Local Artist Spotlight: Emma Lee Toyoda

photo by Alley Rutzel

Leading up until the Upstream Music Fest + Summit, a Northwest regionally focused festival with over 300 acts, KEXP will be featuring a new local artist from the lineup with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. Today’s post features Seattle indie rock songwriter Emma Lee Toyoda, performing Thursday, May 11 on the City Arts stage at 9 p.m. and Saturday, May 13 at 8:15 p.m on the Vera Project Stage.

Ever since Emma Lee Toyoda performed at MoPop’s SoundOff! competition in 2015, they and their band have emerged as one of the most eclectic and vibrant acts in Seattle. Their mixture of indie rock, jazz, and folk – along with sharp-witted and quick song – has only gotten better since the competition. Last December, Toyoda released their first full-length record, Sewn Me Anew, on Make Fart Records. They and the band implore every tool at their disposal, mixing together everything from saxophones to banjos on the same tracks and creating an eclectic, ever-changing work. We caught up with Toyoda to discuss changes in the band’s lineup, their penchant for humor, and what it means to be a “sadgirl”.

Last year you released your debut album, sewn me anew. It’s a quick paced record but with loads of instruments and profound lyrics to unearth. How do you manage so many moving parts with everything from banjos to saxophones in the mix? Where did the writing process begin?

I wrote the songs from ‘sewn me anew’ over the span of a year or so, originally arranging them when I got into SoundOff! 2015. At that point, I had freshly assembled the 5-piece ELT of drums, upright bass, violin, harmonies and guitar/banjo, and had no formal composition background to speak of, so it was a lot of feeling it out and trying my best to explain what I wanted & where. Luckily, between the individual talents of my bffs Zeke Bender, Anna White, Adelyn Westerholm & Veronica Johanson, we made it all work pretty darn well!

I met my saxophonist Emerson Rowe back in our high school vocal jazz, and he’s basically the most naturally gifted wind instrumentalist I’ve ever met, so I could pretty much just tell him where in the songs he should play and the general feelings I was trying to convey and he’d improvise.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you prefer shorter songs because they get to the point. How do you know when a song says everything it needs to? Do you think you’d ever write a 20-minute-jazz-rock-opus?

Since pretty much all of my songs are just my emotions lyrically vomited out, I tend to write them in one go with little (or no) edits. So, I guess I know a song is done when I feel I’ve said my piece or when it gets physically//emotionally too hard to say anything more. ‘sewn me anew’ is my 20-minute-jazz-rock-opus

With members going off to college, you had to pare down from a quintet to a trio. How has that transition been and how do you compensate with the smaller lineup when you perform?

It was definitely hard at first since I started out as a folk gal, so it felt like without harmonies and violin there were some big gaps to fill. I’ve been listening to a lot more X-ray Spex and Sleater Kinney though, and me & Zeke have always watched hours of Prince performance videos together, so I think that combo has done us well. Also, I’m starting to shred more, so that’s cool.

You just came off your first tour. Did you come away with any key experiences or revelations? Has your perspective changed at all on being a band in 2017?

Touring with T-Rextasy has definitely made us a better band in basically every way. Their stage presence and style is out of this world, and they gave us a lot of constructive criticism that we’ve never really received before. We joked about this a lot on tour, but they really are the Best Band in America.

In light of the political shitshow of 2017, I’m definitely more aware of all the microaggressions I have to deal with on a daily basis in Seattle. As a Japanese-Korean American frontwoman / manager / booker / promoter of ELT I have to put up with a lot of cis white dudes talking down to me // not listening to me // not taking me seriously, so I’m trying to call it out more and advocate for myself.

I’ve noticed in a lot of your posts on social media, you self-identify as a sadgirl. What does that term mean to you? Do you find any empowerment from it?

I’m a sadgirl living in a sad world. It is what it is. My songs are sad because I’m usually writing them out of a place of sadness. I struggle with depression and anxiety, which isn’t really acknowledged in Asian cultures and still has many stigmas attached in U.S. culture, so people tend to be very concerned when I say my music is sadgirlrock – but its okay to be sad! Being in touch with my emotions and recognizing when I’m not okay is something I consider to be a strength, not a weakness.

Alongside guitar, banjo, organ, and keyboard; you’re also listed as contributing “bad jokes” to the band. What’s your favorite groan-worthy joke?

Come to literally any show and you’ll see for yourself. Listen for Zeke booing from behind the kit – that’s usually a good indicator.



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