April 14, 2016
April 13, 2016
My favorite kind of homework. Hardest letters: S, Y. #brushpenlettering #brushguide (h/t to our teacher, Miami-based art director, Andrea Campos)
It’s no contest. Given the choice between, say, Scarface and a tutorial on brush pen lettering (above) or a primer on watercolour techniques, I’m going with the loaded brush.
I think Skillshare is one of the biggest gifts the internet has to offer.
Everything I could possibly be interested in in the realm of art, letters and digital technology is represented. The videos offer a homespun look at process and invite you to sit desk side with your talent crushes. Yes, you get to study the tchotchkes on and above their desks.
I gave up my Netflix subscription four years ago, and while I’m open to switching it back on, I’m much happier listening to Debbie Millman talk about visual narratives or watching Andrea Campos demonstrate the hand pressure you’ll need to create fluid upstrokes and downstrokes with your Tombo Brush Pen.
The very best of the human spirit is gathered at Skillshare.com.
Check it out. I’m guessing you’ll be drawn to the light too.
March 19, 2016
A Seth Godin blog post called “Reject the Tyranny of Being Picked: Pick Yourself,” published in March 2011, made the rounds on the internet again this week. And with good reason. (h/t to Gapingvoid cartoonist Hugh MacLeod for reviving Godin’s greatest hits in his crunchy daily email).
To recap, in March 2011:
- Twitter was at its finest and most useful.
- Instagram was a gurgling six-month old app with a small and dedicated fan base (and no ties to Facebook).
- Newspapers were carrying out mass layoffs, but still hanging on by a thread to (what they thought) was their rightful place in the media landscape.
In 2016, the digital economy has finally rolled over these decimated print media outlets, forcing mass closures and mergers with more closures to come. Channel-based TV and radio divisions (and their terrestrial stations) are also collapsing like sandcastles (CBS, BBC) as the brands go digital.
Translation: Godin’s discussion around the fall of gatekeepers in arts and culture is no longer a prediction but a full-on reality.
I leave you with Godin’s plea to entrepreneurs, artists and bloggers. Your ability to feel hopeful depends on your mindset and capacity for change:
Godin adds, while you’re working and doing your thing, “You will not feel safe, you will not feel like everything’s going to be OK. There is no amount of reassurance that’s going to help you [get past the doubt]. The hard part is doing work precisely because it feels like it’s not going to work. Living in two futures at once: the future of ‘it might not work’ and the future of ‘it might work’ at the same time is at the heart of what our economy is demanding from us.” (this quote is from Mitch Joel‘s interview with Godin from the end of 2014).
March 16, 2016
We’ve lived with disruption and pitchforks for a long time. But the present always feels more perilous to us. My latest feature for Applied Arts Magazine takes us back to 1984 when that nine-inch comet, The Macintosh, first hit planet earth. It blew up desktop publishing and sent X-Acto knives and fuming glue pots flying in every direction. It also galvanized typesetters in a battle they had no chance of winning. Update: we’re still here, folks, and still publishing. The good news is, we’ve moved beyond beige.
*Please support this stunning publication by purchasing a newsstand copy. This is the 30th anniversary issue.
February 17, 2016
February 16, 2016
There are a lot of folks out there doing a skills pivot on their own time and dime.
They’re saying yes to mastering data science and website design, and no to obscurity and unemployment.
They’re plowing through long lists of recommended readings, and using Darwin’s Origin of the Species as the manual to justify preparing for an uncertain future.
Adaptation, iteration, intersection, reinvention, retooling: these are the most insistent words in our collective vocabulary today.
But another word trending in big urban centres is “Brave.”
According to my sources in L.A., “Brave” is being tacked on to all sorts of sentences and situations. (h/t Christina Walkinshaw for this update).
What was “Groovy,” “Bitchin,” “Rad!” and “Sweet” in previous decades is now “Brave” — as in:
“I just paid my iPhone bill.”
“Dude, that’s so brave.” Or …
“I ate a giant stack of lingonberry pancakes for dinner.”
“Ridic, girl, that’s so brave!” And …
“I picked up my first web design client!”
“Brave!!” trills your chorus of friends.
I like how language changes to reflect the concerns of the masses in good times and bad.
“Make love, not war,” said the hippies through the worst moments of the Vietnam War.
“Watch the fro,” said African Americans through the sixties and seventies, as if a dent in their painstakingly picked afros ranked higher on their list of concerns than an entire culture that felt justified physically manhandling them at every turn.
Of course, a pick lodged in a fro symbolized a collective No to oppression and a collective Yes to strength, self-reliance and self-determination.
Today’s “accessories” for the changing workplace are big, bushy beards and lots natural wool (both jackets and knitted hats) — all things we associate with greater warmth and protection against harsh conditions.
And we can’t forget the chunky, dark-framed glasses that many people are sporting. To me, they say, “I’m smart enough to figure my way through this.”
You wear them even when you’re not sure that’s true.
I drew these frames with with a Pentel brush pen.
February 9, 2016
I’ve never defined myself as a journalist, not with every fibre of my being. I’m no Christie Blatchford. Robyn Doolittle, I’ll never be.
For a while, I called myself a “journalist” when I typed it in the headline of my LinkedIn profile. But it was always a bit of a stretch, so I took it out this weekend and replaced it with the more rootsy descriptor, “Writer & Illustrator.”
We all know that the field of journalism is burning like Imperial Rome. But that’s not why I decided to mess with my searchability in LinkedIn’s employment algorithms. Nor am I running from a crisis or towards a more winning team. The change felt more like a reality check.
The truth is, I’ve never tried to fit “my definition” of a journalist which is someone who covers City Hall, follows the footsteps of the powerful and exposes human entanglements with the seven deadly sins to an incensed public and a busy court system.
Writing about a lipstick or smart phone that a company has sent you isn’t journalism, it’s branded content. Ten years ago, when I was doing it, no one called it that. Back then it was called “service journalism,” a term that shows just how thoroughly bloated the industry had become.
When the fire engulfing journalism finally runs its course and the land cools and starts pushing up small flowers, let the journalism that grows back stay focused on investigations into how society is running and being run. And let the public pay the journalists who are doing the best work dissecting it. We have the online tools to enable that direct exchange, and have had them for some time. Someone just needed to step up and away from the holding companies and government corporations enveloping the field.
Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast and website are doing it. His work is journalism’s next incarnation — by, for and of the people. Let’s keep it lean. Lifestyle writers, meanwhile, should continue to look for positions at branding agencies, not newsroom floors (their seats are long gone).
Meanwhile, I’m still turning both shoulders squarely towards what’s dear to my heart. As with all life edits, we cast off the things that don’t fit as well as they used to—sweaters, jeans, titles, identities. “Writer & Illustrator” is truer to who I am and have always been. “The Queen of gentle misfits,” is how my friend Melissa described me last week on Facebook. I agree. But gentle is simply incompatible with the needs of good journalism. Although it’s completely aligned with mine.
February 5, 2016
A reprise of one of my favourite posts:
I wasn’t a mean girl in school. That automatically made me a target. I didn’t solve this by auditioning to join the girls on their power trips. Rather, I tried to exist in the world despite them. My refuge was drawing.
Trays of rainbow markers thrilled and distracted me most of the time. But sometimes the girls’ full court press of taunts knocked me right over: “You can fit a popsicle stick through that gap.” “Look at those hairy arms.” “What did you get on the test?” And the brilliant, “You smell.” I did occasionally lift an arm to confirm whether or not that was true. I also spent years stroking the dark down on my arms wondering what was to be done about it. My dad’s razor felt too drastic. Finally, my mother brought home a box of Jolen and every two months, or so, we’d make a date to paint my down from brown to baby-chick yellow.
This is a tale as old as time. All kids just want to be liked. But I wanted something that felt harder to achieve: I wanted to exist on my own terms and still have friends. The idea of being a follower and having fake friendships felt worse to me than going to math class. But I stuck to my plan. That meant having to occupy a kind of No Man’s Land for a while. I was individualistic, but not a weirdo, and, yet, I wasn’t what the students would have considered “popular.” I was There.
All that changed as I ascended to my senior year of high school. Because I was popular with my teachers, eventually everyone else just followed their lead. What the adults liked about me, I liked about me: I was focused, intelligent eager to learn, and full of laughter. With the support of my parents, I held out and gave those qualities the attention they deserved. Those choices early on have helped me navigate through all kinds of unpredictable and confounding behaviour. As the mean girls and I headed towards graduation, they still went about alternately courting and ignoring people, but now that I had no emotional investment in them they lost interest in me.
A few years ago, I discovered that a photograph of me being that girl I just described to you had been turned into a work of art. The photo, taken by my dad, shows me drawing on the back of an architectural blue print (see below left). Decades later the Winnipeg art collective, The Royal Art Lodge, ran across my photo and turned it into a silk screen called “Poster Making.” Click here for the full story of how this happened.
Lodge members Neil Farber, Michael Dumontier and Marcel Dzama saw something in me that they recognized in themselves, and all kids. Innocence. Focus. Determination. Click here and find out more from my interview with Neil Farber. Like all creatives, the artists borrowed my likeness and made it their own. Most notably, they added the words “FUCK OFF” to the blueprint I was working on. It’s not something I would have ever written or said back then. The result is funny, existential, idiosyncratic and became an instant cult hit. The print has been sold out for years, but, from time to time, it pops up on the secondary market at considerably higher prices.
It wasn’t long before writer and publisher Dave Eggers saw the print and featured it in McSweeney’s. Readers loved it and the print was turned into a McSweeney’s Post Card Set. But the story doesn’t end there. Eggers hand-picked “Poster Making” to be in a salon-style art exhibition called “Lots of Things Like This.” It travelled to New York and Amsterdam where it appeared next to the drawings and paintings of Leonard Cohen, David Mamet, Andy Warhol, Art Spiegelman, Kurt Vonnegut, David Shrigley, and others. Since then, I have seen framed copies of the print show up on Facebook in shots of people’s living rooms, kitchens and home offices from Toronto to Cincinatti. This month’s issue of Design Lines (p. 77) shows the print in the Toronto home of an ad agency exec and his family (below).
The print has also been written about in dozens of blogs, as this screen grab of a Google image search shows:
Being the inspiration for something creative is hands-down the best way to go viral.
Of all the blog posts that write about and feature the image, my favourite, so far, is “The Post of Bad Swears” by unruly.ca. It places Royal Art Lodge’s likeness of me next to the famous picture of Johnny Cash giving photographer Jim Marshall the middle finger salute. Frank Zappa’s famous nose pick and a stream of other art works are also pulled in for comparison (see below).
I have to laugh at the careful and sincere little girl in the red blouse who started it all. Who knew she would go on a journey with a band of artists and became the standard bearer of a message that resonates with so many of us in this age of digital creativity and reinvention. It turns out, I’ve always been a believer and a dissident. So get out there, people, and create! You know what to tell the naysayers and the bullies.
Images from left to right: “Poster Making,” by The Royal Art Lodge, courtesy of the artists; Johnny Cash, San Quentin Prison, February 24, 1969 by Jim Marshall; “fuck” by daveisdrawing on Flickr (as cited by unruly.ca, although not found by the author); Frank Zappa, Nasal Birdflip (origin unknown – please forward if you find); “Fuck You Is The New Thank You” by beejay at www.lettercult.com, according to unruly.ca (To the author’s chagrin, original still not found); The Swear Box by Gilbert + George, 2007 (available for purchase here); “Be Polite” billboard (origin unknown); FUCK YOU / a magazine of the arts, 5.2, 1963, Published by Ed Sanders and Fuck You Press.
January 31, 2016
Two weeks, ago, a parade of friends made their way through singer Emma Lee’s Toronto apartment, one of those over-a-shop spaces that surprisingly cavernous when you step inside.
We were responding to a call: “I’m shooting a lyric video for my upcoming single ‘Worst Enemy,'” she announced via email, “and am in need of your fabulous selves to make a cameo appearance. You’ll each be sporting a different lyric to the song on a t-shirt and appear for a few seconds of cinematic glory.”
“Count me in,” I fired back on Gmail. I had just written the liner notes for the single.
I’ve admired Emma Lee’s talent and spunk ever since we first met back in 2012. She’s the consummate performer-cum-digital strategist for the way she has been navigating the music scene, an industry shaken, stirred and smashed to smithereens by new democratizing technologies.
So here it is, folks, the video to “Worst Enemy.” You can purchase the song on iTunes. And for those of you who missed it, I’m also including my profile of Emma Lee, the artist who is riding YouTube minus the help of industry middle men.
This post was first published on November 28, 2012
UPDATE: In June 2013, Emma-Lee’s album “Backseat Heroine” was the winner of Best Adult Contemporary album at the 2013 Independent Music Awards.
I was propositioned by a guitar picker this summer. Or, rather, the writer in me was. And that’s “ghitaahr pick’r,” if you say it like you’re June Carter Cash, as I’m wont to do. Music biopics, especially Walk The Line, and classics in rock journalism by the likes of Al Aronowitz and Nick Hornby have been casting a romantic spell over my storytelling skills for years, even occasionally messing with my flat Canadian accent. But, until a few months ago, I’d been paying my bills writing for other beats and not going to clubs, which made covering the music scene next to impossible.
My fortunes changed when a comet flew into my inbox in early September. A Toronto-based bluesy alt-country singer wanted to meet me, it read. I crunched down hard on my pencil.
The comet and I met at a downtown Second Cup on a Saturday afternoon last month. Her name is Emma-Lee, and she gave off a trail of sparks in her vintage leopard print coat, cowboy boots and old time Hollywood turban (in fuchsia). “I’m a crazy psychic Vegas cowgirl today,” she smiled, still covered in October air and enveloping me in a hug. Everyone turned to look, and an hour into our conversation a crusty old guy from the back of the shop forgot about his setbacks, pulled himself up, and came over to meet the woman he probably thought was Hedy Lamarr (it was the turban).
“Nice look,” he said, shuffling his feet like he’d crossed over to the girls’ side of a school dance. Emma-Lee acknowledged him as only a pretty woman could: with a pitch-perfect “thank you” that transitioned from boppy to stern in two beats. It had its intended effect. He left. For the rest of our interview, the entire shop sipped and stared. They all felt the presence of The X-Factor.
Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes
Emma-Lee is a singer-songwriter navigating the music scene in the “bass ackwards” fashion now standard for Generation Y’s best and brightest. These kids don’t sit in the waiting rooms of record labels, clasping their demos and planning their dash past the president’s secretary. In the ultimate powerflip, the Old Guard pursues them (online) and make them offers they can’t refuse (you’d think). But these kids are questioning if it’s really worth it signing on with a big label? To them, the gift horse is looking a little long in the tooth.
“The level of development with artists from an early stage is not an area labels are doing anymore,” says David “Click” Cox, a former A&R man with Universal Music. “They aren’t discovering artists before the masses anymore, or introducing them. The playing field is wide open with technology ,” he adds, “and artists can be heard on a larger scale and discovered by everyone at the same time.”
If you need another sign how times are changing, Gen Y musicians also don’t beg DJs or TV programming directors to play their music the way that Johnny Cash and Jon Bon Jovi did in their day. Only a generation ago, an aspiring singer would have bought free rounds of shots for everyone at the discovery their videos had achieved heavy rotation on national TV. Not Emma-Lee. She’s missed her airplay on MuchMusic. Like most digital natives — nearly one-third, according to a recent report — Emma-Lee doesn’t own a TV and has no plans to buy one. “I’ve only watched my stuff on YouTube,” she says.
The old Dire Straights line about “Playing the guitar on MTV” is as foreign to Emma-Lee as Al Jolson on shellac would have been to Mark Knopfler in 1985 when “Money for Nothing” topped the charts.
In the last decade, because of the internet effect, all-music stations like MTV have become portals for reality TV and the odd music video, while staffing at record labels has dropped 60 percent. With little support from the usual suspects, talented and determined newcomers have taken hold of their music careers and mined the internet for almost all of their needs.
Emma-Lee, 29, cobbled together her first band mates through Craig’s List — “How else would I find them?” — and released her first album, 2008’s Never Just a Dream, an ethereal mix of pop, doo-wop and blues, on iTunes, MySpace and YouTube. She had no management backing her up, no booking agent, publicist or record label. Never Just a Dream was financed by a series of day jobs and a line of credit that Emma-Lee only just paid off.“I know this will be a marathon, not a sprint,” she told her Facebook fans, who have been following and supporting her every step of the way.
‘Playing the guitar on MTV’ is as foreign to Emma-Lee as Al Jolson on shellac was to Mark Knopfler
Myspace was a year old in 2004 when Emma-Lee began sharing her songs. She built the foundation of her social media following on this platform while working as a receptionist at the Rolls Royce dealership in downtown Toronto. “I had nothing else to do,” she says without apology. “The dealership had two cars on the floor, each worth half a million dollars, and there were only 8 people in Canada who could afford them. And they didn’t call me.”
Sitting at her desk next to the sedans, Emma-Lee logged in seven hours a day pushing her name and her music out onto Myspace. “I personally messaged people and asked them to check out my songs,” she says. “The positive feedback from total strangers fed my drive even more. I soon set a goal of getting 100 people to know about me every week.” Before long Emma-Lee had 21,000 followers. “There was first mover advantage, for sure,” she says. “At the time, nothing else like Myspace existed. People were actually interested in discovering new music.” Not long after, she booked her first live show at Healey’s in Toronto. Two hundred people come out and it was largely due to her outreach efforts on Myspace.
Emma-Lee later refocused her energy on Facebook when Myspace lost its mojo, and began tweeting up a storm when micro-blogging became de rigueur. The importance of building a top-notch website on WordPress was a no-brainer. Emma-Lee is also one of the few musicians who still send out a regular e-newsletter to all the followers who leave their e-mail addresses after live performances. Some would call that a quaint Web 1.0 strategy, but it came in handy when the singer needed to raise funds for her second album, 2012’s Backseat Heroine. “My fans,” she said, “donated almost $10,000 in presales through kapipal.com,” the site that allows you to “raise money for your dreams.” She thanked each and every one of them by mailing out signed CD’s, handwritten lyric sheets, and she even did a live house concert for one fan who donated $1000.
The star treatment
Eventually, Emma-Lee decided to let traditional media know what she was up to. Only after her first album was released online and she had been declared one of 2008’s best singer-songwriters by iTunes, Emma-Lee sent copies of the CD to music critics at The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and every newsstand rag she could think of. “I spent $600 on my first mail out.”
Again, with no agent or publicist, she took on the roles herself. “I called myself Dale Cole and became a man in all my emails and cover letters.” Her new identity was a combination of the names of two characters from her favourite TV show, Twin Peaks: special agent Dale Cooper and regional bureau chief Gordon Cole. “I never called anybody, I just emailed them as email@example.com.” She started her own record label too, Special Agent Records, which she still maintains. “I felt this strange power as a man,” she says, looking back. “Besides, I thought it would be weird e-mailing publications as myself and begging them to listen to me.”
When Ashante Infantry, the music critic at The Toronto Star, received her CD, she raved in her review and gave it four out of four stars. A week later Brad Wheeler at The Globe and Mail made Never Just a Dream the “Disc of the Week.”
The publicity helped. It led directly to Emma-Lee being noticed the old-fashioned way. Larry Wanagas, the veteran talent manager who discovered and turned kd lang into an international singing sensation, saw The Star review and offered to manage Emma-Lee pretty much on the spot. She said yes and Wanagas re-released Never Just a Dream on his label, Bumstead Records. David “Click” Cox, mentioned earlier, also became interested in managing Emma-Lee and the three struck a “co-management” deal.
Larry Wanagas, the veteran talent manager who discovered and turned kd lang into an international singing sensation, rushed to represent Emma-Lee.
“It was a redo with support and marketing,” says Emma-Lee, explaining how pairing with the label made it possible for the public to buy her CD at HMV and other brick-and-mortar music chains. “I didn’t have any offline distribution before that.” iTunes and Myspace were her only storefronts. Physical distribution wasn’t something Emma-Lee had even thought of until a desk clerk at the flagship Toronto HMV called her after the newspapers had reviewed her album and asked, “How do we get your CD in here? People are asking for it.” When Larry Wanagas made contact a few days later, she had her answer.
But in what’s becoming the order of the day, Emma-Lee chose to cut ties with Wanagas while working on the songs for her second album. “We had a falling out over different business philosophies and decided to part ways,” she says. David Cox stayed on as her manager. “I really wanted to be more hands on with developing artists,” says Cox. “And Emma-Lee is a creative visionary and very active online.” That’s why he left the labels and went independent to manage Emma-Lee and a second artist, Saidah Baba Talibah, through his company CLK Creative Works.
All by myself
What’s clear is that the web has given artists greater leverage in the age-old struggle for creative control. That wasn’t possible for big voices a dozen years ago. Christina Aguilera peaked just before the internet rearranged the music industry forever. She bristled, rebelled and starved herself in the late nineties in response to the heavy-handed marketing tactics and vocal choices forced upon her by record execs.
“Free to be you and me” is practically the motto of the internet generation of artists. Emma-Lee art directs many of her own videos, chooses her own clothes, eats what she wants, and shoots most of her still photography (yet another talent). She gives away a lot of songs and pictures online because she’s learned that she can generate substantial revenue in other areas.
“Right now,” she says, “unless you have a huge audience to tour for, the only place to make money is in songwriting — for yourself and other people. Then getting those songs cut by other artists or getting them placed in TV and film.” Her songs have been featured on Beauty & The Beast, Degrassi, Dance Moms, Wilfred, Tyler Perry’s: Why Did I Get Married Too, Saving Hope and MTV’s Teen Wolf.
Last year she experienced a flurry of attention online when her song “Shot in the Dark” was featured on Dance Moms. “Basically, these two girls did a dance routine to my song and it went pretty viral.” As a result, she charted on the iTunes USA jazz chart and sold nearly 5000 singles from that exposure. If you search YouTube for “Emma-Lee Shot In The Dark” you will pull up dozens of young girls doing dance routines in their basements to her song.
From a musician’s perspective, there’s never been a more exciting time to launch yourself.
With no big production budgets or middlemen to report to, Emma-Lee has been producing and directing a stream of YouTube videos for the past several years. They all focus on what really matters: her voice. The “Backseat Sessions” are impromptu serenades that show a hitchhiking Emma-Lee singing for her ride in the back of cars and rickshaws. “I had a my friend director Hank Devos tag along.” This one’s a song Emma-Lee wrote called, “Just Looking,” and it ended up being the fourth track on her second album.
On another occasion, Emma-Lee created and posted this video of an off-the-floor acoustic recording of a song she wrote called, “Magical Flying Bathtub Machine.” “It’s just two of us. My friend Devrim [Eldelekli] on a nylon string guitar and me singing very gently and jazzy.” It became an iTunes bonus track later attached to her first album. It’s not on YouTube anymore, but you can watch it here.
When you publicly post to YouTube, it’s anyone’s guess who will see your video and what they’ll do with it. Most of us hold our breath for a few shares or likes and move on when we get none. In Emma-Lee’s case, her iPhone lit up: “Hi, Emma-Lee, this is Jesse Cook. Could you give me a call?”
Cook, an internationally-acclaimed guitarist based in Toronto, stumbled upon Emma-Lee’s bathtub song and thought she had the perfect voice for his new project. Then he called and invited her to join him for a recording session at his west end studio. Planning his eighth studio album, he explained that he wanted to do a “blue mood” album with the emotional punch of Adele’s mega-seller 21, but he needed a singer to demo a couple of songs he was thinking of pitching to kd lang or Madeleine Peyroux. “He handed me Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic tune, ‘I Put a Spell on You,’” recalls Emma-Lee. She sang, he listened, then called her again a few weeks later. “Hey listen, I’ve played the demos to a bunch of people and we just like you. Do you want to come and record some songs for the album?” She said yes. The album she is featured on is Jesse Cook: The Blue Guitar Sessions.
Cook and Emma-Lee did their first live performance together for a television taping of a concert special now airing on PBS. And as I write this, she is traveling with Cook on his “Blue Guitar Tour” which will make stops at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Toronto’s Massey Hall before wrapping up in mid-December. Emma-Lee took the photos for this blog post from her hotel room in Fredericton, NB, their second stop.
The parade of veteran musicians knocking at Emma-Lee’s door didn’t stop here. Two weeks before she left to go on tour with Cook, Emma-Lee sent her followers a note stating, “Chris Isaak [the rockabilly heartthrob] has selected me to open for his Toronto appearance at Massey Hall. Let’s all take a moment and reflect on the awesomeness of “Wicked Game” and “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing.” Emma-Lee also couldn’t help noting that the singer she was opening for had a role as special agent Chester Desmond from Twin Peaks, the show that has played such a key role in her inspiration.
Sitting dead centre twelve rows back, I watched Emma-Lee under a single spotlight at Massey Hall do a half hour set. It was just a girl, her guitar and a stomp box to set the beat. Even the airborne dust caught in the glare of the spotlight moved at a mesmerized pace during her set. The whole time, all I could think was, “Boy, does she own that stage.” The sell-out crowd agreed.
Backstage, Chris Isaak removed his sequined jacket and placed it over Emma-Lee’s shoulders. “The first concert I ever attended was Bonnie Raitt at the CNE Grandstand, and you opened for her,” she told him. Isaak predicted that one day he would be opening for her. She posted the picture of them together on Facebook and the thumbs-up multiplied.
Chris Isaak and Emma-Lee backstage at Massey Hall, Toronto.
As Emma-Lee tells it, her journey to now did not involve endless rounds of vocal training while she was still in pigtails, or overnight trips with the high school band. “I left school for a good three months before the end of grade 10,” says the Toronto-born, Markham-raised singer. “I had to get out. School made me feel really depressed and alienated.” This perplexed her parents. But when they realized they couldn’t force their daughter to go, they helped her escape. “I got a note from my psychologist excusing me from the remainder of the 10th grade,” the singer recalls. “I couldn’t focus on my work, and I can’t even recall what the note said. That time of my life is still a mystery even to me.”
Like any good Canadian girl, Emma-Lee got a job at the local Tim Horton’s, never suspecting a decade later that she’d be singing the “Time for Tim’s” jingle. Her parents (again, much to their credit) didn’t kick her out of the house after she dropped out. They circled the wagons, encouraging their daughter’s budding interest in music. “I got it from them,” she says.
Emma-Lee’s dad taught her to play the acoustic guitar and introduced her to his Beatles records and a stream of old jazz standards. Her mother shared her stories of singing in a large city choir in Toronto. Meanwhile, Emma-Lee tried on a number of vocal styles, including singing along to Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and all the pop divas with the huge voices. “But most of those singers didn’t write their own songs,” she noted. “When I discovered women who did both, like Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple, that inspired something new in me.” The strumming and writing on her bed increased.
Soon after, with the money she made ringing up coffee and donuts, Emma-Lee bought a pink Fender Stratocaster and a small amp and announced to her family, “I’m going to be a rock star!” She was no-nonsense about it. What’s more, it felt true.
The big smoke
While Emma-Lee was still working at Tim’s, the teenager started making more frequent train trips to Toronto. “I got into the electronic, jungle, techno and house music scene and would go to big city raves on weekends.” She was way too young to be doing any of the things she was doing and getting into all kinds of trouble. So much trouble, in fact, that pursuing her music took a back seat. “My guitar collected dust and the writing just stopped.”
Moving with her family to East York, Emma-Lee, now 20, fell in with a pack of drum-and-bass DJs and producers she met on the club scene. When one of them found out she could carry a tune, he invited her to his studio. “ I ended up writing a bunch of lyrics on the spot and recording them. That was the first time I’d ever heard my voice professionally recorded. And that was it for me. Finding my sound and realizing I had ideas to contribute made me feel like I had some kind of a purpose in life,” she says. “From that moment on, I became completely addicted to recording and performing live.”
After that, it didn’t take Emma-Lee long to pull together enough original material for her first album.
By the time she got around to her second album, Emma-Lee was once again without the financial support of a big record label. “This time I applied for a grant from Factor. You’d be shocked to discover who uses this program — big name artists you’d think have enough money. You have to be good to get one, but you don’t necessarily have to have a distributor.” Emma-Lee won the $25,000 grant/loan and recorded with producers Marc Rogers and Karen Kosowski in February of 2011. This money, combined with pre-orders from fans allowed her to make the album of her dreams. After its completion, with the help of Cox she sent the album out to a number of labels and performed showcases to gain interest. This resulted in an artist-friendly offer from eOne Music Canada in the form of a single-album deal. “I’m still in control of everything creatively,” she explains, “but they help me market and distribute it which is fantastic.”
For her third album Emma-Lee is seriously considering going completely solo again. ”I still have my label, Special Agent Records,” she muses, “and I freakishly enjoy a lot of the business side of music. I can do all the marketing through social media and my own strategies I’ve learned from watching others over the years.” She pauses and stares off into the distance. “When I think about what it must have been like to be a musician in the seventies. So, wait, you mean you have to go out into the street and put up posters on walls and telephone poles and count on old-fashioned word of mouth …”
She slumps with exhaustion at the thought of old-school promotional tactics. Social media’s demands, by comparison, feel like a walk in the park.