Interview: Multi-talented Toronto singer/songwriter Emm Gryner

Filed under: Interviews

Emm Gryner has a career that most people who choose a life in the arts would dream of. She's released a dozen albums of her own, collaborated with musicians from around the world, been praised by some of the greatest names in music (U2's Bono, for instance, called her song "Almighty Love" one of a few songs from others that he wished he'd written), received multiple Juno nominations, run her own record label, and even dabbled in acting and radio. And if that's not enough, she also spent over a year touring in the band of one of the greatest music minds of our time, Mr. David Bowie, which included performances at the Glastonbury Festival, on Saturday Night Live, and on the live album Bowie at the Beeb.

Despite those incredible accomplishments, though, major mainstream success for her own material has mostly eluded her, which is a shame. I'd personally been a fan for years, but somehow every time she came through on tour, there was a reason why I couldn't catch her show: short on cash that week, coming down with a nasty cold the day of the show, or not hearing about the show until it was too late. As luck would have it, though, Emm was performing at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles while I was visiting the city, and so not only would I finally get to see the immensely talented performer and songwriter live, but get to do so in my absolute favourite venue outside of my hometown.

Emm was also gracious enough to sit down with me the day after her show at a Starbucks in North Hollywood to talk about her experiences making music over the last 15 years, running Dead Daisy Records (her label), what it was like acting in her first film (director Michael McGowan's One Week, an ode to Canada starring Joshua Jackson), and of course, her new record, which she was working on in L.A. at the time.

On March 23rd, Emm Gryner released her latest EP entitled Stray Bullets, which includes a duet with Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott on her tune "Almighty Love", along with 5 other new tracks. You can order the album on, or go the digital route via iTunes worldwide. But either way, you should definitely pick it up.

Paul Little: You've been around the world to write, record, and perform -- and you're in L.A. right now recording -- but you've kept Canada home. Why stay there?

Emm Gryner: Well, I lived here (in L.A.) for a little while, actually, and I wanted to move back after being here for a little while. I think around the time that I was here was 2001-2002, so it was around the time of 9/11 and George Bush and all that, so it just felt like the right time to come home. I'm actually feeling very creative at home right now, so it's partially for that and just also being close to family.

PL: You have fans the world over, including some famous musician fans, but you're an independent artist who runs her own label. Do you ever find it weird that you're kind of in both worlds: you're releasing music independently, but yet you're well-respected in the music community and by fans all over?

EG: Yeah, it's a little strange. I think people associate accolades, like some of the ones I've received, with being a bigger star. But, I don't know, it's kind of a testament to how indie music is making its way around the world. You don't need to be on Sony to be heard, and sometimes it's not a good thing to be on a big label. So I don't know, I really appreciate it all. I kind of feel like ever since the Bowie experience, I've always had one foot in each world and I really like that. I think it helps me to be grounded.

PL: Speaking of David Bowie, I'm sure it's really difficult to say in a few words what it was like, but that experience... I mean, I can't imagine anything like it.

EG: Yeah, it was really amazing. And it came at a time in my life where I really, I guess I needed a bit of an education, and what better person to kind teach you about touring and that sort of thing. I guess it turned me off of fame a little bit, but it also showed me that you can be as "old" as he is and still be really creative and excited about music. And also it was just fun to hear someone's stories. 'Cause rock and roll, it really was born in the '50s, '60s, and '70s in a way. And now what we're doing, we're all desperate to do something new. It's interesting to be around someone who really lived it and influenced it -- influenced a lot of the bands I grew up listening to.

PL: Speaking of doing something new, you're trying to get new artists going because you have your record label (Dead Daisy Records). What's that like, running your own label?

EG: It's a lot of work, but I feel like a lot of people helped me out in the beginning and I now have a lot of contacts. And that's one thing about getting older -- if you haven't burned any bridges, you have a handful of people that you can count on to listen to new music and that sort of thing. It's really exciting to work with new artists. And also being an artist, I know what it's like to be let down, so I promised myself I'd never do that to the people I work with.

PL: And I guess being in charge of a label you might have a different perspective, even though it's an independent label, on new media and the ever-changing music world, with downloading being so accessible but also just music in general being so accessible to everyone.

EG: I think it's great. Once you get beyond all the legal problems and the fact that there is a lot of payoff on the internet, it's really -- the bottom line is that more people are listening to music and musicians are really able to make the music they want without someone telling them what to do. So, I think it's all good.

PL: You have a great album of rock covers, Girl Versions, which I still listen to at least once a week, and you spent two summers co-hosting the CBC Radio show, Under the Covers, with Danny Michel. What do you think makes a great cover?

EG: Well, I'm a songwriter, so for me a great cover is when someone changes it into their own song, and drastically, and I tried to do that on my album. But on the other hand there are some songs I don't think should really be tampered with. I've heard people cover "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell. And, you know, why would you do that? It's just so good as it is. Some songs that are classics in my opinion, but everyone's welcome to do what they want.

PL: Last night you played at the Hotel Café. What are your thoughts on that venue as a home for musicians locally in L.A., and have you seen it anywhere else in the world when you traveled? Like, somewhere similar?

EG: I've seen a few venues in Toronto and in Dublin where they really kind of take care of artists. And you have to have a place where people like to go. But I think it's a great venue. I like that they're continually expanding and they've made a name for themselves outside of L.A. as well, with their tours and things like that.

PL: I've always wanted to start something like that in Canada. Not just with the local venue, but with the touring and the getting artists together from Canada. Because you see the artists that are friends and they do things together, but to get an actual tour going across the country and get support...

EG: I think it's a great idea. Especially in Canada, I think there's more support among musicians. People are more willing to sing on other people's records and duet with people and just tour together and share expenses and things like that. I'm not saying other countries don't do that, but I feel like in Canada we know what it's like to tour across the country in the winter, and all those long drives between Saskatoon and Winnipeg and all that stuff. So it's like we all have the same "war wounds".

PL: I enjoyed your performance in One Week last year with Joshua Jackson. Do you plan on doing more acting in larger roles?

EG: I would if something came along. I mean, I don't really look for acting roles, but if something comes to me then I kind of try to see if it's a good idea to do. But acting is really hard for me because I've always relied on music to tell stories. But I enjoyed the experience. It was a great movie to be in. For my first movie role, it was a great one.

PL: What was it about the film that got you wanting to act, if you don't feel that comfortable?

EG: Well, I was in a video by Neverending White Lights, and someone knew my appearance in that and recommended me for this role, which you needed to be able to sing in this role as well. So they were looking for a musician who could act, and I honestly think they had someone else in mind and it didn't work out. Like a lot of things in my career that are just sort of, not fluke, but I get lucky with a lot of things. It was another one of those things, and I thought I'd just try it. But I knew the script was really good, and I also loved that it was a Canadian story and I hadn't really heard about a story like that before, so to be able to be a part of that appealed to my patriotism.

PL: You've accomplished so much already, and you're only in your mid-thirties --

EG: Whoa! Is that going to print?

PL: (laughs) Sorry. But really, you've accomplished quite a lot in such a short amount of time, relatively. Where do you go from here with your career?

EG: I'm just continuing to make records and continuing to tour. I actually kind of sidetracked my own career a little, well, I shouldn't say that. But I've done a lot of travelling and that sort of thing because that's what I think you should do when you're young, is see the world. So I'd kind of like to focus on being a little closer to home and doing more Canadian tours, and maybe come to the U.S. a little bit more if I can. Just continuing to do what I do, I guess.

PL: And can you tell us anything about the record you're working on right now?

EG: Yeah, it's turning out to be a real pop record (laughs), which is a reaction to Goddess in a way. Goddess is very intimate and melodramatic. So it's more of a fun record, but also has a lot of my personality in it.

PL: Yeah, I heard the one new song you played last night. Very "poppy", but still sounded like you.

EG: Yeah, I think I still subscribe to that idea that you have to really love... like I won't do a song that I'm tired of, or that I think is going to be a hit or anything like that. Songs that I love. And that's how I think everyone should make music, really.

Thanks once again to Diana Kim for transcribing the interview, and of course to Emm Gryner for taking the time to talk to me in Los Angeles.

Tags: Emm Gryner, Toronto, Los Angeles, The Hotel Cafe, David Bowie, One Week, Danny Michel, Canada, Dead Daisy Records, singer/songwriter

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Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found putting on and promoting music and comedy events with The Purple Room in Winnipeg, or co-producing the live comedy game shows Pants on Fire and The Great Patio Showdown. (@comedygeek)

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