Emma Johnson
Photo credit: Joe Collinson

New schools programme kicks off in Manchester, with Emma Johnson

As our first Future Sound Live in Manchester kicks off this Autumn term, we caught up with saxophonist, composer and bandleader Emma Johnson, who leads the music education project.

Emma is a Lancashire-raised, Leeds-based musician, who received the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award to record her debut album ‘Worry Not’ with her band, Gravy Boat, releasing it to critical acclaim in July 2021.  She’s also played with artists from Gregory Porter to Olly Murs as well as recording with her horn section for bands such as Neon Dolls and Fold, whose music is played regularly on BBC Radio 6.  Emma was an Abram Wilson Career Development Programme mentee from 2020-22.

Jennie: Why were you keen to get involved with the Future Sound programme?

Emma: It’s been amazing to see the Future Sound programme develop over the past few years and I feel really aligned with the goals and work that the Abram Wilson charity is doing to help and inspire young musicians. After learning so much and having so much support as a Career Development mentee, it feels great to get the chance to give something back.

Giving opportunities to young people to experience writing, playing and performing music alongside their peers and a team of creative professional musicians is priceless as a chance for them to see that pursuing a career in music is possible and achievable.

In my own experience when starting to take music more seriously at high school age, I found a huge lack in awareness or encouragement to pursue this, from careers advisors, careers days and teachers. I was fortunate to go onto sixth form college where I became aware of the possibilities of music education and beyond, but more visibility and influence at an early age would mean that more young people could explore this as an option.

I’m passionate about giving young people musical opportunities that I didn’t have at that age, and feel that working with this team will bring new experiences to the group, in terms of working together, playing new music and achieving things that they might not think possible in pursuit of putting together a final performance.

Jennie: What advice would you give the 15 year old you?

Emma: I think I’d just tell myself to be more confident and trust my convictions. I knew I wanted to be a musician, but wish I’d been more self aware and taken it upon myself more to research it, ask for advice/help and think more independently rather than always taking the word of teachers/adults around me.

It’s pretty tricky as I think these things do generally come with age, but I feel like it’s taken me a long time to get to a point of thinking about what I want to do and how I spend my time as more of a priority.

I was lucky that things worked out in a way that I did end up getting to pursue music but there are loads of things I wish I’d figured out sooner – sure most people feel the same!

Jennie: The arts and music generally can be quite London-centric, so how do you feel about this programme launching in Manchester?

Emma: I think it’s a really brilliant thing that Future Sound is launching in the North. It can sometimes feel like you need to be in London to be involved in a lot of creative projects like this, and that most of the opportunities are there, but I really love the North and am passionate about creating opportunities, art and experiences that are centred here.

Growing up, Manchester was my closest city, but it still felt like the music scene there was a world away from where I was, and projects like this, working in professional settings and with professional musicians can be a real stepping stone for young people with a passion for music.

I do think the internet and the last couple of years have changed things a little, in that anyone can write, release, collaborate from anywhere, and gradually more non-London artists are coming to the fore. Fergus McCreadie getting the Mercury nom this year is a prime example, and hopefully that’ll bring greater recognition for jazz from more UK places.

Jennie: Apart from Future Sound, what else is on the horizon for you for the rest of this year? 

Emma: I’ve been working on a brand new commission called Northern Flame for Lancaster Jazz Festival which is premiering this Sunday.

I’m going to gig this new music for the rest of the year with Gravy Boat and then hoping to head into the studio for album two at the start of next year, so exciting times!

We’ve also just released a limited edition vinyl version of Worry Not to celebrate the year anniversary – it’s available on pre-order now in a beautiful sky blue colour for delivery before Christmas, if you fancy checking it out!

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