Emma-Jean Thackray Paints the UK Yellow


A shot from the official video for “Say Something” from Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow.

(Photo: Three Minutes Crack Magazine)

Emma-Jean Thackray’s debut album, Yellow, is a surprising synthesis of ’70s funk, ethereal orchestral music modeled after Sun Ra and Art Ensemble of Chicago, bits of Eastern mysticism and what DJs in the United Kingdom call “broken beat,” a highly syncopated soul style with all the whip-cracking motion of a guillotine.

The 31-year-old English bandleader, multi-instrumentalist (trumpet is her principal instrument), singer, DJ, producer and boss of the Warp Records imprint Movement records musicians in her home studio, then produces everything, including her vocals and instrumentation, through a computer, following the studio-as-instrument model.

How does this Brian Wilson-meets-Geoff Barrow (from Portishead) worker bee amalgamate the diverse styles of Yellow though the workstation of her south London home?

“The key is to not try to do that,” Thackray said, on her way to headline the We Out Here festival, a coming-out party for the U.K.’s vibrant jazz scene. “I just let things come out honestly and truthfully; these genres and artists I’ve listened to are part of me. When I first played the record out someone said, ‘I can really hear all that broken beat.’ Really? It’s so natural how the music comes out that I’m not aware of the influences.”

A product of West Yorkshire brass bands, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Thackray is currently the toast of the U.K. jazz scene, though, at times, she feels excluded.

“I’m a bit different to everyone else in the scene,” Thackray confessed. “I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider. Everyone else, maybe they grew up together or went to Saturday music school together. I didn’t do any of that. I’m not from London originally. And although I’m obviously friends with everyone, and we play together, I’m still on the periphery because, well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just naturally who I am as a person. That’s been the tag put on me, always the weirdo, awkward or peculiar.”

Thackray’s big-hearted nature fills Yellow with a passion and personality rare to any jazz scene. Though some music of the U.K. jazz scene is based on the Caribbean and African diaspora, Thackray readily admits her love of both American hip-hop and jazz trumpeters.

“Miles Davis is the energy for me,” Thackray enthused. “I also really like Lester Bowie, Don Cherry and Art Farmer. Certainly, Chet Baker, obviously being a vocalist. Art Farmer is weird, in such a cool way.”

Yellow is bold and colorful, grabbing you by the scruff of your brain and the seat of your dance floor pants. It’s a journey of musical inclusiveness. But among the joy, “Spectre” paints an eerie vista of gloomy strings, pacing chordal solemnity and a disembodied vocal choir.

“It’s about mental illness,” Thackray explained. “Whether it’s my own or a partner or a friend’s. It’s about people through illness having the joy sucked out of them and becoming a husk of themselves, not being able to function. You can’t communicate because you’re indifferent, you’re beyond that. You’re a ghost. I wanted to bring that metaphor to demonstrate what it’s like having mental illness or being around someone and loving someone who is ill. I don’t really remember writing it, if that makes sense. It just sort of flew out of me while I was at the keyboard.”

While “Spectre” may be dark, Yellow, as a whole, is overwhelmingly fun and optimistic, a sunny spot amid cloudy London skies.

“I really wanted the album to focus on gratitude and positivity,” Thackray said. “You could use a singing bowl to trigger that state, but for me, it’s colors and smells, more than anything. I wanted to make the whole record be about that.” DB

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