Emma-Jean Thackray: ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about universal consciousness’

Emma-Jean Thackray has come a long way from her childhood days playing cornet in Tingley Brass Band to leading her own band, founding a record label, Movementt, and topping the UK jazz charts with her debut album, Yellow.

Emma-Jean Thackray

This week she is one of three nominees for Jazz Act of the Year at the 2021 Jazz FM Awards.

The 32-year-old, who was born in Leeds, says her awakening to different genres of music happened while she was a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, yet it took a while for her interest in beats and DJ culture to filter into her own compositions.

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“I was a jazz musician by day and doing beats and stuff at night...For a long time everything was compartmentalised,” she says. “When I was at the Welsh College I was also doing some brass band stuff – I was playing in Parc & Dare which is a really good Welsh brass band. It was only really when I started doing my Masters that I started trying to put everything together and not hide parts of myself, to try to be a whole person.”

Thackray says she had a “clear idea as a kid” that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in a creative environment. “My parents tell me that as a toddler when I was asked who I wanted to be when I grew up I always used to say ‘artist’. I think I just knew my whole life that I wanted to be creative and then when I started getting more seriously into music at about 14 then I realised that I wanted to be in modern music and do arrangements of things for myself or a brass band. I thought I’m going to arrange, I’m going to produce, I’m going to make music – that’s what my life is going to be.”

As well as playing cornet and trumpet, Thackray also developed her singing voice from an early age. “Again, it was a case of compartmentalising,” she says. “If you’ve got people telling you ‘don’t do too many things because people won’t know what it is that you do’, even if you don’t want to, you do end up taking that on board.

“It’s not that I wasn’t confident, I just started realising that I didn’t have to listen to people and do what I wanted. If I wanted to release an EP that was partly me on the trumpet or partly me singing then I would. Then it got to Yellow and I was like, actually I don’t give a hoot about what anyone says any more, I’ll just do what I want to do.”

While delighted with the acclaim to the album, she says: “It maybe sounds selfish but I don’t also make it for other people. I love that it is received well and that people are finding it to be healing or positive or fun, but I’d be doing it anyway, I think; it’s just that I might have to find a different way to pay the bills. But the reception has been great. One of the nicest compliments – which might sound a little backhanded – that someone gave me was ‘I really don’t like jazz but I like this’. I thought, ‘That’s kind of cool because it shows there’s something in there for everyone’. If you never thought that you like jazz it’s not too dense with jazz language. It’s quite accessible, I think, so maybe it’s a stepping stone for someone to get into something a little bit heavier.”

The spiritual vibe to the record she feels partly reflects where she is in life and some of the events of the past year. “It’s what I needed to be told as well,” she says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about universal consciousness and the oneness of everyone, so it was really important for me to put that into words and express what I was feeling to everyone. We’re all made of the same stuff, I wanted to make sure my music was bringing that message across.

“Sometimes if you want to talk about the universe you can go for that spiritual jazz trope of talking about the cosmos and the different planets. I am actually interested in astrology as well, I thought it would be nice and fun to be a little bit playful and a bit tongue in cheek at times.”

Appearing in the recent series of Later...With Jools Holland felt like “a real marker that people are listening now”, she says. “For people like my family who aren’t really interested in jazz that’s when they realised ‘Oh, OK, you’re actually doing all right’.”

Emma-Jean Thackray plays at Headrow House, Leeds on February 26, 2022 and Hull Social on February 27. emmajeanthackray.com