Introducing… Emma-Jean Thackray, the British nu-jazz prodigy who owes her guitar style to grunge and nu-metal

The Leeds-hailing multi-instrumentalist and bandleader topped the UK jazz chart with her debut album, Yellow. We spoke to one of the brightest young talents on the UK scene to talk Squiers, plugins and being a “very intense 14-year-old”

What does jazz smell like? What’s the fragrance of funk? The aroma of electronica? The bouquet of Yorkshire’s brass bands? Individually, we’re not so sure. But stir these styles together and the scent is clear. Emma-Jean Thackray’s debut album fuses all these genres and more, a balmy, sun-cooked blend of brass-band bops, psych-spiked funk, fleet-footed floor-fillers, swirling kosmische and spiritual jazz. Its parfum? Eau du Yellow? Patchouli, orange and ginger.

Emma-Jean Thackray is one of Britain’s brightest jazz prospects. Like London nu-jazz contemporaries Ezra Collective, Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia, the multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, beat-maker, composer, producer, master’s-level arranger, label manager and DJ is partly responsible for the recent and unlikely resurgence of homegrown jazz. Her debut album, suffused with deep-mind mysticism and stuffed with genre-jumping, rule-breaking compositions, has been praised by the likes of Pitchfork and NME. As well as drafting in help from her live band, Thackray plays practically every instrument on it: voice, vibraphone, bass guitar, bass clarinet, trumpet, percussion, synths, organ, guitar and more. She’s self-taught in almost all of them.

Emma-Jean Thackray
Emma-Jean Thackray in her home studio Movementt

Brass tacks

Growing up in brass country, West Yorkshire, Thackray always wanted to be an artist. “From the second I could talk, when the grown-ups would ask me what I wanted to be, I’d be like, ‘Artist. I want to be an artist. I will be an artist,’” she says. “There was never a doubt in my mind that that would be the way I lived my life.”

At eight, she began learning the cornet. By the time she was a teen, she’d become the principal cornet player in the Tingley Brass Band, before switching to jazz trumpet at 14. Throughout her teens, Thackray was back and forth between Leeds and its satellite towns partaking in regional band championships, as well as darting down to London for marquee events. All the while, this soon-to-be jazz master was finding her way into guitar music the same way many teens of the new millennium did: through the fading flames of 1980s rock and 1990s grunge and the rapidly rising stars of nu-metal.

Like many millennials, Thackray came of age in the era of Kerrang TV, MTV and Scuzz, musical tastemakers then at the peak of their powers. With Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana videos on regular rotation alongside those by the likes of Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and System of a Down, Thackray paid attention – not just to the angst and the attitude but to the fingerings, the melodies, the harmonic movements.

“It started with trying to get into a lot of rock stuff,” she says. “Slipknot, Korn, Papa Roach, it was that kind of time. Nu-metal was having its day.” At about 12, Thackray found a beat-up acoustic at school and somehow already knew what to do with it. “It was just really immediate,” she says. “I could already kind of play it. I sang the riff from Sweet Child O’ Mine, then I found where the notes were and then I could play it. Someone was like, ‘You must’ve been playing a while to be able to play a riff that hard’. And I was like, ‘Nah, I’ve just picked it up today’. I was very ear-led. I’d seen that powerchord shape on Kerrang music videos. ‘Oh, they’re doing that shape a lot.’ I worked it out and it meant I could play riffs. While I was working out what was going on in the music, I was working out how to play it on guitar.”

Emma-Jean Thackray

With Kurt Cobain’s powerchords still reverberating on the airwaves, Nirvana proved a particularly strong influence on Thackray, occasionally to her detriment – but then to her advantage. “I loved Kurt Cobain,” she says. “Even though I’m ambidextrous, I play lefty. I started playing upside down at first because I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do that, so all the shapes I was learning were wrong. Obviously, there are some shapes that you can’t do upside down, so I was finding my own way to voice things. At the time, that made it difficult but it’s given me a different mindset. You don’t have to play everything the way everyone else does.”

Cobain’s influence didn’t just impact the way Thackray held the guitar but also the foundations of her songwriting. “I think his harmonic movement influenced me,” she adds. “When you look at [Nirvana] stuff on paper, things aren’t necessarily functional. It’s not necessarily a functional harmony. There’s some quite angular stuff. It was like, ‘Oh, you can do that. You don’t have to go I, V or I, IV, V.’ It’s about letting the chords be a melodic element. So that powerchord movement, playing a riff, has set up the whole way I think about music.”

Thackray’s unorthodox approach to harmony saw her flourish in Cardiff, where she moved to study jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama once she turned 18. Throughout her time in the Welsh capital, Thackray kept playing guitar – but kept it quiet. “I was always playing,” she says. “I just wasn’t really showing people. I was playing just for fun. I wasn’t necessarily writing jazz on it, because I didn’t feel I was as good at the guitar as I am at trumpet, which is absolutely the case. But I always kept them with me. As I started producing my own music and releasing it, it was a case of, ‘Oh, I’m really hearing a guitar sound there…’

Thackray’s first recorded guitar line can be heard on her 2018 debut EP Ley Lines, on laidback jazz number Red Bush, led by brass and bass but backed up by soft, slight, rounded guitar. “It’s quite quiet,” she says, “but there is a guitar in it. That’s the first time I ever released something with guitar on it and me playing it. Then on Yellow, there’s loads of guitar.”

Emma-Jean Thackray
Live band Ben Kelly, Lyle Barton, Dougal Taylor, Thackray and Crispin Robinson prior to the Yellow album release show at Colour Factory, East London

Yellow brick road

Released in July on Thackray’s own Warp Records imprint Movementt, Yellow fulfills all the promises laid down by Ley Lines and more. It’s a lavish record, packed with perambulating percussion and rhythmic trickery, wide-ranging vocals, exquisite chord progressions and gnarly harmonic movements alongside disciplined, unobtrusive, gently effected funk and jazz guitar.

Much of the guitar on Yellow comes courtesy of Thackray’s first-ever electric, a cheap right-handed Strat copy copped from Argos and gifted to her by her parents when she was 14. It’s a Squier, she thinks. Not that you’d know it – she chiselled the name off the headstock.

“I was a very intense 14-year-old,” she says. “‘Maaan, it doesn’t matter about brands – we’re all the saaame!’”, she adds, with mock new-age American affectation. Thackray also took a chisel to the Strat’s upper horn. “I wrote some of my poetry on it… and then I was like, ‘Nooo, it’s too personal, I can’t show anyone’. I was such a dramatic beret-wearing twat.”

There’s drama throughout Yellow too, and Thackray is keen to manufacture more in the wake of its release. Enlivened by rich vocal delay and warm keyboard stabs, hazy summer single Say Something is a sun-lit 4/4 toe-tapper that builds to a glorious midpoint crescendo, at which stage the song sidesteps into a slinky 7/4 groove as Thackray, looking every bit the flannel-clad grunge acolyte in the song’s video, peels off a long solo on her chiselled Strat – or so the video suggests.

“On the recording it’s a synthesiser,” she says. “Then for the video I thought it’d be funny to mime it on guitar. I deliberately mimed some of the phrases to match up so that people wouldn’t know. Some of it I’m just wagging my fingers, some of it is the actual phrase. I wanted people to question it. I love that kind of stuff.” It could’ve been stranger still; Thackray initially wanted to mime the part on bassoon but she couldn’t find one in time.

Myths and legends

From Yellow’s spiritual artwork by Meagan Boyd to its cosmic, third-eye-opening lyrics, Thackray is earnest in her appreciation of sacred spaces and mindsets, of the metaphysical. But there’s a certain mischievousness to Yellow too – and to Thackray, evident in her playful videos, the samples she drops into her live sets, and her fondness for self-mythologising. When we ask whether she bears any relation to Jake Thackray, another off-beat musician who was born around Leeds and later moved to Wales, she’s wry about it.

“I don’t,” she says, smirking. “But maybe we should keep the mystery alive and not tell people that? I like being asked that, because he’s a bit of a weirdo. How can we lay it out so I don’t definitely say, ‘No, I’m not’?”

Even at its most mischievous, though, Yellow is never non-committal in its approach to genres. For the album’s jazziest sections, as on the snappy jam About That, Thackray reached not for her Strat but for a more recent acquisition, a semi-hollow T-type built by the Wales-based Revelation and equipped with an Entwistle Nashville Star humbucker and an Entwistle single-coil pickup in the bridge and neck, respectively. “It sounds really open and jazzy,” she says. “It’s got kind of between an archtop and a Tele sound. For me, it’s the perfect jazz tone. About That is probably the jazziest song on Yellow. On that, the Revelation is panned way off to the right, loads of reverb, that kind of pure jazz sound – pure guitar, no pedals.”

Thackray’s favourite guitar part on the album, though, is found on Spectre, the record’s steadiest and most emotive piece. “It’s really nice because it’s just so simple,” she says. “It’s bathed in reverb and that’s what brings the atmosphere, this kind of haunting quality. There’s so much reverb but not so much that there’s no clarity. You can still hear what I’m playing. It’s quite ethereal-sounding.”

Emma-Jean Thackray
Thackray on stage at Colour Factory with sousaphonist Ben Kelly

That ethereal ambience – a chilly contrast to Yellow’s mostly golden hues – was created via a mix of pedals and plugins, including the reverb section of Thackray’s Space Echo and the Waves plugin RVerb, to better bed the part into the mix. Alongside reverb, Yellow’s palette is made up of compressors, a Boss chorus, an Electro-Harmonix POG (Polyphonic Octave Generator) and a Pitch Fork pitch-shifter, and even DIY units picked up from Deptford market. Thackray also keeps a loaded Pedaltrain Nano – on which sits a yellow Roland SP-404SX sampler, plus an assortment of other small pedals – on hand for live dubs and delays, applied not only to guitar but to trumpet and voice too.

Thackray doesn’t see herself as a gear person, her attitude to equipment dictated primarily by money. “It’s only in the past couple of years that I started making money from doing this,” she says. “Before, I didn’t have another job. I was just doing music but I was living on beans on toast. Crazy-poor. Dodging-the-bills poor. I got an acoustic, just for knocking about with, from Deptford market for like £20 and it was fine. I understand that if you want top-quality stuff you’ve got to pay top-quality money. But I always felt like this was good enough. The things that are more important for me are the ideas, rather than how good it sounds.”

Listen closely to Yellow and you’ll hear things that sound amiss. But that DIY feel is part of the plan. “I think it’s become part of what people hear when they listen to me,” says Thackray. “It should sound a bit wonky. If the guitar’s out of tune, I’ve done it on purpose, to bring a certain colour. The Squier in particular sounds fuckin’ horrible. But sometimes that’s what you want. You might try really hard to get that kind of sound with something nice but it’s right there in that £100 guitar.”

There’s little to no crunch on Yellow, especially for an artist weaned on Kerrang TV. The only real dirt you’ll hear comes from tape manipulation. But the polymath’s follow-up sounds like it might crank things up a notch. “The stuff I’m writing next is a little more rocky,” she reveals. “But that’s not going to be out for at least a year, 18 months or so. I’ve already started the next album but it’s just a start.” In the meantime, there’ll be a few smaller releases to help tide audiences over.

Emma-Jean Thackray

Follow your nose

Right now, though, Thackray is up to her trumpet in admin – much of it Brexit-related – as she prepares to embark on a proper tour in celebration of her debut album in 2022. Yellow is, unsurprisingly, Thackray’s favourite colour. But it also holds a surprisingly practical purpose for her: as a visual trigger for meditation. In the same way you might use a singing bowl, a candle or a piece of music, Thackray uses the colour yellow to help her achieve a certain state of mind. She uses scents too.

“I use smells, burning different incense to get into a different mental state or creative space,” she says. “If I’m in a project, I’ll make different essential oil blends and stuff. For Yellow, I had a certain smell and I’d spritz it and that would help me get in the place.”

So what does Yellow smell like? “Patchouli, orange and ginger.” Judging by the lyrics to Golden Green, biscuits and weed too.

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