Gemma Hayes Interview
by Alexander Laurence
It was Bloomsday and I had nothing better to do than do an interview with Irish singer, twenty-five year old Gemma Hayes. Usually I celebrate by drinking a few beers and reading a few pages of Ulysses. I had heard about Gemma Hayes from other musicians like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. I heard Gemma's song "Ran For Miles" and was interested. It was only after I heard the full record Night On MY Side, that I was surprised by her range and scope. She seemed inspired by the disparate music of My Bloody Valentine and Joni Mitchell. Her looks alone are impressive. I was looking forward to an interview. She finally played in America in June 2003 and her live show was even better.
Gemma Hayes played locally in Tipperary and Ireland for years and there was big label interest. But she held off for years until a record label took her serious on her own terms. She finally signed to the Source label on the strength of a demo that lacked any photos, Hayes, released the five-song 4.35AM EP. This EP impressed the critics, and lead to tours with Sparklehorse, Mark Eitzel, and David Gray. Hayes released a second EP that was more electronic and rocking, which confused many people who had her pegged as a singer/songwriter. Hayes began recording her debut full-length with Dave Fridmann in 2002. Night On My Side came out in the U.K. in summer 2002, and it was issued in the America in early 2003.
Gemma is playing at the Troubadour on May 26th, 2005.
AL: The American tour has went well?
Gemma: I like places like Boulder, Colorado. We had to drive around places like Nebraska and half the band are vegetarians. The tour has gone great. I am just happy to be here. I couldn't understand why I was doing a headlining tour even of small clubs in America. Because I was thinking who the hell is going to come along and hear me. I didn't know who was going to travel that far to see the shows. So far we have had a great response to each show.
AL: How did the Field Day event go in Giants Stadium?
Gemma: It was thrown together. I played in the parking lot of Giants Stadium. That was a dream of mine. It went really well. Rain poured down from the heavens, but that just added to the "throw away" feel of the gig. People started to get into it. We made it into a really short rock set.
AL: Did you play under a tent?
Gemma: No. It was pissing rain. The stage was flooded. All our gear was flooded. We just got into the spirit of it.
AL: How many people are in your band?
Gemma: I have a five-piece band. The album is not something I can get up and play acoustically. I could probably play about half of it acoustically by myself. To get the full feel of the album you need a full proper band. There was talk of me just coming over here and doing things acoustically. That would have been very hard. Luckily I was able to bring everyone with me on the road: that is better for me mentally and health wise.
AL: You have grown up with images of America in films and books. How has it matched up to ideas of it?
Gemma: I always wanted to travel across America on a bus from east to west, playing my music. Now that has come true. I sort of pictured more dirt roads. You know when the guy and girl are driving in a convertible and the roads just seem to go on forever. We have seen more highways and petrol stations. I am usually asleep most of the time. I wake up every morning and I am in a different place. It is amazing. I woke up in Chicago and I always wanted to go there. I basically woke up, had lunch, did my soundcheck, did the gig, got on the bus and left. I didn't get to see much of Chicago at all. I wish I had more time so I would get to know each city.
AL: You have been playing quite a while now. You didn't rush into things. Why did you wait so long to sign a record deal and put out a record?
Gemma: There are a bunch of reasons actually. Five years ago when I was nineteen, a bunch of big record labels were interested in me. I think that they were looking for something a bit more accessible and commercial. They talked about changing my image and getting me in with a bunch of pop songwriters. It wasn't where I wanted to be. I had a drive to do my own music. While it might be outright pop, I wanted still to try to carve out my own path. I gave up on record labels because they always wanted to work more on my image rather than my music. At that time I had a few friends in music. They started doing their albums on their own. They would just arrange distribution deals instead. That seemed like the way to go. You could just do your own thing and not have people nag you over radio singles. Then Source came along who are French record label that are known for dance music. They liked what I did and didn't care about image. I took a chance and it worked out.
AL: When did you do the 4.35AM EP?
Gemma: That was the first thing I did on Source. I wasn't ready to do an album yet. I wasn't musically or mentally ready to do an album. I was just trying to get used to the idea of having a record out. I wanted to build a foundation up slowly, as opposed to having a record by this girl who nobody knows, then shoving her face on a whole bunch of posters. The first EP was mad. It was the first time I had put out anything. It was the first time I was reviewed in newspapers. I read some of these. By the time the album came out I learned a lot and by the time the album came out I was tougher. I formed a leathery skin so nothing would get to me, which was probably a good thing.
AL: The second EP was very different from the first.
Gemma: Yeah. That's really strange. People used to think that it was a premeditated agenda where you put out an acoustic thing and everyone thinks that you are Jewel, and then you put out a more band-oriented thing. The same band that is playing on first EP is playing on the second EP. The second EP we had more money. I could actually have the band stay in the studio longer so that we could do more songs. It was a money thing. Also, before the second EP I had just written a bunch of up-tempo songs. It was just something that happened. There was not a lot of thought going into it. There was a good mood in the studio. It was more upbeat for me, which is probably more downbeat for everyone else.
AL: You were always doing rock songs?
Gemma: I have been playing with bands for five years. It's been a very long time since I was just an acoustic act. It's always been a mixture of acoustic and rock. Always! The one thing that annoyed me about the record labels at the start was that they told me to choose. You can't be both. You have to either be acoustic and do a folk album, or be rock and do a rock album. I couldn't understand that mentality. Hang on a minute. Music is free. There are no rules in music. Why should I have to do anything? They wanted me to do that I think because they wanted their life easier, so I would be easier to market and be put in a category. The people who I like, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, they did acoustic and they did rock. It's a normal thing. Some songs sound better acoustically. Some songs need a bit of "umpf" to them.
AL: The American version of Night On My Side is split on into the day side and the night side. What was that about?
Gemma: That's right. The album really sticks out and it doesn't fit in comfortably anywhere. People started to have problems. To this day, I don't understand what is so difficult. People would say, "You do two different styles of music." And I would say I don't. I just do songs, some are low key and some are loud.
AL: Some have more guitars.
Gemma: So I said all the songs that are loud and have guitars on them: let's call that daytime music. The songs that are mellow and down tempo: let's call that nighttime music. For those people who find it difficult and the record label who think it's a hard fit, I'll call the it night and day, which are still parts of the same day. It works really. For the American release, there were some songs that I wasn't happy with. So it was a chance to change the artwork and track listing. Maybe we should push this day and night thing even more and actually split it into two CDs? They didn't do that.
AL: What was it like working with Dave Fridmann and Tarbox Studio?
Gemma: It was brilliant and mad. The studio is in the forest in the middle of nowhere. It's in a log cabin. He kept freaking me out. He kept telling me that there was a cult that lived there in the forest. He said that bears come around at night. I had to stay there by myself at night. Dave is a lovely guy and not one bit intimidating. I was afraid because Dave Fridmann has a definite sound as a producer and engineer. I could listen to one of his records and know it is he. Just the sound of the cymbals, drums and mellotron. We had a discussion before we made the album. I said look I don't want this to become a Dave Fridmann project. I want this to be about my sound as well. I have built up a sound with my band. We have really worked hard at it. I don't want it all to be taken away. I think it worked really well. People might think that I went up to Tarbox with an acoustic guitar, and Dave built this sound around me. It's not the case. My band has been with me for years and they need credit for arrangements.
AL: What is biggest obstacle you had to overcome with doing music?
Gemma: For me, it has got to do with confidence really. I was fine for years to play music by myself. It took a lot for me to get up on stage and allow people to have their own opinions: and go, she's crap or she's really good. I feel a real struggle with entertaining. I am very comfortable in the studio or making music at my own pace. When it comes to getting up on stage and playing in front of people, it still freaks the hell out of me. I haven't done a gig where I haven't gotten sick with nerves beforehand. I did some shows recently in New York, and some press was there and the record label was there. Some people from the record label have never heard me play before. I don't understand why they come up to me after the show and say, "Oh Gemma, such and such is here." Why the fuck are you telling me this? I am trying to put in my mind that this is just a gig. Onstage I am crapping myself. Then it wore off and I just get into the music. The other night we were in Minnesota and it was one the best shows we ever did. I just got up onstage and I was full of confidence and full of beans. It was great.
AL: What does your family think of your record?
Gemma: Some of them like it. They have a lot of strong opinions and they always let me know about them. My sister wishes it was more pop. She goes "Come on, Gemma, play the game. Write a bunch of pop songs. Make your money. Then make the album that doesn't fit in anywhere." I have another sister who supports everything I do. She works at a radio station and she is constantly plugging my stuff. My parents are quite old and they like the quiet stuff.
AL: It's Bloomsday in Ireland today. Do you have any experiences of it?
Gemma: Just pick a day in the month and that's an excuse to drink. There are tour buses that go around Ireland and stop around at the pubs and bars where Irish poets and artists used to hang out at and talk. So you go there and sit a the table where they sat at, and you drink, and then you go to another pub. There's a bunch of plaques all over town. There's a tower and it says James Joyce lived here. There is a building right off Stephen's Green in the middle of Dublin where W. B. Yeats lived. Now they're just offices. Because I lived there, I am too close to actually see it. It's like when I went to Chicago, and asked them about a building. What is that museum like? They said, "Oh, I have never been in there. I live here and I don't care."
AL: What was it like being nominated for The Mercury Prize?
Gemma: It was amazing. It actually took me a few months after it all happened, to relax and allow myself a pat on the back. It's something nobody can take away from me. It happened and it was really cool. I was a massive fan of the awards ceremony anyway. It's one of the special nominations because it's not broken up into best band and best female. It's just twelve albums that they chose for the year and people should go get them. To be part of those twelve albums is amazing. To be alongside people like David Bowie did a lot for the old ego.
AL: I can't remember who won last year.
Gemma: I'll never forget. Ms. Dynamite won. I think she is great but I was so jealous. Her table was next to mine. I was just happy to be nominated. No bullshit. But just as they were opening up the envelope I thought: "Oh, come one, wouldn't it be so nice?" Then they announced her name and all the cameras were on the everyone to see their reaction. I had a pain in my cheeks from smiling. Okay take the camera off please. I am happy for her.