Emma-Jean Thackray: Beat-laden jazz groovers to “move your body, mind and soul”
“If someone asked me, ‘what would your life be like if you won the lottery and didn’t have to think about money?’ It’d be exactly the same,” Emma-Jean Thackray says. “I just want to keep making music. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I never really felt like I shouldn’t either.”
For Thackray, everything is falling into place – singular, spectacular tunes have made her a renowned figure in the London jazz scene and beyond. The multi-instrumentalist, producer, singer, DJ, trumpeter and composer’s latest project, ‘UM YANG 음 양’, out on July 31, draws from the various elements that have made her work so celebrated – Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane with a little Pharaoh Sanders sprinkled on top. But listen closer and Thackray has woven in elements of LA’s lo-fi scene, Madlib-influenced beats and the vibe of Detroit’s ‘90s house scene.
“I have this chant; move the body, move the mind, move the soul,” she tells NME from her London home that doubles as her studio. It applies to her own label as well, Movementt. Taking its title and ethos from a track of the same name on her EP, ‘Rain Dance’, the label’s philosophy is one that already underpins all of Thackray’s work: balance, a hymn repeated throughout the first song of ‘UM YANG 음 양’. “I don’t see any issues with putting on something like Sun Ra and then playing techno. To me, there’s no difference. It’s coming from the same place, so it belongs in the same place.”
A vision for cross-collaboration across genres, instruments and music brought Movementt to life. Her new label may be fledgeling, but with a focus on improvisation that doesn’t distinguish between dance music, jazz, electronic and explorative experimentation. “I’m happy to put a mic in the middle of a room and invite people in and make something and see what happens,” she says. “I’m trying to make a family that I have been craving for my whole life. So why not build something new?”
This mindset stems from her Dad raising her on Taoist ideals, a major influence on ‘UM YANG 음 양’, where she leads a septet who recorded the two tracks straight to vinyl. “I think the ideals saved my life in so many ways that maybe I won’t fully comprehend for a long, long time,” she says of her upbringing. “It not only became part of my emotional balance, but it became part of my musical process as well. It was huge growing up and finding it hard growing up where I did, it was like a lifeline to me.”
Thackray was born in Leeds, playing in multiple brass bands throughout her childhood. She was part of the Yorkshire wind band, brass bands, symphony orchestra, big bands and “playing funk with my friends at school.” Thackray dove headfirst into music as a means to escape. “It taught me about how important music is for people, especially where I grew up where there’s fuck all to do. That’s how a lot of working-class communities educate the kids around there. It’s like a youth club.”
Finding herself outgrowing Yorkshire, Thackray attended to the Royal Welsh College Of Music And Drama, then heading out further, taking on a Master’s with Issie Barratt at Trinity. She soon found herself as an RBMA alumnus and in 2018, became artist-in-residence at the London Symphony Orchestra. “It was stressful as fuck. It was so stressful, they nearly killed me.”
The experience did teach her how segregated the classical music community it is, and how she wants to address that issue across all genres. “It’s not a white, non-white thing. It’s a money thing. Classical music deserves to be heard and understood by so many other people but you need to have money for education.”
Thackray hosted events where friends of hers would perform or have access to spaces they normally wouldn’t for a myriad of reasons. “I wanted to try and break that down as much as possible and make it about lots of different people in the same room, listening to loads of different kinds of sounds altogether and being just one in a space together.”
Her own influences for that come from famed West Coast producer, Madlib. “I feel like he’s my best friend,” she says. Much like Madlib’s remarkable capacity for picking up instruments for the first time and knowing how and what to play, Thackray does much the same, recounting how she recorded the clarinet for her latest album – learning the parts she had written for the album in 10 minutes. “I wanted to be playful. I’m not saying that I’m good at the clarinet. I’m just saying, let’s just stop being so serious. I just want to have some fun.”
Since she first picked up ‘Sketches of Spain’, the Miles Davis record that changed her perception of music forever, Thackray knew she would inevitably end up here and now, releasing records on her own label and making a singular brand of music.
“I’ve never doubted my place. That’s not to say that I don’t have bags to learn and hard paths to walk down, but it’s a completely comfortable place of knowing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and living my purpose. For a kid from a working class background whose dad is a truck driver, I’m taking this journey all the way to the last day.”
Emma-Jean Thackray’s ‘UM YANG 음 양’ is out July 31. ‘Rain Dance’ EP is out now via Movementt