Photo by Paul Steward, from www.emma-lee.com

Once upon a time a couple of young English upstart bands opened up concerts for established stars, one of those young bands being The Rolling Stones under headliner Gene Pitney and the other being a crew of mop-tops named The Beatles, who opened for Roy Orbison. In a similar vein, a couple of decades ago I was privileged to be at the Ridge Theatre in Vancouver when an unknown alt-country artist named Lucinda Williams played a few tunes ahead of the much bigger Cowboy Junkies. Lucinda killed, just killed. Goes to show you, opening acts sometimes have a way of making the whole night.

Well, lightning strikes again. Only last week, at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, I was honoured to witness another spectacular opening act, that of indie artist Emma-Lee, who played just two songs before headliner nuevo-flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook stormed the stage with a damned fine performance. But – and this is the major “but” – the audience was still clamouring for more of Emma-Lee. Those two songs from her blew us all away.

Fortunately she came back to the stage ( by plan and by invitation from Jesse) and performed another couple of numbers, namely “I Put A Spell On You”, and “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, both taken from her recent collaboration with Jesse on his excellent 2012 release The Blue Guitar Sessions. Jesse, being the truly generous fellow that he is, made a point of praising Emma-Lee’s voice and her talent. Which all leads to this: Emma-Lee is one of the most interesting and compelling new voices in Canadian music today. Her 2012 CD, entitled Backseat Heroine, is one you’ve simply got to hear.

First off, the voice: she’s been compared to kd lang and to Feist, as well as to Norah Jones, Heady stuff, indeed. To these ears, though, Emma-Lee is strongly reminiscent of the ethereally-gifted Jennifer Warnes. Sure, Emma-Lee can sing smoky jazz the way that Norah can, and she can also rock it out. Further, she’s got power in her voice that does indeed bring to mind Katherine Dawn Lang, but she has that mysterious sultriness, engendered by the vocal curlicues and enticing caresses in her phrasing, all of which Jennifer Warnes had in spades. In addition, Emma-Lee brings to mind the approach to music that Chris Isaak had: – adventurous song constructions stemming from a love of great soul, jazz and pop of the 50s and 60s.

Listen, though, to Warnes sing “When The Feeling Comes Around” from her 1979 masterpiece Shot Through The Heart and then hear Emma-Lee turn on the heartbreak and desire in “Just Looking”. Her performance of this song, which she penned by the way, is, for this listener, an unqualified triumph of the artistic imagination. She does something similar with “i Could Live With Dying Tonight”, the final track (co-written with Jill Barber) on her new album. It’s only the best album closer I’ve heard in 2012. That’s no coincidence, for Emma-Lee conceived this album to be listened to in a single session. Which, btw, I’ve done more than half a dozen times in the last few days. Believe me, that never happens.

So I have to say, I’m somewhat smitten and quite enraptured with Backseat Heroine, with Emma-Lee’s songwriting, and with the artistry of her vocalizations. Yeah, Jennifer Warnes was this good, particularly on her legendary Famous Blue Raincoat sessions, as was Joni Mitchell, who had millions of us aboard her soprano train, especially with her first several albums. And like Joni, who always considered herself a painter first and foremost, Emma-Lee is a highly visual person, with one of her passions being photography. She’s good enough to be a pro, though you can consider the evidence for that yourself by visiting her photography site, which you can find here. With that sideline commercial, we return to the music portion of our review.

Emme-Lee terms herself an alt-country/soul/pop singer, and while that might sound like too many genres going on at once, you’ll get it immediately with the opening track “Not Coming By”, which is a delicious build from strummed guitar and quiet vocal to a full-throttle blunt assessment of her encounter with a romantic player. The ending is as passionate, as pissed-off and as abrupt as only a woman who knows her own mind can be. And it must be said that Emma-Lee fully utilizes the dynamics of her voice as well as any singer who has made a dozen albums (this is only her second). She has uncanny instincts for finding a hook in every song, and much of that has to do with her considered, but effortless phrasing.

There are a number of pop/rock/country singles on the record, particularly the title tune “Backseat Heroine”, a great duet with Luke Doucet on “Today’s Another Yesterday” and the instantly appealing “Figure It Out”. While radio programmers may have a tough task deciding whether Emma-Lee is country, folk, pop or all three, anyone who appreciates great songwriting and terrific singing should have no trouble with our assessment: this young woman is a huge talent.

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