it’s not like I’m a student who can go around doing loads of gigs. So I’ve had to be pragmatic about that. Now, I’ve developing a live show, and I’ll be doing that out and about, and I’m going to be touring a few nights – I’ve got one coming up, on the start of September, in East London I think, and a couple more in the pipeline.
Final question: what else are you listening to now?
It’s funny, because I’m not a very “seeky-out” person. I feel like a very bad music person in a way, because I seek out very specific things, like the Django soundtrack or an old Tim Burton soundtrack, or old music, like the Doors or Bowie, but I’m not very good at new music. But, luckily other people are, so other people who like my music have been sending me records – although a lot of it is bad music!
But I’ve been listening to Etch, who’s on my label, and Moleskin, who did a lot of nice, chilled-out, but brilliant synth music, it’s really relaxing. (He probably wouldn’t like the word “chilled-out”, though). And…this guy called Parris is doing this really good, tribal drum tracks that I really like. I also like really colorful old-school stuff – Etch is really good at that , and I’ve been listening to LV, obviously.