Young Artist Interview: Emma Smith
At the time of writing this I’m sitting in a hotel room somewhere in Germany waiting to go on stage. There are three of us in The Puppini Sisters, Marcelle, Kate and myself – I’m the red-head – and over the next week or so we’re performing in Berlin, Bologne and Milan.
The girls’ invitation to join the group came in 2012. After more than a decade of honing my vocal craft at Purcell School, followed by three years delving into arrangements and composition at the Academy, I was starting to wonder what I’d do when I graduated, despite busily recording my first album, The Huntress, which later went to no.1 in the iTunes Charts. As luck would have it The Puppini Sisters needed a red-head replacement (wig acceptable) to join the group and so, by the time I left, I was performing all over the world and working with artists such as Michael Bublé.
Although I come from a musical family, I certainly wasn’t pushed into music. In fact, my father wanted me to study law! He’s a fantastic trumpet player, pianist and composer of big band jazz music, and my mother is a talented saxophonist and singer. Together, they perform big band jazz, swing and blues with their band, Five Star Swing. However, my grandfather had a massive influence on me. A session trombonist and larger than life character nicknamed “the Rottweiler”, he’d toured with some of the world’s biggest names such as Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand and was a regular on live TV, including The Morecambe and Wise Show.
At the age of 14, I got my first taste of big band singing when I began accompanying my grandfather to gigs. One day we’d perform in a scruffy rotary club, the next, a swishy concert hall. Around this time I also started sneaking up to NYJO on Saturdays where I found my kind of people – strange and wonderful jazz musicians from all walks of life. It’s also where my parents met. NYJO is a incredible melting pot of different cultures and raw talent – Amy Winehouse and Jamie Cullum went there, as did my best friend, singer-songwriter, Kwabs. Back then it was run by Bill Ashton and we learnt lots, except perhaps how to issue invoices for gigs, which we’d write on the back of napkins!
I wanted to be a pop singer from the word go, but it was incredibly important to me that I knew my stuff by getting a solid music education first. Aside from my work with The Puppini Sisters I have two incredibly important projects in my life: my solo pop project, Espa, in which I write and sing my own songs, and my work as a presenter on BBC Radio 3 Jazz Now. Through Espa, I’ve helped co-write and record part of Guy Barker’s new album last summer, supported Maverick Sabre and performed at 11 music festivals including Camp Bestival where I sang in front of 10,000 people. I’ve also worked with talented producers and artists such as Chris Loco and Arc Elliot to create two EPs: 150th & Broadway and LG60, which reflect my interest in a broad range of music including hip hop and that I hope will reach out to more people than jazz. That said, jazz is gaining popularity, thanks to BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now which I proudly co-present with the MOBO Award winner Soweto Kinch and Al Ry. The show aims to shake-up the jazz world and bridge the divide between the often closeted world of jazz and contemporary mainstream music, and since starting in April our weekly listener figures have grown to 61,000. The show really appeals to my natural curiosity, as it’s very conversational, featuring exclusive broadcasts as well as in-depth artist features, record reviews and news reports on what’s happening around the world on jazz right now. I love the way it’s disrupting the jazz scene by unearthing music that pushes beyond genre conventions, which is something I’m also exploring with Espa, in order to create a unique and distinctive sound.
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