‘I’m gonna sing you a song and call it the Blues…’
And Emma Wilson sings the hell out of her songs, like she’s got kerosene in her veins. Like she’s experiencing every word of the lyric. She has totally convincing ways of navigating the emotional minefield of twisted relationships. Driven by hollow bass drum sound and by Adam Chetwood’s keening fatback guitar soloing, she directs the title-track message of her ‘Wish Her Well’ album at the poor woman who snatched her ex from her arms – ‘she came along and she cut me out, released me from your spell.’ No bitching, ‘I’m gonna sing you a song, but it ain’t MY blues’ she adds tartly. Emma’s simply going to cross her ‘heart and wish you well.’ Then, for track two, with tight guitar and sharp drum-snaps she’s lying in her man’s bed while he’s thinking about wrapping his arms around “Mary Lou”. And while her vocals are pleading she’s perceptive enough to note that he’s playing Otis on his in-car tape.
‘I’ll be wearing a pink carnation’ she tells me in anticipation of our interview. Then adds the cautious qualification, ‘do you know, I looked that up afterwards. Oh gosh, I hope I haven’t made some inappropriate reference with the pink carnation!’ She laughs delightfully. There’s a lot of laughter when you’re talking with Emma Wilson.
But if this was an online dating site, how would Emma describe herself?’ ‘Is this part of the interview?’ she asks warily. Well… it might be. Whatever you say will be taken down and used as evidence! ‘First of all, I’d never ever do online dating. That’s why I’m hesitating. I suppose it would be… I don’t know, I’m not very good at things like this. I believe in one-to-one. I believe in meeting people – without sounding like a hippie, with a bit of energy. I think it’s difficult to describe yourself as an ‘essence’. Where do you start – blonde? Northern? Singer? You know – are those the three things that I’m identified by? Maybe!’
It’s a brave artist who stacks herself up against Aretha Franklin, yet Emma Wilson’s EP from 2020 opens with her version of the ‘Queen Of Soul’s 1967 track “Dr Feelgood”, substituting the straining Stax horns of the original with just Dean Stockdale’s solo piano, bringing out that precise point where smoky late-night Blues meets Soul. ‘Love Is A Serious Business,’ and yes, Emma acquits herself admirably.
Her press-release says she comes from Teesside, from a family home where she heard Ray Charles (‘The Genius Sing The Blues’, 1961) and Aretha who ‘did something to me, for definite. Nothing else had really affected me like that before.’ And then Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top took her looking back to their influences in much earlier Blues. ‘I was sixteen when I first got paid for a gig’ she told interviewer Norman Darwen, ‘I joined as many bands in the North-East as would have me.’ She toured with poet/lyricist Pete Brown’s band. She recorded a one-off single with Terry ‘Superlungs’ Reid. But Teesside, isn’t that ‘Vera’ territory, domain of the dishevelled TV sleuth played so exquisitely by Brenda Blethyn? ‘Actually, Vera’s more sort-of Northumbria, which is the Northumberland coast,’ she corrects. Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale also came from Teesside, as did X-Factor winner James Arthur. But ‘I’m from a funny place. I’m sort-of Teesside, North Yorkshire, Hambleton. I’m on the Moors, you see. I live in a village by the Moors, which is ten miles from Middlesborough. So, if anybody asks me where I’m from I say, if you go up the A1 from York to Newcastle – turn off halfway.’
Although when looking for precedents it’s necessary to range geographically and in time back as far as… say, Maggie Bell, or even Liverpool’s Beryl Marsden. Interpreting Otis Redding’s lyrics, Aretha once sang how ‘I’m about to give you all of my money, and all I’m askin’ in return, honey…’ is R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but Emma sees things differently on her “Not Paying” – a kicking boogie with Alessandro Brunetta’s most-blues-wailing harmonica. Her man might be broke, he might’ve fallen on hard times, but she’s not about to fund his train-ticket to go see his new smooch. No way. As ‘RnR’ magazine perceptively observes, ‘Emma can growl like Koko Taylor, testify like Aretha Franklin, Rock like Janis Joplin, be as soulful as Stax – but she’s always her own woman.’
So was it a natural evolution for Emma from the covers that largely make up her three EPs, to the ten self-composed songs on her debut ‘Wish Her Well’ album? ‘No, it wasn’t’ she says emphatically. ‘It wasn’t a natural evolution at all. I was very very comfortable doing covers. I thought I was this great interpreter, and I always used to convince myself, my audiences, and everybody else that this is MY version of “Hoochie-Coochie Mama”, and this is my version of everything else. But then I came to a point, a quite significant point, where people were actually coming up to me – I was going to say ‘people of influence’, but of influence ‘to me’ – DJs, journalists, photographers – never underestimate photographers, they see everything, y’know, they really do. Some of them have given me the best advice ever, about music and stuff and everything. And it became a bit of a gag – a joke, ‘why are you not doing your own thing? You’re just becoming a pastiche of everything else.’ And it got to me. I thought – I’m in a very fine profession, I’m happy to be interpreting this great art, and I think I’m doing OK – I’m one of those people that love promoting the work of other people, but I realised there was a particular moment when I gave a friend of mine, who was a DJ, a CD I’d done of somebody else’s work, and he said ‘no, I don’t want this, I want YOUR music,’ and he was really serious, normally he’s quite a garrulous character and funny, and he went ‘no, this is getting silly now.’ So – in a sort-of foolish way, I thought, can it be that hard? And I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? I can write a song and people don’t like it! So I wrote “Wish Her Well” about four years ago. I wrote that. It was at a jam session, and I just thought ‘I’ve got a good band here, let’s just play a twelve-bar Blues and see what happens.’ And I had this story in my head. This tale – well, it’s a true story about me acknowledging that the guy I was with really wanted to be with someone else, and when I actually thought it through, I went ‘you know what? You can have him. Just have him. And I wish you well.’ We say that up north, don’t we? I wish her well. Go for it. So I wrote that song and released it on my ‘Live & Acoustic’ EP alongside four covers. ‘Cos I thought I’d sneak it out!, and – that was the song that got played, and it got played, and it got played on the ‘Cerys Matthews Show’ (BBC Radio 6-Music) in its acoustic version. So that really gave me a lot of confidence. And then during Lockdown that kind of freed me up to start writing more.’
The advantage of artists doing covers is that people in the audience recognise the songs, even if they’re fairly obscure covers. That’s the attraction of Tribute Acts! Doing original material means breaking new songs to the audience gently. ‘It’s been a huge leap of faith’ she concedes. ‘Because it is… completely brand new to them. What’s been fortunate for me is that the songs have been played on the Blues Stations prior to me going out and gigging them, so the audience – if they listen to the Blues Show, which a lot of our community do, they’ll listen to the show, then they’ll go to see the band, so they’re getting the songs into their heads, and they’re actually commenting on different versions and different songs that they like. So – it’s not going to be too much of a shock to the system to see me do some of my originals. But y’know, the band that I’m working with, the guys that did the album with me are telling me ‘just get out there, believe in it and do it!’ We’ve done a number of gigs and the reactions have been good. But it is pretty terrifying to go out and sing your own songs and think, ‘are people going to go…oh?!?!’ Because how many times do we play the same favourite record? We play it over and over again. I love Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, people like that. I can play Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Nick Of Time’ (1989) album over and over, I can sing that whole album back to you, and if I go and see her do that song, it’s like a love affair. I want it to be just like that. And until you get to people’s soul or psyche or whatever level of music hits you, you wonder what they’re going to like. But I was out last night and a lady, a friend-of-a-friend came up to me with her phone, and she said ‘Oh, I’ve been playing all my friends “Wish Her Well”, I love it. And do you know, that was such a great moment. That’s the new version of “Wish Her Well” which is on the album. So it’s seeping out and I just hope that…’ She pauses, ‘that’s a horrible expression isn’t it, ‘seeping out’?’ and she bursts out in cascades of laughter.
On the album, “Little Love Bites” has supernatural sweeps of haunted guitar, and something resembling the knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door mood of Gabrielle’s “Rise”, ‘don’t keep me waiting so long, I’ll have to sing the same song…’ Little chance of that! Because Emma knows how to party too. “Rack ‘Em Up” has a more strident upfront attitude downing shots at the bar, whisky for him, wine for her, in a raucous bluesy mix of hot rhythms. And hard-touring songs, “Back On The Road” with a slow-burning near-vinyl sound, wailing BB King guitar and that old Memphis Stax stew of storms a-coming, both real and metaphorical, plus the strutting “Nuthin’ I Won’t Do” with tripping bass-riff, fast hand-clap break and spidering guitar, where she’s touring with the band but climbing the walls because he’s not there with her, ‘the boys in the band slapping me on the back, they say ‘Honey you’ve done well, let us buy you a jack,’ but there’s a girl in the mirror looking back at me, Baby, there’s just one thing she needs,’ spiralling into contagious repetitions.
You can see Emma live and blonde at the ‘Darlington R&B Club’ emoting Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” and blues-talking through Ann Peebles’ “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foXJ8-Uhllc Yet each track on her album is a drama of emotional authenticity. Is it necessary to have experienced those things in order to sing about them convincingly? The album closes with “Then I’m Gone” – with ‘one last kiss’, it has chanting girl back-up, or is it Emma herself multi-tracked, ‘Yes. That’s me. Do you like it? The hours that I’ve worked as a backing singer – that’s like my bread-&-butter, and I know a lot of artists don’t like to back themselves because they like the variety of sound, but yes, that’s all me!’
And does the ‘it’s time to stop all this’ – refer maybe to an unwise illicit secret affair? ‘I know you’re hurting, I’m hurting too.’ Love is a losing game. She’s a raconteur, she tells her tales well. She lays it on the line. She opens up, and leaves nothing out. ‘Every single song on the album is a true story’ she affirms. ‘Every single song has the thread of a true story running through it. And of course, with artistic license and lyrical licence, you change details. But “Then I’m Gone” is… well, that was the last song we recorded. I had another song that I’d written which was basically crap – the lyrics were so rubbish and it just seemed wrong to do nine songs, but this tenth song was just not working, so I said to the lads, ‘I really want like a Mavis Staples, New Orleans, funeral march, dust blowing across the road sort-of song.’ It was the night before our last studio date, so we kinda took the bones of the original other song that I’d ditched – it had a good melody, a bit fast but it had a nice scoopy melody even though the lyrics were terrible. So I went back to the Hotel and I sat in the car, it was quite dark, I’ve got a big old ‘S’-series Jaguar which is falling to bits, comfy seat, and I just opened my mind and thought ‘right, think Emma, dig deep’ and – interestingly enough, you’re the first person I’ve mentioned this to, Andy, because I never thought of it before, but it’s the closing chapter of the album’s first song. It’s about the same person. So “Wish Her Well” was like me going ‘alright, go for it, get lost’’… she sings along and claps her hands animatedly, ‘I wish her well. I’ve had enough of him!’ And I was like ‘yeah, go on, you can have him,’ but then when we actually came to the point where the relationship began to ultimately break down, where me and the guy were breaking up, and it’s the final division, it was ‘y’know, actually, I was laughing about it and saying ‘go on have him,’ and being all northern and over-confident, like ‘you’re bloody knackered, get on with it,’ but when it came to the end, and he stood in front of me and I had to say ‘that’s it.’ That was agony. And so that song is all about ‘look at us now, two hearts beating but they bleed,’ and every line of it is those two hours that it took us to finish, ultimately. That was it…’
So “Then I’m Gone” brings the album full circle, from opening to closure? ‘Do you know what?, it does, and it’s funny. I kind-of knew that, but I’ve never verbalised it to anybody. So you’re the first person that’s really made me think about that. People ask me what my favourite song is on the ‘Wish Her Well’ album, and at the moment that’s sorta my favourite – “Then I’m Gone”. ‘Cos I love the way it’s put together, the ‘look at us now’ aspect. The album was intended to be called ‘Siren’ because they used to call me the ‘Blues Siren’ and all that – so in the song I had to get the word ‘siren’ in there somewhere to acknowledge that. And I thought ‘how can I get that in? and I thought, this is me that’s making the decision… even though he’d done this and whatever, I had to make that final decision, so that’s when I say ‘I hear the siren, she’s calling, she’s taking me away.’ You know?’
I know. Emma Wilson, blonde, northern, singer. How many times do we play the same favourite album? We play it over and over again. And that’s exactly how it is with ‘Wish Her Well’.
‘I’m gonna sing you a song and call it the Blues…’
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
‘LIVE AND ACOUSTIC’ (EP, March 2019)
(1) ‘Wish Her Well’ (acoustic)
(2) ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’, a song first recorded by Ann Peebles produced by Willie Mitchell for the Memphis ‘Hi’ label
(3) ‘I Put A Spell On You’
(4) ‘Night Time Is The Right Time’, from Ray Charles ‘The Genius Sings The Blues’ album.
(5) ‘Hoochie Coochie Mama’
with guitarists Al Harrington and Paul Donnelly
‘FEELGOOD’ (EP, June 2020) with Dean Stockdale (piano on 1&2, George Hall 3&4)
(1) ‘Dr Feelgood’ (Aretha Franklin)
(2) ‘Today I Sing The Blues’ (Curtis Lewis)
(3) ‘Sunday Kind Of Love’ (Barbara Belle)
(4) ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ (Blind Willie Johnson)
‘SONGS FOR CHARITY’ NHS Charity compilation (November 2020)
Emma contributes ‘Hold On’.
‘LOVEHEART’ (EP, December 2020) with Dean Stockdale (piano)
(1) ‘Won’t Be Long’ (J Leslie McFarland)
(2) ‘I Needed Somebody’ (Anne Peebles/ Don Bryant)
(3) ‘Border Song’ (Elton John, Bernie Taupin)
(4) ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ (WE ‘Little Willie’ John, Mertis John Jr)
‘Nuthin’’ (2:07) c/w ‘See You In The Morning’ (4:30) (digital single, June 2021)
Emma Wilson & Terry Reid with a rocky version of the album’s ‘Nuthin’ I Won’t Do’ c/w the more unplugged vocal-duetting ‘just like Maggie May, you see the years upon my face, in the light of the new day.’
‘WISH HER WELL’ (LP, May 2022, www.emmawilson.net )
Ten songs, 40-minutes
(1) ‘Wish Her Well’ (4:23, Emma Wilson)
(2) ‘Mary Lou’ (4:33, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary)
(3) ‘Little Love Bite’ (4:55, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary), ‘little love-bite on my shoulder, it will stop me getting older.’
(4) ‘Rack ‘Em Up’ (4:31, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary)
(5) ‘Blossom Like Snow’ (4:51, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary), hard spiky rhythms, the beauty of falling blossoms, the pain of separation.
(6) ‘She Isn’t You’ (3:20, Emma Wilson), they were lovers, he’s moved on, but he still calls her. Emma’s voice hits some scary high places.
(7) ‘Not Paying’ (3:14, Emma Wilson,
(8) ‘Nuthin’ I Won’t Do’ (3:17, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary, Adam Chetwood)
(9) ‘Back On The Road’ (3:38, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary, Adam Chetwood)
(10) ‘Then I’m Gone’ (3:17, Emma Wilson, Mark Neary)
Mat Hector: drums, percussion, backing vocals (formerly of Iggy Pop band)
Mark Neary: bass, keyboards, mixing (Noel Gallagher, Adele, Roddy Frame)
Adam Chetwood: guitars (Mark Ronson, Paolo Nutini and Imelda May band)
Alessandro Brunetta: harmonica (on ‘Not Paying’)
Recorded at Jackdaw Studios, Kent