Jazz innovator Emma-Jean Thackray has been at the forefront of the genre-hopping jazz bubbling up – and bursting through – in London for the past few years, blending elements of jazz, club culture, left field electronics, and more.
An award winning composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – known especially for her trumpeting – she’s influenced by everything from J Dilla beats and Madlib’s characters to the sounds of Afrobeat.
Her 2018 ‘Ley Lines’ EP perfectly platformed this diversity, evoking Madlib’s jazz adventures with Yesterday’s New Quintet, Emma recorded the project single-handedly in her South London home, instrument by instrument, sometimes even taking on different characters to play different parts.
Now she’s set to embark on another groundbreaking project, heading up her very own record label – Movementt – an imprint of the legendary Warp Records, to showcase new music of her own as well as new talent from the wider jazz and exploratory music scenes that she’s a core part of.
Its first release is Emma’s own new EP ‘Rain Dance’, switching between different moods and tempos, between analogue and digital, blurring the lines between jazz and psychedelia, nodding to club culture and electronic production.
Clash sat down with Emma to find out more about her new EP, her new label, and the key to her own unique brand of experimentation…
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It’s been two years since your last project, how is the new EP a step on?
“Ley Lines’ really only showed one side of the way I like to work. It was all played by me, written by me…everything had only been touched by me. Whereas the new one has got so many different ways I like to work – the first track is with the band, and then the two middle tracks are taken from samples of the band, layered on top of my own stuff, then the last track is just me on my own.
I think it just shows versatility, and just being excited by loads of different ways of working – not wanting to be stuck in a box. How did it feel bringing in your production skills as such a big part of the project, alongside playing instruments? It feels completely natural combining playing and producing – no matter what I'm doing I'm always thinking of all these different roles at the same time. So if I’m playing I'm thinking about how that with all work and vice-versa, if I'm just producing the band – and I haven't been performing – I'm thinking about how they are performing.
Because I've played all their instruments while composing the music, and having that basic knowledge of their instruments (even though I'd never go out and gig on their instruments) I know how they work.
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How are you able to think of both elements – production and playing – at once?
When I'm composing I can visualise the score, that's the way I'd put it. I can see things being written out, that probably makes me sound really strange – but whenever I'm working and can just see it all in front of me.
Production was always something that I used to do on the side. I used to keep it as a bit of a secret – I didn't think it was compatible with all the jazz stuff I was doing. It was when I was studying at Royal Welsh [College of Music and Drama] I was starting to produce. It was pretty open but still very instrumental-based, and if you did anything electronic, it was kind of discouraged – there wouldn’t even be any places to plug in. You were there to be a trumpet player or whatever, you weren't there to do these different things.
Do you think it’s because of this quite intense musical study that you’re now able to be an effective producer?
There are loads of producers that don't necessarily play. I think it just gives me a better understanding of how music was put together, I've been reading music since I was really young. I had to – I was playing in loads of different groups and bands, in lots of different styles. It just gives me a better understanding of what I'm making.
The producing then feeds into my performing because it helps me consider things as a whole, kind of trying to have one ear on myself and one on the band – it's a different way of listening.
As well as showing off your skills as a producer, we can also hear a huge mix of sounds on ‘Rain Dance’. What were your influences when composing the songs?
There are a lot of influences on the new EP, like lo-fi hip-hop and the last track is very housey. I'm kind of at a point now of not really thinking about what I'm making, not in a way of being ignorant of my influences, just in a way of having absorbed so much stuff and always learning but then just letting what comes out, come out.
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I'm just trying to be completely in the moment and not try and force anything, or contrive anything by saying 'I want a track that sounds a bit housey' or just whatever is in me at that minute. That's just always the way I've worked – I think I've got the freedom because I can work in different ways and because I'm so unwilling to follow rules in lots of ways.
Obviously in music I'm always thinking about the theory and stuff, but in terms of what I'm presenting and how…I don't really like all these rules and clubs. I think that's when really good music happens. If people start saying to you, 'You can only make jungle, so you can't make anything else and have to stick to this tempo' – I just think fuck that, it's boring.
Recently I've been listening to a lot of American stuff, all of the artists from International Anthem in Chicago. They are making real stuff. I think they are just doing what I'm trying to do, blending the feet and the head. They are still really interested in groove, that's really what I'm trying to do. I feel that way a lot about LA underground hip-hop, they respect what has come before while also throwing it away. I think I try to do the same, I definitely respect what has come before, I'm still using the language and aware of my influences but I'm hopefully still being respectful by throwing some of it away as well.
That seems to be how a lot of artists are approaching jazz now.
It's really interesting the way that people are excited about jazz right now being full of different genres. It's kind of what has always happened, if there hadn't have been a thing in the ‘40s then the late ‘50s and ‘60s wouldn't have happened and y'know – fusion. There will always been an old guard that are protective of something – we call them the ‘Jazz Police’ – that'd maybe look at something I've done that is really garagey and just say you can't do that.
But if you analyse what I'm playing before it, it's still coming from that jazz language and maybe holds more content than something from the ‘60s.
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What do you say to the ‘Jazz Police’ when they intervene?!
If someone ever says, 'You should do this or do that' I tend to not waste any energy on them or be around them. I think those people have to wake up to new ways of doing stuff, because otherwise all those jazz clubs they love to go to will just get shut down, apart from the really popular ones like Ronnies. You don't want to be doing a show with five people.
I've never really been in anyone else’s control, I always wanted to start my own label maybe when I hit 50 and had the time and money but it came around now – which is amazing.
And you’re probably one of just a handful of female label bosses out there.
I think everything area of my music is quite male-dominated, whether it's playing the trumpet or producing, and I mix my own stuff as well. People always ask who has mixed or produced my stuff, and I have to say its me. My partner used to be in my band and everyone thought he had produced everything – it made me so angry.
Now you’ve got the reigns at a label, what’s your approach going to be?
I don't think that I need to do a particular thing, my reaction would always just to do the opposite. I just want to tell a different story, if I started a label and didn't differentiate it from anyone else, I'd think it was pointless and just a waste of energy.
I have a motto that I try to apply to everything I do: move the body, move the mind, move the soul.
I want it to be music that balances groove and stuff that is a bit nuts and forward thinking, with stuff that is about real subjects. I want it to be a collaborative label, with music that doesn't necessarily belong in other places. It's almost like I want to legitimise bootlegs that people just throw up on SoundCloud – not just thinking about how things will sell. If people just wanted to come to my place and record things on one mic, it doesn't have to be super fleshed-out.
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I haven't put anything out for so long, all of 2019 I was touring and hadn't put out any releases apart from a couple of singles and stuff. So there are things that can come out in that sense, people that I know that are doing stuff together. I'm not in a rush, I want each release to breathe. ‘Ley Lines’ has almost been out for two years. Having toured off the back of that project for two years was pretty fun, I'm already touring with some new stuff – ‘Rain Dance / Wisdom’ we've been playing for a couple of months – which always goes down really well, we use it as a closer.
Have the audiences at your shows changed over the years?
I don't think my audience has particularly changed, maybe only in numbers. I think I've always just appealed to music lovers, people that are just interested in stuff that is good and doesn't have to fit into a box.
If people are coming out because they are only into jazz, and only jazz, they probably aren't going to like it. It just attracts people that are into different stuff.
What shows do you go to?
I tend to go and stuff shows of friends or heroes – I don't tend to go out and see new stuff really. It tends to be nights and stuff as well, so I played the Church of Sound a few years ago and I'm friends with all the guys that run that and I know that it's gonna be good night. I've done a bit of research on the ley lines of London, and there is some interesting stuff around Hackney Downs – a lot of convergences there.
The footpaths there apparently mirror the old ley lines and there's a monument in the middle – the lines go right through the church. My tuba player and I basically only talk about football and ley lines, every else just kind of rolls their eyes [laughs].
And what shows have you got coming up yourself?
We're going to SXSW in March, I'm really looking forward to that. I've only played in America once in New York, that was the Winter Jazz Festival – only two of us could go out so I'm looking forward to going back. And we’re going to launch the EP on 5th May at Moth Club. I felt relieved after finishing the EP, a lot of stuff was recorded quite a while ago – it's just so good for everyone to finally hear it. Especially having not released something for a very long time, I couldn't wait to announce and release it.
‘Rain Dance’ EP is out now via Movementt
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