Second Love Liner Notes | Jon Ronson (2016)

In 2012 my friend Emma-Lee Moss and I individually decided, for no good reason, to move to America. From time to time we’d meet - in bars or Chinese restaurants – and talk about how things were going. From my perspective things were going badly. What had I done? Everything had been fine in London. And now I’d moved into a bleak apartment in New York City with views of a wall. I kept remembering that line in Simon & Garfunkel’s America about the anxiety of travel: ‘“Cathy I’m lost”, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.’ I got depressed and lost my confidence. One day I was standing in Central Park and I thought, “I am just a man standing in a park.”

Emma was having her own difficulties. She moved from London to Los Angeles. Then she moved to New York. She seemed discombobulated, less frivolous, more weighted-down. She was trying to make a record but it was like a war of attrition – like the music business was trying to wear her down to the point of collapse. As she emailed me the other day, ‘The entire album took around three years. I had to wait long periods for financing and in those times I would travel with my laptop and microphone, write new songs, and record everywhere and anywhere I could. If I had to write down the locations of every recording session, the credits would have around 30 people’s houses in it. It felt like an arduously long process at times. I felt like I was fighting to keep making music, and I was confirming to myself that this was what I wanted to do.’

She sent me a new song, Swimming Pool. She’d never written a song quite like it. It’s apparently a love song set in some fancy Hollywood house, but the relationship is uneasy - disharmonious, out of synch. ‘I reach out and touch you. But you jump into your blue swimming pool.’ It sounds shimmering like Los Angeles but fretful and lonely like Los Angeles. A friend once told me that in Los Angeles you get to live in incredible beauty for not much money as long as you don’t mind constant gnawing loneliness and isolation. When you spend too long there you become a desolate figure, killing the mornings by hiking on Runyon Canyon. Emma and I became two of those hikers for a while.

Emma recorded Swimming Pool in London. ‘At the end of the day,’ she emailed me, ‘the producer and I looked at each other with the awkward wonder of two people who had just met but experienced something vaguely mystical. A sound had developed entirely by accident, and it was totally different from anything I’d done before. We had no idea how this had happened, or even how to define the shift, but it was a raising of the bar that I would spend the next three years trying to chase.’

Last winter, I saw Emma perform some of the songs from the new record in a bar in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was mesmerizing. The whole night was imbued with the same weird mix of hope and apprehensiveness, of beauty and bleakness, which had made Swimming Pool so great. I especially loved the song Constantly: ‘Your laptop it is glowing,’ Emma sang. ‘The aching comes and goes constantly.’ 

It struck me that love songs used to be about people doing things together – visiting amusement parks, or whatever. These were love songs about people sitting in rooms, each on their computer. (Constantly was ‘partly inspired by Doretta Lau’s book collection about Millennials trying to make it in big cities,’ Emma emailed me, ‘and partly by my own experience of trying to find my place in New York.’)  

‘You walk me to the café where the drinks cost more than music,’ she sang in another of the new songs, Hyperlink. ‘All those people tapping keys, where once they would read magazines. Take me walking through the screens, tell me all your broken dreams.’

The songs reminded me of how social media had been such a comfort when I first moved to New York. Having funny and honest conversations with like-minded people I didn’t know got me through hard times that were unfolding in my actual apartment. But then social media stopped being a source of comfort and started being cold and intimidating – a place of judgment and condemnation. I think Emma experienced the same realization at roughly the same time. ‘In 2013, in LA,’ she emailed me, ‘I was optimistic about the world changing and rapidly advancing, but over time the optimism gave way to something more complex and fearful. Technology and ideas - which had seemed entirely positive - now feel equally as dangerous. I don't need to tell you that the world can be a fucked up and scary place, especially for young people who are living in the future while trying to figure out if they have a future of their own.’

I think Emma’s generation - she’s just turned thirty - and the generation below hers, are pretty unhappy ones. There’s a lot of ambition and not much success. Most people fail. The Internet has made it so much harder to earn a living from writing or creating music and it’s made everyone feel more isolated than they anticipated. Sometimes I wonder if the tech utopians like Larry Page ever stop to think, “What have we done?”

But somewhere along the line, without quite realizing it, both Emma and I found ourselves getting happier. I made friends and I wrote a book. And Emma finally finished this beautiful album. ‘Hard won dreams,’ as she sings on Shadowlawns, ‘are always the sweetest.’

‘I’ve always felt that records are supposed to be ‘records’ of your life when you made them,’ Emma emailed me. ‘And in this time my life progressed in previously unimaginable ways. I lived in three cities. I was single. I fell in love. I made friends. And I found out what it is to be a stranger and to begin again. For a long time I thought the album would be about technology and the future, so I wrote a lot of songs ‘about’ stuff - like Swimming Pool or Solar Panels or  the magazines in Hyperlink. But this didn’t feel right. It was only when I started writing about love that it felt right.’

She said she’s spent the past three years ‘searching for meaning in the noise’. And this is what she learned: ‘Wherever we’re heading, we’re going to need music, and we’re going to need love.’