NewTracks New Artist: Ema I’u

NewTracks New Artist: Ema I’u

You may just recognise the accomplished voice of Ema I’u from single releases of other Auckland artists such as The Rvmes, or from her own performing bands which include Lucky May, though in either case, you will likely know her as Ema Barton. Drawing strength from her Samoan roots, Ema I’u is Barton’s newly adopted artist persona for her maturing ambitions as a vibrantly soulful solo artist, and Midnight Mistress is her newly released single – a song she initially penned many years back – which NZ On Air Music have included on their NewTracks compilation this October.

What’s your given name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

Ema I’u Patricia Barton. I was born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau in Kelston, Glenbrook, and now central. I sing, play guitar and can shake a tambo!

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

I went to Pukekohe High out south and I didn’t actually take music as a subject, but hung around with the musos. I joined some bands in 7th form and went on the Manawatu Jazz Fest tour and that made a big impression on me. Drama class was a way for me to develop my performance skills and voice. I went to Unitec and did an acting degree and then later decided to go to MAINZ to focus on music and learn some more theory and meet people. Learning from other musicians, either watching or playing with them has helped me grow.

Any previous projects we might know you from?

I’m working full-time as a musician, hosting events, teaching and gigging with my cover bands Lucky May and Coco-Rocky. I’m working on an ongoing community project Songwriters4ClimateAction encouraging local musicians to develop songs inspired by our environment and hopes for climate action. We released our first album ‘SW4CA Vol.1’ featuring 12 artists this year, and plan to do more.

I should mention that I’ve been running open mics for a long time and have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of local musos, and I love doing BVs, so you might hear me in songs by The Rvmes, The Sam Loveridge Band and The Dirty Tones among others if you listen close.

What’s the background story of how Ema I’u as a project came to be? 

I’ve been writing and performing solo for over 20 years now but hadn’t quite gotten round to releasing anything I’m happy with or backing myself fully. But now is the time, I just want to focus on recording and get this backlog of music out there! I’m working with friend and producer Nate Judd to flesh out some of my songs and develop a bigger sound.

When did you come up with the name for the new project?

I saw there was already an artist using just Ema – so I thought adding I’u, my second name, would be even more unique. I’ve been writing poetry casually signed Ema I’u for around three years now but decided to build on this as my musical persona this year. Ema means ‘God with us’ and I’u means ‘the end’. It has some weight to it! As complicated as it may be for some people to grasp, it actually brings me great pride as these are both family names and is another way for me to embrace my Sāmoan roots, which will be an important journey for me as I develop as an artist.

How has your music evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

It’s constantly evolving as I get older and think about different things, listen to different music and learn more writing tools. Certainly, I’m writing less about the heartache of boys and thinking more about the environment, social issues and spiritual growth. I’m trying to push out of my comfort zone and signature guitar rhythms these days and think more about hooks and song structure more. Collaborating with other musicians is taking my songs in new directions.

Aside from this release, what’s been the big highlight to date?

Yikes, I’m not sure, actually, you know what, I helped out at a wānanga in West Auckland recently and performed a song at the showcase and one of the rangatahi asked me to sign her guitar afterwards, and I was like, “Really? I don’t want to ruin it”, but she was stoked and that just made me feel like I’m doing the right thing and should keep going. Also knowing Midnight Mistress is starting to get some radio play is special to me.

What makes Midnight Mistress stand out for you as a single?

I think a lot of people can relate to the lyrics, and move along with the feel-good grooves and mean backing vocals.

What is the story behind Midnight Mistress?

I wrote this song about that feeling of waiting around for someone to value you and treat you how you want but it never happens, and history keeps repeating. You’re being kept in the dark, disrespected or hurt and you know it’s time to break free of that cycle; letting go of toxic relationships or environments that don’t serve you and putting yourself first. Some wahine toa energy right there.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

Hmmm, I can’t choose…I like the melody of the first three words, “There’s a girl”, which gets stuck in my head. The bridge in general, and the tasty guitar groove in the outro.

Who did you record/produce the single with? 

I reworked this song with Nate Judd (Best Producer, Pacific Music Awards 2021) at his studio Rageous Records where he recorded and produced it. Nate added most of the instrumentation with Windon Bradfield on guitar plus Hawkins & La Coco on BVs, whom I’m so stoked to get on the track. I wrote the first version of this song around 16 years ago and I think it’s funny it’s finally getting its day in the sun. I just want to make it clear the subject matter has nothing to do with my current partner, we’re all good, haha!

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

I hope this song makes people feel empowered and uplifted. To recognise that they deserve better if they’re in a bad situation. It’s about remembering those hard times, knowing your worth and ultimately restoring your mana as you heal and learn. We got this!

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

I just get a good feeling for the song and if there’s excitement/energy around working on it. It has come down to intuition, whether I think it’s relevant and will speak to a particular audience. I ask myself the question, ‘Is this a story and vibe I want to share right now?’

Who else is in your team?

Just my producer, Nathan Judd. This is a self-release. I’m certainly getting support from my local muso family and making use of the great networks available like MMF and Wayfinder Creative.

Are there any other musical endeavours happening that we should keep an eye out for? 

I’m working on an album and some other singles as Ema I’u to release next year. There are more Songwriters4ClimateAction projects in the pipeline and I’m going to release some singles with one of my bands, Lucky May.

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

Hmmm maybe…

  • Troy Kingi: Aztechnology
  • Miloux: Enough
  • Ciinema: Planet Eyes

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others?

I’ve had some unsuccessful applications for sure, and I haven’t been able to tick enough boxes to submit in the main NZOA rounds. My advice would be to just keep going, keep working towards building an audience and put something out there to generate plays and work towards the lower-lying fruit to get enough criteria ticked off first. I couldn’t apply for Midnight Mistress so I went another route and did a Boosted campaign to help fund this first music video!

Was there any NZOA criteria you struggled with in the application? 

Yes, I am still working towards fulfilling the criteria for the main music grants, but looked at what else was available with different criteria. I was lucky to be eligible for the NewMusic Pasifika and worked towards that instead. If you are an emerging artist with not much under your belt I can suggest teaming up with a producer and applying for NewMusic Development to get you started.

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

I like watching the Rick Beato Youtube channel when he breaks down songs to analyse what makes them great.

Any last words?

I’m just happy to be releasing music and to be a part of this thriving NZ music scene. Keep your eyes and ears out for more from Ema I’u. Kia ora!