It’s true to say that Anna Emmins, the Berwick-based singer/songwriter behind local jazz-pop band Electric Penelope, is something of a late developer. For anyone involved in such a youth-obsessed industry as the music business, embarking on a singing career at the positively geriatric age of 32 is surely to count yourself out of the running before even hearing the starter’s gun.
But while Emmins may have been slow out of the blocks, she is more than making up for lost time. Just three months after Emmins set up as Electric Penelope, BBC Radio Introducing picked up one of her self-penned tracks. Two years spent gigging around the Borders followed, establishing a presence to such a degree that Electric Penelope is the headline act at the Frontier Festival this October – a performance timed to coincide with the launch of her debut album, A New Day.
Not bad for someone who only started singing four years ago.
At the age of 28, having come to the realisation that she’d “quite like to sing”, Emmins took tentatively to the stage as part of an amateur musical production. Even her family hadn’t heard her sing seriously before and their reaction was one of amazement, an odd response in light of her childhood.
Raised as the fifth of ten children above her parents’ South-East London jazz club, Emmins hardly had a conventional start in life. “I suppose you could call it a Bohemian lifestyle,” she muses. “The place was shabby and run down, but there was always music, people were constantly coming and going.” Although an alternative back story is high on most artists’ must-have list, Emmins remembers it with fond bemusement. “I just wanted a normal place to live that wasn’t falling apart.” Yet she acknowledges that the music of her formative years has gone on to influence her own jazz-pop-funk-soul sound.
In the universal way families have of ascribing members a role, Emmins became ‘The Quiet One’, the title of ‘The Singing One’ awarded to an older sister, Lizzie, although all the children were musical to varying degrees. True to casting, Emmins was ever the reluctant participant in family sing-songs; in private with her family was one thing but she balked at singing with them in front of an audience, much to the irritation of her piano teacher mother. Emmins laughs, admitting that she could be considered the accidental singer of the family.
Emmins seems a contradiction then – shy mouse on the one hand, accomplished singer/songwriter on the other? The description seems too easy, too glib. We’re guilty of thinking in the manner that had her guest-starring as The Quiet One all those years ago.
A contradiction suggests inconsistency, a fickleness in nature; being one thing one minute, something else the next. Nothing could be further from the truth, because Emmins is actually one of those rare people who has complete self-possession, an independence of thought. She appears disarmingly girlish – all soft voice and elfin crop – but ticking away, hidden in plain sight, is the unapologetic determination of one who knows her self-worth. Emmins isn’t projecting an edited version of herself to the outside world; true to her childhood inclination, there is no performance. She is who she is and it’s all out there for anyone to see, if first they remove their own preconceptions.
If her own family misjudged her, it would be very easy for the rest of us to do the same. Misjudge and dismiss. Here we have a 32-year-old married mother of five – how many of those are tearing up the music industry right now? No doubt she’s taken up singing on a whim, right? Something to fill her time now that the last kid has skipped off to school, something jolly to fit around her OU access course; a sweet little hobby that her husband can fund to stop her reaching for the Tamazepam.
Naturally we didn’t phrase it quite like that, but did ask if she believed women could have both – motherhood and a successful career. Her answer surprised us.
“Yeah, you can have both.”
“Just not at the same time.”
And there we have it.
“Do you know,” she continues, “I hate the way motherhood is undermined. I know it sounds clichéd but I genuinely believe it’s the most important job there is. You’re raising the next bloody generation, that has to come first. What makes me furious is the assumption that once you’re a mother you have nothing left to offer, that you’re not allowed to be anything else. Why shouldn’t a woman be able to say, ‘I’ve done the mother bit, now it’s time for my career.’ It shouldn’t be a question of either/or.”
Hasn’t the singer/songwriter ship sailed without her though, while she was busy rearing her children?
“Listen, there’s no way I could have written an album ten years ago. I didn’t have the depth I have now, and having a family – living a bit – has added to that.”
The theme of family crops up time again throughout the interview. We wonder if, having nine siblings, rivalry ever raises its head. “No,” says Emmins (and we look her directly in the eyes, you know, to test). “We never get jealous. Everyone is always incredibly supportive of another’s latest venture.” And as if sensing our disappointment, kindly admits, “Although if one of us has success it does tend to spur the rest of us on.” So there you have it – a kind of rivalry-lite Cain and Abel.
To consolidate this image of familial harmony, Lizzie, aka The Singing One, lends her voice as backing on the album, and younger brother Tom is responsible for the album’s artwork. Another member of the family – brother-in-law, Hamish Bell – Emmins credits with being the one to convince her that she had a talent worth developing in the first place. They gigged together for a bit, and today Hamish is co-promoter of Frontier Festival with Travelled Music. In fact, the venue hire for Electric Penelope’s album launch has been taken on by Frontier Festival, while Emmins has negotiated a non-interest loan through her husband’s IT business to help with the biggest expenditure, the mastering.
Nepotism is such an ugly word, isn’t it?
Emmins clearly thinks so – the following day we received an anxious email. For someone as independently-minded as Emmins the idea that she could “…come across as some posh wife whose husband pays for her expensive hobby” is abhorrent. She went on to say that despite her best efforts, her requests for outside funding foundered, having been turned down by both the Scottish Arts Council and PRS for Music Foundation. Local sponsorship deals similarly eluded her. Initial costs were therefore met by Emmins taking on cleaning jobs and by borrowing money from a small theatre company she co-founded. The Frontier Festival will be taking half of any profit from the launch as reimbursement, and Emmins is expected to pay back the loan as soon as possible. She’s taken a full-time job in a café to do just that, though it would be remiss of us not to mention that the café is owned and run by her sister.
Yes, Emmins’ family has been her number one supporter but that doesn’t mean she gets a free ride, and that’s exactly how Emmins wants it.
And Emmins is nothing but determined to get what she wants. She spent many long hours producing A New Day with fellow musician/producer/award-winning songwriter, Iain Petrie, adopting and discarding ideas to fulfil her vision for the album, and ultimately insisting on having her name on the cover as co-producer because, as she is at pains to point out, there is only a handful of women producers out there and they need recognition.
Of course, that sounds as if Emmins stamps her foot and pouts to get her own way. Well, yes… but quietly (how else?) and with charm – the same charm which has enabled her to part ways with several former collaborators with minimal drama.
Emmins has a very clear idea of the sound she wants for Electric Penelope, the direction in which she wants her music to go. This explains why the line-up has been so fluid over the past two years. Band members have come and gone as Emmins has experimented and played with her sound. We suggest it sounds as if the road to A New Day is littered with corpses. She cackles with delight at the idea.
“Not at all! It’s just that I don’t want to be tied. I’ve been very lucky in that most of the time the guys have sensed when I haven’t been entirely happy and they’ve generously stepped away, which is great. It means I don’t have to be the bitch! I’ve been so fortunate to retain their goodwill; they still want to work with me so I’ve a pool of talent I can draw on. Electric Penelope has gone through several incarnations with each musician bringing something different to the mix. I’ve loved exploring that, loved working with them all. I’m so grateful.”
From someone starting off with only minimal confidence in her singing ability, has the very fact that established professionals want to work with her – the likes of Tony Kime, former sound engineer for BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and Mike Hardy, principal trumpet of Scottish Sinfonia and guest lead/solo trumpet with the Borders Big Band and the Edinburgh Jazz Bar Big Band – finally convinced Emmins that she has talent; that she has what it takes?
Emmins stops for a minute, as if realisation has only just dawned.
“Yeah, I suppose…”
Followed by a more emphatic: “Yes.”
She went on. “I mean, it’s insane. I’m so excited about the show on the 12th [October]. We’ve got a small orchestra on stage – an actual orchestra! I was saying to Iain it’s amazing that these people want to give up their time to work with me, I can’t even pay them, and Iain is like, ‘Why wouldn’t they want to work with you? You’re good, it’s an exciting project, they want to be involved.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh. Right.'” She snorts with laughter. “But I’m getting better at recognising it. I am starting to believe.”
Modest, yes, but none of that faux self-deprecation many female artists wave around like a crucifix to ward off incoming hate. Funny thing is though, with a debut album as polished and as sophisticated as A New Day, Emmins has every right to be at least a little bit smug, a little bit I-told-you-so. A New Day is a rich, multi-layered ear snog with impressive coherency and pacing. Some tracks skip and bounce lightly along, such as ‘Trafalgar Square’ and ‘My Lovely Friend’, and then others are a complete indulgence, decadent with lush strings, Hammond organ and glockenspiel, luxuriating in the scope and texture of a film score.
Now, in the precious world of musical taste there may well be complaints that A New Day is too slick, too polished. Often something with a high production value is a sign that an artist can’t carry a song without resorting to the wizardry of technology. But having seen Electric Penelope live last year, we know she is capable of delivering in effortless spades. Emmins shrugs at the idea of any criticism. “Hey, I can always release an acoustic version. And doing this,” she says, “has been the best fun.”
So what of the future? What about the prospect of touring; how would that fit with motherhood, bearing in mind how central family is to Emmins’ life?
“The last six months have been mad getting this album off the ground, and Lucas [husband] has been incredibly patient but he’s tired. If I went on tour I’d hire a big camper van so the whole family can come with me – it’d be brilliant! When I told the kids this they were like ‘What, you’d take us out of school?’ Of course I would! They’d learn far more useful stuff on the road with me than in school.”
And so, coming full circle back to her Bohemian roots, Emmins redraws the rules to suit, and with her knack of flying under the radar she just might get away with it.