Home Music An Interview With E.M.M.A. | Complex UK

An Interview With E.M.M.A. | Complex UK

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E.M.M.A.‘s debut album, 2013’s Blue Gardens feels like a lifetime ago, and in the intervening seven years, a lot has changed for the Merseyside-born producer. A brief pause on releasing her own music saw her explore other avenues, launching the Producer Girls production camp with the help of Dexplicit, Ikonika and P Jam, launching an imprint, and unearthing a new desire to score soundtracks.

One thing we have to mention, of course, is 2014’s “Mindmaze“, a joyous club rework of the soundtrack to educational CD-ROM Encarta ’96 (a treasure for kids that weren’t allowed proper video games) that would later be described as “Elizabethan grime”. She jokingly downplays the track (“I literally ripped the sample from YouTube and put a UK funky beat on it,”) but there’s no denying how much fun that track was when it hit SoundCloud. At first, the only person to give it much attention was Mumdance and, just to see what would happen, she made him a “Mumdance special” and refused to give it to anyone else. Sure enough, it whipped up a buzz and three years later, with still no official release, Coyote Records eagerly snapped it up for a double A-side. On new album Indigo Dreams, though, E.M.M.A. has moved away from club settings towards the more atmospheric textures hinted at on Blue Gardens, creating moods as well as vibes.

E.M.M.A. recently soundtracked ads for Chanel and Gucci, but her ambitions for composing scores stretch beyond the world of advertising. Her sister, Sophie, is an accomplished director in her own right and together they’ve been dreaming up inventive ways of combining their talents. So far, they have worked on two projects—Lightyears and Liberty—with a third on the way. They explore ideas like nature and the experience of being a woman operating in a male-dominated space. For their latest offering, E.M.M.A. tells us, Sophie took a pre-COVID trip to Paris to gather footage of the empty streets at night, scenes which have taken on a much more poignant edge since the pandemic. 

We hopped on the phone with E.M.M.A to discuss the films, new album Indigo Dreams, the recent successes of her Pastel Prism label and her love of Scarface.

“I wasn’t really enjoying clubbing. I was more interested in listening to music in films and thinking more cinematically.”

COMPLEX: Life’s been a bit crazy for everyone lately. How has lockdown been for you so far?

E.M.M.A.: It’s been a bit weird, hasn’t it? I’ve been at my mum and dad’s house since just before lockdown so I ended up finishing mixing the album here, which was unexpected. I think I over-exerted myself at the start of lockdown and tried to do too many things. Now I feel like I’ve run out of steam a bit. I guess we’ve just got to see how it pans out, really. I’ve been in the garden a lot. It’s also been nice to reconnect with the area I grew up in, which I don’t hate anymore [laughs]. I’m seeing it in a different light as an adult. So it’s been a period of personal growth.

Has it affected other aspects of your work?

Yeah, it has a bit because I was working full-time in my day job up until last September. Then I decided I was going to take a few months off to do the album and try and look for more film composing work. I managed to do the album and get a short film under my belt in January. I think I sent the album to Local Action in March, and then we agreed to do it and then all the film stuff just got kicked into the long grass because of COVID. So I was expecting to have more work on the go now than I’ve got, but the album’s been a great thing to focus on. We had to agree on the artwork, the visuals and then we thought of the idea of the tape and the poster. Working with Tom and Elle at Local Action was great. It took a lot of time, but it was really enjoyable. I was glad to have the time to think about it because if I had been working full-time still, then maybe I wouldn’t have been able to.

How come you decided to put the album out on Local Action rather than your own label?

To be honest, I’m quite new to running a label and I wanted to use that to champion other people’s work. I’ve been friends with Tom for years now—probably for as long as I’ve been active in music—and it’s something that we spoke about maybe five years ago. We had the idea that whatever I would do would be more exploring soundtracks and cinematic space. I was heading into that space anyway; I just never really had the time to execute it properly. So when I took time off, I thought I’d just run it past Tom because I’d rather put it out on Local Action and have more of a collaborative approach since it can get quite lonely putting out your own stuff. I was able to retain complete creative control of the music, which is the kind of relationship you want. You don’t want someone that’s going to be telling you “re-do that, take that out.” So it was perfect, really. 

Have you moved away from more club-oriented music or is this just one path you’re exploring?

Physically, even before lockdown, I’d stopped going clubbing. I always feel like, with the club environment, there’s a set of parameters and limitations that other people can do a lot more successfully than I can, so I thought it would be inauthentic for me to continue down that route when I wasn’t really enjoying clubbing. I was more interested in listening to music in films and thinking more cinematically. That was just more of an authentic path for me to take in terms of expressing myself. I don’t know if people were expecting an album of “Mindmazes” or what.

Do you think that tune hangs over you a little bit? Do people keep asking about it?

It’s funny because that tune is literally just the “Mindmaze” theme from Encarta ’96. I literally ripped the sample from YouTube and put a UK funky beat on it. I was shopping it about a bit and putting it in mixes and no one really commented on it until Mumdance heard it at FWD>> and then he asked me for it so I made him a ‘Mumdance Special’. Then he played it and other people wanted it but I was like, “I’m sorry, you can’t have it. Only Mumdance can play it.” We were trying to create a little bit of hype around it and it worked! Coyote Records hit me up a while later and I suggested “Mindmaze”, but I was quite surprised by how much people liked that. It is part of who I am; I do try to put humour into everything I do. It’s not necessarily got a foreboding presence, though.

I had that CD-ROM when I was a kid but I hadn’t touched it or even heard anything about it since ’97. I heard “Mindmaze” and thought, “I didn’t imagine it! That really did happen!”

I can’t remember why it was so present in the front part of my brain, but I think if you were like me then it did make quite a big impact at the time. It was quite exciting. It was something that was meant to be educational, so it was a bonus. We had show-off neighbours that had Sonic and stuff and I went to the arcade, but in our house we only really had things you might buy at the airport, like a fake Nintendo or whatever. No serious gamer investment went on. 

Have you got into gaming or anything later in life? Soundtracks have become a huge component of that.

Here and there. I remember when I first moved to London, I was lodging in my friend’s house and her little brother had Grand Theft Auto and I remember thinking, “Wow, these have improved a bit since the ’90s!” Red Dead Redemption has been massively awe-inspiring as well, because I like Western music anyway. The most impact that computer games had on me was going on holiday to a caravan park and going into the arcade and playing House Of The Dead. I remember Jean-Michel Jarre was playing in the arcade repeatedly. Technically, all my music sounds a little bit like that and it’s definitely linked to those childhood memories. 

So, in terms of the soundtracking work, have you got other stuff coming up that you’re working on at the minute?

I’ve actually just finished work on a project with my sister who I collaborated with on the short films Lightyears and Liberty. Basically, she went to Paris and made a short film, which continues along the themes of women and freedom that’s in a lot of our work. In Lightyears, it was our friend Rhea and it was her journey stargazing around London. Liberty was our friend Jessica, and it was about finding freedom in nature. With this one, Sophie’s the director and the producer. We did a night walk in Paris and it’s become quite poignant now because it was done before lockdown. It’s one of the last things that happened. I see my music it as quite an escapist thing for myself; I can have my identity and express myself and I’m not being judged on societal factors. It just feels like you can be completely free. 

“I like the idea of dream sequences because there’s a structure of sorts, but it doesn’t quite make sense.”

Is that why you were semi-anonymous or faceless for a long time? Your press shots had your face was obscured and so on. Is that where that came from?

Yeah, there was an element of that. To be honest, I didn’t really want to physically put myself out there because I’m a little bit self-conscious and I didn’t want to be judged on that. I was so desperate for the music to be judged on its own merit that I thought that linking it to me one way or another would impact everything, but as I’ve got older—I’m 33 now—I’ve realised it’s not really just about the music. It’s a lot of decisions that I’ve made and just the way I’ve navigated life there has been a bit of fear and anxiety. I’m on the cover of the album this time so I wanted to make sure that it was created in a world that supported my work and also helped people build more of an idea of where I’m setting the music. It’s quite funny, because I referenced a couple of Twin Peaks things. I’ve actually got the same lip liner as Shelly.

That’s a nice detail. I like that.

I really wanted that because I love the look of the late ’80s, early ’90s in terms of music and TV. I was on Mädchen Amick’s Instagram and I found a post where she was saying “Shelly’s lip liner, still going, Mac Spice!” I thought, “That’s definitely going in the photo!” And I like the idea of a yearbook setting because I boycotted my university graduation because they tried to throw me out and my actual leavers photo was pretty shit so I just thought, “Well, why don’t I create my own fantasy yearbook photo that’s around the era I’m drawing influence from?” Then people can look at Patrick Saville and Morgan Hislop’s designs and say, “Oh, I know what this is going to sound like,” rather than, “What’s E dot M dot M dot A?” So it’s actually been quite therapeutic developing the visual side, to be honest.

Something else that reminded me of David Lynch was the phrase “the fluid nature of a dream” in some of the promo material.

I like the idea of dream sequences because there’s a structure of sorts, but it doesn’t quite make sense. That’s the perfect way to approach doing an album because when I sat down to structure it I wanted to give myself a bit of a buffer. If I think of it logically, but also a little bit illogically, then it doesn’t have to make sense. That appealed to me because I wanted it to make more sense listening through than picking out one track. That’s really what you want for an album.

Your label, Pastel Prism, recently released Dexplicit’s Digital Monk EP. How did that one come about?

It’s been quite funny how our friendship developed since we met at [production camp] Producer Girls. I just think back to when I was a teenager, bopping around to “Pow!” Sometimes I can’t believe we’re actually friends and doing stuff. We’ve been talking about Dex doing something on my label for a long time, and we’re into a lot of similar retro sounds like Giorgio Moroder. We can literally have the same conversation about Scarface for an hour, maybe every three months [laughs]. We just go over the same points, sending YouTube videos to each other. Dex told me about this thing on Netflix called Queen Of The South. The music is Giorgio Moroder but it’s like a pastiche of Scarface. It’s just really nice that we met because we both wanted to do free teaching for people but because we’ve both got such similar musical influences we’ve been able to collaborate creatively. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to put out on the label. I’m just really glad that it went well. 

On the subject of Producer Girls, I noticed there’s been some bits on Instagram, but have you been doing sessions during lockdown?

No, we ran a few around the country from 2016-18, which was helped by the kickstarter funding. I was about to start it again this year, but the way that everything happened, it got pushed back. I’d prioritised it for over two years where I wasn’t making any music or doing anything else and it was really enjoyable, but then it got a bit tricky to continue with everyone’s day jobs. When lockdown happened I suddenly looked at the Instagram, which I hadn’t really looked at in a few months, and I thought, “We’ve got all these followers who could actually do with some tips and it’d be easy for me to do.” I definitely underestimated how much of a community it is. Everyone seems to absolutely love it. 

There’s definitely a hunger for learning new skills, but I guess it’s a question of funding it as well.

It’s an interesting conundrum because a lot of where this country’s gone wrong is the amount it charges for education. It’s ridiculous how much you have to pay to learn anything and how young you’ve got to be before you decide what you want to do. A lot of people I know in their 30s are retraining in completely different careers. With Producer Girls, I’m trying to learn the business side of how to get funding from somewhere. I’m trying to keep it as a casual DIY project at the moment, but I’m starting to think there’s a need for more of this. It can grow a lot, but for now I’m just focusing on what I can deliver myself and then, hopefully, once all this shit’s gone away, I can get my head together and grow it even further.

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