In some ways Berlin is like an accumulation of many islands. Every part of town has its own center and its own community – “Kiez” it is called in German. And one of those parts of Berlin, Neukölln, became the island Emma Czerny made her home. The Canadian singer and producer has been living in Berlin for around ten years now and found a footing in the local music scene under the name of Magic Island. Earlier in May she released her dream-poppy sophomore record, So Wrong.
Just a few days before the record release, I met the artist in the, even in Covid times, quite busy district of Berlin. Coming directly from shopping – new slippers is what she got – the artist looks cool but in a laid-back way. Scarf tucked around the head, hair in two ginger braids, beige jacket, sneakers, and a bright smile as she spots me. Being around Emma is like being around a close friend. She radiates that open familiar vibe from the first second on and with her cheeky manner even coaxed me to get onto her motor scooter for a ride across town.
Wine and cheese
I try to enjoy the ride through the artist’s neighborhood even though I am tense with fear. Motorcycles are not my thing and when Emma finally stops at corner Weichselstraße and Sonnenallee, I am a little relieved to have solid ground under my feat again. From there, the already most adventurous interview I have ever done continues at the local wine and cheese shop, Peppi Käse, where Emma is a regular. Greeted warmly by the owner, the singer gets a bottle of natural red wine. Just off Karl-Marx Straße, the street corners are cluttered with unfinished construction sites. The one across the street from her studio has been going on for so long that the workers sometimes have a BBQ on site, the artist laughs.
She knows Berlin well. Better than me that is for sure. Having lived in the city for around ten years, it is the area of Neukölln that Emma really fell in love with. She managed to live in the same flat there for the past nine years (if you know Berlin, that is quite the achievement). That she knows the city does not just show in the confidence with which she leads me through the streets but also on the record. So Wrong was written during the pandemic, at a time when we were confined to staying within proximity of our homes.
“I have become more comfortable with isolation”, she tells me. “At the beginning of the pandemic I had not really been in Berlin for more than a month at a time, touring and taking residencies across the globe. Now, I have been here for so long, at a point I got so bored but the kind of used to it. I realized that there is a way to have a simpler way of life, looking at the simpler beauties.”
“Before, I used to draw inspirations from a lot of different places all across the world. Now, we are confined to certain ratios, and I started to see things in my neighborhood that I never looked at with such a vision before. I started touring my neighborhood instead of the world.”
Of course, this is everything but ideal, but Emma managed to reconnect with the neighborhood. “It made me feel like I am on some kind of acid trip”, she laughs. “If you sit still for a moment, you notice every single thing and corner of your surroundings.” Her journeys are recorded by an album accompanying walking tour across Neukölln. Emma spread QR codes across her Magic Island for people to follow. Whenever you find and scan one, you get to see a piece of art – weather installation, poem, or multimedia.
Emma describes Berlin as “the Bermuda triangle of the world”. A city with great depth, a big city where a lot of cultures and histories meet but still somehow a private bedroom party where you know everyone through some connection. Especially in the music circles this is the case. “I like that in Berlin, people are not as exclusive and possessive of their art as they are elsewhere. Everyone supports each other and it is easier to become part of a community and communality is actually where I find my creativity.”
For the record, Magic Island collaborated closely with the producer Phong Ho who is known from the German underground-rap scene. “We have the same brain when it comes to music making”, the singer laughs. By now, we have had to leave our spot out on the street because, as the weather in Berlin has it, a sunny evening can turn into a thunderstorm within minutes. In the cozy basement studio, we continue our conversation sparsely lit, between instruments and left-over beer bottles. Here is where the artist worked with her producer. Together they worked on the tracks on So Wrong.
“Vulnerability is What Attracts People to My Music”
“As an artist, I find myself in a weird conflict sometimes between wanting to write more experimental things and still trying to make a living. What is fucked up in this industry, is that sometimes creativity hurts your success.” To Emma, success means being able making a living off her music and sustaining herself as a full-time artist. But especially nowadays there is a lot more work that than just the music making part. During the process of the album campaign, Emma had to put a lot of time into branding.
“Photoshoots, performance, design, social media strategy – I am none of those things. I just want to make music the way I want to.”
Back when Emma started releasing music on SoundCloud it revolved more around the actual art itself rather than the image of the artist. “Even today it is still a lot about sex appeal in the music industry, especially when it comes to female artists. Luckily, I never had that anyways,” she jokes. “Vulnerability is what attracts people to my music.”
Vulnerability, relationships, and the human condition are themes driving So Wrong. The title is in opposition to another track on the record called So Right. The initial plan was a double record with two sides that each accumulate songs fitting the theme, Emma explains. Now, So Wrong contains the different moods in one album. “I like the concept of ‘so wrong’ and ‘so right’ because those terms are really based on personal perception and how you define things.”
Emma plays with the ambiguity and subjectivity of the terms on the album. So Wrong raises questions and unveils personal biases and societal and institutional structures permeating our world. “Somebody’s wrong can mean something else entirely to another person depending on the spaces you exist within. It is a big deal to me as a privileged Western woman to reflect on the structures in place – structures that benefit me even if I don’t want them to while oppressing others. It is a systemic failure which keeps producing and reproducing discriminatory pillars of society. We can’t define what’s wrong and what’s right in such a twisted system. I sometimes feel like we live in parallel universes controlled by culture and circumstances colliding.”
In Berlin it is hard not to not notice the imbalance of society. The city is bustling with different cultures but also scarred by social inequality, systemic racism, and islamophobia. “When you walk with your eyes open, you cannot not see this. Once you have opened your eyes, it becomes an essential part of the way you navigate and perceive your reality.” Especially in the district of Neukölln the two polar opposites meet; the recently gentrified vegan bakery and the decade old corner store. So Wrong breaks with a sheltered perspective onto the world and faces reality, with all of its harsh sides and ambiguities. Nothing is wrong and right – and the question the record raises is how are we are conditioned to believe certain things and what effect does this socialization have onto our environment?
Emma expresses her love for Berlin on the record, old love and newfound love. The name of her art project, Magic Island, was also inspired by one of Berlin’s local bars. Zauberinsel was the name of the place, translating to Magic Island. “The bar was just around the corner from my place, so we used to go there a lot.” At some point Emma became friends with the owners of the place and started playing live shows there. They even wanted the singer to take over the business when they had to close.
Unfortunately, the original Zauberinsel closed down. But other parts of the area that inspire Magic Island are still alive and well. Our tour through Neukölln was cut short by the weather shift, but Emma managed to share a small part of how she sees the city during our interview. Walking around with an eye for detail, it is no wonder she found inspiration in the city. Even though the circumstances were not ideal, falling back in love with your hometown is something beautiful. So Wrong is an invitation to rethink what you think you know, as much as it a refined pop effort examining the unique struggles of love.
All Photos by Liv Toerkell for NBHAP
So Wrong is out now via Mansions and Millions.