You’ve got to hand it to a woman who can look at footage of herself from the mid-1980s and unabashedly proclaim: “Yeah, I guess I was pretty hot.”
Back in the day when the cassette tape reigned supreme, Erica Ehm was making a name for herself as MuchMusic’s (and Canada’s) first female VJ. Working in the “biz” since the age of sixteen, the Hudson, Quebec, native immersed herself in what she loved most: music. “I never wanted to be famous,” she says, “I just wanted to get as close to the music as I could get.” After spending a decade with MuchMusic, Ehm left the career she’d helped to create. Fast-forward another decade (and add two Junos, three SOCAN awards, a hubby, and two babies), and Ehm was back where she felt she belonged, doing what she felt she was meant to do. That is, she was back in front of the camera, “talking” to her generation. But this time, Erica was talking about motherhood—not music.
Now a columnist for Post City Magazines and founder of YummyMummyClub.ca, Ehm’s still expanding what she calls her “Ehmpire.” So Torontoist sat down with the self-identifying MILF to reminisce about the good ol’ days—and to see if there’s any truth to the rumour that she’s returning to music television.
Torontoist: Can you tell us what pre-MuchMusic Erica Ehm was like?
Erica Ehm: Before I started at Much Music—actually, I can show you something really funny. [Ehm pulls up the YouTube clip of her on Musi-Plus]. This is something from when I was 18. As you can see, I always knew what I wanted to do from a very young age. I was obsessed with acting. I used to direct plays in my basement—although there was no one there to be directed. I’ve always been kind of a leader—and I made my passions come to life. So when I was younger, it was acting. And when I became a teenager, music became another passion for me. When I was 17—or was it 16?—I worked at CHOM FM, which was a big rock [radio] station in Montreal. So I was always very focused. And I knew what it was that turned me on. So while I worked at CHOM, I got my toe in the door of the professional music industry. At the same time I was going to school [finishing CEGEP], I was working at record stores, I was managing bands, and I was DJing in clubs.
And how did you get the gig at Musi-Plus?
That clip was from 1978, I think. There was no MuchMusic at the time. It was even before MTV. At the time I was DJing in punk bars, working at the radio station, and [Montreal's Musi-Video] called me up and said, “Hey, would you like to be on TV and help host this show?” So I did that. I just—if you look, and you look at what I’m doing today, it’s the same.
Even when I was in high school, I wrote a monthly column called “Erica’s Teen Scene Column.” Now, fast-forward thirty years, and I write “Erica’s Yummy Mummy Column” in Post City Magazines. It’s the same thing; I’m a social commentator. I kind of stand back, look at my peers, and amalgamate the information and the emotion of my generation—and come up, hopefully, with a fresh perspective on who we are and why we do what we do.
So what came after CHOM FM and Musi-Plus?
Well, let’s see. I left Montreal, I went to the University of Ottawa, and I worked at record stores while I was going to university. Then I got a job answering phones at CityTV when I moved to Toronto. I was actually answering phones for [CityTV's] The New Music, because all I wanted to be was near where people were doing innovative things with music. Because that was my passion. So I answered the phones, and while I was working at CityTV, I started working at a cable company at night and on weekends. I started hosting a show. And I do remember that I called up Willy Jong, then the program director at MacLean-Hunter Cable TV. And I said, “Hi, my name is Erica; I worked at CityTV, I answer the phones, and I want to host a TV show for you.” And he said, “Okay.”
So I worked there for a couple of years, and then I made a demo tape and gave it to Moses Znaimer. At this point, though, I was already the entertainment coordinator at CityTV, so I’d book all the shoots for The New Music and for City Pulse Entertainment. And I gave [Znaimer] the demo tape. Moses put me on the air. live, with no training, no script. Basically it was sink or swim.
Clockwise from top left: Ehm with U2′s Bono, Ehm and MuchMusic alum JD (John) Roberts, Ehm with Dwight Yoakam, Ehm and songwriting partner Tim Thorney, Ehm on set with the Pet Shop Boys, Ehm looking “lovely” with Sting.
And you swam?
Well, it was a very challenging time for me. Because I was learning in front of people. I was 23 years old, and it was either “love Erica” or “hate Erica”; there were two camps. Somehow I managed to turn some of the “hate Erica” into “love Erica” through hard work and perseverance. You know, I was really committed to what I was doing. I really worked at the craft of learning to interview. And I grew up in front of Canada.
What was it actually like, being a VJ?
It really was the best job in so many ways. I got to learn about the music business—which was what I was so passionate about. Really, I had no interest in being famous. Zero. I still don’t really give a shit about being famous. I love doing what I do. I like communicating and creating. And that’s what that job allowed me to do. So I learned about the inner workings of the music industry, and I eventually became an integral part of that business. But [the job] also taught me discipline, it taught me focus, and it taught me how to tell a story from beginning to end. It taught me how to network, it taught me to have a backbone, and to be true to my own vision. And it was tough, because I was a personality on TV. And if I tried to be like anyone else, I’d no longer be interesting. So VJing really taught me to trust my own instinct. And to stay true to my own, unique vision, which some people really didn’t enjoy.
In what sense?
I wasn’t edgy enough for some people. And I wasn’t pretty enough for some people. But a lot of people appreciated the fact that I stayed true to who I was. And I still do today—I have a very strong point of view about what I believe in. Right or wrong. And that’s what sustained me in my career; I’ve remained the person I always have been.
What was the “scene” like when you started at MuchMusic?
When I think about the scene, I think about Queen Street. Which is where I lived for fifteen years of my life. It was unpretentious. There was a lot of creativity. And there were no rules at that time—we were making our own rules. And that’s what the challenge is for music television today: finding something new. They’re not pioneering anymore, they’re rehashing old territory. But what do you expect? I mean, that’s what happens in all industries and with art forms. There are the people who make the footprints in the snow, and most people just follow those footprints. So I was lucky enough to be one of the people making those rules.
At the same time, we got bashed for it. People were telling us,“That’s not the way to do what you’re doing,” and, “You have to be reading a script,” and, “You need to act in a conventional way,” but [Znaimer] just said, “No.” He wanted to bring a new energy to television—so no, no script. And he wanted to pick people who were passionate about what they were presenting. So [MuchMusic] didn’t get actors, they got people who were already immersed in the scene. I mean, I was already immersed in the scene since I was 16, 17 years old. But in an odd way: I never did drugs, I never partied. I was always fascinated by the art of making music. You know? I always wanted to be a little flea in the room of the recording studios and dressing rooms to hear how and why these particular artists had the magic of making music.
Was that why you started making music of your own?
I was really thrilled, because in the ’90s, I met [producer/songwriter] Tim Thorney, and we started writing songs together, and I ended up winning Juno awards and songwriting awards with SOCAN. That was really one of the highlights of my life. I remember sitting in the studio with [Thorney], we had just finished recording our first album with Cassandra [Vasik], and Tim says to me, “Remember this moment. Because nothing gets better than this.” And it was true: no one had heard the record yet, we didn’t know if people would enjoy it or not, but we knew we had created something wonderful. Ultimately, we won the Juno for Best Country Artist. But it’s about that moment—sitting in a dark room, listening to the work you created in the last year, and being proud of the work for the work’s sake. Or the art for art’s sake.
And how do you feel about MuchMusic and MTV’s newish emphasis on reality TV?
I don’t know if it’s the media’s fault. Or the people’s fault—maybe you get what you ask for? But, like I said, we did [music television] already. So they’re just trying something different.
Honestly, it’s challenging to find people you trust to talk with no scripts. There’s always the concern of insulting the sponsor or saying the wrong thing. So I guess they want people and programming to be more scripted. A lot of people say to me: “MuchMusic isn’t the way it used to be.” And I respond: “Well, of course it’s not!” Nothing is the way it was. Everything changes. And [MuchMusic] isn’t made for me anymore. I’m a different generation—I’m old already. All of us who grew up on and with the original MuchMusic are [parents] now. So what we were looking for doesn’t exist anymore. It’s done. It’s gone. And when I started my Yummy Mummy Club, believe it or not, it was to address just that: to create something that is made for the original MuchMusic crowd—to keep that part of ourselves alive.
We hear you might be focusing a little more on music again. Any truth to this rumour?
I’m hosting a radio show with Astral Media, an ’80s music show. And I’m also hosting a series of specials on Bravo! called At the Concert Hall. So I finally get to do music television again. I’ve already filmed [a special] with Divine Brown and one with Molly Johnson. It keeps that original passion alive. I live to create and communicate—that’s what I love to do.
And it was the same thing with my Yummy Mummy show. I produced, wrote, and hosted it. This was back when Jessie [Erica's daughter, pictured above] was three months old, and Josh [Erica's son, pictured above] was three years old.
But I needed it—I needed that show. Some people are fulfilled staying at home with their kids, but for me, I’m just not. And there’s no right answer. A lot of women have guilt for working. But the other side of the coin is that many women stay at home because they think it’s the right thing to do. And they’re miserable at home. They’re not good at home; their kids are getting quantity of time with their mother, but not quality of time. So I try to give my kids quality of time. I get inspired in my work, and my kinds see an excited, passionate woman. For me—that works for me.
So all these things—Yummy Mummy and At the Concert Hall—are a part of the big picture. Really, I’m trying to start an Ehmpire. That’s: E-h-m-p-i-r-e.
Speaking of E-h-m, is that your real last name?
No, “e,” “h,” and “m” are actually my mother’s initials. I shortened it because when I was working at CityTV I was answering the phones and booking all these shoots. At that time, there wasn’t email, so people were always faxing me press releases. And when they’d ask how I spell my name, I’d just say, “E-H-M.” It was just easier.
We can’t not ask this: what was your first on-air interview like?
The first big one was with Duran Duran. They were spectacular. They were really crazy, and fun, playful. But I remember Simon Le Bon kept checking my eyes, making eye contact with me as they were fooling around to make sure I was still comfortable with what they were doing. They were careful they didn’t go too far.
And your favourite MuchMusic moment?
Sting. I think Sting was probably one of my favourite interviews, at least. Especially, when at the end of our interview, he turns to me and says, “You’re very lovely.” And I looked over at my camera man, Dave Hurlbut, and ask: “Did you get that on camera?” And he says, “Naw, turned it off.”
But my memory cache is full. So it’s really hard for me to dredge up all these thoughts. And today my life is very full, and, I think, much more interesting than it was before.
Catch Ehm’s interview with Molly Johnson on Bravo!, January 27 at 10 p.m.
All photos courtesy of Erica Ehm.