Q&A with Multiple Maple Blues Award winner, Miss Emily - shines a bright, white spotlight on the soul-blues dynamo

"In a world of so much racial division, surely, we can all agree that music - and blues & soul music in particular - brings a diverse community of people together. I find that fact undeniable and incredibly powerful."

Miss Emily: Defined By Love...and Soul!

Multiple Maple Blues Award winner, and 2022 JUNO Nominee for Blues Album of the Year, Miss Emily is set to release her fourth album, Defined By Love on September 30th, 2022. The high-octane entertainer with a powerful set of pipes calls Kingston, Ontario home and has been a highly sought-after performer at festivals around the country. We humans are often defined based on a single thing. For some, it could be a career choice. For others, it might be a character trait or even an event. For Miss Emily, it would be simple to say that she’s defined by her unparalleled voice, but she would encourage you to seek a broader definition of who she is. Whether it’s parental love, romantic love, or an all-encompassing love for community; Emily’s contention is that love is at the core of who we are. Emily Fennell’s earliest memories swirl through the dusty fairgrounds of Southern Ontario, accompanied by her parents, as she pursued her love of performing at county fair singing competitions where the creaky floorboards of outdoor stages laid down the backbeat.                             (Miss Emily / Jillian Lorraine Photography)

Later as a young adult, Miss Emily emerged from a soul-drenched gumbo of blues, old-school R&B, and jazz. With Ray Charles and Aretha as her mentors and K.D. Lang as her benchmark she went to school. Studying her craft on the sideroads, backroads, and highways of Ontario; she played every juke joint and nightclub that would have her. When she was pregnant with her daughter Piper, she took up residency at The Merchant in Kingston. Every Friday night she preached love, happiness, and harmony to jam-packed crowds and in the midst of the cover songs, she’d throw in a few of her own. Soon the setlists would be more hers than theirs and as she fell in love with her adopted hometown of Kingston, Kingston fell in love with her. It’s a love that flourished as she played festivals and music halls and more recently six sold-out shows at the Isabel Bader Theatre. Defined By Love is a deeply personal 12-song meditation on deception, pain, resilience, and finding strength among the ruins of heartbreak. Someone once said that we are the sum total of our experiences. That may, in fact, be true but those experiences – good or bad – shouldn’t define us. Take Miss Emily’s advice and don’t allow the world to lock you into a single description. Be defined by family, friends, and community. Be defined by love.

Interview by Michael Limnios                 Special Thanks: Sarah French Publicity

How the Blues/Soul & Jazz music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? 

I was born in the 80s. The music of that era was generally NOT loved by my parents and so I grew up on a lot of old soul records. Aretha, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke… The music spoke to me and made me connect emotion and personal triumphs and hardships to the music I was raised on.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? What's the balance in music between heart & soul?

I describe myself as a soul singer. A lot of music genre comes from studio production. At the end of the day, I want listeners to hear my voice and my melody and lyric in my songs and feel it connects to them on a soulful level. I am strongly influenced by the legions of brilliant blues and soul singers and writers before me. I am fortunate to have been exposed to amazing talent at a young age and continue to be humbled by the incredible blues and soul artists who have come before me and whom I get to call peers in this industry.

I consider heart and soul to be synonymous with each other. They are the backbone of emotion and I make music in an effort to inspire feeling.

"The world is ever changing and that includes music. Where there are musicians who enjoy performing and creating music, there will always be a foundation of traditional musical art. Some of the technologies that have come to the production and performance of music have benefited artists and their careers, but of course, some of these advancements have made it harder to make a living in the traditional environment of music." (Miss Emily / Jillian Lorraine Photography)

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

I feel music is my disease. I was afflicted as a young child, and it’s been my calling ever since. Creation of music is one of the symptoms, I think. I often write about personal experiences.

I hope people are able to find their own personal stories through my music and lyrics. I want my music to connect me to people in that way.

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

I feel like there are so many answers to this question… 25 years of career has made for so many memories. Perhaps I should start at the beginning of my daughter’s life. I was pregnant. I was 23. I had just moved out of my car into a basement apartment with my boyfriend in Kingston, Ontario. The world became very real all at once and I had to get my sh*t together quickly. I took my career seriously from the moment I found out I was pregnant onward. I had to provide for another human and that was a turning point for my business.

I guess it might go without saying, but the birth of my daughter was the highlight of life. She was my plus one for the JUNO awards this year in Toronto. At 17, she was able to witness a huge career milestone not only for me but for both of us.

I always say, “it takes a village to raise a me” and my daughter Piper is a major member of my village.

"Music plays a very important role in the lives of almost everybody. Certain songs help us bring to mind important memories and music is used when we need comfort and time for reflection. I feel a duty as a music maker." (Miss Emily / Jillian Lorraine Photography)

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I have a lot to say about this... but to sum it up, I feel as women we need to do the same job a man does but better in order to be recognized a lot of the time.  This often means we need to work harder in order for advancements to happen in our careers. I'm not opposed to hard work and complaining about these aspects of my industry seems useless, so I've just rolled with the reality best I can. I will say that the recent focus on diversification of many industries (including music) has been beneficial to me and lot of my female peers in the last several years. The public is starting to pay attention to whether or not more different types of people are being represented in certain arenas and I'm happy that the music industry is one of them.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

I'm going to take a moment here and address the recent conversations on certain genres of music and appropriation. In Canada we have a decent size blues appreciating and performing community and although there are a number of races represented in the audiences and on stage, the field appears to mostly be made up of white people. Many parts of Canada are still not very racially diverse, but some parts are. With lots of conversations on many platforms swirling around the appropriation of our Indigenous cultures in music, art and other aspects, I've been happy to see the conversations shifting to other types of music and art. Blues music comes from black culture. Although I've never considered myself a strictly "blues" artist, I can appreciate that I have been very strongly influenced in my music by blues. The question now is "Do I have a right to be making a living off of music that is specific to a culture and race that I am not a part of?"  I don't have the answer to this question. But, I DO believe the question needs to be discussed and addressed. Is there a way I can appreciate more and properly acknowledge the group of people who birthed the music I currently make a living from? I want to be part of the progressive side of this discussion and for that reason, I bring up the topic as often as I can. 

In a world of so much racial division, surely, we can all agree that music - and blues & soul music in particular - brings a diverse community of people together. I find that fact undeniable and incredibly powerful.              (Miss Emily / Jillian Lorraine Photography)

"I feel music is my disease. I was afflicted as a young child, and it’s been my calling ever since. Creation of music is one of the symptoms, I think. I often write about personal experiences."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The world is ever changing and that includes music. Where there are musicians who enjoy performing and creating music, there will always be a foundation of traditional musical art. Some of the technologies that have come to the production and performance of music have benefited artists and their careers, but of course, some of these advancements have made it harder to make a living in the traditional environment of music. I became a professional travelling musician around the time of Napster. It changed the internet music accessibility and eventually the entire music industry in so many ways. I've learned to grow with that best I can, but the days of record deals with large signing bonuses were a thing of the past essentially by the time I entered the music scene as a career.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Be kind to everyone. I know it seems cliche and like the possible answer to any "important lessons" question, but in this industry, I truly believe kindness to everyone leads to the best possible results. Taking time to learn the names of volunteers at the festivals I play, thanking sound people for their dedication to making us sound the best we can, shaking hands with as many fans and supporters as possible and listening to their stories on how their lives connect to my music... These are all beautifully important parts of my job, and they require no special skills - just kindness.

John Coltrane said, "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

Music plays a very important role in the lives of almost everybody. Certain songs help us bring to mind important memories and music is used when we need comfort and time for reflection. I feel a duty as a music maker. Sometimes my abilities are needed for a bigger picture to help others in their times of challenge and part of why I make music is bring healing where I can. I feel it's one of my life's main purposes. I am partially defined by the fact that I make music for a living. I'm not sure how many careers can claim such a huge part of someone's purpose for existence on this planet.

Miss Emily - Home

(Miss Emily / Jillian Lorraine Photography)

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