Emma Grace Stephenson is making her mark on the Sydney jazz scene as a fine, creative and versatile pianist and singer. Her playing continues to go from strength to strength. Other musicians are quickly discovering and appreciating her impeccable sense of groove, her tasteful, creative improvising, and her interest in exploring music well outside the typical jazz mainstream. But it wasn’t always so. We thought it would be interesting to find out a bit about Emma’s background, influences, some of the challenges she has and is facing as a young jazz artist, as well as her ambitious plans for the future.
Emma is the driving force behind band The Bubblewrap Sensation. She is currently studying for a degree in Jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium of music. In 2011 she was the recipient of the Pat Corrigan Scholarship for the most outstanding student at the national JWA Jazz Camp. She was interviewed by Saul Richardson.
JWA: When did you start playing piano? Singing?
Emma: Piano when I was 5. Singing when I was 15.
JWA: What was your first instrument?
JWA: How did you get into playing jazz?
Emma: I had a go at it in a high school jazz band, and then I went to Jazz Camp in order to learn more about it. Meeting so many mentors who had so much knowledge and also being around other people my age who played jazz (much better than me) really opened my eyes to the possibilities and I became very interested in learning more about it.
JWA: Who were your teachers? What things did you do that helped, motivated or inspired you?
Emma: Judy Bailey, John Harkins, Saul Richardson, Jo Fabro, John Morrison, Matt Baker, Matt Mcmahon are all people who helped (and still are) helping me to get better at what I do. During late high school and my gap year I went to see a lot of live music, especially at the Seymour centre and at the 505. That was very inspiring. Also having lessons from several different people motivated me to find my own way of practicing and my own ideas about how I wanted to sound. More than anything just meeting people my age who played jazz, through Jazz Camp and Jazz Workshop classes was where I drew most of my motivation. Winning the the full return scholarship and then the Pat Corrigan scholarship at jazz camp gave me a sense of achievement and merit in what I was doing…which was an enormous help to me at the time.
JWA: You are studying jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at the moment. How far into your degree are you?
Emma: Halfway through my second year, I still have 2 and a half years to go.
JWA: You weren’t accepted into the Con straight after school even though you auditioned? That must have been something of a blow. Can you tell us about it? What did you do? How did you manage to turn things around and get in? Were you tempted to give up on your ambition?
Emma: It was a horrible feeling. But if anything it made me work harder. I was so determined to make sure that the gap year I chose to take was going to mean that I turned out a better musician in the long run. I practiced really hard for a year, got lessons from who I wanted, when I wanted, and saw lots of live music, and I made my CD out of the Scholarship I’d won at the beginning of the year. I made sure that people who would be making the decision about whether I got a spot at the con knew how serious I was about playing jazz – I think it helped that I made an impression before the audition, because that way I knew that not everything relied on how I happened to sound for that specific 15 minutes in front of the panel, where nerves and anxiety inevitably made it a challenge to play to my best ability. Having some private lessons with people on staff and being at the SIMA womens’ jazz course meant that people who would be on the panel at the auditions heard me play in contexts other than being completely and utterly stressed and nervous! My gap year was a huge emotional challenge…but worth it. I find there are always reasons to give up playing music because it’s really a huge emotional investment trying to survive in such a competitive industry…but at the end of the day you just have to accept the ups and downs and get on with it. The less seriously you can learn to take yourself, the better (I think)- but I definitely haven’t mastered this skill yet.
JWA: Have you met any resistance to you going into jazz?
Emma: No, apart from not getting into the con.
JWA: Tell us about The Bubblewrap Sensation. Is it your main musical project at the moment? Can you describe the music and the direction of the group? What plans do you have for the BWS?
Emma: The Bubblewrap Sensation is made entirely of jazz musicians my age – we are all from the Conservatorium jazz course. However, we are NOT a jazz band. Still everything we learn at the con and from playing jazz has a huge impact on how we play in BWS. It’s basically where we satisfy our urges to play funk, pop, rock…all that sort of stuff that you fantasise about being famous for when you are a teenager. I write songs/play keys/ sing lead vocals for this band – I’ve always loved the idea of being a song writer for a career. I’m hoping (perhaps in vain) that we will get a big following from main stream audiences as well as the community of musicians in this country. I’m hoping we will appeal to both types of listener…I’m hoping this band will one day make a hit song (or two!) and we can play at the big music festivals to crowds of fans…(typical fantasy, I know). I want to play jazz for the rest of my life, I love it and I know it will hold my attention forever, but I also really love playing other styles. Bands like Thirsty Merc and the Cat Empire are full of ex jazz school students…who all have roles in the Australian jazz scene but who also made mainstream success early in their careers. They are very inspiring to me. Of course, I would also love to see jazz music become a mainstream type of music that everyone listened to, that would also make me extremely happy.
JWA: What other playing are you doing at the moment?
Emma: Lots of covers bands – playing famous songs from the past 4 decades in pubs and RSLs. A few small jazz groups with friends at Uni. Weddings and corporate work – sometimes singing and playing, sometimes just playing. A few originals projects lead by other people. Some HSC accompaniment…and about 4 singers who just want piano accompaniment for gigs. I also do a fair amount of big band playing – which is great for sight reading practice and learning how to be an effective member of an ensemble.
JWA: What would you like to be doing in the next five to ten years?
Emma: I want to devote myself to finding my own sound and getting more comfortable with it. I really want to make a big impression on the Sydney jazz scene and hopefully also increase The Bubblewrap Sensations’ fan base exponentially. The next two and half years I am just aiming to get as much out of my course as I possibly can, and after that I am going to try and just use everything that I’ve learnt to make informed decisions about things. Right now I’m really trying to work out how to practice with as little frustration and as much effectiveness as possible. I’m trying to practice getting better at basic things like having a good sense of time and a good ear for harmony – because these things help you in all contexts that you are likely to find yourself in. I have recently read a book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis ‘Gallway’ – which is changing a lot of my thoughts about what it takes to really perform at your peak ability. Even though the book is about tennis it really draws ones attention to many things about performance psychology that are dramatically changing my practice methods/on stage mindset. I would definitely recommend it!
JWA: Would you recommend playing jazz to other young musicians? What about making a career of jazz?
Emma: Absolutely. I am led to believe that if you learn how to play jazz properly you will learn a bunch of skills which make it much easier to function in other sorts of bands (pop/funk/RNB etc). If you are a nice person, know a lot of tunes, can play in time/ in tune, can groove and can take tasteful solos, then there is PLENTY of work for you. Even if you can only do a few of these things or only do them half the time (like me) – there is still plenty of work. Every day there are dozens of weddings, RSLs, Restaurants, Pubs etc that you could be playing at. You just have to meet the right people and be as employable as possible. By employable – I mean try to get better at all the things above. I would definitely recommend making a career out of it, I am not yet earning enough to be completely self-sufficient but I am certainly a lot closer to that goal then I was 2 years ago, and I know plenty of people who survive solely on gigs and a few students on the side. It can be done!
JWA: How can people find out more about you and your music? Plug away!
Emma: The Bubblewrap Sensation are on Triple J Unearthed and Facebook. We have a website that is currently under construction but will be up soon: http://www.thebubblewrapsensation.com/ . We should be recording an album early next year…stay tuned.