'UM YANG 음양 ' is the latest project from multi-instrumentalist and producer Emma-Jean Thackray, released through Night Dreamer Records. Ally got the chance to talk to Emma-Jean about the project, her recently launched label Movementt and unveil her music-making thoughts and processes
“Move the mind, move the body, move the soul.” This is the mantra of Emma-Jean Thackray, the brilliant award-winning multi-instrumentalist, beat-maker and DJ which guides her music-making. Speaking to her, it’s clear that music comes first. “That’s in my mind every time I make music”.
Since the release of her debut EP Walrus in 2016, she has gone onto release a handful of projects, including collaborations with the Chicago-based International Anthem crew, such as drummer Makaya McCraven and bassist Junius Paul, remixing across the jazz-electronic realm as well as being championed by industry leaders like Gilles Peterson.
Despite wider events, 2020 has been a busy year for Emma-Jean Thackray (EJT). In the year so far, she has launched her own label Movementt (in association with Warp) along with the label's debut EP Rain Dance in March, she continues to host her monthly show on the Gilles Peterson-fronted Worldwide FM and has, most recently, released her project UM YANG 음양 through Night Dreamer Records.
Reflecting on her mantra, she tells me “It’s visceral and groovy for the body, it’s heady and cerebral for the mind and it’s about nourishing subject matter. It’s not superficial. It’s about stuff that needs to be said or is about exploring things a little bit deeper for the soul.”
Like many musicians and creatives, EJT has faced a whole revenue stream dry up as live performances continue to be scarce, her music production skills and DJing ear has meant that she has spent more time remixing for others, on top of running her label, recording and practising her plethora of instruments... So, just a small number of things to keep her preoccupied.
Her dedication to her art and her determination to succeed is resoundingly clear when talking to her. “I like to work in lots of different ways… It’s not like each thing is getting less time. Everything is still getting the right amount of time, it just means I have to work three or four times as much… To constantly be bettering myself in lots of different areas.”
Asking her if this takes a toll at all, chuckling she tells me “Maybe I’ll find out in a few decades. I love what I do. It’s my life’s purpose. It kind of doesn’t feel like work. Things that feel like work are the travelling side…or doing the admin side…The actual creative side feels like a pleasure and a privilege.”
EJT’s recently released project UM YANG 음양 is the latest Night Dreamer records release. The company, whose name is inspired by Wayne Shorter’s Blue Note record debut, specialises in direct-to-disc recordings. Based out of Haarlem, Netherlands, the process sees music directly cut onto acetate from single-take live performances, without interference, using some of the finest vintage recording equipment in the world. EJT’s project is the company’s sixth release to date, having previously released music by Seu Jorge & Rogê, Seun Kuti, Etuk Ubong, as well as Gary Bartz & Maisha. As can probably be inferred by the names on the label, their musical vision is sublime.
EJT tells me, “I’d always dreamed of doing this record. I didn’t necessarily have the musical content, but I had the concept in my back pocket for a long time. I thought it’d be this far away dreamed album, that I won’t get to do for a long time, but then the opportunity came up, so I jumped on it.”
Using analogue and vintage gear is a vastly different experience to what many contemporary musicians are used to. Wistfully EJT points out that “it’s all wood and it’s all this amazing vintage gear that is all about touching and about the sound going through this metal. It’s very… tangible.”
Without trying to sound like a complete music wanker, you have to listen to this on vinyl. The beauty, build-up, rawness and heat of the emotions in the music is wholeheartedly clear.
Recording direct-to-disc, where you’re not overdubbing or re-recording certain parts, also creates a different experience. Of this experience, EJT says, “In a way, it was just quite nice to just treat it like a live gig. I feel live, people tend to take a few more risks because it’s an ephemeral moment. People can be freer, and a little bit more open. Whereas when you’re recording, people can get red light syndrome, and they kind of freeze a bit…It means that people’s minds aren’t as open sometimes.”
UM YANG 음양 is rooted in Taoist ideals. The phrase is the Korean equivalent of 'Ying & Yang', with EJT explaining, “it’s basically, whatever you can think of as opposites which come together as one. That’s what it is. My Dad brought me up with a lot of Taoist ideas, and that’s what became part of me as a person growing. That’s formed who I am. That has, of course, become part of my music as I put all of myself into the stuff I make.”
Delving into this further, she lays out that each side of the record “‘Um’ and ‘Yang’, they mirror each other in the structures, like it starts calm and gentle, it grows into a groove and ends in this cacophony. Then the other side starts in this cacophony, like mad, goes into a groove and ends really gentle. There’s lots of time signatures going on at the same time, matching up like a jigsaw, to create this trance-like effect. There’s people playing in different key signatures at the same time. Even the melodies of the separate pieces, they retrograde each other. If you write down the pitches of ‘Um’ and then you flip them backwards and transpose themselves into a different key, that makes the melody of ‘Yang’”. The level of musical detail is remarkable.
Many elements of her character emerge when talking with EJT; her natural creative flair, her ability to absorb as well as her humbleness. “The things I’m experiencing around me has influenced who I am as a person. And that’s been, how I want to make music. I never want to make music that is following trends…it’s just the truth in what’s inside of me at the time and trying to serve these visions in my head. Rather than ‘Oh, I want it to sound like this person because they’re popular.’ I’ve never thought in that way, and I think it’s a, kind of, bullshit way to approach stuff.”
Not having had the ability to travel, except for when touring or making music, she recalls her opportunity to spend a few months in Brazil, telling me “Just being around people, the language, it really helped me get in the sound world of the area I’m in. It, kind of, allowed me, to be a bit calmer…Just seeing the real street, rather than being escorted around…getting to actually explore and stuff on my own. It felt like I was in the scene, in the fabric of the neighbourhood.”
EJT began the year with releasing Rain Dance on her Movementt label, it’s name deriving from her mantra. She had bigger ambitions at the start of the year, including possibly signing new artists, yet she tells me “[My ambitions have] changed due to the financial situation which his arisen because of COVID… I really want to re-issue my first two EPs, Walrus and Ley Lines. They weren’t huge vinyl runs; they were very small…we’re hopefully going to make that happen. That’s the next step really, getting all of my music in one place, on this label.”
Along with reissuing her previous work under Movementt, EJT also reveals that she has begun recording her next record in the studio, “I think that’s going to be the focus for a while, just releasing myself. And it’s going to be a little later than I hoped… It’s about being patient, taking our time and not rushing.”
We’ve all been hit by the COVID outbreak in some form, but the creative and performing industries have bit hit particularly hard, as can be traced with the scaling back of EJT’s immediate goals. Yet, her positive outlook shines through.
“If there’s ever any hardship, there’s always less to learn, and opportunities to come from that. That’s part of this idea of balance that I’ve had in me. The energy must and will balance. You can take that really literally with this COVID situation. Because, of course, it’s been such a hard time for so many people…but there are always good things to come with that. Maybe not immediately, but it could mean that the way we approach work, in this country, could change for the better…Hopefully, we could mould things to the benefit of everyone.”
Emma-Jean Thackray's 'UM YANG 음양 ' is out now via Night Dreamer Records.
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