Singer, songwriter and producer – Storge editor Sarah Lay talks to Emzae about how music has helped her recover from illness and how she approaches writing and production.
“Pop to me covers an extremely wide spectrum of styles, and I’m always somewhere amongst it, even when it’s just me and a guitar. I tend to hop from singing autobiographically to telling fictional stories, but my aim is almost always the same — to make a song with meaning that also has a great melody. Even when I’m at my most experimental, I’m always searching for an interesting melody.”
Singer, songwriter and produced Emzae has been writing music since she could remember, on the search for those pop melodies as well as using music as a means of dealing with a life which hasn’t always been easy due to illness.
“I’ve been making music since I could write, and probably before then in my head. I’d fill up sparkly notebooks with lyrics, draw album covers with my face on and put myself forward for literally every singing opportunity on offer.
“But I don’t want to be an artist whose albums are predictable, where every album sounds the same. For some people, that works well and it earns them a sizeable amount of money. I think there is certainly a risk too, especially when you’re just starting out like myself, of alienating your listeners if you deviate too far from what has had a good response previously. That’s why I think a lot of artists tend to release short EPs of a similar style as they establish their core fanbase. Once the groundwork is done, that’s when you can say “BOOM, here’s my Antiques Roadshow-themed concept album.” I suppose you could say I go about things the wrong way, really. I realised a lo-fi acoustic album (Breaking Circles) and then followed it up with a three track EP in which I stated that one of my influences was the Sonic 2 soundtrack.
“I’m a big believer in making music for yourself primarily, though. That’s what it’s for. Ask any musician why they first picked up an instrument or started writing or singing or whatever, and the answer will often be because they were feeling low or confused, and they needed to make sense of things. Or because it was their only creative outlet, or the best way of expressing themselves. Therefore, we started off making music for ourselves. To toss that idea aside and say “right, what would other people like to hear?” or “what will the radio like?” or “what can my mum play in the car?” is, in my opinion, to sacrifice a large chunk of your creative soul. There’s no harm in including what you might term a “mainstream track” on your album or EP, but to write within the constraints of what other people might like or what might bring you success is very difficult, and therefore often results in a sub-par final product.
“Naturally, we as artists attract other people like ourselves as listeners, so logic suggests that your audience will probably go with it if you change genres like the weather — as long as that’s what you really felt like doing and it wasn’t a way of chasing approval.”
Diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at 14 she left school soon after, and throughout the following years had a breakdown. The one constant through her recovery and path toward better health has been her music. Often written in a pop style, and ranging from acoustic singer-songwriting to experimental electronica Emzae is not an artist who is constrained by limitations, and who even has a young artist is self-assured in her own creativity.
“When I was a child, music was always just a natural extension of who I was. The main, overarching reason I make music has always remained the same. I do it for the feeling of pure excitement and adrenaline you get when you’ve written something you’re proud of, or you’re playing or listening to something that that you’ve created. It’s difficult to explain. I think there’s just this innate need within creatives to err, well, create I guess. In whatever format that may be in.
“When I was a teenager and I began to have struggles at school with physical and mental illness, music took a back seat for a short while because I lost all sense of who I was and who I used to be. Luckily, I had a psychiatrist appointment when I was 15 which changed my life, and after that appointment I brought a notepad and pen from the hospital newsagents. I never stopped writing from then on.
“Obviously in recovery, it’s not just a straight path to a happy life, and like anyone who’s experienced anything similar, I had to drag myself through various challenges and obstacles as I tried to catch up with adulthood and emerge as a semi-regular functioning person. I’m still very much on my journey as we speak, so naturally music has played a supportive role throughout. I wrote my album Breaking Circles when I first started taking anti-depressants at age 20 after suffering a breakdown through thinking I could discharge myself from all forms of mental health care and hold down a stressful job. I’ve always had a stubborn streak of, “No, I will do this and I’ll show you all”, but on that occasion I had to admit that I needed help.
“Without music, I honestly don’t know where i’d be. When I’m performing or writing, I feel that’s the only time I can be the person I want to be. I can express my inner confidence and my true — often slightly weird — thoughts and feelings. I always think when writing bios for people, if you really want to know about me, it’s in my music. Even if its hidden behind double meanings or a vague lyric.
“I guess music has always been there as this reliable friend. “Oh, you don’t want to be here anymore? Come and tell me about it and I’ll show you why you should carry on.” For someone suffering in the darkness of a long-term illness, those three minutes of respite where you’re playing a song is enough to convince you that there might be brighter days ahead and you should keep fighting.
“I hope that one day some of my songs can find other people who’ve felt the same way as me, to let them know that they’re not alone. I might always have my little challenges, but it’s never going to stop me from taking on the world. My advice to anyone with anxiety who is scared to get themselves ‘out there’ as a musician is that whatever you do, you’re going to be scared of everything anyway, so you might as well be scared of everything but also be doing what you love. Be as fearless as you can.
“I don’t consider myself or my music to be defined by my illness, it’s just important to me that I don’t present myself as this perfect human complete with fairy lights and no under-eye circles. If everyone did that, then every person with an illness would think that they had no place as a musician or creative and no one to relate to.”
She describes herself as starting out by singing along to Spice Girls records and those pop sensibilities – the catchy chorus, the ubiquitous melody – are embedded in her own music now.
“There are so many people i’m inspired by, but I always shy away from explicitly comparing my music to anybody else’s. I leave that for other people to make their own opinions on. I’ve always admired the production work of people like Timbaland and Danja, and I’m the biggest fan of Damon Albarn. Britney is my icon. I think Lana Del Rey is never given enough praise, and Solange is incredibly talented and evolving into something very special. There are so many more that I would be sitting here until the end of time listing them.
“There are also so many inspirational local artists, too. I think there are a lot of people in Derby in particular with a lot of creativity in their hearts that is fighting to burst out and explore the world. Or maybe just the West Midlands first.
“I think some people still overlook the brilliance of some big mainstream pop records — particularly by artists traditionally seen as “manufactured”. I have an overall respect, intrigue and admiration for the industry as a whole, and that to me includes not just the artists, but those behind the scenes.
“I truly believe that if the definition of a “real music fan” exists, it’s someone with the ability to respect the quality and passion involved in work they do not personally enjoy, as much as the work they love. When some people think of Britney Spear‘s Toxic, for example, they don’t consider the amazing work from Bloodshy & Avant or the quality of the soft vocal performance from Britney. The iconic video that Joseph Kahn created, which elevated the song into popular culture. Nothing sounded like that record. It still sounds fresh today.
“Following pop music is in many ways like following a sport. There are a league of top artists and bands all competing to have the most mainstream popularity, and each of them try different methods to varying success. It’s often very strategic and you can pinpoint which records are going to influence the style of future releases, but it’s as much about the marketing as the songs. That being said, when pop’s good, it’s amazing.
“I thought the production work was what I can only describe as exquisite on Bruno Mars‘ latest album, and I’m enjoying Katy Perry‘s song Chained To The Rhythm as it marks a departure from her previous work and reflects the person she seems to have grown into over the past couple of years. I think Tinashe‘s song Company, and the music video especially, are out of this world. The choreography is on fire! There are so many things I love about pop music. It puts the biggest smile on my face.”
The production side is something Emzae is passionate about in her own music and an area in which she is still learning and challenging herself to push forward. As somewhat of an auteur being in control of a track from conception to release follows on from those artists she admires, like Solange, but was a natural part of becoming a musician and born out of necessity as much as desire.
“I’d always been fascinated by album booklets and paid attention to the credits as much as the music. I started out experimenting with my family’s hi-fi by recording one cassette tape onto another, and then later on I’d sing songs acapella onto those cassettes using a mic from my karaoke machine. As an anxious teenager with a lack of music friends, there was no way I’d have considered venturing into a studio (nor did I have the money to), so learning to produce my own stuff was a natural journey for me.
“I downloaded countless demos of DAWs, including Fruity Loops (before it became known as FL Studio) which I used to create drum loops with when I was around 15-17 or so. Some of my first complete recordings were made with a mixture of Fruity Loops, Audacity and my Dell Inspiron 1525’s inbuilt mic. I had this big impossible dream, as has often been the case throughout my life, to somehow become a singer, musician and producer despite not studying any of it at college or having enough money for the necessary equipment. It always seemed so far away — like there was this brick wall in front of me. I never quite knew where to start. I’d read books and watch YouTube tutorials, but they’d all tell me different things.
“When I was 18, I got an iPad 2 for my birthday. It happened to be just after one of my favourite bands — Gorillaz — had released The Fall, which was created entirely on the iPad. Although mobile devices are pretty common in music making today, my mind was completely blown at the time that an entire record could be made on one small tablet. I was determined to essentially pretend I was Damon Albarn, but I could only choose one paid app, and so I chose Garageband iPad.
“It was the first DAW I’d ever felt comfortable with or understood, and the things I didn’t understand didn’t limit my creativity. I made songs on my iPad and learnt every single feature of the app until I’d earnt enough money through my job at the time to buy a second-hand iMac. I then gradually progressed on to Logic Pro, and expanded on my equipment. I created demos for a long time, and a lo-fi acoustic album called Breaking Circles that I mentioned earlier. My first foray into electronic production was my EP Nightdreamer, but the first record I am truly proud of production-wise is definitely last year’s Double Life.
“It’s the greatest thrill to hear a song I’ve done literally everything on myself played on the radio — it’s almost like passing an exam. Proof that the quality of my technical work is high enough and that studying is paying off. I still have so much to learn, but I think that’s pretty healthy and I don’t really think anyone ever stops learning.
“I think more artists should get into the production/technical side of things or one day there’ll be no studios to go to.”
Self-releasing through Bandcamp has meant Emzae was able to share her music as well as document her own growth as a musician. Recording has been a more natural side to music for her, but playing live is something she wants to do more of in the future, the next challenge she’s setting herself.
“I performed on stage for the first time at around six or seven, on holiday at a talent show that had one entrant (me). I thought that from then on, my star would be on a constant rise and I’d be chosen as a member of a girl band or something. Unfortunately, I got turned down for the choir, turned down for the solo in a school musical, turned down for the school talent show, the list goes on. I think any performer has this strange inner ‘diva’, though. An alter ego if you like that’s almost borderline arrogant, like ‘well, all of those people who turned me down are idiots anyway’.
“Being ill really knocked my confidence and somewhat slowed down my journey of live performance, so I couldn’t be one of those musicians that started gigging in pubs at 14. I actually made my first live appearance as Emzae last year, at Fearon Hall in Loughborough. I have to give a huge shoutout to my friends Simon Waldram and Autumn Dawn Leader, who were instrumental in convincing me to get back on stage. They never stopped believing in me, and though I turned down many offers of live performances, they didn’t stop asking.
“I’ve since performed a few other times in Derby, and i’m determined to make this year the ‘year of gigging’ for me (though I’ll probably be playing much less than other local artists who seem to post a new bandsintown announcement every day!!! Envious!!!) You can see me at the Derbyshire Food & Drink Festival at Elvaston Castle on 16 July, and I’ll be announcing more dates in the Midlands area a little later in the year.
“As for transferring my music into a live setting, at the moment I’m playing acoustically with Simon, but I have invested in some new equipment which with a lot of practise will hopefully allow me to start playing my electronic stuff perhaps later in the year or next year.
“In the future, my aim is to become a much more capable technical musician and to eventually release something really soulful and raw, which is hopefully accompanied by some pretty instrumentation and lots of harmonies.
“I’m releasing my next album Small City Girl later in the year, with another album following that. I’d like to play a lot more gigs and continue to build my confidence. Then, years in the future, I’d absolutely love to produce for other people and own a studio. Then create a record label and a make-up line for a laugh. With lots of pigmented glittery lip glosses. Err, I digress….”