Emerson Snowe on self-doubt, creative independence and trusting his instincts

Following his recent performance at Oxford Art Factory, photographer Lilli Boisselet and singer-songwriter Emerson Snowe (Jarrod Mahon) talk life after winning the Levi's Music Prize at Bigsound 2018 and his pre-show Patti Smith ritual.


Can you talk about your songwriting process ...
Everything with this project has been trusting my first instincts ... When I first started writing was when I stopped drinking three years ago - that first week was the first EP that just came out now. I have about 350 tracks privately on Soundcloud right now. It was when I was listening to a lot of French pop and using that nylon guitar, everything is so simple with that, and the melodies are like lullaby melodies with repetition, and the repetition of the drums ... I’m just obsessed with documenting, so all these songs are like diaries, journal entries ... Being a solo performer - being independent, having no pressure from a band, or anyone else - it’s so cool because I think I’m already doing this, I’m already doing these diary entries, so when people come on board and say they’re psyched by it, I think, "Well I have to keep going, I have to do this".

"If there’s one thing I’ve learnt - meeting anyone doing anything for themselves, anything creative, you and I talking right now - at some point in our lives we had to do something for ourselves."

"[My songs are] always very person-to-person, which is something I strived for when I first started writing, just to connect on a human level. Everything has sentimental value to me, whether its good and bad, it’s all sentimental."

On life since Bigsound 2018 …
The money [$25 000 awarded by the Levi's Music Prize] was so sick to have, to have that backing, because then we were able to go to the UK again. Simon and I would have gone anyway, but having that extra money … the financial support was really nice. I think the downside to it was the mental pressure that I put on myself from winning it. I guess as a solo musician (and I still am), first and foremost ... I just put so much mental pressure on myself, thinking people must be talking shit about me, because I understood how people spoke when others succeeded, in a way. So in the back of my head I thought "There’s no way people are happy or grateful for me for winning this thing". It was a toxic way to think about it, but I also found out that that was actually what a lot of people were saying about me, people have been quite mentally hard. Especially because I don’t have a band behind me, that support, it’s literally just me and Simon. We got so many positives out of it, to have that backing, it felt great. But with doing anything for yourself, you already have that awareness that not everyone is going to be psyched for you, and no one's going to care as much for a project as you are ... So last year was really hard actually, a really hard learning year. But if I didn’t have that then I wouldn’t be here, so it’s all about progression.

How do you feel when you’re about to walk on stage?
Well, with these recent shows, and in the UK, they’re the first headlining shows I’ve ever done, it’s a very different feeling. Because as support, the crowds already there, sometimes, sometimes not. But with these it’s a whole new process beforehand - with these shows, for the last two and a half years, I’ve always listened to Horses by Patti Smith before I go on every time. I’ve slacked off a couple of times and I can tell when I don’t do it, I’m not in that mindset. Because when I first started writing those years ago, I was listening to a lot of Patti Smith and was reading Just Kids, and that was what pushed me to do everything. To create just to create, and to document just to document, rather than to wait around for something to happen (which is what I was doing for years).

If it wasn’t for that book, and for stopping drinking, and those two things to happen at the exact same time, none of this would be a thing. And if it wasn’t for the support around me, none of this would exist at all. So listening to Patti before going on stage, it’s like going back to the headspace of the first times. Getting halfway through the book and looking forward to reading the rest of it. It feels like when I first moved to a city for the first time, the possibility. It’s the ritual.

It’s coming up to three years being sober, it’s amazing to think none of this would have happened.