We meet the “surf chick” songwriter who’s taken centre-stage as a solo artist, and entertained 40,000 people at Hyde Park
nterviewing singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emma Stevens wasn’t as straight-forward as we’d thought. After stumbling across her recent single – the irresistibly catchy pop-folk song – Riptide, for the first time, we initially felt a simple Introducing feature would suffice. But then, reading her biography, we discovered this unsigned female solo artist had already toured arenas as a session guitarist to over 20,000 people a night, written a hit for a top Korean boy band, performed live on Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 show, and had recently taken centre-stage in front of 40,000 people in London’s Hyde Park.
Impressive stuff, we’re sure you’ll agree. However, all these achievements – along with writing, recording and self-funding her debut album Enchanted over the past year – were made even more admirable considering Emma lost her mother to cancer in 2012. This devastating turn of events would’ve stunned many into a state of creative paralysis, but speaking with Emma we find a strong, upbeat person who has incredibly managed to turn the tragedy into a positive driving force for her music career.
When did you first get into music?
“This might sound a bit odd, but I was about 2 or 3 years old when I used to watch my mum play Spanish acoustic guitar – folk stuff like Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel, but also rock music like Phil Collins, Genesis and Dire Straits. It really inspired me and I’d make up useless melodies, but she could see I had a passion for it so got me studying piano and cello. That’s when I fell in love with the learning and writing process.”
“I probably started writing my own songs aged 12 or 13 and took up the guitar properly, and I’d write a lot of melodies on the piano then too. I started writing poetry as well – I got a poem published in a national competition – and I started combining them with melodies. It was all very rhyme-y and forced, and it wasn’t until I started songwriting with other people that I realised you didn’t have to do that.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I’M A REAL SURF CHICK, AND I KNOW THERE’S ACTUALLY NO SUCH THING AS A RIPTIDE! [/cc_blockquote_right] How did you get into collaborating?
“I had a lot of friends that were musicians and we’d all write songs together. Then I found my manager Bob James, who started managing me as a songwriter, and put me in with people who he felt could help me progress. I was totally out of my comfort zone – I’d walk into an R&B session one minute, and then work on an out-and-out pop song with the track already written. I normally start with the music, then work on the lyric, so that really helped me hone my craft in a different way. I ended up getting a cut with a song for a Korean boy band called SHINee, which was cool because it meant somebody actually liked my song! It made me realise I was on the right track.
“Then the sessions in LA with the wonderful Charlie Midnight really stood out for me – I fell in love with his writing and he gave me a lot of confidence. He was the one who said, ‘You’ve got talent. You need to be writing for yourself as an artist.’”
When did you take his advice and start work on your album?
“Well, he’d been saying it for a while! It wasn’t until about three weeks before I lost my mum last year. I’d just come back after being away on tour playing session guitar with a band called Fin – we were playing some massive stages, and I fell in love with performing. I thought, ‘I need to be on stage doing my own songs.’ When my mum got diagnosed with cancer, she was my biggest supporter and believer in me and would say, ‘You’ve got the potential to do it yourself.’ So I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do it!’
“My mum and I designed the Enchanted album artwork together, and talked about how I’d release the music. She got to hear a few of the songs, but it wasn’t until I lost her that I had to channel all my emotions into writing the rest of the album. In a way, I feel as if I’ve still got her with me on the journey.“
How about the single, Riptide. What inspired you to write that song and how did it emerge?
“It was the title. I’m a real surf chick, and I know there’s actually no such thing as a riptide – you get rip currents. I thought people would think I’m a really crap surfer, but ‘riptide’ was way more poetic, so I went with it. Also, I wanted to find a way of combining the excitement of being in the ocean, with the feeling of being caught up in a new relationship and falling in love. I had the acoustic guitar riff kicking around for a while, but I was afraid it might start sounding like Rage Against The Machine! Then the producer said, ‘We need a baritone guitar for that.’ I’m inspired quite a bit by country music, so it incorporated a bit of that sound.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I’D REALLY LIKE TO WRITE A SONG ON THE BANJO, ALTHOUGH IT’LL PROBABLY END IN TEARS! [/cc_blockquote_right] We hear you play the ukulele, banjo, mandolin, guitar, piano… Are there any instruments you don’t play?
“I don’t play any wind instruments. I’m just besotted with strings. The song A Place Called You was very ukulele-driven and it was just when I’d started learning to play it. I find writing songs with an instrument you’ve not quite got your head around is really good – it helps you come up with things you wouldn’t normally come up with. A lot of the other stuff is based on guitar because I’m in my comfort zone and I know a bit more about what I’m doing. I’d really like to write a song on the banjo, although it’ll probably end in tears!”
The album’s out and you’re going on tour. Are you someone who likes to write regularly, even if when you’re on the road?
“I can’t not write. I have to keep writing, and I’d feel really odd if I took time off now the album’s done. I’m already thinking about my second album! I think anything’s do-able if you really put your mind to it. I try to put the pressure to the back of my mind and just let it happen naturally.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Emma Stevens’ debut album Enchanted is out now on iTunes and she will be the main support act on Jenn Bostic’s tour in November and December, before embarking on her own headline tour in March ’14. For full live dates and further information visit www.emmastevensmusic.com. In the meantime, watch the video for the brilliantly catchy single Riptide below: