“I’ve always had this unshakeable sense of being alien,” said Emma-Lee Moss when we spoke over the phone recently. She was walking through Hackney, east London, on her way to her studio, and I could hear the wind blowing down the line. “I’ve been the odd one out so many times that I have this deep, innate sense of being different no matter where I am,” she added.
Moss, who writes and performs music as Emmy the Great, was born in Hong Kong, where she lived until she was 11. At her local Cantonese school, she was “the only mixed-race kid” (her mother is Hong Kong Chinese and her father is white British), but to her teachers and fellow students, she wasn’t “fully” Chinese, so she was English. When her family moved to East Grinstead, Sussex, where Moss spent her teenage years, she was the odd one out yet again.
These experiences have, she thinks, set her up for a lifetime on the fringe: “I always stand at the perimeter. In the music industry, every time I’ve tried to go towards the mainstream, I’ve naturally recoiled. I think it’s because I feel more comfortable in the shadows.”
Moss, a multi-instrumentalist, writes earnest indie-pop songs, with elegant electric guitar melodies and lyrics in both English and Cantonese. Her songs hold a crushing tenderness as much as they do a playful sensibility. Sometimes the two come at once: “And dinosaur sex led to nothing/Maybe we will lead to nothing,” she sang on 2011’s “Dinosaur Sex”.
She released her first two albums, in 2009 and 2011, on her own record label, Close Harbour, and has since been signed to stalwart indie label Bella Union. Matters of identity have been on her mind recently, because themes of place and belonging are central to the story of her fourth record, April / 月音, which is released this Friday, and which Moss wrote in Hong Kong during the mid-autumn of 2017, after three years living in New York.
That summer, she had spent some time in Xiamen, China, for a writing residency. There, she learnt about Yuanfen, a Buddhist concept which she describes as “a karma thing, kinda like destiny, kinda like serendipity, but a bit more specific: it’s the force that brings people together”. From that time onwards, she began noticing Yuanfen in her life; she was bumping into people at just the right time and feeling as though every decision she made was leading her on her true path. “I got into this space of just going entirely with the flow of what was happening and being open-minded and open-hearted,” she explained.
In China, physically near but culturally far from her place of birth, Moss longed for Hong Kong. Prompted by her newfound belief in Yuanfen, she returned to the city to stay with her parents during the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the city is filled with lanterns, mooncakes, and the legend of Chang-E, the Chinese goddess of the moon, best known for stealing an elixir of immortality from her husband, the tyrant Hou Yi. “When we achieve weightlessness/We’ll fly into the air like Chang-E/Look down on a beam to the places that we’ve seen,” Moss sings on “Chang-E”, the song she calls “the centrepiece of the album”. “It felt like my story and Chang-E’s somehow got tangled up,” she said.
It was in Hong Kong that Moss wrote the bulk of the tracks that make up April / 月音 . Looking back, three years on, she sees it as a record of her carefree time there, walking the city, meeting fortune-tellers and sampling the clicking sound made by the city’s traffic lights. (She had never noticed their distinctive sound before, she said, but when her partner pointed it out to her, giving it to her as a “birthday present”, she became quickly transfixed, and rushed out to record it.) “I feel really happy that I captured a moment in my life when things were so free and Hong Kong was… it was still in a liminal place, but it was very peaceful, that mid-autumn. It helps me right now, when things are hard, keeping in touch with that time, to be like, there was a time when everything felt a little bit easier.”
2017 marked 20 years since Hong Kong’s handover – when, after 156 years, Britain ended its colonial administration and returned control of the region to China. Moss has said she has always felt “complicated” about her relationship with her birth place. “Hong Kong is a place that has been rinsed by capitalism,” she said.
In June 2019, when protests started against plans to allow extradition to mainland China, Moss was back living in Hong Kong, with her partner and newborn daughter. Fears that the extradition bill would undermine judicial independence and endanger dissidents led activists to take to the streets, clashing with police in a series of increasingly violent protests. The bill has since been shelved, but the unrest continued well into 2020, with many calling for greater democracy and an inquiry into allegations of police brutality.
“We sat in our apartment and we watched society around us devolve,” Moss said. “There was one week when there were all these rumours that the new tear gas was really toxic and it was everywhere, literally everywhere, it was in the fruit – you know, don’t go to the market! We were watching videos of kids the night before, locked in universities, shooting policemen with bows and arrows. It was so devastating.”
In amongst the crisis, Moss felt a strange tension in raising her daughter in Hong Kong, a place intertwined with her understanding of her own childhood. “It was mad to have a baby in the place I left as a child,” Moss said. “I had a really wonky time. After I had my baby, my identity was wide open and had to be redefined.”
At the very end of 2019, she moved back to London. Isolating because of the pandemic wasn’t something she’d expected to have to do here – during the protests in Hong Kong movement had been restricted, which was one of the reasons why she and her partner decided to move back to the UK. But, she said, moving away from Hong Kong has offered her a new, helpful perspective.
“Through it all, I’ve realised that I am a very multiple person. I see it now as my flag: it’s the thing that I want to cement in the world so that other people can have that too. There are so many ways of acknowledging various identities, and I don’t want to be stuck to one anymore.”
It is a sentiment that is expressed even in the architecture of the album, with some song titles, and the name of the record itself, bearing two labels, a slash between them. There’s “Dandelions / Liminal”, “A Window / O’Keeffe” and “Hollywood Road / April”, a reminder of the duality that lies at the heart of any story, any person.
Besides, her movements back and forth between Hong Kong and England – with those few years in New York thrown in for good measure – may bear fruit in her artistic life. “I was once told by a book agent that people who emigrated in their lives are good novelists,” she said. “You become quiet when you’re not in the scene. If you’re not in the centre, you’re more free to observe the action.”