Despite a series of major label knockbacks, Gemma Hayes has not only survived but established herself as one of the country’s most individual talents. She talks to Olaf Tyaransen about her new album, Let It Break, falling in love, courting Hollywood – and dancing a jig for Ronald Reagan.
“Oh... shit!” Gemma Hayes shrieks. “I forgot to put more money in the parking meter!”
Just as Hot Press is about to press the record button, the beautiful 33-year-old singer-songwriter jumps from her seat and dashes daintily out the door of Dublin’s Herbert Park Hotel. Thankfully, when she returns she’s smiling the triumphant smile of the unclamped.
“I got away with it,” she laughs. “The clampers must all be in the city centre because of the Queen’s visit.”
Ah yes, Her Maj is in town today, stopping traffic wherever she waves. Speaking of prominent visitors, US President Barack Obama will be here in a couple of days, but Hayes isn’t amongst the artists chosen to perform for him. Which doesn’t especially bother her. She ticked the POTUS box many years ago.
“Yeah, I danced a jig and a reel for Ronald Reagan in Ballyporeen when I was six,” she recalls. “I just kind of remember this old man, and a lot of fuss being made about him. And all the cameras of the world there. And myself and my two sisters did a little jig. It didn’t mean very much to me back then.”
Do you still have old TV footage or press photos
“No, I’ve nothing at all,” she says. “I’ve tried to find it. Because there were all these TV cameras, but I’ve never actually seen any footage. It’s funny because Ballyporeen became a shrine to Reagan, and Moneygall is now gonna become a shrine to Obama. The local pub became The Ronald Reagan Lounge and there was a big plaque for him, and for years afterwards busloads of Americans – older ones, like The Quiet Man-type Americans – would come to Ballyporeen and love the place. It kept Ballyporeen going for years.”
Hayes’ family still live in the small Tipperary village where she grew up. Although now based in Dublin, she returns frequently to the family nest.
“Even when I lived in Los Angeles for four years, I was always over and back.”
Slightly shy, genuinely nice, and stunningly gorgeous, you get the sense that she’s an old style country girl at heart – though she has mischievous hints of the Edna O’Brien variety. We’re meeting to discuss her soon-to-be-released fourth studio album, Let It Break, her first new release since 2008’s well-received The Hollow Of Morning. Although she had originally announced that she’d be releasing an acoustic album next, that project was abandoned.
“I started the acoustic album and just got really bored with it,” she shrugs. “I think at the time there was a lot of acoustic music out there. Too much. There was a lot of that sort of hemp-type organic acoustic movement. I started playing acoustic guitar and I had a few acoustic songs, but I just got bored – so I scrapped it.”
Recorded in Dublin, France and LA, Let It Break was produced by long-term collaborator David Odlum.
“Dave is incredibly talented, but we kill each other in the studio! I think there’s moments where we both swear that we’re never gonna work together again – ever. But then we get past it. I’ve worked with Dave for so long that there’s a lot of unspoken stuff. He knows exactly what I want. And on occasions when I’ve worked with another engineer, it’s been gruelling. Because we have to start from a blank canvas.”
The new album sees Hayes making a noticeable departure from her usual guitar-driven sound, with a lot more synth and piano utilised on many of
“Yeah, I decided that I would write the songs on a different instrument,” she explains. “So I got myself a Micron keyboard – there was a really beautiful sound from it – and started writing all the songs on it. Even the songs I’d written for the acoustic album, I played on the keyboard. Just so I could hear them differently. I’d never done that before. I was trying to trick myself.”
While her sound may have changed, lyrically she’s mining familiar territory.
“There’s some love songs there, but a lot of them are about friends as opposed to lovers. It’s just kind of about connections with people. Saying ‘hello’ and saying ‘goodbye’ is a big thing on the album. Just for the past few years there seems to have been a lot of people leaving – whether dying or whatever. Things are changing, things are stirring up. Babies are being born everywhere in my life, with my sisters or whatever. So there’s a lot of life cycles. So that’s very much in the album. But I don’t sit down directly and talk about that. It’s all just in there somewhere. It could even be a chord change. To be honest, it’s all about the melody for me.”
Some of the songs are about relationships ending. Are you in love at the moment?
She smiles coyly: “In love? I am actually, yeah. I don’t know if I’m in love, but I definitely love this person very much. But I’m not one of those people who sits down and writes songs about my boyfriend. I write about people. You know, if something gets me stirred up, good or bad, that’s when I start to wake up a bit. I sometimes go into a sleepy mode of living, of just getting through day by day, and it’s only when something... Not that I’m waiting for tragedies to happen or anything like that. But sometimes meeting someone for the first time stirs me. So the first encounters of a love affair are fantastic and I’ll write about that. But then that sort of levels off. And then the next big thing is when you break up. Though hopefully I won’t break up with this person!”
She admits that songwriting inspiration doesn’t always come easy, and she doesn’t take it for granted when it flows. After the release of her Mercury-nominated debut Night On My Side in 2002, she endured a lengthy losing bout with writer’s block.
“That was a funny one. I couldn’t write. It totally went. It was like, literally, it had left me. I was listening to my first album going, ‘How did I even write that?’ How did I get into that headspace?’ It was just really weird. But, anyway, it did come back.
“It took me about three years to write the second album. And it was only out three weeks and the record company [Virgin] dropped me. Then they wouldn’t give me my album. So this album that took me three years to write was shelved after three weeks, and I had to go and start again.”
The new record is entirely self-financed and released via Irish indie outfit, indi entertainment. Although Hayes has a manager in America, she’s doing it all herself on this side of the pond.
“I’m running around like a crazy person trying to do everything. So it’s truly, truly DIY.”
She’s been badly burnt by major labels and publishing companies in the past, and now wants nothing more to do with them.
“I know I’m in the music industry, but I don’t feel like I’m in it. I don’t speak to record labels or publishing companies. I’ve no dealings with them. For me, I kind of feel like I’m in a bubble and I’m just making my way, and I’m writing music that I want to write. I’d love for it to be massively successful, but it’s not written to be massively successful. But maybe a song will get attached to a movie or something... you just never know.
“I had something happen to me a few years ago,” she continues. “I had an instrumental song on my last album. And Marc Webb was the director of 500 Days Of Summer. It was just this little indie film that grew arms and legs. He made the movie for next to nothing. And he contacted me and said, ‘I really want to use your song, but I’ve contacted Universal Publishing and they’ve said “no”. Could you get on
“I got on to them and they said, ‘We want him to pay us ten grand for the song’. And I was like, ‘Sure, he made the movie for half-nothing, he doesn’t have ten grand. But let him use the bloody song – it’s a great way of promoting it’. But they still said ‘no’. I called everybody in Universal that I knew and said, ‘Please let him use the song’. But they wouldn’t. And the soundtrack to that movie sold millions. It really broke my heart. And it’s such a cool little film. After that, I thought I will never ever put myself in the position where someone else makes that decision and I have no control over my own song. And the maddest thing was that only a few months after that, Universal dropped me.”
Although she will be touring Let It Break, she
isn’t one of those artists who gigs incessantly between albums.
“I haven’t toured in a while. I didn’t have anything to promote, really. I mean, I did tour, but I did it at my own pace. And it was just more to keep the machine oiled. If I don’t gig on a regular basis then I get rusty. The flow leaves me. If I get up on a stage after months of never gigging then it’s like the very first time. I get really nervous. But if I just tip away and do even two gigs a month or something, it just keeps me at a pace.”
Fortunately for her, thanks to a smart business move, she doesn’t actually have to tour to survive as a musician.
“I don’t make a living from making albums and touring. My bread and butter has been TV and movie stuff. I signed a TV sync deal in LA about two years ago, and they got me loads of syncs. And that reaches people really quickly, millions of people, and it pays really well.”
Her music has featured everywhere from TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill to big movies such as Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Does she collect the DVDs?
“I don’t usually. But I had a song used in Vampire Diaries recently, which is a good one. And Grey’s Anatomy was good, because I used to watch that anyway. It’s a weird feeling because I get really nervous as if I was going to fuck up. But of course I can’t because it’s a recording. But that’s led to
“Actually, I’ve just been asked by a pretty big director if I would pitch doing the score for his movie. I’ve never done a score before, but he’d been using my music as temporary music while he was making the film. And he had the score person try to mimic – as he said to me on the phone – that sort of sad but hopeful tone, and he wasn’t getting it. So he said, ‘I’ll send you some clips and give it a go’. As I said, scoring is totally different to writing songs, but I think I got it straight away. It’s a very sad story so it suited me. Anyway, I did it and sent it back. I think I have it, but I’m not sure. I won’t say any more in case I jinx it!”
Gemma Claire Hayes – coming to a small stage, or a big screen, near you soon. Let her break!
Let It Break is out on indi entertainment.
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