She's on her first Earl Grey tea of the night. And she knows she shouldn't be drinking it before performing because it makes her hands shake. But as Emma Islands, a 13-year-old singer-songwriter from Mount Clemens, takes the stage at the Dovetail in Warren, you'd never know a caffeinated drop was consumed — she's a natural.
Islands released her debut album, Echo, on June 19. It features 10 original songs, all written and recorded during the past year, and it's already gaining accolades — the "Akademia Music Award for best album in the folk/singer-songwriter category," to be exact. A regular at the Dovetail's weekly open mic nights, Islands uses her background in musical theater to project the kind of mature and quirky tone most aspiring performers would kill for (think: Chrissie Hynde). We sat down with her before a three-song set on a recent Tuesday night (she ended with a stunning acoustic take on "Nothing Compares 2 U") to talk songwriting, school, and more.
Metro Times: So, let's get to it. Is Emma Islands your real name?
Emma Islands: No. It's Emma Guzman.
MT: How'd you come up with Emma Islands?
Islands: I needed a stage name. So, me and my parents, we went through a bunch of names, and I decided on Emma Islands.
MT: Where do you go to school?
Islands: I go to school at Richards Middle School, but I might be switching to L'Anse Creuse Central.
MT: And you've spent time at Interlochen Arts Camp?
Islands: Yeah, I do the summer camp. Last summer and this summer I did the vocal program. And the first two summers, I did theater and musical theater.
MT: A lot of people start out with an instrument like the piano when they're really little. When did music first come into your life, and what did you start with?
Islands: Well, I kind of started with singing in the car, I guess. [My dad] would put CDs on the radio and I would sing along to them. I started doing musical theater when I was like 8. He found an ad in the newspaper. I was July in Annie at Clintondale High School. I did musicals from then on. Then I got guitar lessons.
MT: Do you only play guitar?
Islands: Oh no, I play guitar, bass, and I started ukulele. And I play piano a little bit.
MT: What inspired you to start writing your own material, and how long have you been doing that?
Islands: I went to a songwriting workshop when I was 11. The guy — his name was Greg Beyer — he helped us all write our own songs. So that was like my real first song that I wrote, and I really liked it and I was really proud of it. Then I got into it more.
MT: A lot of people talk about the catharsis songwriting gives them. For instance, if they have a problem, they write a song about it, and it makes them feel better. What's the best thing songwriting does for you?
Islands: Sometimes it does that. Other times it's good to just get an idea and write it down, and have it be something cool.
MT: Do you write the lyrics first, or do you come up with a melody and add it on?
Islands: I write my lyrics first, then go back and figure out the chords to go with them.
MT: Who are your major songwriting influences?
Islands: Probably the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Magnetic Fields.
MT: Who's your favorite artist out there today?
Islands: The Magnetic Fields or the Eels.
MT: Let's talk about Echo. Great album. How long did it take you to write it?
Islands: It didn't take me so much to write it, probably only a few months or so. But it took about a year to actually record it. We started recording it, and the guy we were recording with was on tour a lot, so he didn't really have time.
MT: What was your main inspiration while writing Echo?
Islands: It was a whole bunch of different things, really. The songs don't really tie in together with one another — they're completely different songs, different ideas.
MT: Earlier you talked about how Jay Gonzalez from the Drive-By Truckers, as well as George Friend, Todd Glass, and John Nash helped out with the record.
Islands: Yeah, and there were other people. There was Anthony Retka and Drew Schultz. They play at the Dovetail a lot. And Josh Ford was on the album. Alex Lyon helped too. He played bass — he's from Whitey Morgan and the 78s. The guitars were just solos and slide and stuff, and that added an extra flair. And then the bass was in the background, and the drums also. I was in this school and we did band programs, so that helped with this.
MT: Do you prefer playing with a band or going solo like tonight?
Islands: I like going up there alone.
MT: What does everyone at school think about your album and career?
Islands: From my past year at middle school, some people kind of knew about it, some didn't. Most of my friends didn't really care that much. [Laughs] Only three of my friends have ever gone to my shows.
MT: Have your family and your parents been supportive of all this?
Islands: Yeah, totally.
MT: How far do you want to take your musical career? Do you think you want to take it all the way, be the next Joni Mitchell?
Islands: Maybe, if that happens. I just want to be able to support myself through music, playing shows, and selling my albums.
MT: Do you have any upcoming gigs?
Islands: I'm competing in the contest for the Michigan State Fair. So on September 4, around 8:40 p.m., I'm gonna be going up on stage. They said they'd give us extra points, however that works, if the audience responds well to us.
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