After establishing herself as a popular member of the Toronto singer-songwriter community, Emma-Lee packed up her pen and guitar and re-located to Nashville in February of 2017 to pursue her songwriting career.
She has no regrets about the move. “The city has exceeded my expectations,” she says. “I’ve definitely written more songs this year than any other year, as the city feeds that hunger.”
Living in Music City has actually opened up more opportunities for work with other Canadian artists and songwriters. “In Toronto, I would write with country artists but it’d just be a select few going there to write for their record,” she says. “Pretty much all the Canadian country music scene comes to Nashville, though, so I get to write with more of them, and that’s awesome.”
“I’m still a self-published writer,” says Emma-Lee, “but working with a publisher is something I’d like to do in the future. I do think the more you can do on your own, before that happens, puts you in a better position.”
She’s amassed an impressive discography of co-written songs recorded and performed by Canadian artists, with that list including Madeline Merlo, Michelle Treacy, Kira Isabella, Nice Pony, Victoria Duffield, Alee, Leah Daniels, SATE, Tia Brazda, and more. She’s excited that a song she co-wrote with longtime collaborator Karen Kosowski and Phil Barton will be on Brett Kissel’s new album, with other recent co-writes placed with Sam Drysdale and Stacey Kay.
“Seeing my name mentioned in Rolling Stone by Tom Petty was one of the coolest things ever!”
Along the songwriting road, Emma-Lee has had the opportunity to co-write with some of Canada’s premier songwriters, including Ron Sexsmith, Todd Clark, Donovan Woods and Gavin Slate. She has eagerly learned from all these experiences, and cites a session this year in Los Angeles with Brian West (Nelly Furtado, Maroon 5) as inspirational.
“I left it thinking about things a little differently in how I approach writing,” she says. “You just never know when that will happen. A great thing about living in Nashville is constantly meeting someone new, and watching how they work. Gleaning from that, and bringing it to your own music, strengthens you as a writer.”
Emma-Lee first made a mark as a solo artist, earning critical acclaim for her earlier albums, Never Just a Dream (2009) and Backseat Heroine (2012). A 2014 single she recorded in honour of a musical hero brought her a career highlight.
The song “What Would Tom Petty Do?” actually came to Petty’s attention, and he responded in Rolling Stone that “I don’t know what he would do. But thanks for asking.” To Emma-Lee, “seeing my name mentioned in there by Tom Petty was one of the coolest things ever!”
Her new record, Fantasies, is being released as two five-song EPs. Fantasies Vol.1 came out in October 2017, with Vol. 2 set for release in late January 2018. “Releasing smaller bodies of work will do you favours in the long run,” she says. “It gives people a chance to digest a small amount of what you are trying to say. I’m a music creator, and even I can barely listen to an entire album by somebody. If I admit that to myself then I have to be honest in the way I put out music.”
Featuring songs written in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Nashville, Fantasies is produced by Kosowski, who also co-wrote most of the material. Todd Clark co-wrote “Not Giving Up On You” with the pair, and a dance remix of that cut is faring well. “It has a half million plays on Spotify, so I guess people really love to dance,” says Emma-Lee. A co-write with Kosowski and Ron Sexsmith, “No Photographs,” will be on the second EP.
Emma-Lee is eclectic in her tastes as a singer and songwriter, but she calls Fantasies a pure pop record. “I’d say that this one is the most cohesive album I’ve put out,” she says. “Karen and I were definitely digging some ‘80s and ‘90s pop production at the time, and wanted to take a crack at some of that.
“Writing songs with and for other people, I realized I could indulge some of my stylistic tendencies there. I love working in different styles of music, but when you try to do that as an artist, it can be confusing for people to understand who you are.”
She began writing all her material alone, but Emma-Lee is now firmly wedded to the co-writing approach. “In my experience, bringing an idea to someone else I trust, and who I think has incredible ideas, then, without fail, every time that idea has gotten better,” she says. “Plus, I also just really like working with other people. It’s not as much fun to do it alone, to be completely honest.”