Ontario’s own Emm Gryner has been kicking around the music scene for about 25 years now. She’s one of those artists who earns the warm respect of her peers, garnering praise from the likes of Nelly Furtado, U2’s Bono (who’s said that the attached Almighty Love as one of a half dozen songs he wishes he’d written), David Bowie (with whom she toured as a backup singer and keyboard player, after he named her as one of his two favourite Canadian artists), Ron Sexsmith, and even Curtis Mayfield, but she’s rarely cracked the Top 40. The exception was 1998’s Summerlong, a big hit that drew not really apt comparisons to the Go-Gos and the Bangles, and earned her the reputation as an up-and-coming “Toronto indie goddess”. It was certainly the song of my own long, hot, 1998 Toronto summer, playing on heavy rotation over the FM boombox as I struggled through 16 hour days working like a draft horse at our new house, trying to clean it up, filling enormous floor-to-ceiling cracks, pulling up filthy rugs, disposing of disgusting things left behind in unexpected places, dealing with a basement full of bulky detritus, and painting, painting, painting. I was always happy when Emm’s song came around again, so full of longing, dashed hopes, and emotional insight, asking of her wayward lover “do you ever think that maybe we’re similar, just looking for someone?”, to which the answer, apparently, was the usual indifferent male shrug; all summer long, the city smiled when you were ‘round, went the chorus, but now the summer’s gone.
Maybe after that she disappointed all the folks who bopped to Summerlong, and imagined they were about to get more of the same in some sort of Eighties-style girl group revival. The rest of the attachments make plain the extent to which that wasn’t in the cards, and how unlikely it was, in retrospect, that anything even vaguely reminiscent of Bananarama was going to form the output of this extravagantly talented, classically trained pianist and multi-instrumentalist who, unlike so many of her contemporaries, actually writes all her own stuff, straight from the heart (check out the songwriting credits for the likes of Pink, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson et al, and see how often the big hits are authored by, or “co-written” with, Scandinavian pop wizard and possible computer algorithm Max Martin). Have a listen to the superb craftsmanship, the melodicism, and the undercurrents of disappointment and heartache that characterize songs like Stereochrome, Beautiful Things, and Lonestar, neat, pretty, emotional compositions with lyrics like these:
All the stars above I named for you
Constellations spinning in a sea of aqua-blue
Now where do I find us
Without love or kindness
Piecing up these broken scenes
Burning down my teenage dreams
Tuneful? Sure. Light and frothy? Not so much.
One of my favourites is Seeds, all dreamy and serene, like a hymn echoing under the stone vault of some ancient monastery at evensong.
Gryner, it turned out, had plenty in common with Jane Siberry, Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, and Suzanne Vega, and nothing much at all with Belinda Carlisle, which is probably why she never sold millions of records, and the major labels tended to drop her from their rosters. That’s O.K. When nobody else wanted her she kept putting out excellent music on her own label, Dead Daisy Records, and I read this week that she’s just signed three different album deals with Germany’s Légère, Japan’s P-Vine Records, and High Wire Records, who issue into the American and U.K. markets. Gryner, always something of a romantic, described the touching optimism with which she approached the labels, after so many years off on her own:
There are people in the world that aren’t going to screw you over and there are people who love music, and I think it’s just about being brave enough to find those people…I guess I just opened myself up to the possibility that those people existed.
I can’t help but worry they’ll end up letting her down, which wouldn’t be surprising, really, and wouldn’t be all bad for the rest of us, either, so long as it gives her the inspiration for another of her finely wrought, bittersweet expressions of baffled, heartsick disappointment.