An Interview with Emma B

We chat to smooth radio DJ, Emma B, about her family adventure in Ibiza, and her new life in Surrey.

I sat there and thought ‘this is insane, I’m just not doing this again. I don’t have any time to be a mum at all.’

Sipping coffee in a café in Marylebone, en route to an evening out in town, Emma B seems like the epitome of a happy, relaxed mum. It’s hard to imagine the stressed-out person that she describes to me – but three years ago it was a very different story.

Back in 2008, Emma was presenting the daily drive time slot on Heart FM, and just eight weeks after the birth of her son, Billy, she was back at work full-time. According to Emma, minimal maternity leave is an occupational hazard. “There’s a lot of pressure in the industry for women to go back quickly after having a baby and, being self employed, I don’t get paid leave. It’s really hard. It’s tough.”

Emma, who was a Radio 1 DJ before joining Heart, already had plenty of experience as a working mum – having had her first child, daughter Edie, five years previously – and she was beginning to feel the strain. “I was completely exhausted. I love London, but I was getting to the point where I hated getting in the car and going anywhere because the traffic was so bad, and when I was in the city it seemed like everyone was angry all the time. Getting on the tube and just getting from A to B felt like a struggle.”

Emma, and her husband Damian Wilson, who she met when he worked as a producer at Radio1, were living in Greenwich at the time, but they were beginning to hanker after a less hectic lifestyle. Emma was desperate to be able to spend more time with their two small children, and Damian had moved into managing bands, which left him more flexible in terms of location. Over Christmas they made a big decision – not just to move out of London, but to go all the way to Ibiza.

To the uninitiated, a decision to move your young family from a leafy part of South East London to a Spanish island known primarily for its hedonistic partying might seem like an odd one, but for Emma it made perfect sense. “It’s totally my happy place and I love it there.”

The music scene on the island meant that Damian was able to work there, but Emma was drawn by Ibiza’s less well-publicised qualities. “There are two sides to the place. The part that everybody knows amounts to two or three streets in one area, the rest of it is a beautiful Mediterranean island. It’s probably one of the best places you could take children – there are white sandy beaches that are gorgeous and safe, the water’s clear and unpolluted, and the Spanish love kids – it’s a tiny place, and it’s a safe place.”

Crucially for Emma, being away from London meant that she was able to kick back and focus on her children. “The whole point of going to Ibiza was to be a mum. It’s so difficult when you’re here – people will ask you to do work things and, of course, you say yes – but there I had some time off. I was really, really tired from working so hard, and I just spent my days with the kids and watched them run around in the sun.”

However, although she claims that her clubbing days are behind her, Emma did revel in Ibiza’s bohemian vibe. “The island has always attracted the fringes of society, and for that reason you get a really interesting mix of people. There are no boundaries – no one cares who you are or what you do, and there’s always someone crazier, with a more interesting story, than you. It’s lovely being Emma B, but it was also nice just being Emma for two years. It’s a really, really nice way to live your life.”

For the children, too, Emma feels that the experience was enriching. Both Edie and Billy now speak Spanish – Emma laughs and says that she feels ‘pompous’ explaining that three year old Billy now watches TV programmes in Spanish at home – but she’s clearly proud of having been able to give them such an excellent linguistic start. “It’s amazing! He totally gets it! Edie went to a French school, so she speaks French and Spanish. It makes you realise how British, not European, we are. All European kids speak other languages. Edie’s friends at school would talk to their German mum in German, their Spanish dad in Spanish, talk to Edie in English, and then go into school and speak French.”

Culturally, Ibiza is a long way from London, and this is something that Emma also relished. “It was a really good lesson in shedding stuff – it took six months to get broadband, and getting a mobile phone was the most difficult thing in the world! Even though it’s got this famous club scene and a booming economy that goes crazy in the summer, for the large part it’s a small, rural island and there’s nothing there.”

Although they’d made lots of friends and were enjoying many aspects of the island life, after two years of recharging their batteries in Ibiza, Emma and Damian decided to return to the UK. “It was never supposed to be a forever scenario – it was a change of scene. I do realise how fortunate we are to have been able to do that. It wasn’t easy, but it was something we needed to do.”

Emma had loved her stint as a full-time mum, but she felt ready to get back on the radio, and Damian had moved companies and needed to spend more time in the UK, so, in April 2011, the family upped sticks again, and headed home.

However, their time in a Mediterranean backwater hadn’t made living in the middle of a capital city seem any more appealing. Rather than move back into central London, Emma and Damian decided to move close to Damian’s family in Surrey.

For a music business couple who’ve just spent two years in Ibiza, I wonder whether Surrey might seem a little tame – but Emma is quick to convince me that it doesn’t. “At this time in our lives most of the people we know have got family at the top of their priority list. My bag used to be full of Marlboro Lights and backstage passes, but now it’s baby wipes!”

“Being in Surrey is working out really well for us. It’s great having family around – and Edie loves it. She’s got loads of friends, she’s settled into school with no problems – and we’ve met some really, really nice people, too. I can still do things, and still come up to London – but I can also go home and be in a more relaxed environment.”

Because of his job, Damian still spends a fair number of evenings in nightclubs, but Emma isn’t tempted to join him. “I’ve been out more times than most people have had hot dinners. I’ve been to more gigs and seen more bands – I’ve really, thoroughly, ticked that box. Can you imagine going to some underground club in King’s Cross and getting the night bus home? Horrendous!”

Emma is enjoying easing herself back into work, though, with a Sunday afternoon slot on Smooth Radio. “Smooth is great – I’m surrounded by legendary Radio 1 DJs, people like Mark Goodier and Simon Bates – they’re real artists at their craft, they know what they’re doing, and they understand radio.”

And, finally, Emma seems to be managing to strike that all-important work/life balance.

“I’m busy, but nice-busy. It’s great to get back into the fray a little bit, but also to be on hand to settle Edie back into school. You have to work towards some kind of balance, otherwise you go crazy.”

Part of Emma’s new work/life balance includes training for a triathlon. The event, in September, is in aid of Help for Heroes and Emma has enlisted professional assistance.

“I’m being trained by Rick Kiddle – this crazy, nice triathlon trainer – he’s so fit, it’s untrue!”

But, despite her healthy lifestyle and the fact that, rather than staying up partying, she now spends her time worrying about whether it’s acceptable to give the kids beans on toast for supper, rather than staying up partying, there’s still a hint of a naughtier Emma B in there somewhere.

She tells me a story about going out for dinner with some of the other mums who live locally. “At the end of the meal I said, ‘do you know what? I really fancy a cigarette.’ You could have heard a pin drop!”

“In Ibiza everyone still smoked, and it’s my very occasional guilty pleasure. Eventually, I went out and had one with the waiter. And, one by one, they came out – by the end there were three others out there with me!”

“So you’re corrupting Caterham?”

I suggest. Emma laughs, “I’m going to corrupt Caterham.”