Emma-Lee Moss, 36, has recorded four albums as Emmy the Great, including her forthcoming LP, April /月音, inspired by explorations of her Hong Kong-Chinese identity (her mother is from Hong Kong, where Emmy lived until she was 12). She is also a soundtrack composer, journalist and radio documentary maker. She lives in London with her partner and 20-month-old daughter. On 17 October she plays one of the Barbican’s autumn series of live concerts, which will also be streamed for digital audiences.
What made you want to explore your Hong Kong life through music?
Every album I’ve done has felt like it was working something out and I felt this would be about figuring out how to get home. I was living in New York in 2017 and I’d had two places I called home – England and Hong Kong. One minute, I was visiting my parents thinking about writing some songs and the next the album was written. It came so easily. I fell in love with this city caught between two destinies.
You moved there in 2018 with your partner. Was it hard to leave the US?
No! I was there on election night – I’d been to Madonna’s surprise Hillary rally the night before and thought it was inevitable we’d have the first female president, so I had this bottle of prosecco ready for when Florida was called. Then it was. I went home in a daze without saying goodbye. I realised I wanted to be somewhere where my vote counted.
You had your daughter in Hong Kong, then the protests began soon after. How was that?
My child was going to be born in the same hospital as I was and it all seemed so poetic. But after having her, I realised that Hong Kong is a very hierarchical and demographically stratified place. I’m genuinely an alien there and I was unable to find my place in it as a mother. Then when the protests began… watching these kids with bows and arrows shooting so close to where we lived, abseiling out of universities shut off by police… it was terrifying. But I was deeply invested in the spirit of the city and its survival. It was insanely intense, like being in a Charlie Kaufman movie.
You left Hong Kong in late 2019. Why?
It was devastating to leave. I worry about my parents [who live there], but at the same time the country’s dealing with Covid so well, so I’m glad they’re not here in the UK. Having lived in a state of emergency twice in succession, I’ve started to feel like living under restrictions is a normal thing. If we’re not careful, that feeling for so many people right now – that things can easily fall apart – could feel like the norm rather than the exception. We need to keep asking ourselves: what can we do to make things better for us and our kids, so that stuff isn’t always on fire? That’s all we can do. Bide our time and survive.
What would be the first thing you’d do in a newly Covid-free Britain?
Go into a bookshop and touch all the books. Read the back covers of all the new releases and feel all the pages, and not feel bad if I don’t want to buy them, and then put them back on the shelf.
You toured last year with your baby. How was that?
I’d seen images of women taking their newborn baby to parliament to vote and thought, yes! I was trying hard to be a certain kind of mum. Putting an album out after having a kid is so different than from before, though, partly because it’s a time capsule from a time when I was free to make music and partly because an album’s such an all-encompassing thing.
What’s surprised you about becoming a parent?
I didn’t think I’d function on less than, oh, 10 hours’ sleep [laughs]. I always thought of myself as more of an uncle, a ‘once a year we’re going to the Science Museum’ person. I’ve been much better than that. We’re now like Pooh Bear and Piglet.
You recently made a Radio 4 documentary about playground folklore, The Green Lady in the Toilets, following a 2018 documentary about clapping games. How is exploring subjects through radio different than through songs?
In music, you’re told to keep ideas short and lyrics succinct. Radio’s the opposite. You can attack information in so many different ways: through sound, field recordings, journalism, all things I’m interested in. I even discovered a new clapping game in my old school in Hong Kong. Even though it was about lobsters and poo, I felt like an anthropologist! Call the British Library! I’ve got the files!
You wrote a piece for GQ on female musicians after the #MeToo crisis. Do you think things have improved since?
I’m very lucky now because I’m with Bella Union, who are very unusual. They don’t have have a higher ratio of male to female artists, and the way they’ve dealt with me making this album – I did it in 2018, then had to pause the release for maternity leave – is amazing. I did feel heavy doing this album, though, carrying a decade of always worrying about how you’re being treated [as a woman]. My situation’s improved greatly, but it doesn’t mean the journey to get here hasn’t been a fight.
Where will the music industry end up post-Covid?
I worry about live event companies and promoters. Someone was saying the world’s now just like cheese, and some of us are in the holes, and some are in the cheese [laughs]. A lot of the music industry are in the holes! You do think sometimes, well, if culture breaks down completely, we could rebuild the industry in a better way, but that’s very idealistic, and doesn’t consider people’s day-to-day needs.
You’re performing at the Barbican in October, restrictions allowing. Does that feel weird?
I really feel you should give yourself permission to go and see music or do music if it’s safe to do so. There’s also a mental health crisis right now and you need to put your sense of self into the equation. The Barbican team has been amazing, providing a space big enough for us to socially distance and rehearse. I want to say to everyone the same thing I tell my band: it’s going to be weird, but it might be cathartic. Accept the weirdness and try to enjoy it.