Maintaining a non-academic hobby alongside an Oxford degree is a challenge. Pressures from tutors, friends and oneself conspire to clog up time that could be used to this end. But at the end of Michaelmas, I had the opportunity to speak to a woman who manages it. Emily Meekel, aka Manmzèl, is a chemistry DPhil and musician, whose debut album is set to release spring 2022.
It was a bitterly cold day – the first of the year to have that discernable winter sting that forces your hands into pockets or gloves. I arrived at our arranged meeting place – Café Nero on the High Street – and ordered the ever-so-sensible mug of tea and granola flapjack combination. Over the café’s speakers was playing a twee, instrumental version of ‘Michelle’ by The Beatles – one can only guess at the atmosphere that musical choice aimed to evoke.
Emily came in wearing a Balliol College puffer – a coat that she usually avoided wearing, but that day was necessitated by the excessively low temperatures. She was amiable, clearly at ease in conversation with someone she had not met before. We sat down to chat, and I began by asking Emily about her musical upbringing. She started with classical piano when she was six – ‘my Mum put me on lessons’. (Throughout our conversation, whenever she mentioned her parents, I got the sense that her relationship with them was a happy one). She grew up in the Netherlands, and there was a good music school in her hometown. At first singing covers, she quickly graduated to writing her own material – and with encouragement from her teachers she began to perform them. ‘I used to be really nervous, but now I much more enjoy performing, interacting with the crowd.’
‘Then it came down to going to uni,’ said Emily, pausing. ‘My Mum’s from London, so at first I really wanted to go to uni in London.’ But, as Bob Dylan put it, money doesn’t talk, it swears, and the £9K per year UK tuition fee was prohibitive when considered as an alternative to the Netherlands’ far more reasonable €1000 per annum. ‘We love you but we don’t have that money,’ her parents conceded. However, the hope of attending a UK university was rekindled when Emily realised that in Scotland, tuition is free to European students. Emily went to the University of Glasgow to study chemistry.
In Glasgow, Emily performed with a band under the name EM|ME (pronounced ‘emmy’; a concatenation of the first two letters of her first name and surname). Speaking of Glasgow’s music scene, Emily recalls it being ‘very tight-knit,’ and despite the city’s size ‘you tend to run into the same people; there’s a really good support network.’ Looking back she describes her music as EM|ME as ‘a mixture of things… a bit chaotic, indie-pop, alternative.’
A few years on, after beginning her DPhil at Oxford, Emily felt the need for change. In her first year, she ‘didn’t make music that actively,’ being so busy with the demands of a new city and a scientifically rigorous research degree. ‘Then lockdown happened,’ she said. ‘I went home for a bit, but I had to come back for labs, and no one was here. Which was lonely in a sense, but I also had so much time to make music again, and it felt very fresh.’ She got to writing and reflecting. ‘It was nice to write my stories again and notice to myself how I’ve developed from what I was like from the last couple of years.’ Naturally, she felt that she had outgrown the EM|ME name. ‘It just didn’t sit right with me releasing [new songs] as EM|ME.’ She picked a new name, drawing on her Dominican heritage. In Dominica (not the Dominican Republic, Emily was quick to clarify), they speak Patois, a French dialect, which, when she was growing up, she had heard her grandad speak on the phone. ‘One particular night I couldn’t sleep, so I sat on my phone and saw whether I could find anything.’ Emily, with the aid of a Patois online dictionary, settled on Manmzèl as her new alias. It means ‘young woman’ in Patois, coming from the French mademoiselle.
I was keen to ask Emily about how she interweaves the academic and musical strands of her life. ‘It needs to stay fun,’ she stated. ‘My PhD is my priority, but I’m also very aware of the fact that I can’t let it consume my life… I could dedicate my life to it, and like, it would be amazing, but for me it’s quite important to have a balance.’ She noted also that, like for most of us, the return to normality means a far busier schedule: ‘in lockdown, it was quite good – obviously it was horrible – but there was so much more time. I noticed this term, because everything’s back to normal, I just can’t breathe!’ But the music and the work do complement each other well. ‘Making music, relaxing, expressing myself in that way… and the PhD – I can’t focus on that one hundred percent.’
Before coronavirus noisily arrived, Emily had been questioning herself. ‘I was going through this thing asking “why am I making music?” If no one was listening to it, I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, it kind of felt like a failure. Growing up you always have this dream, that you’ll become this popstar, or whatever.’ It was lockdown that was the great remedy. During her days and weeks in isolation ‘it just came naturally, it didn’t feel forced, it just felt more mature.’
I wanted to know who Emily was listening to. ‘Greentea Peng… I’ve been loving her music recently. I think she might be originally from London, but she lived in South America for a while. She makes this reggae music, very chill.’ Other artists Emily was listening to were Lianne La Havas, Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars. ‘I’d like to think of myself as a female Anderson .Paak,’ she said, ‘I feel like my music is trying to be more energetic, sometimes more witty, or fast paced, and I see that in Anderson .Paak.’ Listening to ‘Like a Woman,’ the first single from Manmzèl’s new album, the similarity is clear: the drum grooves are tight and a tongue-in-cheek vocal snippet kicks the song off. ‘I’d like to kiss ya but I just washed my hair,’ says a sampled voice, before the track leaps into life with a catchy synth lead and supple bassline.
I was intrigued by the title of her single, ‘Like a Woman.’ The phrase is heavy with connotation, not least musically. There are apparent similarities to songs like Carole King’s ‘You Make me Feel Like a Natural Woman’ or Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ – but in these songs it is the validation of a lover that makes the person feel ‘like a natural woman,’ or ‘like a virgin.’ In ‘Like a Woman,’ things are framed differently. ‘Cuz now I know it’s not me but you that I despise,’ Manmzèl sings. How much clearer can a message of self-assurance be? The song is a proud and emphatic declaration of independent womanhood.
In contrast to her time as EM|ME – which she herself described as ‘a bit chaotic’ – Emily is looking to make a more cohesive product in her new mini-album. ‘Now I’m trying to get a record out that has the same overall sound,’ she said. And from what I can tell, she’s going about it the right way. Her single, ‘Like a Woman,’ is infectious, smooth, and impeccably crafted. Keep an eye out in spring 2022 for what will no doubt be a release full of swagger, soul and sincerity.
Listen to Manmzèl’s new single, ‘Like a Woman,’ out now on streaming platforms. Her new mini-album is due Spring 2022.
Follow Manmzèl on Instagram and Twitter @manmzellll (that is, note, four Ls).
Image: Andrea Berlese