Some artists who have built careers on the sole-proprietor model (Ani DiFranco with Righteous Babe; Jenny Toomey with Simple Machines; Aimee Mann with SuperEgo) have done so because of their fiercely independent convictions, but also because their music doesn’t fit into easily marketable categories. Not so for Emm Gryner. The diminutive Filipina-Canadian pianist and guitarist has adroit pop songwriting skills and was signed to a major label while still in her early 20s, but found that autonomy better suited her temperament and provided a more satisfactory outlet for her music.
Public, released in Canada when Gryner was just 22, is an engaging but overly glossy mass-market debut. “Summerlong,” the album’s single, is absolutely sparkling, an ebullient piano-pop gem that tucks a bittersweet memory of a failed romance into its welcoming chorus. (Some of the songs on Public had already appeared on The Original Leap Year, albeit in less polished or glossy form.) The music shares much with the late-’90s Lilith Fair brood of singer/pianists, although Gryner was a lot more upbeat than Fiona Apple, who became a star at the same time. But Public failed to sell, and Gryner was released from her contract. While launching a lucrative side gig as a backup singer for David Bowie (she appears on several of his live albums), she returned to her own label, for which she has recorded ever since.
Gryner’s first post-Mercury release was the thoroughly impressive Science Fair, which Gryner wrote, recorded and largely produced on an 8-track in Ontario. The matte-finish black and white cover artwork accurately foretells the sparser arrangements, but Gryner is more at home in this setting than under the studio sheen of Public. The songs, all originals except for an unrecognizable cover of Paul Weller’s “You Do Something to Me,” are a mix of ballads, lightly syncopated pop songs and stripped-down rockers. “Stereochrome” is propelled gently but insistently by a rhythm guitar accompaniment and humming string section. On the suprisingly upbeat “Revenge,” whose bright tone belies the genuine pain, the cooed chorus (“You let me down, you let me down / I’m sorry that I had to hurt you”) counterbalances the plainspoken verse (“Up from Minnesota, the stars, you fucked around / Jason I hear you when no else hears a sound”). Elsewhere, the album benefits from twinkling acoustic guitar flourishes, humble handclaps for rhythm and Gryner’s graceful piano. Dead Relatives, a compendium of demos and early songs that predate her major label release, is of value to dedicated fans, especially for “Summerlong.”
Gryner took an unusual step with Girl Versions. A passionate defender of punk and hair metal bands, she recorded a full album of covers of her inspirations, from Def Leppard to Fugazi to Blur to the Clash. Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” is revisited as a haunting solo piano elegy; the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” with its telling lyrics of “the Amerasian blues,” is likewise effective. “Song 2” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” don’t fare quite as well, but her renditions of songs by Halifax’s Thrush Hermit and Nick Cave are aching and lovely. The record gained Gryner some media attention and broadened her fan base outside Canada.
Asianblue (whose title and artwork seem to allude to the sexual fascination of white men for Asian women) is a poppier album of originals. “Symphonic” and “Beautiful Things” are among the best songs of Gryner’s career, mixing the studio pop brightness of Public with the more introspective tone of Science Fair. She demonstrates increased pride in her homeland with “Christopher,” a touching tribute to the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, and the spritely “Northern Holiday,” which critiques American politics while cheering Canada. It’s not on par with Science Fair or Girl Versions, but it’s a pretty good effort.
Gryner has promised to continue interpreting other people’s music, starting with an album exploring the Irish side of her heritage. But far be it for her to revisit hoary Van Morrison, U2 or Sinéad O’Connor favorites. On Songs of Love and Death, she tackles Thin Lizzy’s “Running Back” as a slinky piano ballad, makes Ash’s “Shining Light” a sweet and sincere tribute and slows down the Corrs’ “Breathless” to a near-suicidal crawl. She also unearths a gorgeous gem in Something Happen’s “Forget Georgia,” but unfortunately chooses to cover the most Emm-like song the Undertones ever recorded, “Julie Ocean,” which paints her into a corner even she can’t escape.
Emm followed Songs of Love and Death with a self-released side project called The Great Lakes in late 2005 before plotting her next move. She also joined Hot One, a rock band founded by Shudder to Think’s Nathan Larson, and toured with Bowie and as a visiting member of the Cardigans. She also played piano on a Def Leppard album.
With typical serendipity, the Irish covers record broadened Gryner’s visibility in Europe, and she toured extensively overseas and eventually recorded much of the follow-up in Dublin and Malmö. The Summer of High Hopes is a return to the intensely personal pop of Science Fair. The lyrical tone is unremittingly bleak: betrayal haunts almost every song. “Girls are murder / every curve” warns the chorus of the opener. Still, the songs sound as attractive and engaging as ever. With Nathan Turner (Shudder to Think) co-producing, the album skates smoothly between orchestral pop and balladry, with a few nods toward more extroverted rock guitar tones on the keening “Black-Eyed Blue Sky” and the catchy misery of “All Time Low.” “Black Winged Bird” is one of the best piano ballads of Gryner’s career, up there with Tori Amos’ “China” or “1000 Oceans.” “Almighty Love,” which builds from a subtly strummed, almost Joni Mitchellish, beginning to a crashing chorus, was named by Bono as one of the songs of the past 20 years he most wished he’d written.
The Hot One album features former members of Shudder to Think (Larson on lead guitar and vocals) and Guided by Voices and the Dambuilders (Kevin March on drums) in addition to Gryner on bass and vocals and fellow Torontonian Jordan Kern on guitar. Hot One is an aggressive glam rock record about politics and religion with choice titles like “Get Your Priest On!” and “Do the Coup D’Etat.” Definitely not for Gryner’s core, but indicative of the breadth of her interests.