Emm is for Music

by Theo-dric Feng

Last summer, Toronto-based singer/songwriter Emm Gryner was hoping to perform in Manila. Tower Records was interested in sponsoring a tour, she says; her own interest stemmed from the fact her mother is from the Philippines. She decided to forgo that opportunity for a gig as backup vocalist and instrumentalist for pop rock icon David Bowie, at a couple of dates in New York and England. It would have been her second time performing with the band; she had also sung backup the previous fall on a European tour.

Not too long ago, Gryner seemed on the verge of stardom. Creating, performing and recording her own music since launching her career in 1995, her first album was self-produced and released under her own label, Dead Daisy Records. In late '97 she signed with Mercury Records, then home to Shania Twain, Bon Jovi and Jay-Z. Backed by a major label, production of her next album was a much more extravagant effort. Gryner was provided with a high-profile producer, recording was done at four studios in London, England and string players were hired to add euphonious backing to the mix. Gryner estimates that costs ran into the tens of thousands of dollars. The resulting CD, Public, yielded the Canadian hit "Summerlong." Things were definitely going Gryner's way.

But the media and entertainment industry of the '90s was an environment of mergers and acquisitions. About a year after Gryner signed with Mercury, Universal Music gobbled up its parent company, Polygram. Many people were laid off. Gryner's contract with Mercury was terminated soon after, along with the contracts of hundreds of other artists.

Gryner revived Dead Daisy and soon produced another album, Science Fair. Initially marketed via email, the album was subsequently distributed to stores in Canada through an agreement with Toronto-based Outside Music. Gryner was surprised to find that she was able to sell more copies of Science Fair than of her previous album, which had been distributed and promoted by Mercury.

"I think it surprised me because I thought that when there's a huge company behind you and you spend thousands of dollars on a record, you're naturally going to sell more. But really that's not accurate at all. I spent two weeks recording Science Fair. I made it for under $5,000. And that's peanuts compared to what you spend on a major label record. And it did much better. It showed me that the onus is really on you to do what you can to sell your music. And you don't always get the best results by having a dozen people working on your record."

While that argument may be valid, it might be reasonable to suggest that Mercury's marketing efforts helped raise public awareness of Gryner's music. She acknowledges that with Mercury's help she was able to tour Canada and the United States, the latter twice.

Meanwhile the internet has played no small part in sustaining her success. Gryner's well-designed website (EmmGryner.com), created and maintained by Steve Ito, keeps her fans satisfied with a collection of music sound files, news and links. The site also has a journal, message board and tour log sound files. The site, as well as the infamous music exchange system known as Napster, have helped her collect more fans.

"The internet is still a place of chaos, but I think a lot of people have found out about my music through Napster. Even though I don't condone working for free and there needs to be more regulations about that, I still think the positives outweigh the negatives."

Despite embracing the do-it-yourself career, Gryner is still considering the advantages of signing with another record company. A company larger than Dead Daisy would provide resources to advance her music and career beyond what she can do on her own, at this time. The idea of signing with an independent non-major label, or "indie," appeals to her.

"...Indies have a certain energy about them, in the face of the major labels becoming so corporate. So it's definitely something I'd like to explore and probably will explore this year. But I'm definitely going to keep my label going, whatever happens."

Currently only a few people staff Dead Daisy; there's only one other artist besides Gryner, but she forsees expansion.

"I have another songwriter on the label named Dylan White. He's actually half-Asian as well, so we're having a bit of a trend at Dead Daisy. But I'd really like to get some more cash at some point, just to expand the label. And hopefully that'll happen soon."

While her music generally does not explicitly refer to Asian Canadians or their experiences, Gryner has lent her support along ethnic lines. A film student friend of Gryner's asked her to create the score for a commercial he was submitting for competition. Both partly of Asian descent, the two joked about creating an "Asian mafia" which would "pool our Asian friends who are talented and conquer the world." One of Gryner's songs was also used for The Debut, a Filipino American film that has been playing at smaller film festivals this season.

While Gryner anticipates future changes to the business side of her music, she's already begun a creative switch. For years, Gryner's approach to writing songs was to start from the music; she would sit at a piano or pick up a guitar, play around with chord progressions and sing over that. Lyrics and melodies would gradually emerge. Gryner says that lately, she's begun to write the lyrics first.

"There's a song on my new album called 'Parting Song' which I wrote all the lyrics to on a bus. And then I just came home and put the music to it. And I actually quite like that, and I didn't think I could do that. So I'd like to do more."

Gryner's recent touring strategy has been to make short, solo forays into the Eastern US, building up her fan base in places like New York City and in the Washington, D.C. area. In the future, she hopes to be able to afford to bring her band with her.

And touring aside? Maybe Gryner will make more videos to add to the four that have aired on MuchMusic. Whatever the decisions are, there seems little doubt Gryner's creative output will continue. Perhaps she'll write some of her new songs in French; as a Canadian artist, Gryner feels one cannot ignore the Quebecois. But if she continues to expand her presence in the neighbouring country to the south, Gryner may have to adapt to their demographic -- Habla Español?



Thanks to Walter Lee for scanning help


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