Artist who has performed with Olly Murs Gregory Porter and Clare Teal speaks of inspiration for work ahead of Ribble Valley Jazz Festival

On Emma’s Johnson’s new album, Northern Flame, there is a song that seamlessly echoes through both the record and her admiration of steely Northern grit and determination.
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A free-flowing cinematic jazz record, inspired by a narrative of strong Northern women past and present, Northern Flame melds together tales of characters from the history of Lancashire - and signals Johnson’s own pride of her deep- rooted Red Rose heritage.

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The opening track, Force of Light, celebrates lighthouse keeper Janet Raby, ‘keeper of the Plover Scar and Cocker Sand lights, at the mouth of the Lune eustary, until 1945. The lights were built in the nineteenth century at the entrance of the Lune eustary, helping ships navigate to

Emma Johnson is on countdown to make her live debut at the Ribble Valley Jazz FestivalEmma Johnson is on countdown to make her live debut at the Ribble Valley Jazz Festival
Emma Johnson is on countdown to make her live debut at the Ribble Valley Jazz Festival
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Glasson Dock, with Plover Scar marking the dangerous rocky outcrop at the edge of the deep-water channel. Raby was paid £8 a month and each day would risk her life hiking across the treacherous shifting sands to Plover Scar at low tide.

“Janet Raby was one of only a handful of female lighthouse keepers in Britain, dividing her time between duties at the light, and fishing in all weathers in Morecambe Bay to eke out a living,” said Johnson, one of the headline acts at the 2024 Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival.

“She was a remarkable woman, and often these courageous people are forgotten. It was a privilege to have time to hook into the stories and

write from a different perspective, because that opens up many possibilities. I had to tell it in the most sensitive way I could, discovering a

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path from local history and then sharing it in our music. There is so much focus on London and the south it has given us a real opportunity to be able to amplify and write about important characters who have helped shape the north.”

She added: “You want music to be emotive and hopefully the theme of light ties together all the tracks on the album.

“In these dark times for the world, we all need a little bit more of light, don’t we?”

A talented arranger and composer, Johnson’s ensemble – The Gravy Boat – make sure the sound is rich and smooth. “I write all my music on piano first before arranging it for the band and hoping I can play it on saxophone,” she said. Northern Flame, produced by Ivor Novello nominated James Hamilton, was launched to rave reviews at the London Jazz Festival before Christmas.

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“We are looking forward to playing the album at the Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival,” she added. “We did a set on-line during Covid-19 (for the festival), so this will be our first physical appearance and it is really exciting because it is always a fantastic and fun weekend.”

Local girl Emma has worked with Olly Murrs, Gregory Porter and Clare Teal, recalls how a teacher at school helped nurture her raw talent. “I played the recorder and the clarinet in primary school and then was introduced to the saxophone by my high school

teacher Mr Peter Elmer – I didn’t really look back. I had my heart set on being a musician at aged 13, despite the worries from parents and teachers that it might have been a phase. I had started to write music then with the dream of being a film music composer. Music has opened so many doors for me in terms of writing and collaboration. I’m very lucky.”

  • Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival, May 3rd to the 6th, other headline acts: Corto.alto, Ancient Infinity Orchestra, Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra. Tickets
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