Within a few seconds of listening to Emmy The Great her literary background is revealed.
The songwriter has a real depth to her lyrics, which go beyond the surface level introspection employed by so many acoustic-clad troubadours. Returning with her second album – an analysis of religious thought and mythology – Emmy The Great had obviously been making frequent use of her library card.
Sitting down with the singer, ClashMusic decided to probe Emmy The Great about her literary tastes. Expect to hear references to TS Eliot, Iris Murdoch and… Sweet Valley High?
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What is your favourite book and why?
Possibly The Bell by Iris Murdoch. There was a period when I was at University and growing out of my teenage tastes and I discovered Iris Murdoch, and decided that she represented everything that I loved in the world. So I read all her books. The Bell was my favourite one. It’s a about a lay religious community in rural England, and a group of deeply flawed people who go there to find or escape something. It’s very funny, and its characters have this wonderfully understated, middle-class darkness that is always woven into her novels.
What other authors do you like?
Yikes! I love most things that I pick up but for trends in my reading it goes loosely:
Tween years: Sweet Valley, Point Horror, Judy Blume
Teens: Brontes, DH Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh
University: Iris Murdoch, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, Jon Ronson, Joe Orton
And then after that it’s not so easy to pin down. I’ve read some proper modern American classics recently: Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen.
Marina Warner and Jon Ronson are two people who have really affected the way I think.
And I’ve read an enormous amount of Calvin and Hobbes.
What draws you to certain books?
Usually if I’ve picked something up, I’ll have to read it. I like different books for different things. Something that’s simple but compulsive is good in a different way to something that is complex and takes a long time to absorb. I just really like books.
Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? What is it and why?
I don’t know if you’ve read Sweet Valley High #100 The Evil Twin. It’s the unspoken gem of the Sweet Valley cannon. Game changer.
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
Yes, definitely. When I started I would lift whole lines out of TS Eliot and stick them in songs, and I was always trying to get the polite Englishness of the books I read into my writing. Then with the second album, I owe a lot of the concepts from myths and writers like Marina Warner. I don’t know if I’ll go as literary for the third album. I won’t be able to help getting ideas from the books I read, but I don’t know if I’ll allude to them directly.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.
What is the first book you remember reading as a child?
A book called Ludo the Star Horse by Mary Stewart, also a definite lost classic. Also the fairy tale collections by Ruth Manning-Sanders, and Janet and Alan Ahlberg.
Did you make good use of your library card as a child / teenager?
Yes. The library near my parents’ house has the most amazing Point Horror and Point Romance collection. Still does – same books. And the library at my school was the known place to go fool around, because it was dark and had a lot of corners.
How do you think literature achieves timelessness?
Probably the same way anything does. Books that are huge successes when they come out are not always the ones that last. A piece of art needs to transcend the time it was made, and somehow also encapsulate the time it was made.
Do you read book reviews?
Yes, I find them easier to read than music reviews. With music reviews I always have some snarky insider comment to make, and an already made opinion about the album or artist that is often vehemently in opposition to the review. Books are this thing I feel safe with. I’ve been with them my whole life, but they’re not my job, so I can just read about new books, and what people think of them with joy. It doesn’t mean I’ll take the reviewer’s opinion as mine, just that I can read them without it starting some personal reaction.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
Yes, definitely. Sometimes many times. I currently have Laura Barton’s Twenty-One Locks earmarked for a second reading. It was beautiful and I think I read it too quickly trying to find out what happened. I now want to go back and appreciate the scenery.
Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?
I identified with Laura Barton’s main character when I read that, because she is careening towards a wedding she’s not sure about, at a time when I’d just had the same thing happen to me, so it was incredibly timely and appropriate. I’ve always had a thing for the strong female figures in fairy tales too. There is a character in an Angela Carter novel, Heroes and Villains, who I empathised with recently. She’s brought up by a scholarly father and very independent, but she’s also kind of evil. I find I identify a lot with people in novels when you get to hear their internal reactions to things, because maybe they remind us of our own unspoken thoughts, that we don’t hear about from other people.
Do you read one book at a time or more than one?
More than one, but usually try and finish the main one before I get too stuck into the others.
Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?
I did a show recently with a Faber poet called Jack Underwood, and we invited Joe Dunthorne and Nikesh Shukla, both authors, to be a part of it. We also asked my friend Elizabeth from Summer Camp to be in it, and an awesome comedian called Miriam Elia. I had the best time, I really hope we can do it again.
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Emmy The Great’s new single ‘Paper Forest’ is out now.