“Don’t you ever look back on yourself when you were young and go: Yeah, cute?”

No, I say, I look back and go: You’re an idiot.

“But you have to love your idiot self, because they were trying to be the person that you are today. I read my old diaries recently and I’m surprised by how little I’ve changed, in terms of what I’m actually interested in, which is: myself, and writing from a female perspective, and boys. All the other stuff – what I was wearing, what styles of music I listened to, which boy it was – it’s just debris. I thought, This is exactly the same as what I wrote yesterday. Also, there’s a pun in it: it was Easter, I used ‘Egg-cited’.”

I don’t think I could come up with anything that good even now, I admit.

“You can use my pun.”


Sitting in the basement of a popular Shoreditch bar on a quiet midweek afternoon, Emma-Lee Moss is contemplating her past as an accidental folk/anti-folk/nu-folk artist. Though never actually having any pretentions to that end, she was carelessly lumped into a scene that may or may not have actually existed in the first place, and it probably didn’t do her many favours. It’s of no particular surprise that, when I arrived early for this interview and mentioned to the immaculately-dressed barman that I was here for “an interview with an artist called Emmy the Great”, I was met with a blank face: “I don’t understand – is he a painter? Is it for a job?” Emmy the Great was never likely to penetrate the elite Shoreditch consciousness, such as it is.

And that’s fine by her. Her new album Virtue was funded entirely via PledgeMusic, by a large and very dedicated fan-base of people who probably don’t work in bars in Shoreditch. Among her many unique ‘pledges’ are options such as a personalised demo cassette, guitar and songwriting workshops and – my favourite – a handmade book and story written for and about you. “They took me ages”, she tells me. “I was late today because I spent the morning handwriting scores”.

Clearly the PledgeMusic model has been an unmediated success for Emmy the Great. Is this the future for recording artists?

“I think that we’re in a unique time for the music industry where we really don’t know what the future looks like [and] how the industry is going to approach this thing called ‘the internet’, which a lot of people still have their fingers in their ears about and refuse to admit is a problem. My friend was saying the other day: it’s like the Wild West at the moment for music… We’ve got to see how the world starts regulating it, if they do, or if artists have to be a completely different thing.”

Emmy the Great, then, is A Different Thing. Eschewing the old label model, it’s Emma’s knowledge of and dedication to a specific set of people that has built and sustained her success. “I’m just at that point where the amount of pledgers I’ve met who I’m now in constant email contact with is perfect… They send me links to stuff or their own songs and they give me encouragement and I love that. But I think if I doubled that amount with another project… I wouldn’t even be able to answer because I’d have too many people [emailing me].”

I ask her whether this close interaction ever gets out of hand, if she has yet to come across any psycho-fans.

“Not a single one. Does that mean I’m not cool enough? My music is so bland even my fans aren’t psycho”.

Emma-Lee Moss is the perfect interview subject. Open and engaging from the word go, willing to bat ideas around, possessing a comfortable self-awareness all too absent in singer-songwriters. She also has a great sense of humour, prevalent in both her conversation and her songwriting. Even in her days as a solo acoustic performer, her strongest asset was a knack for weaving subtle irony and wit throughout otherwise emotionally painful songs of love and loss.

Does she think it’s important to have a sense of humour in songwriting?

“What I think is important is that you rein it in, in the right way, so that you’re not trying to throw a quip in. Otherwise, go to Edinburgh.”

Case-in-point, her highly-accomplished new album is a tragic tour de force, written during a difficult period in her life, and yet the comedy of the situation is not lost on her. “My boyfriend dumped me for God”, she says, imitating a helpless guest on Oprah. The story goes that Emma and her then-atheist boyfriend were engaged to be married, only for her fiancé to have a spiritual about-face three weeks before the ceremony, determining that his new life in the church was incompatible with their relationship. “It was so close to a literal jilting… It’s good now. But it was really – kitsch? At the time I was really sad, but there was a part of me that thought, I can now say I was jilted. It just brings up all these images; I’m like Miss Havisham… like someone in a soap opera standing at the altar wailing, I had so many options. I could get a cat, and live alone for the rest of my life… I could make a room full of cobwebs and cake.”

Some of the best albums ever made are heartbreak albums, of course. And as heartbreak albums go, Virtue punches well above its weight. Using characters from fairytales and mythology superimposed onto modern landscapes, and with the help of long-term collaborator Euan Hinshelwood and producer Gareth Jones (whose previous work includes These New Puritans and Depeche Mode), Emmy the Great has constructed a supremely romantic interpretation of her experiences over the past couple of years. The songs are generally told in the third person or from a character’s point of view, and yet they are somehow more candid because of this approach. It begs the question: how would the album have turned out had God not so rudely intervened? “It probably would have been ever so slightly less sad”, she says philosophically. Yes, Emma, quite probably.

Is it important, then, for an artist to have a ‘struggle’ to inform their work?

“No I don’t think that. I think the experience of having your heart broken or having something very ‘real’ happen to you doesn’t have to be written about specifically, but you’ll always carry that capacity to emote or to empathise from then on.”

Many of the songs on Virtue are told from the female perspective, and inevitably this invites a feminist reading of her work. “I always try to write femininely about the situations I’ve been through, from the point of view of me as a female, and that always comes out as very feminist, maybe. But I don’t think it’s feminist in an anti-male way. It’s feminist as in ‘you have to push so hard just to stand up for yourself’. And, yeah, it’s a dodgy word isn’t it?”

Weighty, I suggest.

“My thing is, I’m worried I don’t know enough about it to represent it. I’d love to be a feminist spokesperson, but the best I can do with the knowledge that I have is to say that, “I am a female, and I’m a representative of my gender.”

And yet Emma is unequivocal about the influence of feminist literature – specifically Margaret Atwood, Marina Warner and Angela Carter – on her own work. “I’m very interested in fairytale themes, sci-fi themes and mythology. And they write incredibly engagingly about these things. I don’t think you have to be a girl to be into that… anyone who’s really into stories would find those people fascinating to read”. I point out that Margaret Atwood was always uncomfortable with her association with the sci-fi genre, referring to it as “talking squids in outer space”. “I love her book Talking Squids in Outer Space”, Emma says. What was that about quips?

Emma is keen not to appear overly bookish or especially erudite, though. Her life and work are just as influenced by popular culture as much as most people, and conversation turns to her ongoing obsession with the young-adult novel series Sweet Valley High. “It was very Twin Peaks. But it has a very all-American moral to it. You know, do everything, but don’t have sex. And the blond, middle-class girls are allowed to do anything they want, but no other Sweet Valley residents can either rise above their station, or access their humanity if they’re the posh snobby ones. If you really read into it, there’s a lot of subtext.” Most importantly for Emma, “You can really feel the personality of the person who created it”.

Virtue is out on 13th June. I, for one, am pretty egg-cited.