EMMA-LEE at Revival (783 College), tonight (Thursday, August 7), 8:30 pm. $15, advance $12. 416-535-7888.
Listening to Emma-Lee's debut album, Never Just A Dream, you're immediately struck by how effortlessly her silken voice stretches itself over the lush jazz-pop arrangements. She sounds so confident that it's hard to believe she came dangerously close to completely losing her vocal abilities - twice! - while putting together the recording.
"I didn't realize it for a long time, but someone told me I had a lump on my neck," Emma-Lee explains over pints at a downtown pub. "I couldn't see it, but they could, so I was freaking out a bit. I had a couple of biopsies, but they didn't know what it was, so they said I needed to have surgery. There was a risk they might slice a nerve and paralyze my vocal cords. It was a tough decision, but I was walking around with an unknown lump on my neck, so I had to do it."
Thankfully, the surgery went fine with no complications, but then disaster nearly struck again when she found her voice becoming scratchy and high notes suddenly unreachable. Turns out a polyp had developed on her vocal cords (unrelated to her previous condition), which once again sent her back onto the operating table, forcing her to consider for a second time what might happen if she lost her striking singing voice.
"I kind of thought if I lost my voice I'd become the best guitar player ever. As a singer I don't put as much into my guitar playing as I could, but I think I have that potential if I pushed myself down that road. Both my brother and father are great players."
Never Just A Dream combines laid-back jazz flavours and concise pop structures. Country references drop in here and there, as do some flavours borrowed from 60s girl groups. These classic textures sit naturally next to her singing voice, but surprisingly she started out singing much less organic forms.
"I've been singing forever and started playing guitar when I was 14. I hadn't really figured out how I was going to get into doing music. When I was about 20, I met a drum 'n' bass DJ named Stranjah, and he asked me if I'd like to sing on one of his tracks. After that I did some really funny, happy hardcore songs with some other guys that were released in the UK. Thankfully, no one will ever be able to find those, because my name isn't on them."
Though she may not be wrapping her voice around rave beats any more, she does still share dance music's attitude to remixing and reworking well-known tunes. How else to explain her approach to covers?
"Recently we've been covering I Wear My Sunglasses At Night in a bossa nova style. Last summer we did a medley of Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, leading into Crazy by Aerosmith, going into Crazy by Patsy Cline - that was really fun.
"I would never just do a cover exactly the way it sounded originally."
Emma-Lee's musical upbringing:
Describing her all-female music collective: