Name: Emma McGann
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, producer, live-streamer
Current Release: Emma McGann's new EP Monsterverse is out via Virgin.
Recommendations: Check out Kandinsky’s Several Circles - it’s my favourite piece of art and relates back to my thoughts about synesthesia in this interview.
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl is a great read. Any and every musician out there should read it.
If you enjoyed this interview with Emma McGann and would like to stay up to date with her music, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and TikTok.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you towards it?
I started out around 15 yrs old (back in 2005). I would scribble lyrics everywhere and had this huge wooden chest in my room covered in drawings of fave bands and lyrics which held all my own notebooks of songs.
As for recording, I botched together a cheap microphone meant for online calls and started recording song ideas inside of Audacity. I had no idea what I was doing at that age but it felt exciting to be able to record myself like that at home. It was the first taste I had of hearing my own songs and lyrics back and the freedom to do that ignited something for me. That’s what drew me in.
Early on I gravitated towards a lot of alt rock and pop punk as a teenager because I saw myself in the lyrics of those songs. I was also particularly drawn to female fronted acts, Alanis Morrisette, the Donnas, Shania Twain, L7…
I remember discovering this band called Pretty In Stereo who were based out of LA. I came across them on MySpace and loved how unapologetic their look and sound was. I was just a scruffy British kid watching the world through the lens of the internet for the first time.
Bands like that opened my eyes and showed me that I could follow that path if I wanted to
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
Sometimes I’ll see shapes too. I find synesthesia fascinating and studied Kandinsky’s works for a while. For me, mentally I’m always picturing and plotting out visuals to coincide with a song as I’m writing it. When I have a vision in my mind of what the artwork or the music video might look like it sometimes helps me inform the song itself and the choices we make during the production phase.
My new EP Monsterverse is a great example of that. I’ve built the music videos as an immersive 1st person experience where the viewer can step into the world of that song. The whole record is about dealing with (and sometimes running from) your inner demons, so I wanted to place the listener as the hero in the story who eventually faces their fears.
As I was writing these tracks I was also 3d rendering the videos at the same time inside of Unreal Engine 5 and found myself thinking of elements in the video and how a particular sound might aid that scene. So it was an interesting creative process. I really let my imagination run wild
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
What helped me develop as a writer was identifying my own strengths.
When you’re honest with yourself and know what you’re best at, your focus sharpens and your unique voice starts to shine through in the way it’s supposed to. I pride myself on the hooks I litter through my songs, it’s definitely one of my strengths. I enjoy mining for gold until I find an earworm that I know will stay with the listener beyond those 3 minutes.
What was challenging for me in the beginning which I quickly learned how to navigate was how to stand out in the noise. I like to do things unconventionally now and carve a path of my own and it was only when I began to do this that I found more purpose, more personal growth and also more interest in my music in general.
Straying away from a typical artist blueprint shifts your perspective of success too. I’m always asking myself the question of ‘how can I do this like no-one else has ever done it before?’ And ‘how can I be the first to put the flag in the ground and be an example to other artists of the future?’. That’s another thing that drives me forward - I enjoy helping other artists develop too.
There will always be conformity and trend following - and I believe you need to include elements of that in how you present yourself as an artist. Especially online. But your true art becomes the stuff you do that is different and that breaks those rules. That’s how I look at it at least.
So doing things differently is always one of my goals. And that’s the great thing about being an artist, you can give yourself permission to break any rules that are in front of you. It’s how I’ve found my voice and overcome my own challenges.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit and I’ve learned to embrace that over time. A lot of that and what I continue to learn about myself goes into my music in a completely unfiltered way. I try to help others embrace that misfit in themselves through my music too. I think that’s important.
As a listener I’m all over the place. I was brought up listening to a lot of powerful female voices. Pair that with the fact that my Mum brought me up on her own - that definitely plays a huge part in my identity too. I think over time this is what helped me break out of my shell as a songwriter.
I started out writing quite shy singer-songwriter stuff - it was a little bit folky. But it was frustrating because I knew it wasn’t the slot for my voice to fill. I love folk music and I still write within that style sometimes … but I just wanted to be louder, make more noise and be like those empowering voices I grew up alongside.
So as well as my sombre folk songs, (which I still share with my Patreon followers from time-to-time) the fiercer alt pop sound of my released work is what I grew to love and is the imprint I wanna leave behind.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I don’t like rules and I don’t follow them. It’s always made zero sense to me to follow the traditional route of an artist exactly. Instead, I like to build on the blueprint and carve new paths of my own. So while I release traditionally, tour etc. I like to try unconventional things too.
I’m always thinking about the experience for the listener and how that can be more immersive. A 3 minute window of a song is a narrow opportunity to capture someone's attention and give them an experience they’ll never forget. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how to extend that experience into new territory.
I have a small painting signed by an unknown artist. It’s of a woman painted in colour surrounded by a crowd of people painted in black and white. It’s beautiful and what I love most about it is that I know nothing about the artist herself, and it still speaks to me. I love that her art is making a lasting impression perhaps without her even knowing that I have it. I find that beautiful and can only hope that people in the future might feel the same about music and more underground artists of today.
My point being that longevity is always my goal, especially in an industry that’s so saturated and unstable for the vast majority. I’ve known since I was kid that music was what I wanted to do with my life so the question I asked myself very early on was ‘how can I make this last for myself and how can I make a lasting impression without getting caught up in the game of it all?’
I see songs like little time capsules that can stick around forever. Kinda like that painting I have. So that’s always in my mind, I always think of how music and art can live on and become a part of your own history. And also how it can play a role in other people's lives.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I believe that originality and innovation leads to finding a purpose for yourself as an artist. But you still have to take the audience into account and the familiarity they’ve come to expect. It’s a fine balance. I find myself catering to the audience in that way through the foundations of a song's structure and simplistic melodies more than anything. The innovation for me comes into play with the experience that surrounds that song.
That’s why for example, with my new EP I’ve created these immersive visual worlds for each track and a role-playing game that allows you to jump deeper into the story and feel like you’re the main character.
I guess I struggle with the thought that songs are undervalued in such a fast paced world. I think it exhausts most artists who are chained to algorithms across platforms and feel like they have no option but to churn and pump out content all the time, even when it’s not music. It’s not inspiring to think about but the reality is: your songs are passively listened to the majority of the time. That’s why I think building an experience around your show, your album, your song, your art … it can be really effective and make the listener feel more invested in the story.
There’s thousands of songs out there that are about the same thing you’ve written about so how do you make yours stand out? I think the answer is through innovation and pushing boundaries and peoples' expectations. Not to mention carving a route for yourself where you enjoy what you’re doing along the way. So I’m very much in the ‘music of the future’ camp.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
As an artist navigating an independent career, livestreaming has not only been a tool that’s helped me develop over the years (I’ve been a musician streamer since 2013), but it’s become a part of my artist identity too. I can take my fans with me through my day, allow them to be a part of the creative process, invite them to a watch along in the vocal booth or have them be with me in those early moments of the beginning of a song.
It’s also been a format that has opened up collaborations with some of my all-time music heroes (check out my track ‘Teary Eyed’, produced by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda). It’s wild how many doors opened to me being in the livestream space. But what I value most from it is the connection you build with your audience.
It’s transformed the way I look at artists, audience and accessibility. The lines are very much blurred between the music industry and online world now. Just 8 years ago though it was very different and the industry didn’t use to rely on social media as much as it does now. Over time people have come to understand how powerful it is to have that communication with fans beyond just a VIP signing after a show. There used to be a mystique or invisible barrier between the artist and the audience. Now we invite them to experience everything alongside us.
Livestreaming is the perfect place for me as an artist. It allows me to create content that I don’t have to waste time and energy on editing because it’s in real time, allows me to grow a hyper engaged audience and let them have an imprint on what happens on their screens … I earn as an artist through this format too (more than I do anywhere else which is mind blowing still to this day) but most of all I feel like my music is really valued in this space and makes a difference to people.
I think the ability to speak with your audience in a casual, conversational way dissolves that barrier. There’s no room for ego, just the music and the people willing to listen. It feels like a second home to me.