It’s been a meteoric few years for EMMA MUSCAT and as the young singer-songwriter prepares to give the performance of her life, she tells Adriana Bishop how she plans to face the Eurovision pressure and what the song means to her.
When Emma Muscat was just seven years old, she enchanted her audience singing about the “shining, shimmering, splendid” world of Aladdin. It was her first ever public performance singing at the piano, and it would eventually open “a whole new world” for the uber-talented Emma.
In less than two weeks, she will be stepping in the spotlight of arguably the most dazzling music stage of the year, and possibly of her career so far, but she knows this is no fairytale.
The pressure is real.
“I am really excited for this whole journey. I never felt such a big responsibility on my shoulders,” she says over Zoom speaking just hours before she set off on a short tour around five European cities to promote her Eurovision song “I Am What I Am”.
In the five years since she appeared on the Italian TV talent show Amici di Maria de Filippi winning everyone’s hearts if not the judges’ points, Emma’s career has enjoyed the kind of success that every aspiring artist dreams of but is only achieved through nothing more magical than hard work and pure talent.
While Amici brought her fame and a contract with Warner Music Italy, it also left her scarred with what she called the “trauma of being judged”.
“Ever since I did Amici I promised myself I would never go through a competition again. However, it had launched my career. I wanted to focus on my career and ‘do me’. I had never really considered entering the Eurovision Song Contest but then something changed in my mindset last summer. I wanted to take the responsibility again. I wanted to represent my country and I felt ready to go into a competition and put on my fighting mode. You have to pull up your guard, be ready for criticism and be ready to be hated. It’s a big responsibility. If you’re just being yourself releasing your music and they hate you it’s fine, you don’t have to like my music, but when you’re representing your country, it comes with a lot of responsibility of pleasing everyone.”
Within 24 hours of winning the Malta Eurovision Song Contest, Emma was already plunged into something of a chatter storm when rumours started swirling that she was planning to take a different song to Turin. This was neither the first time nor an unusual development for a Maltese entrant. But that did not stop many from voicing their disapproval.
“The song ‘Out Of Sight’ was my little baby. I absolutely love the song. It was very personal to me and I really enjoyed preforming it during the song contest. The day after I won I was receiving a lot of feedback from the public. They were saying: great artist, the song is good but not good enough to qualify in the Eurovision. I was listening to the public and we had internal discussions with my management too. We wanted to try and challenge ‘Out Of Sight’ to see what we could come up with.”
A personal song
A selection of songs were sent over by music company The Arrangement and after an intensive week of re-writes, Emma homed in on the song as we know it today.
“I Am What I Am” was originally written by Dino Medanhodzic and two Danish musicians Stine Kinck and Julie Aagaard at an international Eurovision songwriting camp in Mallorca last August. Emma gave the song her own unique twist and is now also listed as co-author.
“After a week of working, writing, modifying different songs, we had a listening session and we all together came to the decision that ‘I Am What I Am’ was the song that was most personal to me,” explains Emma.
“It was the song I related to most, the song that had the most positive message in a time when the world needs positivity and I love to put a smile on people’s faces. I am very excited and proud to be bringing to Turin such a powerful song with a powerful message. It is unique in its own way. People may like it or not at the end of the day but objectively speaking it is a powerful, uplifting song.”
The song’s official video is stripped down to basics, with a minimalist production highlighting inclusivity and diversity. Emma sits at her beloved piano which has been her trusty companion throughout her career so far, surrounded by a cast of people from different backgrounds.
“I wanted to keep a simple concept. The piano is what represents me most, that’s who I am. The others represent different nationalities, different races and body types to signify we are all perfect the way we are. We are unique and that is what makes us individually beautiful.”
This is a theme that is especially close to Emma’s heart and one which resonates with her fans. “I know a lot of my fans suffer with issues of self-acceptance and self-love. I get messages daily from girls who are unhappy with themselves, unhappy with the way they look. They want to fit in with a specific [ideal] of perfection on social media. I try to keep in touch with my fans every day on a personal level, answering them. I hope the message of this song can help them.”
Me and my piano
The piano is part of Emma’s identity as a performer so whatever the final staging in Turin will be, one thing is certain, the piano will be taking centre stage. “I grew up playing the piano from a very young age. My love for music started at the piano thanks to my mum. The song being called ‘I Am What I Am’, I want to show everyone who I am so the piano has to be there.”
With Eurovision rules restricting the number of people on stage, it would not be possible to recreate the gospel choir effect of the song. The only other hint Emma was willing to share about the staging was that “this is a people’s song” so there will be “an element of involving the public and connecting with them”.
When I caught up with her again towards the end of her promotional tour, she reported she was certainly feeling the love from the European crowd.
“The tour has been absolutely amazing. The response has been incredible. I’ve discovered I have fans from all around Europe and even had fans travelling to different countries just to watch me perform live and get a chance to meet me. The response from the crowd was so lovely, they all sang along with me and interacted with my song. It’s an unexplainable feeling having thousands of voices accompanying you to the lyrics of your own song.”
While the pressure will definitely be on in Turin, 22-year old Emma is already a veteran on stage. Barely five years since Amici catapulted her into the international spotlight, she’s garnered numerous achievements, singing with some of the biggest names in the industry from Eros Ramazzotti who left her “so starstruck, he’s a legend and an idol in my household”, to Laura Pausini who will be one of the presenters at the Eurovision. “I can’t wait to see her again in Turin,” says Emma.
Last Christmas Emma gave an angelic rendition in Italian and English of “White Christmas” at the Vatican’s Concerto di Natale with Pope Francis in the audience. But nerves almost got the better of her that night. “I don’t get stage fright but when I am nervous I get a complete mental block. I was in my dressing room waiting my turn for about an hour and a half but I was so nervous I couldn’t remember the song, I couldn’t remember where it started on the piano, I couldn’t even picture what a piano looks like. I called my mum and asked her to send me a photo of my piano keyboard so I could practice the piece in my dressing room while looking at the photo.”
Emma started playing the piano at the age of five and took up singing shortly after. An accomplished classical pianist, she also enjoyed “inventing” her own tunes at a very young age. At the age of 13 Emma started being mentored by Keith Muscat, then her brother’s guitar teacher, who, she reveals, was “speechless when he heard my voice and saw my abilities. He said you need guidance and help to get what you deserve. I see you going big.”
Today, with all her successes and stellar collaborations so far, Emma dreams of duetting with either Alicia Keyes whom she describes as “one of the biggest artists to guide and inspire me” or Dua Lipa who is “so talented and cool and the definition of dreams can come true”. We’re watching this space.
Malta is my home
Since being signed up to Warner Music Italy,Emma has been splitting her life between Malta and Milan, but home is where the heart is.
“Malta is my home, the place where I see myself living, where I see a future with my family, kids growing up here. I adore the island. Italy is the place where I work, where I have a routine. I don’t have many friends there. Italy is just music, whereas Malta is music, life, family and friends. When in Malta I do miss Italy but when I am in Italy I miss Malta much more. I don’t miss Italy as much as I miss Malta. When I am in Malta for a long time I miss Italy, the mentality of the big city, people who are so driven and focused on their goals. Milan is a busy city, there isn’t much interaction between individuals, everyone is on the go. However, a music career is much more possible there. Music is an actual career abroad. In Malta it is very difficult to make a career out of music. There is no record label in Malta and no music publishers.”
The pandemic years were not easy on the young singer-songwriter who found lockdown sapped her inspiration.
“I write music from daily experiences, from emotions, from situations I see around me, from what friends tell me about what they are going through. I try to adapt and write lyrics that are meaningful to people. But there was a period of time during the pandemic when I was mentally blocked for a year. I couldn’t write. My dad, who is a very important role model in my life, noticed I was blocked and that I was so sad. I wasn’t writing because I wasn’t living new experiences, I wasn’t meeting up with anyone, I had nothing to say. Then my dad bought me the book ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron which really helped me to unblock. I do recommend that book to anyone.”
Family is my rock
Emma’s family have been supporting her every step of the way. “They are literally my rock,” she says. “We are a very connected family, a very small family. They have always been very supportive of my career. They have always pushed me to follow my dreams no matter what people say and sent me to extracurricular activities. And even when I am feeling down they find a way to cheer me up and put me back on my path.”
Of course, they will be among the thousands cheering Emma on 12 May when she’ll be the sixth artist to take to the stage during the second semi-final. But mum will not be joining her backstage. “My mum suffers with nerves a thousand times more than me,” says Emma with a chuckle. “During Amici she used to be so nervous just watching from home. She wouldn’t survive being backstage with me.”
Poised and calm despite her whirlwind schedule, Emma answered my questions with a gracious smile and polished professionalism. Clutching a mug of coffee, she confessed she’s a night owl and often stays up till 2am or 3am writing music.
I ask her if her typical day is all about “work, work, work” and she immediately sings it back to me. So I take that as a yes. “Coffee is an essential part of my day,” she confesses, adding her day revolves around meetings and work at her manager Keith’s studio, especially in the run up to the Eurovision.
But down time involves crashing on the sofa and cuddles with her new dog Milly who filled a sad void after her beloved dog Pearl passed away last year.
“Pearl was my best friend. I got her when I was 7 years old and she adored music. Every time I played the piano she would come on my lap.”
Life couldn’t get more exciting for Emma right now. And, regardless what happens in Turin, the Eurovision won’t even be the pinnacle of her year as she is about to release her second album in the coming days.
The girl who sang about a dazzling fairytale continues to live it for real, proving she is “a shooting star” who has “come so far …. with new horizons to pursue”.