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Review: Emmy the Great brings her unique brand to DC9

Written By | Apr 8, 2015

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2015 – Virtually every performing artist is going to show evidence of a strong or even inflated ego, at least to some extent. There’s a good and simple reason for this. To get up and play music in front of an audience of any size takes the kind of self-confidence and sense of self-importance that not everyone can possess.

Whether you call this kind of character projection ego, self-confidence or self-importance, whatever it is can be further magnified as one aspect of the performer’s personality.

Take Emma-Lee Moss, for example. Performing under the moniker Emmy the Great recently at DC9, Moss might give the audience the impression her confidence is overflowing and her ego is hugely outsized. But as we’ve already noted, as with almost any performing artist, this bigger-than-life gusto is part of her act.

What makes things interesting is that “Emmy the Great” is in many ways a bit of a tongue and cheek public joke. As the DC9 audience noted, this becomes overwhelmingly obvious the second Moss and the rest of her band begin their set. Through the course of the night, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy Emmy the Great. But the natural public-private dichotomy inherent in most musicians is at the very heart of Moss’ show.

Performers have to walk a tightrope when they’re up on stage. It’s not so much that they’re out there just singing or playing a song. It’s their ability to do this that separates them from a great number of people.

Kicking this dichotomy up a notch, one of the things Moss does brilliantly during her set is to make the undercurrent of her performance viable as an emotional construct, allowing the audience to project its feelings onto her. She’s “better” and “more famous” than individual members of the audience. But she also connects with audience members in a way that allows them to project their emotions on the performer and imagine themselves in the same admired position.

In other words, the atmosphere Moss must create and does create with her music is inclusiveness.

There are bands that get away with projecting a sound so esoteric that no one in the audience can quite grasp it, instead sensing they’re missing something they really should know. Like many a piece of abstract art in a museum whose meaning the layman can’t get—even though those “in-the-know” think they should—this kind of band gives off something like a “this is not for you if you don’t get it” vibe.

That’s something Emma-Lee Moss simply cannot do or be when she performs. When she sings, every word and every note is intended to resonate with the audience, invoking a visceral remembrance of people or times past for anyone listening. It seems at time a little like instant nostalgia, not for anything specific, but rather like a vaguely pleasant memory, whether based on reality or not.

This extends primarily from the vulnerability that lies at the heart of Emmy the Great’s music. Even if this feeling isn’t tangibly present in everything she sings, it’s still the emotion that permeates the performance space—and the audience—during an Emmy the Great performance.

Moss’ voice radiates a sense of personal exposure that makes it feel as if she’s baring her soul with every one of the pointed notes she softly emits. Her delivery is cocooned in a fabric of sound that is sparse yet deeply atmospheric. The texture of this sound isn’t complicated, but it’s dense in its paradoxical simplicity and complements Moss’ vocals as she tugs at the audience’s collective heart strings.

For Emmy the Great to be successful, Moss has expose her inner self in every aspect of her music while still remaining detached in a sense. That’s because she has to be something that no one else in the audience can be. Not only does she have to personalize her inner vulnerability through her music, but she also has to pull herself back from the brink at the same time so the audience can experience the exact same emotions with every song.

It’s a constant tug and pull for both her and the people who come to watch her perform, something Moss magnifies with every musical and audience interaction during her set, whether it’s moody atmospherics, hazy and soulful vocals, or the way she shyly addresses the audience and introduces the rest of the band that makes up the entirety of Emmy the Great.

It’s so easy for this kind of persona and act to come off as inauthentic, as if Moss is playing some sort of a game that either allows the audience a voyeuristic peek inside her personal tent or permits them, to a certain extent, to join in with what’s going on. But Moss is so exuberant and genuine in the way she creates and projects each song in her set that it’s impossible not to mind-meld with the organic feeling of her show.

Clearly, it takes a lot for Moss and the band to get on stage to play Emmy the Great’s songs, exposing the essential part of Moss’ soul before a live audience. But then, all this is likely so much of an extension of who she is, the “act” is never really part of the equation. It’s one and the same.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.