Emma-Jean Thackray is wearing her red woolly hat. It’s distinct and so bright that it could be a source of renewable energy. The hat makes her stand out, as do her performances on trumpet, keys, beats, samples and singing; and they’re in demand. Last month, around her 30th birthday, she slammed home a dream goal by playing on a line-up with Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, at Paris’ Grande Halle. After gigs at Le Petite Halle it felt good to play the main arena. “I’m definitely seeing that I’m walking up the ladder,” she says. “It’s sometimes hard to see that progress from the inside.”
For most, the trajectory is discernible, with her doing three to four gigs a week since April. Her mum now texts to ask which country she’s in: Latvia, Luxembourg or Lithuania? (It was Latvia). Thackray has played in Nairobi and spent spring in Sao Paolo hanging with artists including Hermeto Pascoal. She had new music ready to go, but the array of respected labels who wanted to sign her was tricky (“I got choice paralysis”). She feels ready for all this, at times impatient, having been in so many groups since her early teens, playing principle roles in brass bands and symphony orchestras.
“In a way I think I came out like this, as soon as I could talk I said, ‘I am an artist’... I was an only child for a while and spent a lot of time on my own,” Thackray explains. “I was allowed to indulge in my imagination,” at first drawing and creating worlds for her teddies, before cornet lessons, aged eight. “I definitely had to have a strong idea of who I was from a young age. I’m different from the rest of my family: who I am, what I believe... and in order not to feel a complete outcast I had to really know who I was, and why I was that way.”
Moving onto trumpet, she had a natural tone, and in the local brass bands of West Yorkshire she learnt about ensemble-playing, seduced by the sound: “l loved the velvet wash of everyone playing together”. Orchestral arrangements followed, transcribing everything from Debussy to metal band, Dream Theater. “I used to be obsessed by the symphonies of Sibelius,” she admits, “and I went in deep on his harmony and that’s definitely influenced the way I write now.”
Depicting each of her compositions as their own world, she says: “I’m always thinking, though not in a negative way, about trying to manipulate the audience, take them through that tension and release, poke at these emotional triggers.” The music also messes with rules and, when first asking others to play her arrangements, they would think them strange. “They couldn’t tell me I was weird, because I’d already gone through all of that in my head. There’s nothing anyone can say that would make me question who I was.” This issue came up again when she was doing her Masters at Trinity College in London, when her use of the diatonic (sing-able music in one key) was scoffed at by peers for being ‘pop’ or as she puts it, not looking like fly shit on the page.
Teaching herself any instrument she takes a shine to, her tastes are diverse. Beat-making started as GarageBand came free with her computer and after seeing Robert Glasper perform live, witnessing at first hand an appetite for integrated influences. What also infiltrated was an affinity for the genius of low-slung hip hop producers, J Dilla and Madlib. “Before I looked into the technical side of it, the music resonated with me in a different way,” she states. “Now I know it’s because they stay away from quantised rhythms, equal temperament sounds, things that are very clean and in tune,” all of which she finds boring, against nature (“like processed food rather than real food”). Some musical equipment is financially prohibitive, so she uses digital replications, tweaking them so they are crustier, more like the vinyl she collects, “where you can hear the grit”.
The 2018 solo release, Ley Lines, is a perfect introduction to Thackray’s music, with its innate grooves and the dub-warmth of her trumpet lifted by a melodic clarity and her voice. Her market-bought instruments are often broken, but this gives them their distinctive tone: “With my drum kit, the kick is a floor tom which I’ve tuned and messed with... My bass is damaged, I’m playing stuff and pitching it about on my trumpet, which is also a bit broken, it’s got its own unique flavour because there is no other trumpet like mine in the world, no other chest or lungs like mine. It’s about trying to get that genuine, organic sound. Not trying to force it, not trying to contrive anything.”
Like many musicians, Thackray finds basics like paying rent are a concern, “I have had very debilitating anxiety and panic attacks.” Now, though, despite her better position, she’s under no illusion that there’s a permanent fix. Work on more positive thought processes has helped: “I’m confident in my abilities, in what I know and what I don’t know... I can trust in the fact that I’ve got so much more to learn throughout my life, it’s never finished, I’m comfortable in those unknowns and excited by them, rather than quashed by them.”
Emma-Jean Thackray plays the QEH on 15 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!