It’s been a long wait since the release of Emma-Lee’s acclaimed 2009 debut, Never Just A Dream, but the longest journey often yields the most rewarding arrival. Backseat Heroine marks a brave turning point in the road for an artist once pegged a jazz-pop chanteuse. Three years of touring and songwriting will lead to inevitable growth, knowledge and direction as is proven in Emma-Lee’s sophomore record. Her voice, once described by No Depression as “powerful and fragile at the same time, with a range and ability to dive around the notes that would make kd lang jealous” is still the star of the show. On barn burners like “Not Coming By” and “Shadow of a Ghost” she growls with a swagger and confidence not heard on any of her previous work. Instead of earlier comparisons to Feist and Norah Jones, names like Bonnie Raitt, Grace Potter and even Adele began to echo in the crowds of those shows that nurtured her re-invention.
But her voice has always been just the bait – it’s her songs that hook you. Her decision to collaborate on a handful of the albums’ tracks resulted in some of her most emotional writing yet. The aches and swells of the cinematic title track “Backseat Heroine” (co-written with Nicole Atkins) and the almost painfully intimate final cut “I Could Live With Dying Tonight” (co-written with Jill Barber) showcase the startling strength of her vulnerability. “I really only discovered the potential of co-writing on this album. I was hesitant to open myself up so much in front of another person, in some cases – total strangers! But once I learned that letting the walls fall down meant finding the buried treasure I threw my fears out the window and haven’t looked back. Some of my favourite songs on this record are collaborations and I have taken away more than just songs, co-writing is a learning experience, a sharing of secrets and tricks.” The success of these sessions lead to another adventurous move – after writing “Today’s Another Yesterday” with Luke Doucet, Emma-Lee invited him to sing it as a duet.
Some of the songs written by Emma-Lee alone such as “Not Coming By”, “Just Looking” and “Phoenix” leave the impression that she is still very much in touch with her own muse. “I wrote some songs in probably under an hour each. It’s a satisfying experience when I’m able to access what my subconscious has been whispering to me for weeks, months, or even years. What I enjoy about those songs is their sense of immediacy. You can’t hear me thinking, it just sounds natural.”
While the voice and the songs are certainly the driving force behind Backseat Heroine, at its core it’s held together by the love and passion of the musicians around her. “I had a number of meetings with different producers but eventually decided to co-produce the record with two of my best friends – Karen Kosowski and Marc Rogers.” she says. “I knew that they would pour their heart and soul into this project and they exceeded my every expectation start to finish. It was also important to me to have the band that I play with live make the record with us. My band is usually the first people to hear my new songs. They are my circle of trust, they support and encourage me and inspire me to work harder – but above all they are simply incredible musicians.”
Most of the album was tracked at The Chalet, a studio near Uxbridge, ON. The goal was to record live-off-the floor band takes and capture the raw energy of what it sounds like when you play a song only once. The days were split into three sets – an afternoon set of the more chilled-out “happy” songs, an evening set of the moody up-tempo numbers and a late-night set of the acoustic fully live-off-the-floor takes. “We would make dinner together every night like a family, have a few glasses of wine and then make noise,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun or been more relaxed recording. During the late night sets when it was just me in the live room Marc and Karen lit candles all around me and I’m sitting in this beautiful space with windows looking out on snow covered fields. It was an absolute dream and I think you can really hear the warmth and mood in the takes we captured.”
Thematically Backseat Heroine sounds more defiant and hopeful than its tender, broken-hearted predecessor Never Just A Dream. Songs like the sparkly “I’ll Dream For You” and middle-finger-waving goodbye anthem “Figure It Out” frame Emma-Lee a confident heroine – and yet as a whole it still leaves you with the sense that you’ve stumbled on Emma-Lee’s secret photo album, containing snapshots so personal they were never meant to be seen…or in this case, heard.
Emma-Lee’s goal was to make a record that lived and breathed in its own world and could cross genres while still being a soundscape that was complete from start to finish. “In the liner notes of the album there is a quote from my Dad that says ‘This album should be listened to from start to finish, without interruption.’ and I agree.” We may live in a world full of singles but at some point everyone likes to escape and take a little trip.