Emma-Jean Thackray has been storming the world of jazz since her debut album ‘Yellow’ was released in 2021, a gorgeous cocktail of 70’s style psych-funk, jazzy brass riffs and groove laden tunes. The album rocketed to number one in the Jazz and Blues Chart, and opened the doors for many into the world of psych jazz, with its accessible melodies and free flowing lyrics. Now on the verge of a new UK tour, playing Band On The Wall, Manchester on 3rd March ,we caught up with Emma-Jean to find out more about her psych jazz masterpiece:

Your brilliant album is a psychedelic masterpiece and to me, manages to capture the similar psych feelings of the late great Sun Ra And His Arkestra. Were you a fan of his and if so, what was it about that sound that inspired you?

 “I absolutely love Sun Ra! I love the playfulness in the experimentation, I love the fantastical performances, and I love that the heavy lyrics were balanced out by some really singable melodies. I’m all about balance in my own work, too. Sun Ra was one of the most important artists of all time and he wasn’t just a kook in a cape, as some people think. His work was so important for the liberation of black people in America – that’s what all his mythology was about.”

It’s well documented that you studied jazz at Uni but where did you learn to produce and engineer your records yourself or did you just get some software and start experimenting or do you always prefer tape?

 “I was learning to produce alongside learning to compose. From about 14 I started writing music and I’d either take things to the bands I was in to play, or I’d make MIDI realisations of everything and work really hard to get them to sound as realistic as possible, in both performance and sound. From there I used GarageBand on my first laptop, then on the next one I had a cracked version of Logic. I’d record at home or in good studios and bring home the stems to mix and cut up. I only upgraded from that 2011 MacBook and cracked Logic last year; it died just after I sent off the premasters for ‘Yellow’. It was a loyal servant, and I wish it well in its reincarnation as a phone or a smart toaster.”

 On ‘Mercury’ you repeat the phrase “to listen is to know and to know is to love” do you think the last few difficult years have caused more divisions between people than ever before and what would you like to see happen to bring people back together again?

 “Trauma can amplify the issues that are already there, and I think humans have struggled to listen to each other for our whole existence. Mercury is the planet of communication, so with the track ‘Mercury’ I want people to listen to each other and approach our differences with love. Anger only solidifies the stance of those we disagree with, so show compassion and listen.” 

I’ve always been into guitar rock bands, the band Sonic Youth did a gig with Sun Ra, that led me onto his music and then into more diverse musical areas. Your music is genreless, and for someone new to jazz, really accessible. Why do you think some people still have a bit of a reluctance to get into jazz and think it’s not for them, and what would you say to change their minds?

 “I think the word ‘jazz’ sometimes conjures up an aural image of bebop which, for those that don’t understand the jazz language, can seem incredibly daunting. And I mean it when I say jazz is a language. Around the world there are so many spoken languages, we can’t understand them all, so unknown languages can trigger a fear response and cause us to withdraw, even if what’s being said is something we’d agree with. Now, more and more languages are blurred into each other: English is full of French, most languages have a lot of English words in them, we have computers that can translate anything in our pockets… and it’s the same with music. Genres are more blurred than ever and we have access to pretty much any song the world over, so I would say: just listen. There’s absolutely something out there that you’ll love, you just have to be open to receive it.”

 You have your own studio, what’s the best instrument or bit of kit you own and why?

“I’m tempted to say myself, because no amount of gear is worth a thing if you don’t have the ideas or the curiosity to use it. If you want me to be less annoying, I’ll say my Rhodes Mk II.”

Even though you live in London now, you grew up in Yorkshire, who were your inspirations either musically or non-musically?

My parents loved pop / soul / rock stuff, anything with a big tune. Probably because of that, I want my music to be singable. Even when my music gets nuts or there’s some really crazy textures, there’s always a big tune guiding you through it.”

When did you realise you wanted to be a musician full time and if you weren’t doing music full time what job would you probably be doing?

“I knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind as a toddler, but I didn’t know that music would be the focus until my teens. If I wasn’t doing music full time I’d still be an artist in another sense. I wrote poetry and words before music, or I’d be painting or designing. I’m still doing those things now, it’s just they’re supplementary to the music.”

How has the last year had an impact on your songwriting and general outlook on life?

“I don’t think it’s impacted my songwriting at all, but it’s definitely impacted my attitude toward performing. Performing with others and improvising together is at the core of music, and jazz in general, and not doing that (or at least as much as I’d want to) has forced a change in attitude. I used to want to perform and tour as often as possible – every day if I could have – but now I’m spending more time than ever in the studio. Through the few gigs we had last year I realised just how exhausting road life is, so now I’m focussing on doing fewer shows, but making each of them more special.”

When you’re out and about then inspiration strikes, do you just record on to your phone or do you go old school and use a 4 track, and then how does it develop?

“Whenever I have an idea I write down the notes / chords / words / etc. If I’m out and about, the only difference is I don’t have a piano or a guitar to use, but I still know what the notes are and hear them in my head. A lot of the time huge chunks of music appear in my head fully formed, like a gift from the universe, and I have to find the way in to or out of that section of the song. Sometimes a little fragment or a riff comes to me and I develop that into something larger. I spent years and years honing my composition skills so that they would second nature and I can let things happen organically, so it’s really hard to pick apart my process now as it’s so natural to me.”

You’re touring soon, playing Manchester Band On The Wall on 3rd March. How have rehearsals been going? 

“Good, thank you! And we tried out some new things this month at a show in Copenhagen, too. The show has changed from last year, it’s dancier than ever. The four of us really trust each other musically, so we use a lot of improvisation, and every single show is a bit different from the last. A lot of our rehearsals are improvising together, jamming on ideas we come up with on the spot, and then those ideas evaporate and are never heard again. I wouldn’t want to record those ideas though, not because they’re not good but because it’s more about taking risks, having fun, and learning each other rather than the material. Turning on the red light can stop that risk taking in its tracks.”

Being on the road, you spend more time than usual with your bandmates, what have you discovered about each other that you might not have realised before you started touring?

“I’ve considered making something up here and starting some rumours, but to be honest: absolutely nothing. We’re all very comfortable with each other and balanced as a group. We couldn’t be further from the TV smashing bands of old; two of us are meditating vegans and I’m tee-total. Our only vice is that we love to walk around the city we’re in speaking in the local accent. “

What’s next for you, more songwriting, any other future projects in the pipeline?

“A new EP from a new project of mine called Talking Therapy is out soon – and I wrote the soundtrack to a short film which just came out on Netflix. There’s so many new things in the pipeline all the time. I hate that sleep and rest are things I have to do or I’ll die.”

Emma-Jean Thackray plays Band On The Wall, Manchester on 3rd March 2022. The album ‘Yellow’ and the live EP ‘Yellower Vol 1’ is out now.

(Photos: Joe Magowan)

From the early days of creating handmade zines, in a DIY paper and glue style, interviewing bands around town, then pestering Piccadilly Records to sell them, to writing for various independent mags such as Chimp and Ablaze, writing about the music I love is still a great passion. After testing the music industry waters in London with stints at various labels, being back in my hometown again, writing about this city’s vibrant music scene is as exciting as ever. All time favourite bands include Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Patti Smith although anything from electro to folk via blues and pysch rock will also do nicely too. A great album, is simply a great album, regardless of whatever musical cage you put it in.