The Emma Lee Project

01/19/2012

Last Sunday, somewhere on Kauai, an Internet signal beamed from a modest rural residence. The source, 36-year-old Bolinas-based musician Emma Lee, sat smiling and chatting into her computer, a lit cigarette at hand. Lee, whose band, the Emma Lee Project, recently released its first album, Waiting for Javi, is on an extended vacation. But she is not using the opportunity as an excuse to fall behind on promoting her band. Thanks to the Web and ongoing advances in social media, she doesn’t have to.

Lee is not formally trained in technology or music, but she appears to be at the forefront of both. In the three years since she first learned to play the guitar, she’s written more than 200 original songs, produced two full-length albums, been a member of two local bands and has managed to muster broad public support through the use of inexpensive online media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Top Box, which is similar to Skype.

Lee’s staggering productivity has impressed listeners and other musicians, including band mate Javier Jimenez, who is impressed by her vast song portfolio. “I’ve been playing for 15 years and I don’t have anywhere near that many,” Jimenez said.

For Lee, it’s less about output than it is about approaching music with an immigrant’s sense of fascination. “I have the tendency to come at things with new eyes,” she said. “I don’t have 15 years to go to school and live on the streets of Milwaukee playing the blues, so I have to figure out how to make this work now.”

Growing up, first in Southern California and later on Kauai, Lee didn’t have access to the usual cache of modern conveniences. Her family didn’t own a television and she never held a discernible penchant for music. “I read a lot,” she said, “especially poetry.”

After moving to Bolinas with her daughter six years ago, Lee stumbled into the local music scene after a friend listened to her sing at a weekly karaoke event, suggested she try songwriting as an outlet for her grief over the recent loss of a relative. He taught her a few chords on the guitar, and, from there, she “just kind of ran with it.”

“I really took to the challenge of taking a personal experience and applying it in a general way that could then become relevant to anyone,” Lee said. “It was about using song as a buffer to share.”

But songwriting, Lee soon learned, was easier than playing before an audience. Minutes before her first solo show, she ran outside and vomited in the parking lot. The stage fright has never completely worn off, but Lee has since discovered several coping mechanisms, such as playing with other musicians—the coordination involved is distracting—or just simply closing her eyes. Beyond that, she’s come to realize that “no one is really watching you, per se; they’re watching the experience of a song being performed.”

Lee’s first band, Sweetness, had a falling out and ultimately dissolved. She moved to Washington for a time, but returned after experiencing a Pacific Northwest winter and set about compiling band members for a new, and wholly different, musical endeavor.

The resulting Emma Lee Project is a mix of four core members—Lee, Jimenez, Cheyenne Young and RT Goodrich—and, on a given night, any other musicians willing and able to play. “It’s a fluid thing,” Lee said. “The idea being that I have so many songs and styles and there are so many people who want to play.”

The band’s shifting, Santana-like sound can’t be categorized in any single genre. “Folk lounge, post-apocalyptic pirate funk, I just don’t know,” Lee said. “Defining our style has been the biggest challenge. I had one friend tell me, ‘Really, what you’re writing is art,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s great, but I need to be able to market this stuff.’”

Still, Lee has managed to market the project’s music with great success. Mostly, she says, because she recognized social media as a major tool in sustaining the public presence of small independent bands.

When not performing or working at one of her various part-time jobs, Lee is on the Web, updating the band’s homepage or Tweeting about upcoming performances. “It’s one thing to have a Facebook page but it’s another to keep it updated and to keep putting yourself out there,” she said. “If I’m one of a thousand people streaming on someone’s page, for instance, and I’m only streaming something new once every week, then the chances that I’m going to get noticed by that person are pretty slim.”

In the weeks approaching a show, Lee also takes advantage of free publicity by posting on sites such as Yelp and SF Weekly’s events page. The work can seem tedious, and at times it is. But it’s also a means to an end. “I grew up in a poor family and had a child at 19. I’ve pretty much been in survival mode all my life,” Lee said. “And I’m okay with that. I’m not looking to be a rock star; playing music is more spiritual for me. It’s what I’m passionate about, and I just want to make sure I can support that passion.”

In the near future, Lee hopes to take her promotional skills one step further by founding a small, cooperatively-owned record label composed of several local bands. “For a small band it’s all about getting people to your show,” Lee said. “And getting people to your show is all about promotion.” She and Young have already met with lawyers to discuss the legal aspects of the project, and plan to get started after she returns from Kauai.

Until then, Lee is enjoying her time away, and the opportunity it has afforded her to reflect on the last few years. She hopes her experience of arriving late in the music scene will serve as an example for others fearful of exposing themselves artistically.

“If one thing you say touches one person then it suddenly becomes much more than just you expressing yourself and someone hearing it,” she said. “Writing something that gives someone a bit of happiness makes them much more likely to go out and do the same.”