Emma-Jean Thackray built her new record, Ley Lines, in the upstairs studio of her cozy and colorful South London flat, instrument by instrument.
The rising star of London’s vibrant jazz-not-jazz wave recorded her signature trumpet alongside Hohner pianet, a clarinet she’d picked up for the first time 10 minutes before and drums, among other instruments.
“I play sloppy on purpose, push the time a little bit forward or back,” she said, sitting on a lived-in sofa that once belonged to her great grandmother, “holding my sticks in a lazy way to get those sounds. ... I wanted to make sure it didn’t have just a singular voice, so I’d snap myself into different modes by changing my jumper or taking off my shoes. When I did the choir for ‘Ley Lines,’ particularly when I did the men’s voices, I tried to change my shoulders, my stance. When I was doing the high bits, I tried to make myself smaller, hold myself like a tiny petite woman. I wanted it to have different characteristics. I was trying to [exhibit] different aspects of me.”
It’s a typically idiosyncratic approach for the 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist, beat-maker, composer, bandleader and remixer. She bridges all kinds of gaps: one week she’s pushing musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra out of their comfort zone by wrapping tinfoil around their violin strings and encouraging a contrabass clarinetist into the bassline zone, and the next she’s causing dancefloor commotions with her band Walrus at places like the influential Total Refreshment Centre. Last week, she launched Ley Lines with a live set at cult London record shop Sounds of the Universe.
Thackray grew up in a village in Yorkshire in the north of England, a region with a strong tradition of brass bands linked to the now-defunct mining industry. “The local brass band were great to me,” she said. “They gave me a better instrument as I got older, and that’s where I really learned how to play with other people.”
Tingley Brass Band were a traditional UK brass band, wearing blazers and bow ties who did “the traditional stuff: marches, hymns, doing all the brass band competitions in Blackpool.” Thackray was principle cornet from the age of 13.
“We had banners, the whole shebang; it had tassles. Our blazers were bright red. We looked just like James Brown’s horn section, but much nerdier.”
Her roots show thorough across the Vinyl Factory-released Ley Lines, which mixes hypnotic, low-end motion with psychedelic soul that’s cross-bred with woozy horns.
“[The brass band repertoire] has amazing composition, really beautiful harmonies,” she said. “I learned a lot of my harmony writing from that, weaving lines and trying to get a really solid big sound.”
Accidentally stumbling onto the Gil Evans arrangement of Miles Davis’ version of “Concerto De Orangerie” on Sketches Of Spain, though, changed things for Thackray. “Like other nerdy brass people, I’d learned it, and that’s how I got into jazz. I was like ‘Shit, who are these guys?’”
Then it was trips to High Street record store HMV, picking up whatever cheap jazz record she could afford: Kind Of Blue, finding A Love Supreme and “not understanding it.” Thackray was accepted into the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and studied with famed British improviser Keith Tippett, before undertaking a master’s in composition at Trinity College, where future South London dons Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Joe Armon-Jones were studying.
There’s a broad sweep of musical ancestry that sits alongside jazz and improv, and underpins Thackray’s playing and production: a love of hip hop maestro Madlib, for example, and Afrobeat.
“I’ve always been really attracted to percussion. My roots are rolling hills, brass bands, sounding quite wet and dense, nothing really cutting,” Thackray said. “I’d get obsessed with Tony Allen, do my own versions. My music is heavily influenced by rhythmical sounds. The way I like to play is more about the rhythm than the notes.”
But why the EP title, Ley Lines?
“I’m a bit of a conspiracy theory nutter,” she said, taking another sip of redbush tea. “Not that I believe them, but I just find it really interesting. I’d rather question and be wrong than accept things as they are. Ben from [the band] Walrus called me up one day and said that if you draw a line from Buckingham Palace to Edinburgh Castle to Cardiff Castle, it makes a perfect triangle. If you look at the hypotenuse, it doesn’t just go through Leeds, it doesn’t just go through Morley, it doesn’t just go through Tingley. Not just my street. But through the middle of my parent’s house. We were like, ‘What the fuck?’ Ley lines might not exist, but that is the weirdest co-incidence.” DB