Seattle-based singer-songwriter Emma Lee Toyoda is a human dynamo: performer, manager, promoter, booker, and everything in between. Her melodious “semi-nocturnal sadgirlrock” is compatible with dreaming—during the daytime or otherwise. If holiday stresses or finals have got you feeling like a bundle of nerves, give yourself a much-deserved break and take a gander at her latest release: the beautifully quirky video for “Nünü,” a single off Emma’s upcoming December album sewn me anew.
I chatted with Emma this week about incomprehensibly messy houses, fielding the many roles of music management, and the ongoing challenge of bridging Asian and North American roots.
VICTORIA CHIU: I found “NüNü” to be super soothing. It seems the composition of the song came from a place of frustration and anxiety, but the melody is calming.
EMMA TOYODA: That’s nice! It came out a little more soft than I thought it would, but this is one of my favorite songs on the album because of how easy it is to listen to.
The crescendo at the end builds up and explodes, which I enjoyed.
Yeah! We have another song that connects to that ending because that’s how I wrote the two songs—as a sort of pair. We’ll probably release the video for “Pulling Hairs” [the second song in the pair] next year, but I’m hoping to have a continuing narrative with the two tracks.
On the subject of videos, what is “shithouse”? It’s credited at the end of the video as the setting, but nothing more is said about it.
My drummer lived in a house with six other people over the last year, and we started affectionately calling it “Shithouse, USA” just because it’s impossible to keep clean when it’s filled with seven different people—predominantly messy boys who are all around 18 and 19 years old. We shot the video in the living room there—it’s in the U District of Seattle; basically the college area, but most of the people in the house didn’t go to college. It doesn’t look like a frat house, but it could be a frat house just because of how big it is and its location. All the different decorations and little trinkets in the video are a mishmash of seven different people’s tastes, and there are funny decorations, and trinkets from different holidays we celebrated there. There’s a lot of good stuff I tried to highlight with all the shots of the mess, but that was all already there. Honestly, in the video it’s very clean compared to how it usually looks, because we had to clear space for the dancing. That’s Shithouse—it’s not even my house to call Shithouse, but it’s a very catchy name and I do tend to refer to it as that name in my head. But it’s a solid house. Not super trash like it might appear! [Laughs] I spent a lot of time there this past year. Lots of personal ties to the place.
I was intrigued by the “No” sign in the video. What is that?
Oh, yeah! That’s the sign they made for parties there, because people kept changing the music or trying to change the music, and they were just fed up and made that sign as a “Don’t touch the AUX cord!” warning. We like our party playlists, so it’s like, “Guys, please just let us listen to our funky music and dance. Don’t try and mess with it.”
Was the dance in the video improvised or choreographed or a bit of both?
It was a bit of both. Una [Ludviksen], the dancer in the video, goes to school in Purchase, New York—I think she’s at SUNY Purchase majoring in contemporary dance or something similar—and I’ve known her since early high school, around three or four years now. Or…actually, six years now, I guess. That’s a long time! I’ve always known she was a dancer, and I wanted to somehow highlight her and show off this cool friend I have who dances well. So a lot of that was improvised on her part; I sent her the song a few weeks ahead of time, just so she could give it a few listens, get a feel for it, and start thinking about what she wanted to do with it. But I also wrote out storyboards for the whole video, because I had an idea of what the narrative would be. I wanted to be able to describe to her things like, “OK, in this shot, these are the emotions I want you to portray,” or “When I say ‘twirling,’ this is the kind of motion I mean.” Even little details like the twirling of the hair. The big opening shot was a big part of the concept I had for the video based on a different dance video Una showed me—how the camera zooms in as she’s messing with her hair and looking anxious, not sure what to do, and as the camera gets closer and closer, boxing her in and making her more and more anxious, the pulling out and the panning over—the direct movement after being so static for so long—was one of the main aspects of the video I wanted to portray. A lot of feelings like that—of being boxed in and anxious, and then breaking free of that, even briefly.
Another huge part of the video development was the director Rajah Matthews—he brought so much incredibly valuable knowledge to the video and took charge of the editing and polishing. I couldn’t have made the video without him.
It’s cool because you can see those emotions in Una’s dance—anxiety and uncertainty—but the setting is very open and sunny, and there’s a contrast between the emotions the viewer feels seeing those two elements.
Definitely. A lot of that was almost by chance, because we filmed it in the summertime and it was so, so hot—you can see the fan blowing constantly in the background—because without it we would have probably died of heatstroke. And we had to have all the windows open, because otherwise there would have been too much heat trapped inside that house. But I wanted to shoot the video in that room specifically because of how much time I’d spent in there and what the room represents—all of the time we all spent as a group of friends sitting around and talking and laughing. You can feel that in the openness of the room, how much we loved just sitting and chatting, and I wanted to put the dancing in that environment but also make it pretty solitary, with only a solo dancer.
You can feel that community because you don’t get a collection of stuff that unique and eclectic just by chance!
By the way, it’s very cool to see you repping Asian-American girls and women on the music scene. You’re based in Seattle; have you lived there your whole life?
Yep, born and raised here. My dad immigrated to the United States from Japan, but my mom was born in Seattle. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Japan and Korea.
I always find it cool to hear about the stories of fellow Asian–North Americans, because I tend to encounter these different remarks that are specific to that demographic—like sometimes I’ll talk, and people will say that I must be second or third-generation Chinese-Canadian, because I don’t talk “like an Asian person.”
Yeah, it’s frustrating. Especially in the music industry—people are always bringing up race and asking things like, “How did your heritage play into your music?” I mean, I’m just…living my life as an Asian-American woman, and I guess inherently it is present in my music because it’s part of who I am, but the songs aren’t specifically about my Japanese culture or my Korean culture. People tend to try to attach [ethnic background] to a lot of different aspects of Asian-American people—not necessarily tokenizing them, but questioning and asking, “How are you not quite as exotic as I thought you would be?” when they encounter Asian-Americans.
I totally get it—and it’s hard to have to try and balance being Asian and being Western while having to constantly defend your relationship to both sides.
Another thing that’s amazing to me is how you’ve been taking on all these different roles that are often delegated to different people, like promoting your music and booking shows while also performing. Has it been difficult to take charge of all those different positions and the tasks that come with them as a single individual?
Yes. I appreciate the appreciation of that! With the album, it has been hectic, especially this last week—we’re less than two weeks away from the debut date and album release show at the Vera Project. Luckily I have a lot of people who support me, like my drummer, Zeke [Bender], who’s been super helpful just being with me as I go through all of it. It’s hard; I’m 20 years old, I don’t have a managing team, I don’t have a booking team, I don’t have any real legitimate people behind me telling me what to do, so it’s very much about feeling it out and asking everyone that I’ve met along the way for little bits and advice. There’s a lot of good that’s come out of that, though. There was a program, the EMP Sound Off!, that I did two years ago, that was a sort of under-21 Battle of the Bands event, and from there I met a lot of industry people who were able to give me some advice and offer their knowledge as a resource. I’m getting a little off-topic here, but in short: Yes. Very, very hard to manage all those different roles myself. I’m trying my best not to get too overwhelmed!
There’s a level of independence you gain doing these different tasks yourself, though. I don’t know much about the music management process, but I do like my independence!
It is nice to be able to have everything read exactly the way I want it to and sound exactly the way I want it to sound. I even get to choose how I want everything to be spelled—that’s a perk.
Were you always into music?
I guess like in a classic Asian-American family, I grew up playing piano and violin. I was classically trained at a young age, but at around fourth or fifth grade my grandpa died. He was the paramount person planning the lessons and everything, so after that I fell out of classical music and at the same time started picking up electric guitar because my oldest brother started playing it. From there, I’ve always been tinkering around on guitar. It wasn’t until later in high school—around ninth or tenth grade—that I started playing covers with my friend Khyre [Matthews], who’s now my bass player. We’d just busk and jam downtown, playing covers, for fun. Khyre and I formed a band. We played a lot of folksy stuff, all strumming along to the same chords, same pattern, everything. Later in high school I formed a duo with my then-boyfriend; we played a few shows that way. Then I went to college, hated it, applied to Sound Off!, and it was just me singing my own songs—it was the first time I put myself out there in such a public way, because I’d always been recording things and putting them on my personal Bandcamp, not expecting anyone to listen to pay attention to anything. So when Sound Off! got back to me about being one of 12 semi-finalists, it was a pretty crazy deal to me.
From there, I wanted to have a full band to support my songs, so I rounded up a group of friends I’ve known along the way. I’ve known Zeke, for instance, since fifth grade, and I’ve always known he plays drums and we’ve always had things to say to each other about music. I met Veronica [Johansen], my backup singer, in vocal jazz in tenth or eleventh grade—we were both altos, and I always knew she had a beautiful voice. I met Adelyn [Westerholm] in college, and she plays violin for me. I just thought all of them would be great fits. And then Anna White, who also does things for Rookie, went to Holy Names Academy at the time, which has a huge recording studio—she recorded my first nice, non-garage demos. She pushed me to submit to Sound Off!, and she played upright bass. Adding her in was a no-brainer. And now I’m here, a couple year later. It’s been a long journey, a lot of feeling things out, very complex, but it’s been good. It’s been good. ♦