Updated: 2011-05-20 10:55
By David Bartram (China Daily European Weekly)
Hong Kong-born singer songwriter rises to the top of the UK pops
Emma-Lee Moss was not overly enthused on the day of the royal wedding in late April. Kept up all night by loud neighbors celebrating the holiday weekend, she fought her way past central London's revelers to our rendezvous near Chinatown. "I'm sure the Middletons are very happy,?she says, apathetically, upon arrival.
Moss fronts Emmy the Great, an alternative, folk-tinged band that grew out of songs she wrote for a university project. The band is garnering high praise from the music press and is soon to embark on a sold-out tour. Two years ago her first album, First Love, made the New York Times' top 10 albums of the year list, being praised along the way for its diary-entry honesty and articulate lyrics.
A few days before the wedding, Moss and band mate Euan Hinshelwood performed Mistress England as part of The Observer's alternative royal wedding coverage. The song is a lament for all those mothers who dreamt it would be their daughter walking up the aisle with Prince William.
If Moss herself grew up dreaming of marrying a prince, she hides it well behind the studied nonchalance that has become a trademark of Myspace generation musicians. But growing up in Hong Kong, she does reflect on a childhood dreaming of England.
"I was a really awkward kid growing up in a very awkward situation," she says. "I was different to all the other kids at school and I was always getting into trouble."
Moss, the daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, lived in Hong Kong until she was 11. Sent to a Chinese school while her friends attended international schools, she never quite fitted in.
"I was always culturally English, whereas traditional Chinese parents encouraged their children to work a lot harder," she says. "In Hong Kong I thought I was a really average student, but then I moved to England and I thought, 'I'm actually I'm pretty diligent'.
"When I arrived in England it felt like I was home. We'd spent summers there, and my English grandmother was a big influence on me. We still spoke Cantonese and English at home, but it was a bit of a culture shock growing up in Hong Kong."
Spending her teens in England, Moss was drawn towards music. Her father had been involved in the industry in Hong Kong, writing the English lyrics for Canto-pop hits.
"The father of one of my friends was a rock star. It seduced me and at first I wanted to follow bands around and be a music journalist. I always wanted to be a writer and tell stories. Now I can do it through music."
Despite Moss naming the English countryside as a primary influence on her debut record, an unexpected by-product of its success was the chance to reconcile her troubled childhood in Hong Kong.
"When my first record came out I was in Hong Kong playing some shows. It wasn't a conscious decision but I was so grateful. It felt like fate. I always knew that at some point I would have to address the fact that I grew up in Asia, do something, and then all of the sudden I'm performing in Hong Kong and Japan and have fans in Malaysia. I didn't even have to think about it or make a life plan. I just ended up back there.
"I get a great reception in Hong Kong. Audiences there are so respectful. It's not like people are ever mean to me, but in Hong Kong and Japan they are just so lovely. I've had interviews out there where people have translated the lyrics of my songs and have actually studied them. They look at it line by line and say, 'this part was inspired by a William Blake poem'. I think they like the wordiness of it, and the English sense of humor."
Moss retains close ties to Hong Kong - she describes her Cantonese as passable - where her parents have since returned after their stint in the south of England. She also writes a fortnightly column for Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong. "I try to write about what's going on here. When I was in Japan I noticed a lot of the lifestyle magazines had pictures of the English countryside in them. People in Asia seem to find it fascinating."
Her own fascination with the countryside, however, began to fade as work began on her second album, Virtue, following a break-up with her fianc.
"I used to be more inspired by the English countryside, but now things are a bit more industrial. I want idealism in my music, but I took that a bit literally. Now the thing I really love about the landscape in the UK is when you see something like a power station in the middle of this perfect arcadia.
"I came back from touring my first record, met a guy and got engaged and then started writing the next album. I thought, 'how boring writing about being in love' so I wanted to write an imaginary album, influenced by fairytales. But at the same time I was having all these feeling of worry and dread that something was going to go wrong."
When the engagement did break up, Moss finished the second half of the album with a different outlook and new-found confidence. She also realized, five years after starting out, that playing music was what she really wanted to do.
"I changed in the process. I started out thinking this wasn't a very mature album. What happened changed me and I became a bit bolder, and things just sort of finished themselves. Although it was very sad I knew I had an album.
"The second album was a lot easier to write. When I was writing the first album I still wasn't sure if this is what I wanted. I was thinking I didn't want to be dragged into the music industry machine. Now I have the feeling that being a musician is what I want to do."
The sentiment is reflected as Moss and her band prepare to throw themselves into a hectic schedule.
Work has already begun on a Christmas album, a busy summer tour is lined-up and tentative plans are in place to record a third album next year. That her music gives Moss the opportunity to return to Hong Kong on better terms than before is an added bonus.
"It's so great, it's like going home as part of my job. My Chinese family is still out there as well as my parents now. Asia is a really big part of my world and now I feel accepted when I go back."
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