INTERVIEW by ZAK SLOMAN
From a young age, singer-songwriter Mitchel Emms has been devoted to developing a career as a musician.
He began busking in his home town of Burntwood, in Staffordshire, at the tender age of nine, and had already performed live over 500 times by the time he was 15.
Having been a contestant on talent show The Voice UK in its second series in 2013, Mitchel subsequently played in an alternative rock/indie collective called MisterNothing, before becoming the frontman of The Treatment in 2015.
In the first of a two-part interview – his first since leaving the hard rock outfit in the autumn of 2017, Mitchel candidly spoke to me about all of the above experiences, and how they have both helped and personally affected him.
What would you say was your earliest musical memory?
It would probably have been from when I was around eight years old, looking through my dad’s CD collection, and finding ‘The Wall‘ by Pink Floyd.
At the time, I had no idea who they were, or even what they looked like, let alone the adult-oriented lyrical themes that I simply didn’t understand, but it was like experiencing an incredible movie in my mind which laid down the groundwork of all my musical education going forward, so it set the bar pretty high.
After that, it was a discovery of classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush, into the nu-metal and pop-punk on TV at the time, and eventually to alternative rock bands like Radiohead and Nirvana.
Was there a specific moment when you decided that a career as a musician was for you?
I vividly remember seeing the video for ‘Heart Shaped Box‘ by Nirvana on MTV as a kid, connecting to how visceral, artistic, and aesthetic it was, and also how Kurt Cobain‘s music just spoke to me, and at the time, I was beginning to show interest in singing and playing the guitar, so everything fell into place pretty quickly, as I discovered I had perfect pitch.
Between busking and my dad helping me out, I got a few instruments, along with a Boss 8 track recorder and a Roland drum machine, and began writing and recording songs inspired by grunge and alternative music.
At the age of 10, I ended up auditioning and appearing on Stars In Their Eyes Kids in 2004 as Kurt Cobain (because why not?), and pretty much straight after that, I realised that music and performing was something that I wanted to do with my life.
After that, I ended up performing covers and originals in pubs and clubs around the Midlands with backing tracks, and by the time I was 15, I had racked up over 500 shows, so I had an extremely early start in terms of getting experience, and there was also a part of me that felt it would be an opportunity to prove some people wrong, as I was being bullied lot through school for having long hair, and being a bit different.
In 2013, you took part in the second series of The Voice UK. What made you decide to go on that?
I’d spent my teenage years writing and touring in bands at that point and had developed a good singing voice, but I had also learnt first hand just how difficult it is to be in an original band on the live circuit and get noticed.
I didn’t really like talent shows, but when I got offered an opportunity to audition, I thought, “Why not?“, and from what I had seen with the first series, my impression was that it would be different from The X Factor in that it had some level of credibility, and that the singers on the show were very talented, but as far as I was aware, nobody representing the alternative had done it at that time.
I honestly never thought I would get through because I felt so far removed from that kind of world and was expecting just to appear briefly on an episode but when the chair turned, it was an “Oh shit, here we go…” moment. A complete surprise.
You were mentored on the programme by The Script frontman Danny O’Donoghue. How was it working with him?
I got to spend a little time with Danny, and he was extremely kind in inviting me backstage to a few of The Script arena shows that year, which was a great experience.
We exchanged a few text messages here and there, and bounced some cool ideas off each other, and there was even a suggestion that I should perform ‘Hurt‘ by Nine Inch Nails for the quarter-finals, which was a pretty surreal thing to hear from him, but he eventually suggested a track called ‘Radioactive‘ by a band he was close with that he predicted would be a big song by the time of the live shows, and thought I would do a great job of.
However, the “mentoring” aspect of the show was more for the cameras, as it was all filmed, and took place in a very short amount of time.
And how was the overall experience of being on The Voice UK?
Overall, it was an absolutely ridiculous life experience that I didn’t see coming. The moment of seeing my phone vibrate endlessly with follows for hours after the blind audition aired on the BBC was surreal.
I was 19 at the time and a little naive, therefore I believed a lot of people around me at the time who were basically saying that this was my “huge break” / “we’re going to sign you” etc, however, after the show I was dropped back to square one, with very little guidance as to how to make the most of my time on there.
That being said, I enjoyed the whole experience massively, the production team were really lovely people, as well as the musicians in the band, it also allowed me to form my own band off the back of it, and it eventually opened up many doors for me, as well as bringing a lot of attention and views to my YouTube channel covers and music.
In retrospect, I never gave myself enough credit at the time, because I was so wrapped up in the hype of just doing it and because of how it all unexpectedly turned out. I’d often cringe when I saw my face pop up on TV, which just seemed kind of mad, despite it being an incredible achievement for me.
Did you ever get criticised by some for going on a reality programme?
Of course, and it was to be expected. I’d been part of a lot of musical scenes that obviously shunned that kind of thing, but I didn’t give it much energy.
However, there were more people who celebrated someone like myself going on national TV and representing alternative music. For myself, I have an absurdist sense of humour, so I thought it was funny on a cosmic level that this weird guy from the Midlands has managed to make it onto one of the top BBC television shows.
There was a push from the producers on the show to make me out as the token rock guy, even though the last thing I wanted to be was to be put in a box and that meant that I had some identity of “that long-haired rock guy off of The Voice” being put out there, that wasn’t representative of who I wanted to be.
Releasing my own music online was an opportunity to show people that there was more to me than that, and subsequently, I released a self-recorded album, ‘All My Favourite Bands Are Dead‘, under the band name of MisterNothing, got a band together, and we hit the road playing shows.
Having already played in various bands, in 2015, you became the vocalist of hard rock outfit The Treatment. How did that come about?
At 21, I had been performing and writing with my band for two years, which at that point had been a lot of fun, however, the pressure of being the songwriter/frontman/creative drive of the whole thing had started to take its toll on me, given the fact that we had unstable lineups, and the future was beginning to look uncertain.
I took it all very personally, so I took a short break in January 2015, and in that time I was contacted by the band, after seeing my Voice audition on YouTube, to stand in for a few shows, which would later turn out to be an audition for a full-time replacement.
I’d been conditioned from a young age to not turn down opportunities, and at the time, it looked like an exciting prospect to be part of a signed touring band, but there was a second-guessing of myself at play.
Despite The Voice, I hadn’t always identified myself as solely a singer, so there was the thought of “Am I actually better off being just a rock singer?“, because I had been previously successful at it, despite having a lot of different musical ambitions and wide influences which began to appear more and more like a pipe dream; as if the universe on some ridiculous level was endlessly pushing me into doing rock.
However, I’m a massive nerd when it comes to music history, and I have a big appreciation for a lot of the rock music I grew up listening to, so that helped ease me into it, and I’d hoped that I’d find something incredibly worthwhile in joining the band and experience something new and positive.
What would you say were the standout moments of your time as part of The Treatment?
There were many fun moments with the band, and getting to travel and tour abroad in European countries was a dream of mine and something that I’d not done a lot of before.
We did some pretty killer shows, and I think one of my final ones with them was playing a last-minute slot on the main stage at Hellfest in the scorching heat, in front of an ocean of people, which was absolutely mental.
I also became a much better vocalist from having to tackle such difficult material to sing, as everything was written in a consistently extremely high range, so doing 80-minute shows every night was an intense physical and vocal workout.
I always consider myself grateful for the laughs and experiences that were had, but on a personal level, I think I’m most proud of myself for getting through tours; the nights when I was sleeping on van floors with barely any money to my name, when I wasn’t doing so well, and in the face of all that, not failing to put on an adrenaline-fuelled show every night for the fans.
IN PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW, MITCHEL TALKS ABOUT SUCH THINGS AS DEPARTING THE TREATMENT, AND THE EXPERIENCES OF WORKING ON HIS UPCOMING DEBUT SOLO ALBUM.