Los Angeles-based songwriter Emma Gatsby knows her story might sound sad. But she’s okay with it. It’s her story. When she looks back on her years, she’s come to terms with the reality that her memories of childhood may remain the happiest of her life, no matter how old she becomes or how much she achieves.
But that’s alright, she says, her childhood, after all, felt like a fairytale. Gatsby has lived on the Long Island farm that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby, and since has lived through life-changing personal tragedy several times over.
“It’s really sad in a way,” says Gatsby, born Emma Handler. “But that’s the only thing I can hold onto. If I choose to forget or not think about when I was a child, I would be forgetting about the greatest parts of my life. But I’m lucky to have experienced something so real. It was like a fairytale before everything went down.”
Gatsby’s mother, a classically trained working pianist, taught her daughter the cello when Gatsby was three-years-old. Before she could form sentences, Gatsby was learning musical phrases. But at 10-years-old, both her parents died unexpectedly. Gatsby, an orphan, continued to live on the family farm – the one that F. Scott Fitzgerald used to visit decades prior that inspired the book from which Gatsby took her name. Later, though, she moved into foster care with family friends. But by 16-years-old, she’d had enough and decided to live on her own back on the farm.
“I never really had normal adults in my life,” the 23-year-old says. “So, I emancipated myself. The courts got tired of hearing about me. The courts are overrun anyway. So, I got away with it and lived in a house there for two years, my junior and senior year in high school.”
While one might think living back on the family farm where both her parents died might be haunting, the decision to move back home was the correct one for Gatsby. Living again where she’d grown up felt “magical,” she says, while also very emotional. But experiencing extremes was better than experiencing neutrality, which is how Gatsby likely would have felt had she decided to live anywhere else. Today, having processed thoughts of death, Gatsby continues to be informed by her tumultuous past.
“As a result, I take time and relationships very seriously,” Gatsby says. “I realize how short life actually is. Things can change and anything can happen. That’s a scary thing for me. But it’s something I’ve used as a tool to focus my energy.”
After her parents died, Gatsby says that music quickly came into focus as a necessity. Music became her outlet. IT became her carrot and her golden ring. She had a story to tell and music was the medium with which to speak it.
“I knew I didn’t want to go to college,” Gatsby says. “Why would I go to college if I want to do music, I’d never take it seriously.”
Gatsby began to make connections with friends in the industry. She flew to Miami, she went to famous producers’ mansions, she consulted entertainment attorneys, she hired and fired managers, she moved to Los Angeles. She recorded. She took a break from music. She wanted to find her voice, her angle. Then, one day, it came into focus, refined like a diamond on the top of a chandelier. Gatsby realized she wanted to experiment with ragtime music. She wanted to dive into the 1920’s. She wanted to make elegant modern martini-hour music.
“I really love old horns and the standup piano sound,” the musician says. “I love the sound of the vocals from the 1920s. So, a lot of my music draws from that.”
The songwriter’s forthcoming EP, Sweet Nostalgia, plays with rhythms from the Roaring Twenties. But Gatsby adds a modern twist, using synths and alluring tones that raise eyebrows and expectations. The record’s lead singles, “Insane” and “Alone,” portray intense, if not contrasting ideas. “Insane” touches on the passion and ecstasy of love, coupled with the reality that those feelings are likely to crumble underneath the pressure of more. While “Alone,” on the other hand, points to the ability to be independent.
That Gatsby can live and create in such extremely opposite worlds is a testament to her bright, creative future. The past may hold the fondest memories, but the road ahead, she says, is something to which she gives a lot of thought these days. And while she can’t control the outcome, the 23-year-old songwriter sure as heck can try to plot it out day by day.
“I think about the future a lot,” Gatsby says. “It used to cause me so much anxiety. Like, Oh my god, what am I doing? These days, though, I think about what I really want out of the future. I realize it’s all or nothing for me. I get scared because it would be devastating if I wasn’t able to get where I wanted to. But I’m obsessed – I can’t not think about it.”