As a young Asian American indie folk singer-songwriter, Emma Lee Toyoda says there are not a lot people who look like her on the charts and magazines. Especially in her genre of music.
When she started out, Emma found the lack of diversity disheartening, but not discouraging. Her budding music career was brought to the fore when she and her band placed third earlier this year in Sound Off!, a 21-and-under battle of the bands hosted by the EMP.
Most of Emma’s songs were not professionally recorded. They were captured either in her parents’ basement or her room. She’s refreshingly candid about the struggles of the music industry and the balancing act between creativity and practicality.
I met with the shy 19-year-old at Toyoda Sushi, her family’s sushi restaurant in Lake City. There were fading pictures of customers on a cork board near the entrance of the small, warm space. The restaurant, which Emma’s parents have owned for 26 years, is her second home. She recalls spending much of her childhood running around giving checks to customers.
I could see Toyoda Sushi was a place of memories for Emma. One where she felt as much at ease as she was onstage when I went to see her perform a week later. It turned out to be the perfect place to explore the inspiration behind Emma’s serene music and her deep, captivating voice.
You are taking some time off from university to focus on music. How did your parents take the news?
Surprisingly, my usually laid-back dad is the one who’s always asking me when I’m going back to school. But my mom, from the start, has been enjoying the fact that I’m closer to home. She knows that this is what I love to do.
The other day we were talking about these parallels between our work. When she steps into the restaurant, puts on her apron and interacts with customers — that is her stage. It’s similar to when I put my instrument on and go on stage and see my audience. It’s a similar feeling, a feeling of, “this is where I belong.”
A lot of your songs have a quiet, nostalgic element to them. What usually inspires you in songwriting?
I feel like my most powerful songs are written when I’m completely miserable. Going off to college was a big thing, everything was changing. I guess the emotions that come with that got into the music I’m making. But then there are songs like “For Aedan” which was written for and about my friend who’s having a really hard time in college and he said something that really struck me and I wrote a song around that. It was an ode to him.
It’s really interesting how a lot of people describe my music with words like “nostalgia” or “nostalgic sounds.” I like that. It fits, especially most of my songs are about memories of different things, different feelings.
Do you have a specific artist that you look up to?
Growing up, I noticed that there wasn’t anybody that I could look up to who also looked like me. There just aren’t that many famous female Asian musicians or Asian musicians in the U.S. in general. Thao Nguyen from the folk rock band Thao and The Get Down Stay Down is one of the better known ones. Her music is really cool and she’s Vietnamese!
Are you interested in getting signed to a record label?
Getting signed to a record label and having nicer, cleaner recordings are great I guess but I just don’t see that happening because I feel like I’m still in such a low-level. There are a lot of great Seattle local record companies, but right now for this upcoming first album I was just thinking of booking recording times at any of the studios around the city — which is still an expensive thing to accomplish. All of our money from shows is going into our band fund but the funding for recording outside and all the band merchandise have been from out of our pockets.
It’s weird thinking about the financial aspect of music because you think, “I just want to play music! I just want to express myself!” But then you have to be realistic.
How do you feel about the current stream of opportunities coming at you?
It’s really nice when people start recognizing my work. The ultimate goal I feel like with all of these songs I write: I write them when I’m really sad and when people listen to them and relate to my experiences — that’s the goal.
Emma and her band have several gigs coming up including the Western Washington University Earth Day Festival, and The Northwest Folklife Festival, an opportunity they got for winning third place at Sound Off! They’ll also be opening for Icelandic band Kaleo at the Vera Project on April 12, and playing at the Timber! Outdoor Music Festival in the summer in Carnation, Washington this summer.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified Emma Lee Toyoda as Japanese American. She is Japanese/Korean American.