Emma Johnson interview


We caught up with Emma Johnson ahead of her upcoming commission as part of the Evolve series at this year’s Lancaster Jazz Festival.

What led you into playing and composing jazz music?

Weirdly, they were reached by two different paths for me.

I’ve always written music for as long as I can remember and have kept up writing in a variety of different styles, even as my jazz career has developed.

When I started getting into playing jazz music and taking it seriously, I was at 6th Form and then going into studying at Leeds College of Music (as it was then!), and I actually found that I moved away from composing during that time.

It took me quite a while after university to rediscover my love for writing music and to find a balance between writing and playing in jazz and other styles – I’m still working on finding the perfect mixture!

How do you approach being a bandleader – is it any different to being a member of a band?

For me, being a bandleader is a real combination of artistic and organisational elements. It’s something that I fell into a bit, essentially wanting to have a place to try out my compositions in the early days.

In the main, the artistic elements for me are just about being sensitive to the musicians you’re working with, both in the writing/arranging and in your leading style. I have fairly specific ideas and maybe I map out the music more than you would typically see in a jazz ensemble, but knowing when to do this and when to be more flexible with the arrangement is something I’m always working on.

I know I’m lucky to work with such brilliant musicians so want to leave space for them to put their stamp on the music.

In a more organising/admin sense, it’s a similar thing of being sensitive, but also trying to take most of the weight of planning, timings, organising travel etc off the band. Most musicians work in various settings so ensuring that they can (hopefully!) just focus on the music on these gigs and not have loads of other worries, juggles, stresses from the project is key for me.

I also think that’s the main difference being a bandleader to a member of a band (where there is a leader), sometimes it’s nice to just be able to rock up to a gig and everything be taken care of, although it can be difficult to switch it off and on!

We loved Worry Not – can you tell us a bit about how it came together?

Really kind of you to say. It’s a year since the release now and we’ve only just finished up the tour so I’m only starting to reflect on how it’s all been and how it’s all gone this week really!

The album itself was meant to portray dealing with the little worries that I think play a part in most people’s days, hours and weeks. It starts with some uneasy, twisting tracks and slowly eases it’s way into warmer, more welcoming sounds.

The release took a long time to pull together, with the recording originally scheduled for April 2020, and it finally happened a year later in April 2021. Between that and the release and tour plans that went along with it, I think we were on plan F by the time we actually got to making the album. In hindsight, I’m not sure how I kept the focus and faith to keep replanning and hoping that it might actually happen this time, but I’m quite happy with how it all worked out in the end.

Do you have any advice for young musicians who want to get into creating their own music and performing it live?

I think the main thing is to start.

It’s very easy to think that you might share your music, organise a play with other musicians, try and book a gig when you’re more prepared, but that goal post is constantly moving, so it’s best just to make a start and then work on it as you go.

Aside from that, those bits of advice that you hear time and time again but for a reason:

  • Treat people (promotors, venue staff, bandmates, everyone) kindly and genuinely
  • Try to ignore the side of social media that makes you doubt what you’re doing
  • Think about how to share your music and story in a way that feels right to you

Also, reach out to people you admire. Most are really willing to share advice and insight into what you’re looking to do that’s more specific and probably more helpful than the above!

We’ve really enjoyed seeing you play at Lancaster Jazz Festival a few times over the years – how does it feel to be coming back?

It feels really good. A commission like this is a huge opportunity and it means a lot to be chosen to write new work for this year’s festival alongside the other Evolve Artists who I really admire.

I think this will be my third time at Lancaster with Gravy Boat and I am so excited to play a programme of brand new music to what is always such a kind, interested and open audience.

I’m really hoping the music will speak to the people of Lancaster and to get to share what I’ve been working on for the first time.

We’re really looking forward to your Evolve commission performance! What can we expect?

I’m not 100% sure what’s still under wraps at this point, so stop me if I say too much! My Evolve commission is inspired by the resilience and fire of Northern folk, especially women. So far, it has involved a lot of research, conversation and thought, drawing upon my experiences as a Lancashire lass and looking into the history of women and the importance of their stories and impact on Lancaster and beyond.

The commission will be presented as an album length work in a performance at the festival with myself and my band Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat.

The music has the same cinematic, melodic leanings as my previous album, but with a little more adventure and a few more twists and turns.

Can’t wait to get to share it!

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