Emma-Lee Moss, who records under the moniker Emmy the Great, responds to questions in short, concise bursts. Part of this is because, as someone who’s been in the music spotlight for a decade, she’s probably used to answering questions succinctly to leave little room for misinterpretation. But this time, there’s also this: over the course of an hour-long phone interview, the folk-leaning singer-songwriter is deliberately patient and thoughtful when talking about her third album, Second Love (released March 11); about her decision to start speaking out about her biracial heritage, especially her Chinese mother and the childhoods she spent in Hong Kong and then the UK; about defining and singing her music, her life, in other languages besides English and on her own terms.
Moss released her first single in 2006, joining an indie folk movement and moment that mixed twee delivery with oftentimes dark sentiments. (Similar: Kate Nash, Lightspeed Champion.) Her earlier records are peppered through with quaint song names (“Dinosaur Sex,” “On The Museum Island”) and bleakly sensitive lyrics — songs that shimmer on the surface, providing cover for listlessness, regret, and doubt. Second Love still holds those disparate elements together, but they’ve been relentlessly obsessed over and polished over the course of years, and finally released as a realistic examination of modern love.
Songs like “Algorithm” and “Hyperlink” use the language of tech to touch on love and its troubles (the latter is peppered throughout with recorded snippets from her friends), and “Social Halo” uses a potent metaphor to explain a not-quite-requited relationship. But for me, the album highlight is the one-two of “Constantly” and “Never Go Home” — one puts forward her most tentative thinking, the other her most reckless. The push and pull between her desires and fears propels Second Love forward, but the album, and she, eventually decided between the two. By closer “Lost In You,” Moss is the one thinking, “I don’t wanna go home.”
“Second Love was this obsession that I had for two, three years and I was making it, always. I wasn’t thinking about anything else; my whole life was about making this album. And when I finished, there was this emotional space that opened up,” Moss shares. With the album wrapped, she found herself with time and room in her head to engage more closely with something else: “I was like, ‘What is this space? What is this feeling? What it feels like to actually be free to think again’ — and in that moment I realized that I’d grown up a lot in the last three years, and thought about who I was a lot in the last few years.”
For her, that meant moving herself and her music from Anglo-English centricity, which she’s done in an op-ed for The Guardian and with translated versions of her songs “Constantly” (into Mandarin Chinese) and “Social Halo” (into Cantonese Chinese). (Though, Moss has been performing songs in Cantonese for years.) She’s shifted her focus, and implicitly her work, onto the importance of diversity and identity: “I thought, I’ve got to start reading books about Asia, I’ve got to start speaking Chinese more. I need to go to Hong Kong — this is my next thing I have to figure out … It’s a good time to be exploring this stuff, because voices are really starting to come together, especially in America.”
Of course, toggling between not just two, but three languages — English, Mandarin Chinese, and Cantonese Chinese — and two distinct cultural backgrounds is difficult, and Moss has had some bumps along the way: “I know that my own journey into becoming more aware of my heritage has been full of clumsy shit. One day, I’m writing songs like, ‘I’m so English! By the way, did you know I’m English?’ And the next day I’m like, ‘Hello everyone! Here’s me singing in Mandarin that I learned yesterday!'”
In addition to examining her ethnic background, Moss, like many female performers, has also begun to interrogate the ways in which her gender influences her work and how she’s perceived: “From the moment that you walk into a guitar shop… I’ve been in, there are certain gear shops that I go in and I’m instantly like, ‘Fuck this experience. I’m not gonna shop here.’ It’s taken me, to become a grown-up woman, before I could assert myself and be like, ‘No no no, you don’t tell me. I’ll ask the questions, and you will respect the fact that there are things that I don’t know and I’m gonna ask, and a guy would also ask these questions. And you’re not gonna look at me like I’m some stupid person who’s not gonna be able to use this stuff.’ It’s definitely something that, is good to talk about now because it’s so insidious.”
Her learning process is helped along by reading writers like Claire Vaye Watkins (whose essay “On Pandering” is both devastating and defiant), Jung Chang (Moss spoke reverently about her novel Wild Swans) and Jenny Zhang (whom Moss knows from performing with her at a Lunar New Year event and being interviewed by her for MTV News). Zhang’s influence is particularly strong: “She’s so fiercely smart, and she wrote this piece in BuzzFeed about Yifan Chou [a white male poet’s Chinese-coded pen name]; I think I read it once every two weeks.”
Like many non-white minority teens (myself included), Moss found herself laughing along to and repressing her cultural heritage for years: “There’s a part of that as well where, you’re trying to say the thing that you think they’re stereotyping you about. Then, they can’t do it. If I say, in a classroom, ‘Well, Jackie Chan’s my uncle [a lie she shared with Zhang] and I know kung-fu,’ they can’t laugh at me about it because I already made the joke. I know that I’ve developed a very strong sense of humor when I moved to England, because I was like, the best way to deflect any sort of unwanted attention is to be funny first about it. You can’t joke about me if I’ve told the joke.”
“It would’ve taken an extraordinary teenager to try to not assimilate. Everyone I know had a similar experience in terms of teen years, trying very hard to fit into the place that you are. And then growing up and being like, I honor all the things that are different about me.”
Moss is quick to caution against casting herself as an authority on the Chinese or Chinese diaspora experience: “I make a lot of mistakes, and I need to keep on top of that; I’m not saying now that I’m the voice of all Chinese people in the world. I’m just one person figuring out a very unique experience … Everyone has such a different perspective and I always feel very weary when I meet someone who’s part-Asian or has Asian heritage, of being instantly like, ‘We must have the same shit going on!’ We all have reeeally different shit going on, and we have different relationships with the various cultures that are swirling inside us all the time.”
“It’s a good time to be exploring this stuff, because voices are really starting to come together, especially in America.”
Part of Moss’s journey has included reading more about Hong Kong’s complicated colonial history, and reconciling it with her own lived experiences: “If you wanna see white privilege in action, Hong Kong is the place to see it. I’m reading this book about the triads [Chinese population-based gangs]: one of the biggest triad leaders in the 1940s — one of the most rich and influential men in all of China and Hong Kong, who basically ran the stock market, and he was Chinese — he wasn’t allowed to have a house above a certain altitude on the top of the hill in Hong Kong, because he wasn’t white. White privilege is so alive in Hong Kong, and it’s something that, I look back on my childhood and see these moments where it came into play. It’s eye-opening. There’s such a dense amount of people, and they’re all coming together from so many different places.”
Another part has been relearning Mandarin, which Moss speaks in “不斷地” (bú duàn di), the translated version of “Constantly”: “When we were translating the songs at first, my mum came into the recording studio session where I recorded the Chinese vocals. I’d gone in with no practice; I was like, what, I speak Cantonese properly; I don’t need to practice this Mandarin. I started singing — and she gave me this look like, ‘What the fuck are you singing?’ I watch movies! I know what I’m doing! And she was like, ‘Go out of this room and practice all that.'”
Throughout our conversation, Moss is self-deprecating about her attempts to examine her Chinese heritage for an audience that might not expect or understand what she’s doing. Not that that’ll stop her from continuing to explore it and use it as a means of connection with both fans and family: “It’s nice to share a language that you don’t usually speak. It’s words that are just different; languages just are different; there are meanings that are lost, ways of structuring jokes and poetry that are different. Sometimes you just have to use a certain language to get a certain meaning across.”
And when I share a specific Chinese phrase I use often (倒霉 dǎo méi, a mixture of unlucky and doom), Moss chimes in with her own: “There are certain things that my mum uses, that’s how I understand those experiences as well. My equivalent of that is ‘西口西面’ (sai hau sai min), like, ‘You’ve taken my face off.’ That kind of thing. That is one of the most, most inherent thing in mass Chinese culture, of not shaming your family and not shaming the people around you.”
By this point, both Moss and I are in jocular moods, but the kind that’s common among people who’ve grown up under similar conditions and have only recently realized they’ve never been as alone in them as they thought. Or as Moss reflects, “The last year of talking about [race and gender] has taught me so much about my whole career. Maybe I wasn’t aware of it, or I was only aware of it subconsciously.”
There’s a section in Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering” that we both instantly IDed and commiserated over— about watching boys do things like play video games and learn guitar and build things, or as Vaye Watkins puts it, “I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.” Moss’s reaction to that passage, delivered in a flurry, stays with me:
“I just… I had this stab in my stomach. When I was 15, my whole social life was watching a group of dudes play Grand Theft Auto. It took me as an adult to even have my own PlayStation. ‘Oh, it’s not for me, because I can’t do it well. Boys do it much better, so I’ll just watch, I’ll be fine.’ It’s crazy. And thinking that just watching will be fine, you don’t wanna take up space, you don’t wanna waste your time, you don’t want them to laugh at you if you make a wrong turn or something.”
Both Vaye Watkins’s original passage and Moss’s memory hit close to home: I spent most of my teen years watching my male friends (and a handful of female friends) pursue and practice their hobbies and passions, choosing to root from the sidelines instead of joining in. That fear of failure even in the service of learning, of gender- and/or race-based humiliation — these are all things that inform my world view and my work, and that I now examine and process through the distance of time. Moss’s music has roots in suspended adolescence; Second Love is comfortable in its uncertainty, the kind of thing I’d like regardless of its maker’s story. But knowing what touchstones we have in common, having confirmation that some of my own projections onto Moss’s music are there for her too, gives her music, her stories, a particular glow.
At our conversation’s end, we talk about the poetry of translation, and I ask her one last question about “the emerald part,” an image that comes up in both “Constantly” and “Never Go Home.” As she wrote it, “The emerald part is like the Emerald City — we go to the cities as artists, and what we really want, we’re looking for that glitter that we’ve imagined. The beating heart of it; that’s what we’re all trying to tap into.” I imagine she’s talking about Hong Kong, about London, about the places and people she’s called home. I put on Second Love, and find one of my own.