By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Local singer-songwriter Emma Lee Toyoda took a complex but rewarding path to musical autonomy, as she details below. Toyoda recently took third place in the Experience Music Project’s “Sound Off!” competition for musicians under 21. She answered some questions over email.
NWAW: Did you grow up in Seattle? If so, which neighborhoods and schools did you attend?
Toyoda: Born and raised! I live in the north end by Lake City/Sandpoint. I went to John Rogers Elementary, AE2 Elementary (now Thorton Creek Elementary), Salmon Bay Middle School, and Nathan Hale High School.
NWAW: What were your most important formative experiences, growing up?
Toyoda: My family owns a Japanese Restaurant in Lake City called Toyoda Sushi, so I’ve grown up in the restaurant business and have been running credit cards and delivering checks to tables for as long as I can remember! However, restaurant hours are difficult to juggle with raising a family. Luckily, my two older brothers and I were blessed with incredible grandparents who served as a second set of parents. My grandpa, who escaped from war-torn Korea to Japan then immigrated to America, really instilled in us the importance of education and how lucky we were to be American citizens. Some of my fondest memories are of studying with him after school; memorizing all the U.S. presidents, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, times tables—you name it! There were times when I wished I could just play with my friends, but looking back on it now I’m so appreciative of the time I spent with him.
NWAW: How did you discover music? Which acts were your first musical loves, and why?
Toyoda: There’s so many ways to answer this! From about 1st to 4th grade I took piano lessons, so I had the classical training under my belt. owever, I didn’t start playing the music I play today till 9th grade. Growing up with two older brothers, I idolized and copied basically everything they did, and so I listened to what they listened to. Yuki (21) always was into rap and hip-hop, and Ty (23) was always into rock, so naturally my taste in music was a medley of both. My first musical love I can remember was Aaron Carter… But the first serious band I remember getting into was The Doors. Jim Morrison’s dark sultry voice left a long-lasting impression on me.
NWAW: How does your Japanese American identity influence your psychology and your music? How has this grown and changed over the years?
Toyoda: Being half Japanese and half Korean, it’s definitely hard to find female Asian musicians to relate or look up to. While there are some, it’s much rarer to see, especially in the kind of music that I regularly listen to. Not sure if it’s hindered or motivated my pursuit of music, but it’s definitely made me hypersensitive to noticing when a musician is Asian, especially if it’s a female Asian musician! Especially if it’s a female Asian musician rocking out.
NWAW: Which instrument did you first learn to play? Which others have you added?
Toyoda: My first instrument was the piano, then in 4th-5th grade I took violin lessons, then my brother got an electric guitar so naturally I picked that up as well! In 9th grade my friends Daniel Lorigan and Khyre Matthews got me a ukulele, in 10th grade I got a mandolin (probably my least skilled instrument), then last year I picked up the banjo! And now I’m discovering how to play non-classical music on the piano—which is a whole new world in itself.
NWAW: How did you begin to write songs? Who influenced you, and how, when it came to songwriting?
Toyoda: My good friend Khyre Matthews was probably the most paramount person in getting me to start seriously singing and playing music—before we started playing covers of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Gorillaz, I never really thought of actively creating music. As far as songwriting influences, bands like Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, and Bryan John Appleby definitely played a huge role. Their narrative-style songs that evoke such strong imagery and emotions are definitely something that I aspire to capture in my songs.
NWAW: How long have you been performing live? Which were your most memorable gigs, good, bad, or crazy?
Toyoda: I first sang in front of people in 9th grade at my school’s annual “Hale Fest,” which is basically a student music showcase. “Sound Off!” semifinals and finals were definitely the craziest and most memorable gigs to date, but also in 11th grade while I was in a band called Slendermen we played a Christmas show at a Buddhist Shambhala Center. That was pretty odd, but very rad.
NWAW: How did you end up entering the “Sound Off!” Competition? What was your band line-up?
Toyoda: I’ve thought about entering for the past four years but never got up the courage to actually look into the process till last November, and I thought I might as well! My friend and bass player Anna White was the one that really pushed me to do it since she was on the EMP Youth Authority Board (whose main focus is organizing “Sound Off!”). She also helped me record the four demos to submit in the application. I really wasn’t expecting to get in, but once I got the call I knew I needed to assemble a full band to back me up. Anna was a no-brainer, and I was also starting to write accompaniments for my friend Adelyn Westerholm on violin. From there, I thought of my old friend Zeke Bender (drums) and new friend Veronica Johanson-Faison (back-up vocals, melodica), both of whom I did Vocal Jazz with in high school.
NWAW: What were your most memorable “Sound Off!” experiences?
Toyoda: I will never forget the way Troy Nelson said my name when he announced who was going to the finals. My uncle captured our reactions on video and it’s absolutely bonkers. I still can’t really believe all of that happened—it was the craziest two weeks of my life.
NWAW: How many records have you released? Which are your proudest of?
Toyoda: I wouldn’t really call any of the things I have on bandcamp “records,” but they’re nice markers on what I was doing musically at the time. I think my ‘To Binge’ cover is actually one of my proudest works–I haven’t really attempted anything like that since then, but it’s definitely one of the most intricate projects I’ve ever done. Also I did it in 10th grade so that’s kind of cool. “The Meadow Demos” are the most representative of what I’m going for now, despite being stripped down. “For Aedan” is probably one of my favorite songs to play, and is one of my newest songs that I wrote on the piano. “Winters Chill” was also a big experiment with a different style of banjo plucking than what I’ve usually done in the past, but the harmonies on it are very classic-Emma.
NWAW: What are your plans for the future?
Toyoda: We have a lot of shows coming up thanks to all the exposure from “Sound Off!”, so I’m hoping to keep this momentum going! April 3rd we get to play the Sky Church (again!), April 25th we’re playing Western Washington University Earth Day Festival, May 23rd we’re playing Folklife, then July 16-18 we’re playing Timber Outdoor Music Festival–so we’re pretty excited!!! I’m hoping to record my first legitimate album throughout these next few months with the whole band, so once we have that we’ll try and schedule some out-of-state gigs (maybe even a small west-coast tour if we’re lucky). I’ve been taking time off school since January to focus on music and “Sound Off!”, but ultimately my goal is to go back and get a degree in something once everything starts slowing down (if that ever happens). This is truly just the beginning, so I’m excited to see where life takes us! (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.