E.M.M.A can only be described as one third Jackie O and two thirds right on feminist at a disco (Fame era). Born and raised in Liverpool, the firebrand music producer, or 'composer' as she prefers to be known, was once elected for the school council, managing to get soccer banned from half the playground — "We had to walk round them. It was unacceptable." She also lead and won the vote for girls to wear pants during her almighty reign.
Political aspirations aside, E.M.M.A has been making waves ever since the launch of her groundbreaking album Blue Gardens released on Keysound Recordings in 2013. It was an important album that broke the mold of conventional club records; its dark rainbow elongated synths and sparkly sounds achieved international industry acclaim. Simultaneously both futuristic and retro sounding, Blue Gardens was more of a deep, intense, swirly cerebral masterpiece than a chirpy club smash and grab — with more in common with experimental jazz or prog rock than a traditional dance format. And, her cat Janet supervised the whole album, as she's involved in overseeing all E.M.M.A's creative ventures. "If Janet does not like a tune, it will not see the light of day," she says.
E.M.M.A regularly DJs; she established her own live music night, Emerald City and and spins on NTS with her pal Aimee, Angel Food. Most recently, E.M.M.A has launched Producer Girls, a platform to help educate women who want to get into music production. We went along to The Tate Modern where E.M.M.A is hosting one of her workshops to meet her.
I like the way you call yourself a composer. It conjures up a slow magical artist rather than a fast factory product.
Yeah, that's exactly right. Producer can sound a little 'flat' — it just makes you think of the tech side. But 'composer' is really imagining each synth is an instrument and you have got a whole palette of sounds, like any composer throughout time. There's lot of pressure on artists to churn out things repeatedly and it's actually really de-motivating. Everything I put out in my name has to be long-lasting. Just because the internet has made everything disposable, it doesn't mean how we produce our craft should keep up with that unsustainable rate of output.
What inspires your music?
Changes, progress, and discontent — my own battles. It's absolutely my worst nightmare if anyone would think my album was about a bloke. I don't draw on anything like that. Historically I've drawn on quite philosophical things. My Encarta 96 concept album, which I didn't release, was all about life before the internet and my very strong memory of how I interpreted the world — learning about the penguins and the life cycle of volcanoes.
So how did you come up with the idea for Producer Girls?
I wanted to try and address a wider problem within the industry. I cannot continue to create in an arena that is comfortable with women as an accepted minority. I wanted to push the platform for all of us and that's what I've been prioritizing this year. It's a very political act and although my music might not sound obviously political, my motivations certainly are. I think you have to pick your battles and we can't solve all the world's problems with music, but we can certainly help some things and one of them is addressing this elephant in the room. Judging from the huge number of applications for the workshop, a lot of women don't currently have confidence to produce. David Bowie inspired me — he broke down gender and challenged MTV for only catering to white people. He started the 'society for men with long hair' when he was in school. Art, music, and politics go together. When I looked at what unsettled me about my experience with 'music people' it was being made to feel like a novelty. Not even people being obviously sexist — although sometimes patronizing — but always the only woman producer in the room. I just kept thinking 'what is the reason that this is not 50/50?' I was trying to understand. And then I thought 'OK I need to see if there is an appetite for this?' Maybe it's because we are never told we can do it — like we were never told at school we can be astronauts. Hillary Clinton was told she couldn't join NASA, hence her going into politics. So I put it out there and suddenly we had 600+ applications! It was totally DIY and it was a big wake up call.
What have you learned about your fellow women since starting the workshops?
Since I started speaking to other female producers like Ikonika and Nightwave it's just been incredibly inspiring how learning and sharing thoughts with other women is just so powerful. And I think one thing that came up in my workshop a lot is, many girls don't like asking guys things — they get embarrassed and they don't want to be mansplained to. And often they only know men doing production so they just think, 'Well that's that then.' Whereas women learning together and helping each other along the way is key. I go to a dance classes and it's all women, but imagine how different it would be if it was just with all men and how weird that would be? Whereas when you go with a group of female friends you're less nervous, you have less inhibitions. You are relaxed and you don't think twice about going. Learning music production should be the same thing, really — you shouldn't think twice about it.
How do you feel about the influx of 'feminist friendly' pop culture?
It has the opposite effect for me in the sense that women have been achieving great things on their own for many years. There were women who flew planes in the war, and basically held the whole world together. As we know, women have been absolutely smashing it since time began. But now there seems to be this weird internet culture implying that we need special treatment, and we don't. This is not about saying that we are less capable. This is about saying that this is an industry which, for some reason, is not appealing to women who as equally creative beings to men. Women have a lot to offer the electronic music world if they considered it as an outlet.
Tell us about your radio show, Angel Food?
I was doing a radio show on my own and on my first show, I played my whole back catalogue. Then my next one came around and I thought 'Oh God! What am I going to play now?!' So I joined forces with Aimee Cliff who likes similar stuff to what I make and play, but also brings lots of different influences from her day job, because she's music editor at The Fader. We based our 'Angel Food' aesthetic off the back of the cake emoji and all our synths are quite cute and sweet like candy, so that's why we called it 'Angel Food.' And we were keen to use the guest slot to give a platform to predominantly female producers and DJs. Although I have a lot of guy collaborators too, and obviously we play music for both men and women! Ultimately we want to create a network of excellent female producers around the globe and it's great because we can get them on the show.
What next for E.M.M.A?
Who's to say I won't run for prime minister in the next few years? Well it's Kanye for 2020 so I'm feeling confident about that, and then it might be me for 2030? Kanye 2020. E.M.M.A 2030.
Text Namalee Bolle