Interview: Emma Dilemma
You Should Give A $h!t
"It's been a long time, we shouldn't have left you. Without a dope beat to step to." Thankfully Ōtautahi musician Emma Dilemma hasn't taken Timbaland and Aaliyah to heart. Her debut album 'Spit' has been a long time coming. But she hooked us in, drip feeding songs and videos to tide us over until it's release...
My first memory of Emma Cameron is seeing her belt out tunes in Whammy Backroom in 2016. In the years since, we've had a few conversations, which I remember being all very refreshing and honest. I think it's this, along with her passion, drive, and infectious sense of humour which sets her apart.
“We started this emo covers band called Taking Back Thursday. We played every Wednesday night at the Jetset Lounge – yeah, my dad would have to come with me. And that's what we were doing before we decided to start writing our own original music.”
Being accompanied by a parent is well-trodden path for musicians who knew what they wanted to do young. And Emma certainly did that. Musically trained from a young age, before progressing to the guitar and singing. Starting at age 15, playing covers in Taking Back Thursday led to Ashei, which became Decades. And it’s here we find the Emma Dilemma story really beginning.
Decades was a rebranding exercise, as it contained the same four members that made up Ashei. After teaming up with Shihad drummer Tom Larkin who became their manager and producer they released album one.
“When we started album two, we were writing for a year and I started going over to a studio [in Australia] and collaborating with producers over there. We thought maybe that's how we'll roll out the album, we won’t all go record it, we'll just write it here in NZ, save money and go over and produce it. I can play a few instruments, and one of our producers plays the drums.”
“It was pretty unconventional for a rock band to do it that way, but that's just what was for us.” Then came the defining moment in what was already over a decade of making music together. Liam and Dan both started families, so just a musical family, there was a discussion to be had about time and money commitments.
“I brought up, because I had been the one going over and recording the music and writing a lot more of the songs by myself [as opposed to co-writing with Liam], that maybe we should take a break from Decades and maybe this stuff that we've been working on, that I've been working on, should be a solo thing.” It may not have come to an actual vote, but everyone was in favour. Emma says “they were kind of relieved.”
This led to a transitional period while the old morphed into the new. “Liam was still sending me musical ideas, but I just started writing and picking the ones that I wanted to use, as opposed to this designed by committee band thing. So, a lot of the music that's made it onto Spit is stuff that was still originally masterminded by Liam.”
“What's ended up on this album is kind of stuff that mostly developed after we decided to do the splitty thing.” But Emma says that Breeders (the latest single, released last Friday), Bounce and Vulnerability all existed in some form from the Decades time.
About a year ago, I was lucky enough to see Emma Dilemma play a few tracks live. Even though it was only a taster of the record, I could see where it was leading – definite nods to 90s bands like Garbage, Weezer, or Oasis. Emma says that even though the 90s is a major inspiration for the album, it’s still an eclectic mix of sounds.
“I love all the different sounds from the 90s. Back in the 90s they had different genres on the radio. You could have pop music, r&b, rap, hip-hop, rock, all existing on mainstream radio. I was a kid, so I was just loving Michael Jackson and The Spice Girls and shit, but it doesn't mean that I wasn't exposed to those sounds. And now I can look back and appreciate all of them and be inspired by them.”
The 90s inspiration has also lent itself to the accompanying videos. The plan is to record one for each track on ‘Spit’. Some might find it daunting thinking about a lineup of 14 shoots, but Emma explains how freeing this was, and how it’s all a part of her creative process.
“With Decades, the music videos were stressful. No one could come up with an idea, or find a director with an idea that we all agreed on and liked. It was always this big ordeal. With Emma Dilemma stuff, I don't have synaesthesia or anything, but I picture worlds and things in my head when listening to songs - there's just an aesthetic that I see. It's no different to my own songs. Quite often when I'm halfway through writing them I already kind of know what I want the music video to be. That can help finish the song because the storytelling informs each other in a way.
Emma does a lot of video work with Amber Beaton, who she credits with helping her develop basic ideas into fully fledged videos. “Like when I said, ‘I'm going to be naked and bouncing on trampolines in a skin-coloured room.’ She's like ‘but then what happens?’ I said ‘No, that's the whole thing.’ She said ‘but something else has got to happen!´ Yeah, I'm lucky to work with her to help me flesh some of them out.”
Being from Ōtautahi, it’s no surprise that Emma decided to start her tour at (a sold out) Darkroom in Christchurch. The Garden City has a long history of producing NZ music royalty – Scribe, The Exponents, Shapeshifter, Ladi6, and Marlon Williams to name just a few. But over the last decade or so, it feels like the epicentre of kiwi music has shifted further away from Christchurch.
I asked Emma, what it’s like as a musician in Christchurch at the moment. “It's crazy. I don't know what's happened in the last couple of years. But there's been like a boom down here. Everyone's making amazing music. Really fresh stuff - new artists popping up all the time.”
“There's a music academy down here now called SOLE, they don't just do music lessons, they do artist development and producer co-writing things. I think that we're going to start seeing a lot of new and big stuff coming out of Christchurch in the next couple of years because it's just amazing down here now. I hope all of them stay here too.”
“Absolutely”, was the candid reply when asked if she’d ever felt pressured to move somewhere else for her music.
“Even from my own team members, people around me. They said ‘you should move to Auckland, because that's where the music industry is. You should move to Melbourne, you should move to LA. You should do this, or that.’ It's 2022. We have the internet. I can live anywhere.”
“Luckily, I have another job on the side which gives me decent income so if I need to travel overseas for touring or co-writing, I can do that easily. I'm very lucky like that. And I don't see why I shouldn't have my most comfortable place - my homebase - in the city I want to be in. I love Christchurch and I feel comfortable here. I love travelling, I love big cities. It's just so nice to come back to a place that's familiar and safe for me, man. I'm not planning on leaving.”
Home. Everyone should have a place that feels like that. And with that we wrap up it up as Emma tells me how much she can’t wait to get around the rest of NZ on tour and meet everyone. “I'm a businesswoman, I run my own ticket sales. I see sales coming through and names on tickets. And what's been surprising to me leading up to this tour, is how many names I do not recognise and don't know who they are. I'm looking forward to meeting them, finding out how they found my music.”
Emma Dilemma's debut album ‘Spit’ is released on July 1. Stream it from all the usual suspects, and grab a vinyl or some sweet merch from her website . If you're quick, you'll see Emma in Wellington (Thu 7 Jul), Auckland (Fri 8 Jul), and Tauranga (Sat 9 Jul). Tickets and details are at www.emmadilemma.org