For Emma-Lee, whose acclaimed debut album in 2008 was the sultry Never Just a Dream, music is all about visions and the achievement of goals. Now working on her third album, the Toronto singer-songwriter has settled into a month-long residency at the Cameron House, which is where we heard new tunes and where we caught up with her.
You’re previewing new songs at the Cameron, and I know you’ve written a song with Jill Barber. She’s an artist who’s found a niche for herself. Are you looking for a niche?
I wish I was the type of artist who could settle on one genre. My albums have been a bit all over the map, and over the last two years I’ve been going through an indecisive period with my songwriting and what I want my next album to be. But I’m definitely homing in on making a classic soul-pop record. My voice has gotten stronger over the years. It’s bigger, and it’s really fun for me to sing with that voice.
Sounds like it. A couple of the new songs you played have that arena-sized Adele-ballad thing. But the single that everyone is talking about is What Would Tom Petty Do?, which has more of a country-rock feel to it.
We wrote that two years ago. It’s just what I was loving at the time. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it, but when I sang it at shows there was an immediate sing-along response to it. It just kind of grew from there.
The song is fun, using his song titles for your lyrics, and you praise him over Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. Can you talk about your fandom of Tom Petty?
I remember watching Last Dance With Mary Jane on MuchMusic, back when MuchMusic was music. More recently, I saw his documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. I was just floored with his story, and the magic of “Oh, you know, we went to L.A. and we went into a phone booth and started looking up record companies and called them and signed a deal.” That doesn’t happen any more.
Beyond his songs, is there something else about Tom Petty that you admire?
It’s him being knowledgeable about his business. The songs have always been there, but it’s his character of sticking to his guns and being true to what he believes in. It’s a simple mission, but I think it’s one we can all get behind.
What about running down the dream for you? Are you as starry-eyed as you once were?
I’m not. I’ve grown up. I’ve seen the evolution of other artists’ careers as well as my own. I’ve seen people who are just so devastatingly talented not making it. It’s a real thing that happens all the time. That said, in my heart of hearts, I’m still chasing the dream.
Emma-Lee plays the Cameron House (408 Queen St. W., Toronto), Wednesdays in August, 6 to 8 p.m. PWYC.