Singer Emma Jayne Has Entered Her Gay Renaissance
Here at Camp Thirlby, one of our missions is to give a platform to young, queer artists. This series will highlight different LGBTQ+ artists working in various creative fields, ultimately sharing their voices and their missions with a wider audience. If you’d like to suggest a queer artist for us to feature, please comment below, or email us at email@example.com, with “Camp Thirlby: Queer Artist Feature” as the subject .
For Emma Jayne Seslowsky, the third city was the charm.
“People are always like ‘Nothing’s stopping you! Go get what you want!’ and it seems like everyone’s stopping you, but I don’t know,” she says while munching on freshly fried tortilla chips. “I grew up in Chicago and went to school in Boston, so New York feels like this magical third place that hasn’t been touched by college or high school or any embarrassing growing pains. It’s kind of an invincible what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen feeling, which I think is what made me feel motivated to reach out to people.”
We’re sitting in SoHo, eating at a kitschy open-air Mexican restaurant where the New York humidity clings to our wooden seats. Emma Jayne, who moved to New York City last summer, is now on the cusp of turning 23. She’s been writing songs since the eighth grade, but she carries a distinct sense of confidence now; the kind of confidence that grows from settling into yourself.
“I feel like I’m having a kind of gay renaissance right now,” she says. “There’s a lot to write about there, so my songs are definitely richer.”
Emma Jayne came out to the masses last October via her Instagram account, posting a video for National Coming Out Day where she literally crawls out of her closet. “[Coming out] wasn’t a matter of Chicago being unaccepting. I mean, I grew up in Boystown, which is literally the gay neighborhood in Chicago,” she says. “Moving to New York just finally felt like ‘Okay. No parents; no reminders of the past; clean slate. Now I can give myself permission.’ I think it had less to do with Chicago and more to do with New York, honestly.”
Her songs have been a deep-dive into her mind and her heart since she started writing them in the eighth grade. She explains that her first song, “Promise Me,” was a way for her to process the transition from middle school to high school.
“It felt a little weird. The songs were about stuff that was going on in my life. [“Promise Me”] was also tied to this guy I liked at the time, but it really wasn’t about him; it was more about the feeling,” she says. “There was a lot of paranoia when I first started writing songs that people knew who they were about. Also I was feeling kind of misunderstood, because it was about the feeling and not really about the person. They weren’t really ‘love’ songs, they were ‘how I’m feeling’ songs.”
Though she doesn’t write love songs about men anymore, her music has always been a way for her to process her feelings and reimagine the way she fits within the world.
“I describe songs as kind of exploding out of me, a little bit. It always feels like I need to write them so if I’m going through a hard time I sit down to write,” she says. “When my uncle passed away he died really suddenly in a train crash and I was like ‘I’m not gonna write a song about this — this is something real that’s happening to our family,’ but that’s when you need to write a song. I sat down to write it and it came right out. Those are like the best songs; when they just kind of topple out of you.”
Her most recent single, “Morning,” incorporates a balance of candor and desire that she always seems to carry herself with. Lamenting about her unrequited one night stands, she sings “If it looks like I’m moving on believe me / You’re right there in the corner of my mind / Love me for the night and then deceive me / I just can’t let you go I wonder why.” But the song doesn’t ask for anyone’s pity or sorrow; she’s just asking for exactly what she deserves: someone who will still be there the next morning.
“‘Morning’ is about a specific time when I moved home after graduating early,” she says. “I was touring on the weekends and hooking up, and this is when I was kind of starting to realize I was gay.” She sips her drink and explains that these hookups were fun, but left her feeling unfulfilled. “It’s hard to get comfortable with yourself as a sexual person when you only get a one-and-done with everybody, ‘cause everyone’s different. I’m in a committed relationship for the first time in my life and it’s so much better than just a one-and-done hookup situation.”
Now that she’s come into her queerness, she feels her confidence and openness being reflected in her music.
“It’s just helped a lot of things click into place. I’m definitely more comfortable with myself and more comfortable as a romantic and a sexual person,” she says. “I think the more comfortable you are with yourself, the more comfortable you can be with your art and your music, so I feel like the songs are better because I trust myself more.”
She reflects on her older work throughout dinner, and though she’s humble about her work, she’s not ashamed of the songs that she has put out in the past.
“I definitely wrote some bad songs when I was younger; I’m definitely writing bad songs right now, for sure — I just don’t know it yet. But I try to be kind to younger me because she was trying her best,” she says. “Even if someone puts out a bad song it’s like ‘Damn, they did that!’ And what even is a bad song? I mean there are definitely bad songs out there — I’ve written them — but it’s a really brave thing to do.”
Her self-reflection seems to come from taking time and distance from the world she has created within her own head. The space and processing lets her look back at her work and her personal growth with pride.
“Now, when I play older songs or listen to them, I’m like ‘Woah, I remember that.’ The biggest thing was writing songs when I was super depressed and being like ‘These songs suck,’ in the moment, and then coming out of that depression and realizing that they were pretty good,” she says. “The song stayed the same but I’d changed, so [I was] seeing how badly depression and anxiety can cloud your perception. I got to learn that through music.”
Emma Jayne’s career has hit a distinctive stride in recent months, with “Morning” bringing her into a new phase of her self-proclaimed gay renaissance. “It sounds like how I feel and how I want it to sound,” she says. “It’s really soulful, really poppy, really fun.”
She still has a day job — working on podcasts for CNN and putting her journalism degree to good use — but Emma Jayne has built her music career by putting in hard work and following her artistic instincts.
“I didn’t study music in college. I was too scared. I thought I wasn’t good enough at music to study it but turns out you go to college to get better at stuff! So that was stupid,” she says, sipping her drink and laughing before adding, “and that’s your brain on depression!”
Through her tours and shows, Emma Jayne has actively grown her network of artists and collaborators in New York City, making friends who help her produce songs and expand into new sounds.
“There are artists I look up to and now I’m one of their peers. I’ve made an effort to meet them and get connected with them and make music with them,” she says. “So those little moments, they’re small, but once you collect all of them it feels like it’s enough positives and enough small achievements to kind of override the anxiety of it, to be like ‘Hey, look at all this cool shit you did! You weren’t here a year ago.’”
She’s currently writing new songs and performing as often as she can, both in and out of New York. But no matter where she’s living or what venues she’s playing, Emma Jayne has found the space to celebrate her art and herself.
“I’m in a good spot right now; writing new music, being patient with myself, being kind with myself, remembering I have to work a full-time job and do music,” she says. “At the beginning of college I remember my therapist asking me to say three things I liked about myself, and I couldn't, and now I can be like ‘Yeah! I’m a good songwriter; I make people laugh; I’m a good singer; I have great stage presence.’ It’s cool to see that growth and it’s cool to see my own acceptance of that growth; to be able to own my gifts.”
About the Author
Julia Carmel (she/her) is a recent graduate from Binghamton University. As a journalism student, she became fascinated with how art and technology alter our social landscape, and her work centers around human connections that can be found at the intersection of identity and culture. She’s currently the communications intern for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, but you can usually find her reading in public parks, eating Takis, and dancing at free concerts. You can check out her other work on her website.