When did you first get interested in music and who were your influences ?
My influences initially came from my mam. An inspired young woman who promoted jazz gigs in the ‘50s. My Dad was a charismatic market trader who encouraged me to whistle and sing along to the funky ‘70s theme tunes like Kojak and Pink Panther. I’m sure that developed my ear.
My older sister’s and brother were playing records by Van Morrison, Little Feat, Funkadelic and of course Motown. But the first record I bought was from Austin’s Record Store in Middlesbrough.
It was Aretha Now and quickly followed by Aretha Sings the Blues. Both records have shaped my development as a singer, and I still perform tracks from both in my current set.
I used to sit for hours listening to the songs on vinyl especially anything on the Stax and Chess labels. Writing out the line-up, lyric’s and liner notes made me feel closer to the music and that I could get to know the people on the record. I suppose it was a bit of studying.
Was there a defining moment listening to a song when you said ‘I want to do that’ ?
Hearing Avalon by Roxy Music made me think I would love to be part of a band and make such wonderful sounds.
But a defining moment was seeing Heaven 17 on Top of the Pops singing Temptation. Carol Kenyon sings the iconic backing vocal. I was mesmerised. Her voice, her style, the way she looked. I remember wanting to be a singer from that moment.
Many years later I was booked as a backing singer for an advert for Barclays Bank. I didn’t know earlier that morning Carol had been in to lay down the lead vocal. I cried when I found out that I’d just missed her. But I did get to hear her down the cans (headphones) and ‘sing’ with her.
When and where did you start gigging ?
I was 16 when I started gigging in and around the Teesside and North Yorkshire area. Simon my brother, had a guitarist friend called Graham Brotton who was in a band. Unbeknown to me, Simon told him I would sing with them. Bearing in mind by then I had only sung in school musicals!
Well one afternoon I was lying on my mum’s sunbed in the spare room when this cassette came flying through a gap in the door and landed at my feet ‘You’ve got a gig in four day’s …learn this!’ Shouted Simon.
The songs on the tape were all soul tracks and after rehearsing with the band we played the gig, and my youthful confidence got me through. I remember Tracks of my Tears was the first song of the set.
Simon had so much confidence in me and a great piece of psychology to get me to do my first gig, never having too much time to think about it. He is still my unofficial A&R with his finger on the pulse recommending songs to add to my set.
Can you remember your first band ?
I took every gig on offer and eventually put my own band together Ask the Cat. We played over in Scarborough at The Stage Door and had some great pub night’s around Teesside.
I had my own p.a which my parents bought for me from Bandland in Stockton – most girls wanted a car (laughs). It was a huge Peavey in a wooden case that I would load in the back of my mum’s Ford Estate and she would drive me to the next gig.
I’d then unload it, tottering along in my stilettos, and set the sound up – not too much top on the mic, a bit of middle, being careful with the bottom end and a smiley face e.q. I can do it blindfolded now.
Did this early experience lead to new opportunities, playing to a wider audience ?
My brother Simon and I joined LTK and the Barhops, a soul revue band from York. We done some Little Feat and Gospel tracks. A singer called Ken Pickering was also in the band.
It was a great experience as we played University balls and clubs in Leeds and York. We had a great following and such a big sound.
I learned a lot about performing and technical stuff in those few years. You could say I had some of the sharp edge’s knocked off by the more experienced band members. That’s when I developed my big voice.
I sung sweeter soul style track’s but in LTK I learned how to use my chest voice. It was no more chirping for me, it was get big or get off!
If there were no monitors I was never allowed to moan about it because the philosophy was you should know the song in your head, ‘why do you need monitors ?’ Now when I ask sound guys to turn down monitors on loud stages, I’m met with bemusement.
Did you get to tour with name bands ?
In 2002 I toured the UK supporting Fine Young Cannibals. Just me and a guitarist doing my own material.
After the first couple of gigs I noticed the audience were mostly made up of women who were big fans of the singer Roland Gift. They saw the support act as just more time to have to wait and see him.
So, I started to mention him in my set ‘Oh I’ve just seen Roland getting his dinner’ things like that and they loved it. They’d just made a connection. After that they listened to my set, and it made the gig’s easier and more fun.
Roland thought it was hilarious and was extremely sweet to us. I also supported Mary Black at the Mean Fiddler in London for just one show, but that was a great moment.
Have you recorded any of your songs ?
My first experience of recording was epic! My brother and cousin were signed as 29 Palms by Miles Copeland to IRS Records in 1991. I was asked to sing backing vocals on both their album’s.
I went from singing in pub’s to recording in The Chapel Studio in Lincolnshire with producer Mick Glossop. Mick had worked with musicians with the calibre of Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker and The Waterboys.
The Chapel was residential and I remember being so excited that Marty Pellow had been in my room the night before!
Mick Glossop was brilliant I basically got a masterclass from one of the legends of record making. He’s an amazing musician who knows how to put a sound together. I was so lucky to work with him at such an early point in my career.
Vocals on the 29 Palms album required a much more intimate and harmonically complex sound than I had ever used vocally. I done six or sometimes eight layered vocal track’s all on tape not digital. I still use the techniques he taught me today.
He subsequently booked me to add backing vocals on a single by Martyn Joseph on Sony records. We just missed out on doing Top of the Pops as the single stalled at number 31.
I also recorded for songwriters when pitching to big artist’s and pretty much sure of doing Candy Man in a kitchen in Notting Hill Gate. Christina Aguillera recorded that one.
Also done scores of TV advert stuff and recording sessions when session singers could do really well. But auto-tune came along and ballsed that up for us.
That was around the time when I started running my own music night’s. Starting in 2000 for ten year I was running my own Live Nights London at five venue’s across the capital mainly working out of The River Bar on Tower Bridge.
I met great friends and loved promoting duos and band’s, but I never gigged much myself then.
What are you up to now ?
I am very lucky to be still involved in music. I have my own band and we are gigging around the UK on the blues scene, which has embraced me with such warmth and encouragement.
For more information contact the official website http://emmawilson.net/
Interview by Gary Alikivi March 2019.