Emily Lee: The Busker who Sings from the Heart and Mind

Rebecca Thair
By Rebecca Thair,
updated on Feb 16, 2024

Emily Lee: The Busker who Sings from the Heart and Mind

I loved music as a kid. My mum and my dad used to play a lot of records but I didn’t start being a songwriter until I was 25. I bought a guitar, but couldn’t actually play. I brought in a guitarist to help and I would hum the tunes in my head, he would find the chords, and it would become a song. But June that year we split as partners, and I realised I couldn’t play any of my own songs, which was awful. I had to learn.

It didn’t really become a serious thing until I was 24 and played at an open mic night. The whole room just stopped. It was like the room wasn’t breathing. I remember thinking, "Well this is fun." And then I immediately felt really exposed. After that, I reckoned I could give this a proper go.

The reason I got properly into it was that I wasn’t taking care of myself; I was doing quite a lot of drinking, drugs and I ended up sleeping with this guy who turned out to have HIV. I wasn’t taking care of my body, and I was in a dark place. They gave me an 80 percent chance of having it. I just thought, why would I voluntarily mess up my life? Getting an illness is something you have no control of, but I’m actively ruining my life. That’s when I started really playing and writing because I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so ashamed, so I wrote about it.

When you sing about mental health, it’s fragile, and there’s a beauty in being at the end of your tether emotionally
Then I went to a gig at the Lexington in London, and saw a band called Duke and the King. I went to them and said, "You’re amazing!" and one of the singers went, "Are you a singer?" I was acting at the time, and he was, like, "Nah, you’re a singer. Get rid of the day job, just sing." It was a sign, and from the next day I thought that’s what I’m going to be. I had two songs, and I could barely play guitar, but I was going to do it.

In November, I was given the all-clear. I didn’t have HIV, and I was very lucky. That’s when I started trying to take care of myself physically and mentally. That was the biggest motivation to get me into music. I know people with HIV and they live rich lives, and medication has come so far now it’s incredible what you can do, but having been in that position where you know you’ve been stupid, you haven’t cared about yourself at all, that’s when you say, ‘What are you doing?’

Music was really healing for me. It healed a lot and it continues to heal whenever I put pen to paper. Everyone will listen to you when you’re singing about mental health, but they don’t want to talk about it. You’ll cry or say I’m really depressed and everyone acts like you’ve got a contagious disease. But when you sing about it, it’s fragile, and there’s a beauty in being at the end of your tether emotionally.

a photo of Emily busking on Southbank

One of my friends has really bad depression, and she said, "Everything is fine for me, until I wake up." I wrote a song and the lyrics go, ‘I lay down and drown in an ocean of black / and when you’re down that far there’s no turning back. / When I close my eyes, it’s no big surprise to feel tears falling down my face. / Still I say I’m going to face the day, I’m going to be OK, until I wake’. It’s like this never-ending battle of getting up and going "I can do this," and then collapsing. Writing about the dark stuff can be horrible, but necessary.

I wrote a song called Special about being bullied by these other musicians back in 2013. I sang it last night at a gig, and when I looked out into the audience I’m right back there at that gig where that guy heckled me and made me feel so small. But I’m pushing back, and every time I sing it I feel like the motion gets stronger, until I sing it and feel absolutely unstoppable.

I was basically trying to find my self-worth through other people’s faces and how much change was in my guitar case.

When I first started busking, I was basically trying to find my self-worth through other people’s faces and how much change was in my guitar case. If I didn’t make any money that day, it told me I was shit. I had to relearn why I was doing music. I went to therapy and learned that when I go busking, I go because I want to sing my songs, and I’ve got to do what I want to do and if I make no money, I have to be OK with that.

The best thing about busking is that I don’t have to answer to anybody. I write, I can do what I want, sing what I want, and I can have a good time. I can mess up and it’s great - sometimes I get more money. I think as long as you go into it knowing that I might make some money but maybe not, and how I feel about it is up to me, I’m just going to enjoy myself.

I started doing a second EP last September. I actually didn’t want to record ever again after the first EP because it was so much money and it’s such a lot of effort, but I kept writing these new songs. It was actually by fluke, this producer asked if I wanted to record something because there was some extra time on this session my ex was doing. It ended up being a really great session. I’m very proud of what we’ve done; it’s very different from the first EP, but we’re hoping to release it this year. I’m busking and saving like a mad lady to try and get it going. I can’t wait to finish.

You can listen to Emily on SoundCloud, or watch her singing live on YouTube.

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