Panoramic Folk Rock

Nestled on a hidden street in North Seattle, far enough from the city that one almost needs a passport to get there, is a tiny house that is the de facto home base for Emma Lee Toyoda. Inside, an 8” x 10” portrait of Nicki Minaj hangs on the wall, a tattered drum set engulfs the tiny living room and the 21-year-old singer-songwriter-ulti-instrumentalist plots her band’s path to stardom.

Toyoda, who handles all of the songwriting duties and much of the arranging for her eponymous trio, is a quiet force in Seattle. Two years ago they were finalists at Sound Off!, the Museum of Pop Culture’s annual 21-and-under battle of the bands. They didn’t win, but two influential figures in the music community, Kevin Sur of Artist Home and Bob Martin, formerly of the band Kithkin, were impressed by the band’s electric-folk arrangements and Toyoda’s introspective lyrics, which she belted out fearlessly in a losing effort. Both knew they’d work with her later, but at the time most of ELT—which performed as a five-piece—was still in high school.

Since then, life has pulled the band members in various directions, mostly to college in and out of state. But rather than take a hiatus or break up, Toyoda, who’s dropped out of college twice to pursue music, sees an opportunity to hunker down, refine and carry on.

“We’re starting to play more stripped-down shows, going in a more rock-y, heavy direction,” Toyoda says, sitting on the couch with drummer Zeke Bender a nd bassist Khyre Matthews, now rechristened as a trio. All are graduates of Nathan Hale High School.

“We’ve known each other since the 5th or 6th grade,” Bender says, “so the level of trust we have as a band is essential.”

The trimmed-down lineup is working. As of press time, ELT is on its first major tour, playing 16 shows around the Southwest and West Coast, including a homecoming gig at the Vera Project on April 21. It’s an impressive stretch for a band so young. (Bender and Matthews aren’t yet 21.) Toyoda, who’s as talented on guitar, banjo and vocals as she is with a computer, booked the bulk of the tour herself, predominantly house shows and at DIY spaces.

“I mostly used the ‘Fuck Your Boys Club’ Google doc for femme-fronted or gender nonconforming bands around the country,” Toyoda says. (This is a real thing.) The chance to tour half the U.S. in her mother’s minvan is, literally, the opportunity of a lifetime.

The band released its first full LP, Sewn Me Anew, last December, which landed an Album of the Month slot in this magazine. The songs are shot through with Toyoda’s poetry, prose, heartbreak and redemption. Two of Sewn Me Anew’s best tunes, “Pulling Hair” and “NuNu,” are gorgeous break-up ballads. But most of the songs are short, lightning fast and packed with emotion.

“Indie music tends to get long-winded. I think that’s kind of boring,” Toyoda says. “I like shorter songs—get to the point and get out.”

Throughout the album, Toyoda initiates the intricate arrangements, then Bender’s frenetic drumming and Matthews’ bass and electric fiddle round out the band’s sound. The group had previously home-recorded, but for the beefed-up sonics they sought for Sewn Me Anew, they needed a producer. Re-enter Bob Martin.

“I loved Kithkin when I was in high school,” Toyoda says. “I was their number-one fangirl. Then Bob saw us play at Timber! Fest and messaged us afterward. We met for coffee, got it figured out and he was amazing to work with.” Martin and the band recorded the album primarily in a shack behind Toyoda Sushi, Toyoda’s parents’ restaurant in Lake City.

Sur, who booked the band to play his Timber! Music Fest last summer, has been a fan since the first time he heard Toyoda’s voice. “I believe there’s a great deal she can do with that voice that she doesn’t even realize yet,” he says.

That hard-to-describe star quality that certain artists have: Toyoda carries it in her back pocket. She’s naturally talented but also painfully introverted; peeling back the layers of her identity is no small task, and the tension there is potent. She’s a breakout star in the making, still coming to grips with her power.

“I battle anxiety and depression, but music is my way of dealing with all my issues, and I try to make that as transparent as possible across all my social media platforms,” Toyoda says. “I think it’s important to talk about my female Japanese Korean American identity, my sexuality—that I’m still in the process of figuring out—and my mental health in order to connect with people and offer a realistic view of who a ‘musician’ really is, not just what they do.”

Emma Lee Toyoda plays the Vera Project on April 21.

Photo by Alley Rutzel/KEXP