From the opening strains of “Bruise Easy”, the introductory track on Emma-Lee’s debut album Never Just A Dream, you feel like you’ve stumbled on a star. Brimming with that ‘special something’ of stars like Feist, k.d. lang, Madeleine Peyroux and Norah Jones, the March 3, 2009 release of Never Just A Dream heralds the arrival of an artist with the power to reshape our definition of pop.
At times playful, at others wistful, Never Just A Dream is a collection of songs inspired by the sort of heartache that is universal to anyone who has lived a life worth living. Co-produced with Mitch Girio, the sound slips seamlessly from swingin’ jazz to dreamy 50’s pop, with hints of folk and blues tied together by vocals as rich and sweet as a red velvet cupcake.
Armed with a voice that transports you, Emma-Lee chose not to rest on this strength alone. She instead put a sincere focus on becoming a great songwriter and the results of her efforts are fully evidenced throughout Never Just A Dream. Her weakness for a great pop melody turns out to be one of her greatest strengths; on Never Just A Dream spectres of AM oldies radio mingle effortlessly with childhood influences like Joni Mitchell and jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, creating a hauntingly beautiful musical landscape at once complex and yet familiar.
Saucy and sweet, pensive and pure, Never Just A Dream offers a candid peek inside the romantic heart. Whether it’s on the epic “Flow”, which chronicles a girl who sublets the apartment of her globe-trotting ex-boyfriend and renders herself at the mercy of his memory, or the soaring “That Sinking Feeling”, with its sting of realization, or in the ragtime bounce of “Jealousy”, which cheekily suggests you get what you deserve for snooping, Emma-Lee deftly captures the many dimensions of love and loss.
And yet Never Just A Dream is so much more than an anthology of youthful heartbreak. It delves into the pleasures of May-December relationships, suggests regret for past mistakes, and calls out for understanding on tracks like the Dusty Springfield tinged “An Older Man”, the cinematic “Until We Meet Again” and the album’s darkly delicious title track.
The release of Never Just A Dream was almost a dream derailed. While preparing and creating the album Emma-Lee was stricken not once but twice by any singer’s worst nightmare; the need for throat surgery. She first faced possible vocal chord paralysis while having half her thyroid removed in 2006 and almost a year to the day she went under the knife again for an unrelated polyp on her vocal chords.
While those experiences might have defeated another less determined, Emma-Lee was not about to be stopped by a scalpel.“When good things happen they say it’s fate, but when bad things happen you have to make your own destiny. My destiny was to be singing and writing songs. I wasn’t about to give up on that dream.” Emma-Lee says of the experience.
It’s that kind of dedication and unwavering faith that sets Emma-Lee apart. Her skill, patience and incredible business savvy mark her as a rare artist of foresight and uncompromising vision.
Emma-Lee self-released Never Just A Dream locally in the late summer of 2008 and it instantly caught the ear of key tastemakers at the Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, Now Magazine, iTunes Canada and CBC Radio, and the track “Flow” earned a spot on the hit CBC show The Border.
She also attracted the attention of management veteran Larry Wanagas (The Trews, Two Hours Traffic, k.d. lang), whose wife urged him to investigate after reading a rave review, and artist development exec David “Click” Cox who discovered her by way of the Toronto-based music collective GoodSoundsGood, which she co-founded. The pair signed Emma-Lee to a co-management deal shortly thereafter and chose to re-release Never Just A Dream through Bumstead Productions, with distribution by Universal Music.
Emma-Lee’s ambition is anchored deeply in her love to simply create. Almost accidentally she discovered an instinctive ability to take self-portraits – a vital part of how she shares herself with her audience, through her website and the album’s graphics – and since 2006 has developed a thriving photography business as well. For Emma-Lee the two disciplines are uniquely entwined. “Although photography can stand alone,” she muses, “music can’t live without imagery.”
“I have a very clear vision of me, the artist”, Emma-Lee states with assurance, and she exhibits that artistry across all platforms, including a live show that is known for an intimate, off the cuff charm that creates a special bond with the audience. “You never know what will come out of my mouth at a show. For me performing is an intensely personal experience and I find it truly satisfying to know someone got something out of something I created; that I moved them like so many artists have moved me.”