Emma-Jean Thackray interview: The MOBO-nominated jazz powerhouse on playing in Tingley Brass Band and Leeds homecoming gig

Bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and producer Emma-Jean Thackray is returning home to Leeds on her UK tour.

By Abbey Maclure
Saturday, 15th January 2022, 4:45 pm

The MOBO Awards nominee and Jazz FM ‘Jazz Artist Of The Year’ is bringing her dance-infused jazz sound back to where it all began, with a gig at Headrow House next month.

Emma-Jean, who grew up near Morley, started her musical journey in primary school, playing a cornet her parents had bought her from a second-hand music shop.

By 13, she was principal cornet in Tingley Brass Band - teaching her the power of a communal approach to music.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Emma-Jean Thackray, who grew up near Morley, was principal cornet in Tingley Brass Band aged 13 - and is now taking over the Capital with her dance-infused jazz sound (Photo: Joe Magowan)

“It’s such a unique sound," Emma-Jean, 33, told the Yorkshire Evening Post.

"It's got huge power but can be incredibly delicate and soothing.

"It taught me how to play together as an ensemble. Even if the band is made up of people of differing abilities, you can still find something together and make it sound good.”

Read More

Read More
Eades interview: How this Leeds band have transformed from a lockdown experiment...
Emma-Jean was nominated for Best Jazz Act in the 2021 MOBO Awards and crowned Jazz FM's Jazz Artist of the Year (Photo: Joe Magowan)

After Emma-Jean stumbled across Miles Davis' take on 'Concierto De Aranjuez' as a teenager, she became hooked on jazz and spent her pocket money buying records at HMV in the White Rose shopping centre.

At the same time, she started experimenting with her own sound, making bedroom demos and turning her hand to the jazz trumpet - which she studied at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama under British jazz pianist and composer Keith Tippett.

Emma-Jean said: “I went to the Welsh partly because it had Keith Tippett and a big leaning on free jazz, but also because it was the furthest conservatoire away from where I grew up.

"I was eager to get away, having always felt like an outsider in the area I grew up in and among my friends and family. I wanted to spread my wings.

“One of the biggest challenges was realising the background I was from was completely different from everyone else’s.

"I didn’t realise just how middle-class, white and homogenous music can be, especially at conservatoires.

"People would say they had no money and it shocked me what their bars were for that; I remember my parents not eating some nights.

“The struggle was adapting to the different environment, I’d never been anywhere other than around people like myself.”

After moving to London to take a master's in orchestral jazz composition, Emma-Jean formed a band and by 2016 she was playing live shows across the Capital.

Her music crosses genres and has resonated with listeners beyond the jazz circuit, touching on ideas around spirituality while feeling equally as natural being blasted out on a dancefloor.

“It’s unique because it’s me," Emma-Jean added.

"Everything I listen to and everything I love is in there, but I’m not trying to put it in my music in a contrived way. It’s a truthful depiction of myself.

“I’ve got a mantra of ‘move the body, move the mind, move the soul’ that underpins everything I do. You can dance, you can think - there’s something for everyone."

Live performance is an integral part of Emma-Jean's career, as well as her sound, and like many musicians she's faced an unsettling two years.

On top of that, she caught Covid early on in the pandemic leaving her unable to sing for six months.

"It was quite trying, but I just had to think in different ways," Emma-Jean said.

“Not having gigs has been very difficult, not just for the bank account but also because that’s what my music is based on - improvisations and interacting with people.

“But there’s been positives to come out of it, before the lockdowns I was so tired as I was flitting about touring and not sleeping.

"It gave me some routine that I hadn’t had for many years and I tried to take care of my mental and physical health.”

As well as performing at several festivals this summer, including We Out Here, Emma-Jean was nominated for Best Jazz Act in the 2021 MOBO Awards and crowned Jazz FM's Jazz Artist of the Year - high praise as she embarks on her first UK tour.

Emma-Jean added: "It’s great when anyone loves your music, but when people who listen to a lot of music really dig it that's an extra sparkly accolade

"If they hear my music and think it stands out from everything else then that’s incredible. It makes me feel like I deserve my place.”

Coming home

Emma-Jean's UK tour will come home to Leeds on February 26, with a show at Headrow House.

Performing tracks from her debut album Yellow, as well as glimpses of new music, it will be one of just a handful of gigs that Emma-Jean has played in Leeds since her time in Yorkshire's brass bands.

"I’m really excited for the homecoming show," Emma-Jean said.

“It’s going to be different to every other show we’ve played, because that’s what happens when you use so much improvisation.

"Things can go different ways and every show has its own ephemeral thing that will never be repeated.

“It’s my first proper UK tour, which is crazy to say, but it was something that never logistically worked and then kept getting rescheduled."

Debut album Yellow out now

Emma-Jean’s debut album Yellow spent six weeks at number one on the Official Jazz & Blues Albums Chart this summer and is already on its third vinyl repress.

Its fourteen tracks feature performances from Thackray’s long-term band – drummer Dougal Taylor, pianist Lyle Barton and tuba player Ben Kelly – cut and spliced with brass and strings, choral segments and euphoric chants.

Emma-Jean said: "Yellow is a mammoth, 50-minute long project full of orchestral textures. I don’t think people were expecting that kind of sound.

“I want it to be like a psychedelic experience. Whether you’re listening to it sitting down in your favourite chair with a cup of tea, or in a club, I want people to come out the other side feeling changed and feeling like the world is a little bit better."

Yellow is as rich lyrically as it is musically; 'Third Eye' and 'Sun' grapple with ideas of spirituality, while 'Spectre' uses the language of a haunting to confront the reality of depression.

The latter track was written in real time as the lyrics "poured out", Emma-Jean said, a raw embodiment of her own experiences.

She added: “When I’m writing it’s incredibly natural, then afterwards - when you realise you have to sing it to 1,000 people - it can feel difficult.

"But I love performing and that’s where I feel natural and comfortable. It’s not that I forget everyone is there, but I forget that they’re strangers.”

Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.