Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat – Where Were You Hiding?

Eclectic composer Emma Johnson pairs up here with expressive vocalist Nishla Smith delivering a harmony rich jazz ballad.

  • Describe your sound in 3 words

Melodic, Warm, Distinctive (I stole that last one from a review, sorry!).

  • You describe Gravy Boat as “a band that aspires to write and perform melodic, accessible jazz that anyone can enjoy”. Is jazz music elitist? 

This is really tricky, and I feel the need to separate my answer into two perspectives.

In my experience as a performer I haven’t found jazz music elitist, but I suppose to some extent, learning an instrument (and all that comes with that) carries with it some form of elitism in that it’s a fairly expensive thing to do.

I was very lucky to have incredibly supportive parents growing up, who paid for music lessons and drove me around to rehearsals and gigs when I was in school, and understand I wouldn’t be where I am today without the opportunities that taking part in those things provided.

I know there are things being done to help more children be given the chance to learn an instrument, with first access lessons and whole class teaching in some schools, but it’s really important we keep introducing young people to playing and give them the opportunities to practice and perform to keep the arts thriving.

From the perspective of music listeners today, I don’t think jazz is elitist. I think in previous years, it may have been more-so, but now with music streaming, gigs and genres crossing over a lot more, I feel like audiences are much more open to finding and listening to music just because they like it, without being put off by the genre.

With everything being available online and also, so many free/PAYF albums and events, anyone who wants to check out some live jazz would find it easy to access (even in a lockdown!).

  • What is the music scene in Leeds? Which city do you think is the world capital of Jazz?

The music scene in Leeds is eclectic, vibrant and fun. There’s a lot of different promoters, gigs and events springing up all the time and the scene is definitely thriving. I love being able to go to a gig, no matter what day of the week it is, and the quality is always great.

I guess the obvious answer for the world capital of jazz would be somewhere like New York or New Orleans, but I haven’t been to either of them yet – both are on the bucket list.

In terms of places I’ve spent time in, I think Berlin is the best jazz capital I’ve visited, and one of my favourite cities, perhaps because of that!

  • What’s Your Favourite Album Of All Time?

Too hard! Mine (and I’m sure most other people’s) big problem with this is that I love loads of different styles of music, which are hard to compare with each other. The albums that got me into jazz were ‘Go’ by Dexter Gordon and ‘Saxophone Colossus’ by Sonny Rollins. I was pretty late to learning jazz and did some transcriptions from these albums for my A Level recital.

My current favourite sax players are Seamus Blake and Tivon Pennicott and the albums I like the best of theirs are where they’re sidemen (Meridian Suite, Continuum and 2 if you’re interested).

In terms of albums I can listen to anytime, I fall towards Joni Mitchell – Blue and James Taylor, but I can’t narrow that down more!

I also love Norah Jones, and especially am really inspired by how prolific she is right now, it seems like she’s releasing amazing music constantly at the moment. Begin Again, her most recent album, is so fascinating and such an engulfing listen. I’ve also been really getting into the latest Tame Impala release and especially love the groove in ‘Lost in Yesterday’.

  • What do you enjoy most? Writing music or performing your music live? What would be your dream performance venue?

I prefer writing, and if I could get someone else to play saxophone in my band I would. However, I’ve learnt a lot about myself and my playing from touring with Gravy Boat, and I definitely enjoy it a lot more now I’ve started to get over worrying about what I sound like, and concentrating on everything else that’s going on more.

I know listening is top of the list for improvising musicians, but I have definitely struggled to get out of my own head on gigs in the past, which affected my enjoyment of it, as well as my playing probably.

Don’t get me wrong, I really love performing, but usually enjoy playing someone else’s music (eg. with a horn section), more than being the bandleader.

It’s pretty hard to admit that, but I’ve worked on it a lot and now am really enjoying both sides of the coin, writing and performing, consistently.

  • If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be? 

In the wider music industry, I’d like to change the focus to be more about the music and less about what people look like, especially for female artists. It’s not a huge issue in jazz I don’t think, and I appreciate it’s not very likely to happen, but this is my genie/lamp moment, so let’s go with that.

  • If you did not become a musician, what would you be doing right now?

I decided I wanted to be a film music composer in high school (taken a small and happy detour, trying to work back towards that a bit now!), and I haven’t really thought about anything but making music my career since then, so I really don’t know.
I’ve always said if it all went wrong, I’d be a van driver, because I could listen to whatever I wanted and I like driving. It probably wouldn’t be that dissimilar to my usual gig travel schedule either!

  • One last thing we should know about you?

I love potatoes.

Also, I’ve got a new single out – probably should mention that!
It’s the first thing I’ve released in a few years, and features amazing Manchester based vocalist, Nishla Smith. We met at a composer’s jam night where she was kind enough to agree to sing this song. It’s the first time anyone heard the words, as up to that point, I’d only performed it as an instrumental with my band.

It’s a good old fashioned love song and a slight departure from Gravy Boat’s usual instrumental tracks but with everything that’s going on, and with our album recording being delayed, I just wanted to put something out that might soothe people at this stressful time.

  • Thank you Emma!

Website: www.johnsonmusic.co.uk
Facebook: www.facebook.com/emmajohnsonmusic
IG: www.instagram.com/emmajohnsonmusic
Twitter: www.twitter.com/emmajohnsonsax
Youtube: www.youtube.com/emmajohnsonmusic


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