Pa Salieu closed the 2021 Youth Music Awards
E.m.m.a has a way of making statements that you initially think are jokes but quickly realise are deadly serious. When I ask her point blank what the main idea behind her new album is and she replies "the universe", it's the logical conclusion of a conversation that has covered oversized 80s pop, academic synthesizer pioneers,The Great Gatsby, Spaghetti Westerns and Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 surf-cop classic Point Break but never feels unfocused.
The fact that the album is out on Keysound Recordings, a well-respected home of experimental UK dance music, is fitting but feels more like a happy afterthought – a good container to express ideas and sketches that have been developing freely for years. 'Blue Gardens' (read our review of the album here) has its roots in early dubstep and plays around with syncopated rhythms that can be filed under funky or garage but it's really led by E.m.m.a's vivid, delicate synths; layered melodies that stretch and bleed – sometimes sounding haunted and trippy and other times wilting and weepy. Most importantly, it's instictive: "I'm quite an abstract thinker – I know some people might spend days listening to a loop but I just don't vibe to that", she says at another point. This combination of directness and expansiveness – her specific ambition to "reference beyond 2008" – has produced in one of the most interesting and individual releases of the year so far. Dummy spoke to E.m.m.a to find out how the project bloomed.
When did you first take a serious interest in producing or, even more generally, just a serious interest in music?
Well I've always followed music quite closely, since I was ridiculously young. I just found my diary from 1995 and one of the entries was about buying the Wayne's World soundtrack – I remember I loved that! In terms of production, I never thought that was accessible to me – like when I was listening to Mobb Deep and things when I was fifteen. I really loved it but I never considered making tunes or anything like that. But when I got to university, I noticed the lads around me were producing and making their own tunes and hearing them out and I just thought – that's really cool that they're actually doing that and I've got something I can bring to the table so when they gave me the software I just went from there really.
What software did you start with?
Same one I use now: FruityLoops [now officially known as FL Studio]. Someone tried to give me Logic once but it didn't work – that was probably fate [laughs]. But I think FruityLoops probably has something to do with my sound really.
Was the music you were listening to around that time made on Fruity as well? Loads of producers came up with it.
Yeah, I was hearing rumours of people being like “It's dead easy, I've been using it since I was 9!” and things like that, then you'd hear that Skream used it at one point so I thought I'd legitimately go down this road because clearly people do use it. I think, also, if you've got ideas about what you want to do, FruityLoops is an easy format to get something down. You're not sitting there thinking “how the hell do I do that?!” – it's pretty self-explanatory.
"I loved dubstep back in '06/'07 but it was completely different to what I actually liked before that – which was basically a lot of 80s synth music and emotional epics. So I thought about what would happen if I took that synth element and shoehorned it into grime or funky." – E.m.m.a
So you had all these ideas and reference point before you actually started making the tracks.
Definitely, I felt unimpressed with a lot of things I was hearing and I always thought about who these people making these tunes were. It's interesting to me sociologically, what kind of people produce tunes. Then I was thinking about what I like 'cause I loved dubstep back in '06/'07 but it was completely different to what I actually liked before that – which was basically a lot of 80s synth music and emotional epics. So I thought about what would happen if I took that synth element and shoehorned it into grime or funky. It's something I didn't really hear happening so I thought I'd try do that.
Does the melody come first for you, with all the bpm or time signature experimentations coming later along the way?
When I started I wanted my music to fit in with what my peers were doing, not to emulate, but I don't want to be an island so no DJ understands me. So once I got a grip of what I was doing I started to think about 3/4 time and things like that just to trip DJs up a bit [laughs]. It actually did it trip up Blackdown live on Rinse – which is like the Holy Grail – because when I dropped Dream Phone it didn't really get out anywhere and I was a bit disappointed 'cause here's me trying change the world with a 3/4 tune shoehorned in a kind of post-dubstep – I hate that phrase but you know, the ashes of whatever I was interested in. The track's like six minutes long and I thought, if this doesn't get anywhere I'll just give up. So I googled it and saw it was played on the Rinse show and he played five minutes of it, which was weird! At the end Dusk was like: “didn't know that was in 3/4 had a bit of trouble mixing that one out".
Is that when you first linked up with Keysound then?
Yeah, because I never really had any confidence in it. I obviously know what I was doing and played it for mates or whatever but I never sent anything because I didn't want to get rejected. Once he played it and I knew they would like it I sent over some more.
Do you think the label's a good adoptive home for you?
Yeah, I think so. Like a lot of their early synth stuff with Starkey and that – tunes that you hear and really change your outlook for a period – or with what Sulley's been doing. In terms of my relationship with the label, Martin [Blackdown] believes in what I'm doing and he's been really supportive and done a hell of a lot to get me out there. I hate people reacting to it but hopefully some people will see what we're trying to carve out.
"I'll literally start making a tune and think: 'This sounds like an elephant walking, that's cool' – then I'll develop it around a kind of jungle theme in my head." – E.m.m.a
Was making the album a straight-forward decision for you guys to make?
Well yeah, he heard Dream Phone and then I sent a couple more which were quite different. Then we met up and we decided to expand out of that – like I started a version of the Rebel MC tune in like 2010 so I had a shitty mix of that I sent it to him. So he said we'll expand out out that and Dream Phone – and Shoot the Curl was another one he liked – we'd go into new spaces and create a cohesive whole. Of all the tracks I sent to him for the album only one didn't make it in so I don't have a stockpile of rejected tunes.
The move from producing individual tracks to a full-length work doesn't really seem like too big a jump for you.
It's weird. Since I've been vocalising my thought processes I've realised that not many people think like I do. I'll literally start making a tune and think: “This sounds like an elephant walking, that's cool" – then I'll develop it around a kind of jungle theme in my head. Or I'll see something like this green lighthouse flashing on holiday and think “That's eerie” – then when I make a noise it'll link back to that in my mind. Then I'll chuck the drums in so I don't freak anybody out [laughs] because you don't want to just alienate people from the outset.
I've heard people say the album is full of garage beats and stuff, and I've always been a little bit intrigued by that because I never really think of the drums at all really. I just put in organic sounds like “that's a nice bongo” or whatever [laughs] – or “is that enough of a snare or will people notice I have a shit snare or will I get bored shitless?” [laughs]. I really get excited by the synths.
The press release for the album is interesting. Most of the things cited as influences on it aren't even strictly musical, you have specific people like Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos but it's mainly films and…
Just random shit.
I'm kind of embarrassed about that really, that wasn't me signing off on that. That was me just chatting shit to Martin! I did manage to get a few paragraphs redacted, I didn't want everyone to know I'm insane, just yet [laughs]. I'm quite a visual person I guess – I don't think in colour or anything like that – but if I see something really powerful or watch a really good film I put the two together. If I'm watching a film it's the music that I really notice and in the long run I'd like to do soundtracks because I see myself as more of a composer. I think that's what influences me the most.
So that's where the Derbyshire, Carlos and Jeff Wayne nods come in?
Definitely, and I liked how Delia Derbyshire had a really serious job at the EU in Brussels or something then she just went and did that and people were like “what are you doing?!”. I mean, she did the 'Doctor Who' theme. And Wendy Carlos did the 'Clockwork Orange' theme which is really unsettling – all the harpsichord things. I think it was a 17th century tune that she played with synths and I guess that's where my baroque side came in. When would you ever hear that disturbing synth again? So I thought let me do my own happy/sad synths and add some epic build ups and stuff. I never try to emulate sounds but I try to emulate moods – make a tune that makes you think: “Fucking hell what's going on here?!” [laughs].
"Yeah, I do DJ, on CD decks – not that it's necessary to say that. I just think I'd look like a bit of a gimmick on my laptop. I don't know why, just the idea of me on a laptop I'd hashtag 'cringe'. I think I look a bit more respectable with CD decks – not for the technology, just my own vanity." – E.m.m.a
Have you started to DJ more too?
Yeah, I do DJ, on CD decks – not that it's necessary to say that. I just think I'd look like a bit of a gimmick on my laptop. I don't know why, just the idea of me on a laptop I'd hashtag “cringe”. I think I look a bit more respectable with CD decks – not for the technology, just my own vanity [laughs]. I played fabric – which was like GCSE French listening to be honest, I felt really nervous – but I think I managed to not fuck it up for at least… the first ten minutes were a bit shit but I quite like that. I think I was grime mixing at the start – literally just dropping whatever I liked.
I don't mind that.
Yeah, it was cool. It was the graveyard shift with just like Martin and the cleaner but the room was full by the end and some guy said he'd never seen Room 3 that full at half 10 at night. But I'm not sure if people were just intrigued by what me and Moleskin were doing. I played a few synth-y bits in the middle that cleared the dancefloor but that's just part of the peaks and troughs of the game isn't it? I've DJ'ed with friends for a few years but in terms of clubs I'm still trying to work out the politics of it – like watching what the crowd are doing and put something popular on when I can see them leaving – but I think I'll just continue to do what I want.
Plus your music is all about self-expression.
Yeah, I think it's a balance. With the level I'm at I'm not a big massive DJ or anything so I can just do what I want because there's no big sums of money involved. I don't think I've been in the game long enough to start worrying about that, I just do what I want because people wouldn't book you if you didn't. I have plans in mind for not necessarily a club element but another type of live show down the line. My stuff is very much me but I wouldn't go out and self-sabotage. At the same time, I'd probably just tell someone to piss off if they tried to say something.
'Blue Gardens' is out now on Keysound Recordings.