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You Heard It Here First: Emma McGrath on the healing power of songwriting

Every week Stylist shines a light on a female musician you need to be listening to. This week we talk to indie pop prodigy Emma McGrath, whose honest songwriting cuts to the core of what it means to be a young queer woman today.  

Emma McGrath entered the wider musical consciousness last summer, when she released her heart-soaring single Other Side. The music video she made to accompany it follows two teenage girls as they fall in love, a story as timeless and moving as McGrath’s rich vocals.

When Stylist meets the north Londoner, she emanates a wisdom and wry maturity well beyond her 20 years. She is clear-eyed about both her natural songwriting talent and the fickleness of the music industry, wondering aloud if the level of success she’s enjoying as an indie pop star of promise at the age of 20 will still be as impressive when she’s 25.

It’s why, as much as she adores making music that helps her put her complex feelings about growing up and coming out into words, she’s also passionate about many other things, from nurturing other musicians and looking after children to… carpentry.

Here, Stylist speaks to the singer about some of her most formative firsts.

The first album I ever bought…
Was on vinyl. Which is ridiculous, I don’t listen to vinyl, it was just a hipster thing to do. But it was The Staves. I’d seen them in London when I was about 11 and thought their harmonies were amazing. I used to listen to a shit-ton of Tracy Chapman too – ugh, her words, every song is perfect.

The first gig I went to…
Was Scouting For Girls. It was really embarrassing because my parents were dancing and I was like, ‘Can you please sit down.’

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The first time I knew music was my future…
Was kind of gradual. When I was a kid I wanted to be a bricklayer; I was basically a little boy so I was like, ‘I want to build things.’ It’s still a passion of mine [laughs]. But then I started playing guitar at school when I was 10 and I wanted to be better than everyone else, so that’s all I did.

I was a very confused child. I don’t think I quite knew how to make friends or what I was doing. I started writing songs as a way to tell people things I couldn’t say. That’s the frustrating thing about songwriting though: whether it’s to tell someone you’re hurting or you love them or you hate them, the person you want to really hear those lyrics never does. I was definitely not a happy kid and I thought I’d write about it. But no one was listening, at least not in the way I wanted them to.

Singer Emma McGrath
Emma McGrath cites Tracy Chapman as one of her biggest musical inspirations.

The first time I realised I was good at what I do…
Was when I started playing guitar. I can’t really remember a time when I couldn’t play, I just picked up a guitar and within a week I felt like I could do it. And then people told me I sounded good, and my parents encouraged me a lot. Also getting praise from the people who’d pissed me off in the past was motivating – that’s really bad but I’m being honest.

The first time I performed…
Was at an open mic in 2013. I played Paolo Nutini’s New Shoes and I couldn’t look at anyone. It was the most stressful moment of my life. Performing was traumatic every single time for, like, the next six months. 

I’ve learnt to live a little more freely now, I don’t let my mind mull over the bad things that could happen. Also, I take a little bed to all my gigs and set it up in the dressing rooms so I can have a nap before I perform now. My band think it’s so funny.

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The first thing I heard this morning…
Was Banks. Her album Goddess is the only album I listened to when I was really sad. She’s incredible.

The first thing I do when I get home…
Is breathe out. Then sit down and do some work, it never stops. I have other jobs I do in my spare time – at the beginning of last year I was really down and basically wasn’t getting out of bed, then I started helping out at a primary school breakfast club in the mornings and it’s honestly the best job. I get to hang out with my best friends and make toast, it’s so fun. I also teach the guitar and drums, I absolutely love teaching. Music is really important for kids, I think. It’s so powerful.

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The first person who inspired me…
Was an Australian artist called Missy Higgins, she’s massive over there. I’d put her up there with Tracy Chapman for songwriting. I did love Eminem as well.

The first female artist you should go and listen to after reading this…
Is definitely Missy Higgins.

Emma McGrath’s new EP Keep Your Eyes Open (Silent Minds Part 2) is out now. Tickets for her headline show at The Grace in London on 12 March are on sale now.

Images: Dan Kendall

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