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A Life Lost and Found In Music

By 15th August 2014

This week’s big personality needs little introduction – unless you’ve been living in a cave in the Hermitage you will have seen, heard or just quietly wondered at the gregarious and gorgeous Lady Miss Emma.  AKA Emma Williamson, she has just secured the coveted Perthshire drive time spot on Heartland radio 97.5 and 106.6 FM.  

“And don’t forget online. We have loads of people listening in from all over the world.”

The excitement in her voice is childlike, mischievous and reminiscent of the free-spirit that Emma exudes.  I first met her way, way back when I spent my Friday nights hanging out at Pizza Express with my then 12 year old son, listening to my mate Nev belt out his tunes in some of his first live gigs.  Emma was a waitress, who, on every second Friday, would take Nev’s spot and sing her own blend of soft, bluesy soul in a two-piece band called Joy. 

She is instantly memorable with a beautiful mess of wild, blonde hair, wide smile and a bright collection of gloriously, colourful tattoos.  Lady Miss Emma is one of life’s contagious people.

I was confident in my bold introduction of her because I’m certain that everyone in the Perthshire area knows this woman and her love of a great tune.  From busking on Perth’s High Street, to gigging around some of our favourite live music venues, Lady Miss Emma will have weaved her magic into your ear at some point. 

Lady Miss Emma BuskingI tell her how happy I felt for her when I heard about her new job and she shot me one of those trademark grins.

“You know, I never knew just how much I wanted this until I had it. It’s amazing.”  

Surely, I said, you always knew it would come. You were born ready for this.

“Yeah, well, maybe!”

She’s still grinning when she paints me a picture of her nine year old self in the early eighties, sitting with her big, black, tape recorder and pressing down hard on the stiff, red record button to tape her first show.  At that point we’re off, her love of music is spilling out all over the place and she chats me through her earliest memories of Top of The Pops, miming, dancing and thinking to herself “I could do that.”

“Not ‘I want to do that’. But ‘I COULD do that’. It’s a memory that’s always stayed with me.”

Emma WilliamsonI hear all about a pre-school Lady Miss Emma, sitting on the back seat of the bus and entertaining everyone with songs and chat and jokes. Her mum recalls people smiling happily at this little blonde dynamo and her daily routine.

But as often happens, life got in the way a bit and after her parents split, Emma grew into a shy, reserved child and teenager.   She had her son Josh at 19 years old and it was at this junction she knew she had to look at her dreams and think hard about her life.

“I had to think ‘How can I be my best self’? For me and for him. I knew music was my way forward and I simply had to figure out how to make the whole thing work.”

As if by movie magic, she came across an advert in the window of a local shop looking for a singer. “Big Big Sound” was her first proper band and they made it to the dizzy heights of Gig On The Green’s 2001 new talent stage.  It didn’t work out, but the taste had been enough and she knew she was on the right path. 

By this time her relationship with Josh’s Dad was amicable and together they made a plan that involved joint custody of their then 6 year old son. She moved from Dundee to Perth to study at the rock school from Monday to Friday and spent her weekends with Josh, packing seven days into two and reinforcing her decision to lead her son into a happy life by setting an authentic example.

“The minute I walked through the doors of Perth College I knew I’d made the right decision. I was suddenly surrounded by people like me, people who were creative and passionate about the same things as I was. I felt like I’d walked into my Auntie’s house. It was just so comfortable.”

It was here that she met Harry, her first guitarist with whom she “just clicked” musically. This was her two piece band, JOY, that I remember from Pizza Express and I’m surprised to learn that she and Harry gig together occasionally, still under their decade old name.

“JOY is the one that I always feel shoud’ve made it.  When we supported Jools Holland in 2007 at Scone Palace I was convinced that was it. 4,500 people and we were on the same bill as Jools Holland and Lulu.”

“We’d kind of blagged it. Someone mentioned they were coming to the palace so I got hold of the organiser's number and called him up. Jerry Muldoon his name was.  He basically said he had a load of tapes sitting in front of him but he liked my style and thought, for some reason, that I sounded like we might be good. I had to send him our tape, he listened, he liked it and he passed to Jools for approval. Jools said yes and we were on!”

I’d like to interrupt to make comment: Emma Williamson, getting booked to support Jools.  #LikeABoss

“I was so bloody nervous but once we got going it was amazing. When I was walking off stage I saw him and casual as you like I said, ‘that’s your crowd thoroughly warmed up for you’. I spoke to him afterwards and I really did think we’d nailed a slot on his show. We sent our CV down and didn’t hear back. That’s the life this is though.”

She tells me that Harry writes all their music and that playing with him is like breathing. “It’s entirely effortless.” Itching for a new challenge though, she was inspired to try some sets on her own after a brief spell gigging with her friend Gemma. She can now handle a 2.5 hour gig by herself and is booked up every weekend between May and September, often playing two gigs or more a week. The crazy-level will build again close to Christmas but it’s of no consequence to Emma who has now fully evolved into this fast-paced, topsy-turvy world of a gigging musician.

Emma Guitar“And now I have a job! Well, I have two jobs actually!”

The hidden side of Lady Miss Emma, you see, is her role as a Youth Worker helping 11 – 21 year old girls in Highland Perthshire through informal education.

“Being a girl is a hard work; I remember having low self-esteem. I was 25 years old before I truly started to believe in myself and appreciate my own individual strengths and qualities.   I find working with these young women inspirational; it’s good for my soul and in some ways it has settled down the inner child in me.”

I’m willing to bet the kids love her.

“One did ask me the other day if I was Lady Miss Emma. It was a bit weird. I said yes and she just giggled manically.” She’s laughing herself, as though this is nothing. Unaware entirely of her own inspirational energy.  

I want to know about Heartland. This regular job that has tied our free-spirited Lady Miss Emma into the airwaves four days a week.

“I was playing Belladrum Festival in 2012 and I was heading up through Pitlochry with Josh, who was about 17 at the time.  I stopped off at the radio station to do an interview about the show and then, when I was milling around at Belladrum that weekend I met Bruce, the station manager.”

The conversation went like this:

Bruce: You were really good Emma

Emma: Good enough for my own show

Bruce: Do you want your own show?

Emma: Yeah!

Subsequently, she has spent the past two years volunteering and building a cult following on Lady Miss Emma’s Radical Radio Show. Such is the love of her listeners that as well as her new Drive Time spot, she still hosts her original and unique blend of funk, rock and soul on Thursday at 10pm and Saturday at 7pm. She claims its because she loves the freedom of being able to play what she wants to listen to. Tune in and you will hear a lot of James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone and her purple blooded idol, Prince.

Emma Heartland Tattoo

It is her regular drive time spot though that has finally given her the kudos she deserves.  Her bubbly, enthusiastic opening quickly turns to a level just below madness when the texts and requests start coming in and she will confess to loving the banter with the listeners almost as much as the music.  Just in case anyone is in doubt about how much the whole thing means to her, she has had an eighties style radio tattooed across her forearm and the dial is set to 97.5FM. Heartland is quite literally, part of this wild woman’s being. 

Her opening gambit of ‘not really knowing how much she wanted it until she had it’ sounds like a line from a young girl who would never dared have dreamed this high.  Her path has most certainly been her own and yet she sits before me now settled in soul, career and motherly duties.

I ask her if her acceptance of her spiritual self has influenced this calmer life and she ponders the question. “What makes you think that? That I’m spiritual? I mean I am, but you seemed to be quite certain on it.”

Emma in DressThe strange thing is, I’m not quite sure why I would know that; but now that it’s out there Emma talks openly about her time spent in India the year before and her three day’s work in the temple while she was attending Ashram. I could write a second blog on her spiritual quest, citing her path from her unmarried mother’s banishment from the Catholic church through various faiths and gods.

“I tried for years to find a way to connect. When I was little God was kind of like an imaginary friend to me.  He has never appeared as the fire and brimstone type. Over the years I went to crazy churches where people spoke in tongues and it wasn’t until college that I met a friend who helped me look at it all in a more abstract way. I’ve struggled off and on to feel at peace but last year, finally, India sorted all of that.”

We talk at length about her feelings of belonging to India and she explains that she has always felt a kinship to Hinduism ever since she was a young child and sneaked upstairs to watch her Indian friend’s family take Sheeva. She is already planning another trip and this time intends to stay at the temple for a month.

And so here she is. 38 years in the making. Mother, singer, radio presenter. An inspirational woman who has found herself spiritually healed by the sprawling land of Mother India and a wee radio station in the Scottish Highlands.

“I know. Josh has just moved back in with me after flying the nest for a wee while and between my Youth Worker’s role, my regular gigging and my Drive Time show it feels as though my own version of normal has finally arrived.”

***

Listen to Lady Miss Emma on Drive Time from 3pm to 6pm, Tuesday to Friday on Heartland Radio. You can aslo catch Lady Miss Emma's Radical Radio Show on Thursday at 10pm and Saturday at 7pm. Tune in online and on 97.5 and 106.6 FM.

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