Name: Emma-Jean Thackray
Occupation: Composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, bandleader, DJ
Current Release: Current Release: Emma-Jean Thackray's debut solo album Yellow is out on Movementt.
Recommendations: One of my favourite books is ‘Brave New World’; I read a lot of dystopian fiction, more than other kinds of books I guess. Huxley is often compared to Orwell but I think there’s an important distinction in that Orwell writes about oppression / discomfort and Huxley writes about being lulled into submission through pleasure / passivity. We can see parallels from both writers to the world around us but I think that being lulled into passivity is much more dangerous.
Second recommendation is ‘Can’t Leave The Night / Sustain’ from BADBADNOTGOOD cos I was listening to it today and it’s beautiful.
If you enjoyed this interview with Emma-Jean Thackray and would like to find out more about her and her work, visit her website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
From being able to speak I always said I wanted to grow up to be an artist. I didn’t know as a toddler that it’d be music, but I always wanted to do creative things and had an inquisitive mind. So from a few years old I’d draw buildings, write poems, record interviews with imaginary friends (I still have those tapes somewhere), or mix together drinks to create new ones. I don’t necessarily think I was ‘drawn’ to being an artist, I think I just came out like that; it was always my purpose.
I started writing music at about 14 years old and after a few initially bad attempts something just clicked, and I realised I’d always made up tunes or had ideas and I just needed to write them down. It was as simple as that. After that realisation I was all in.
My teacher at school got me to help them teach composition classes and I’d spend every waking moment if not at a rehearsal / gig transcribing sounds I loved (a lot of prog-rock actually). The beat-making side of things came whilst I was studying for my first jazz degree; I got a new computer that had GarageBand so I started cutting up jazz records to make hip-hop-esque beats and singing with my guitar to make bedroom-indie like stuff.
Everything was so compartmentalised for me at that time, making jazz in the day but making beats in the night. It wasn’t really until I did my Masters in jazz composition that I started combining all these ways of expressing myself.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I’ve been really inspired by Miles Davis, Madlib, Brian Wilson, Alice Coltrane, Charles Stepney, to name a few. I think having such broad influences and having always being a bit of an outsider is what makes me stand out. I’ve never been truly part of a gang, so I’ve never subscribed to any sets of rules that a gang or music scene might have. I’ve always done my own thing my own way, and tried to make that sounds in my head a reality, and I’ve never purposefully tried to sound like anyone else than myself.
Can people hear other people in my music? Sure. And I think that’s fine because I’m still doing things my own way. I don’t think that period of learning and inspiration ever stops, or at least it shouldn’t, and as long as you’re trying to be truly yourself you’ll always have a different sound.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’m not sure if my identity influences my creativity or whether my creativity is my identity. I try to be truly myself when creating and I put all of myself into my art. So I guess each thing I create is me in a way.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I guess it was compartmentalising the ways in which I like to work. When I was a ‘jazz trumpeter’ I kinda hid the producer side of me because the other jazzers around me didn’t quite get it, or basically when working in any way I feel like the other sides to me aren’t seen. So my challenge really has been to release a record where I feel totally seen, in all the ways, and I think I’ve done that with Yellow. I’m showing the performer side of me, the producer side, the bandleader side, the soloist side, the mixer side, the singer side, the orchestral arranger side. It’s as definitive and complete of a showing of myself as I can make right now.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made over the years?
A lot of my choices have been forced by money, or lack of it, rather than real choices.
My trumpet was bought second hand from a friend in my teens after my family clubbed the money together and I’ve always used broken equipment and cheap instruments. I made Yellow (and everything before it) on a 10+ year old laptop with defunct software, always willing the tech to “just finish one more project”.
I’m just starting to upgrade my studio now and it feels great to do a bit of investing in myself, although it’s still on a small scale. My trumpet is still really bent up, my cymbals trashy, my keyboards a bit dodgy. Maybe it adds to the charm of what I do because I think things that sound too perfect are boring as fuck. No quantising, no equally tempered 440 tuning. Fuck all that.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you? Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I think my ability changes the way I make music, really. I’m the most proficient on trumpet and on this instrument I feel like I could play literally anything I wanted to. On other instruments my ability affects what I am able to say so if playing keys for example there’s a limitation there.
My imagination is limitless so you might think there’s a frustration there, but actually it can really help things because it forces you into making decisions and making the most out of what you’ve got.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is a tricky thing for me, and always has been.
I’m used to having a vision in my head of how I want a piece to be, how I want things to happen, so I’m used to leading and inspiring others to help me create that vision. When I play with my band I help them to feel like they have creative freedom but they don’t to be honest, they’re still working within the skeleton of what I’ve written or they’re fitting an aesthetic I want. If I collaborate with others I need the dynamic to be decided before I can join in, like it’s either my vision and you’re assisting in that or it’s your vision and I’m along for the ride to sprinkle a bit of myself on top.
That 50/50 way of working is something I need to work on in the future, to not be too dominant or too passive, but there’s plenty of time to do that.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Music and other aspects of my life are seamless I think, yes. The world around me influences my art and my art changes the way I live my life. It’s a gift and a curse that I can’t ‘switch off’ and stop being an artist for a day, it’s just who I am 24/7, always thinking always creating always listening always dreaming always inspired always tired.
My day to day life is a bit more predictable at the minute as no-one is touring. When gigging my life is incredibly varied, but at the minute I’m spending most days in my studio. I usually get up between 9-10, have some tea, and try to start the day with some stretching. I wish I could say I do my stretches and qi gong every morning but unfortunately I don’t, although I really want to change this. I don’t start every day the way I should but I think I need to; I need that routine to set me up body mind and soul for every day, because the work I do is so varied and unstructured.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Everything you do is breakthrough in some way. Every performance or every release should be the absolute best thing you can do at that moment in your life. For me, Yellow feels breakthrough because it’s the absolute best record I could make at that point in my life, from a technical point of view. From a spiritual place it’s also the best thing I could make, because I’ve put so much in the the record *behind* the music. It’s much more than just notes.
I try to always embody positivity and gratitude (I use the colour yellow for this in meditation or just in my every day life), and I’m trying to bring the listeners a sense of oneness with the universe, with each other. I hope people feel that after listening to the record. It’s a universal truth.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’m not sure if there’s an ideal state because different states can bring different things. If you’re angry then bring anger, if you’re sad bring sadness, if you’re uplifted then bring that. Always use what you are and what you have.
For larger projects like a record, aside from unavoidable emotional changes in your life or that you’re trying to put into each track, I like to use my sense of smell to get my into a certain headspace. I’ve been using my own essential oil blends to create a kind of ‘perfume’ to help create the sound world of a project and get me in that particular headspace.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Not a biggest need but just a need. I think we need music as humans and as artists that’s how we can make the world a better place. I think this is something much bigger than I can sum up right now, but music and art in general is absolutely essential to our humanity.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This is a huge and complicated question in my opinion. To sum up something massive into just one statement: I think if your intent is to celebrate something and you respect where it comes from then that will shine through in your art. It’s appropriation when you’re making out that you invented something and ignoring the rich history of how something came to be.
As a white person who makes black music this is something I often think of. In the UK this is a particularly pertinent question to be honest as all the wonderful music the UK brings the world has come to be because of the movement of people (my label is called ‘Movementt’ partly for this reason) - with a special nod to Brits with Caribbean roots, on that note.
I think there’ll always be cultural art movements that merge with others around the globe and I think that’s a good thing - it’s how we evolve, but you have to know the roots of things and treat everything in the now with a respect for the past.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I think our senses are more linked than we realise and I think there are many of our senses that people ignore. Our intuition and sense of energy are often dismissed as hippy-dippy-bullshit or at best pseudo-science, but that shit is real and so important.
For me my energy and ears don’t just overlap but are one. I also have a thing where when I hear music I tend to see it in my head, like I’m writing down the score in real time. A gift and a curse because it’s exhausting and means I don’t actually listen to music that often really; I need to save my energy because I can’t just passively listen, I’m completely inside it.
I know some people with synesthesia too and that has always seemed fascinating to me, like hearing a chord and seeing a colour or tasting a herb. I hope those cats can see the colour Yellow when hearing my record.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I just try and embody myself in everything that I do and that I make. So if someone thinks a release of mine is ‘political’ or ‘inspiring’ or ‘painful’ then that’s because that’s something I care about or that I’m feeling.
I think as humans we are art and art is us. That’s something I always try and embody and I don’t really have time for art that’s not truthful or just for money or whatever. That stuff is poison.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Woah I’m loving these questions; it’s like a conversation at the kitchen table in the middle of the night. I think music expresses everything about life and death that words alone may not. As I said before it’s essential to our humanity and there’s so much behind the notes. I try to express these things with my own music and I hope people can hear them, feel them.