by Alexander Laurence
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.
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
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"
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
AL: What was it like working with Dave Fridmann and Tarbox
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
AL: What is biggest obstacle you had to overcome with doing
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
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.