Interviewed by Rachel Campbell
Limerick Lady podcast, co-created with fellow musician and theatre-maker Ann Blake. Backstage at the iconic Empire Music Hall in Belfast, we settle in amidst the sounds of tuning instruments and sound checks before Emma takes the stage later that evening.
How did you get your start in music and where does your passion for music come from?
“Basically, when I started doing cartwheels on a stage to music - Les Mis and The Wizard of Oz were my first forays into music through the theatre. I got vocal nodules when I was a kid so I had to give up singing for a couple of years and that’s what made me realise it was something I wanted to do. When something gets taken away from you, you realise you want to do it even more. After I lost my voice I had to do vocal therapy and vocal coaching to get myself back on track. From there I just got really passionate about wanting to be able to sing and write songs. Growing up, I was always writing poetry or prose or drawing - I really needed some creative outlet. When a guitar arrived in my hands it helped get the angst out as a teenager.”
Were there specific things that you wrote songs and poems about? Do you find that putting your feelings into your songs is exposing, or do you find it freeing?
“Oh, love. Always love! Fighting with my best friend, you know, the really dramatic stuff that happens to teenagers. That was probably the main theme of the day. I suppose I do find it cathartic, but when I was first starting out it was daunting because I wasn’t a very talkative teenager, especially with feelings. Then to stand up on a stage in front of a room of strangers and tell them about a heartbreak I experienced, you know, is quite disconcerting. The more you get into it, you start to realise it’s not really about you. It’s about the story, connecting and helping other people to express something in themselves that they maybe weren’t able to put words to. So, when you get up there and tell a story about your experience and your heartbreak, you’re not really telling your story anymore, it’s everyone’s. You know, on stage it resonates. People connect with different elements of things. I’ve written a lot on mental health and anxiety and people have responded really well to that. I’ve been told, “You know, it’s great to hear, someone who by all appearances is doing well talking about their encounters with anxiety and stress.”
Do you think your music will progress and follow from the love you used to write about as a teenager through to adulthood? Do you think your music moves in that way?
“I would probably say that if I interrogated it properly, there is a chronology there, and I can probably see themes developing and stuff growing. I’ve actually been asked to do a songwriting workshop in November and the idea of it, I mean, it’s lovely and obviously I feel very honoured to be asked to do it, but at the same time, the idea of going and talking to people about how to do what I do, fairly organically, is very daunting.”
With regards to mental health, and your podcast Limerick Lady, how did that all start? Was the podcast something you had always wanted to do?
“I set up the Limerick Lady with Ann Blake as a response to a lack of women on line-ups in festivals and on the radio; just a general lack of visibility, really. The aim was to increase the representation of women of all ages and abilities and to encourage women to get on stage and pursue careers in music. We really felt that the issues we were tackling needed that wider platform to get out there. So far, we’ve recorded three episodes - our discussions tend to spiral organically into mad, huge things. We just try to fix the world within an hour, it’s great!”
Was it due to anything in particular that sparked the need to address the lack of women represented within music, or was it always an unspoken issue?
“Yeah, I mean I think women have always been put into that box of being either the “girlfriend” or the “groupie”, predominantly in music. Visual art has probably got a better ratio of men to women and literature to a certain degree as well, but with music, there has always been a lack of women pursuing it as a professional career. Much of it is because of the lack of resources and support if they choose to have children or because they feel that it’s not their place. You’re looking at a stage and you're seeing all men up there and you subconsciously think, “Ok, that’s obviously not a woman’s place, it’s just men up there”. I think it has been an issue for a long time but greater awareness means it is slowly being resolved.”
Alongside a lack of female representation on stage, is there a lack of women behind the scenes in the music industry in Ireland?
“I would say there aren’t a huge amount of women producing at the moment or engineering music. There are a huge amount of women working in the background in radio but not so much behind the microphone for whatever reason. But then you move to the front facing, technical side of things - what you might call the ‘heavy lifting’ jobs. You don’t really see a huge volume of women doing that. There was a certain element in our upbringing of ‘girls don’t lift heavy things’ but I think there is a generation coming through today who are changing that for us. ”
Your podcast deals a lot with the role and themes of feminism and womanhood, do you think that will filter into your next album?
“Yes, definitely. The most recent song on Quiet Giant was ‘6”4’, which was about patriarchy - rising up against someone who walks into a room and assumes dominance. I will be exploring those ideas a bit more in the next album. There is a song I’m working on about feeling confident until you encounter someone who convinces you otherwise. There are a few themes emerging that I can attribute to the work I’m doing with Limerick Lady - the people I’m encountering and the issues I’m tackling, I can see them filtering through, which is good.”
It’s almost a year since your album was released to fantastic reviews. How does it feel taking that in?
“It rolls off me a little bit. I suppose being raised in an Irish household you’re never really allowed to get too ‘full of it’, you know? You’re not allowed to rise above your station too much otherwise you quickly get taken down a peg or two. That’s not to say my parents aren’t supportive - they are immensely supportive! I just think growing up in Ireland conditions you to accept praise lightly. I tend to take everything with a touch of cynicism - I can’t take compliments very well. I am getting better at it but I’m still convinced that everyone who compliments me is a paid actor!”
These feelings of inadequacy filter through in your songs, such as “Tug of War”. Why do you share those feelings in your music, to what purpose?
“It gives me a reminder that, “You’re here”, “You’re doing it”. And it’s kind of about Imposter Syndrome which is very hard to shake. I guess I try to inject as much as I can into my own music- little reminders of why I’m doing what I do and to keep on going”
And from that, you’ve been nominated and you’re up for an RTE Folk Award prize! Did you just get that news today?
“I did, yeah! I got it secondhand. A venue in Limerick, Dolans, tweeted “So delighted Emma Langford is shortlisted”, and my reaction was, “Wow, what? Are you sure? Because I don’t want to get excited here! Are you sure you didn’t misread it?” So yeah, that was mad, it was a total shock, did not expect that at all!”
Post interview, I left feeling inspired and encouraged from my meeting with Emma. She is a frontline activist who works towards creating real change using her talents as a musician and podcast presenter. Her work vocalises the challenging topic of mental health, whilst also instigating a dialogue about women’s equality and representation within the creative industry in Ireland. Emma’s active role in pushing for palpable change in Ireland isn’t easy, but she remains unphased and persistent. Her talent for creating beautiful music that resonates with so many of her listeners is now being recognised and awarded on a larger, national stage. Emma is surely a force to be reckoned with, and one that won’t be giving up anytime soon.
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