Confessions of a Catholic Girl

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not Gemma Hayes'. By Peter Murphy.

Now we’re talking about the afterlife. So shoot me.

It’s the first day of summer in Paris and a little – but only a little – tipple has been taken. We were chewing over melancholy and music and Mic Christopher and the unbearable being of lightness and all sorts of stuff you’d expect of people drinking on an empty head on a sunny afternoon in the Bastille district.

But we’ll come back to that. Right now, I want to front this piece with something Gemma Hayes said as she was ordering her second glass of wine:

“There’s so much, and I love the fact that nobody knows, nobody fuckin’ knows and it’s brilliant, therefore you can decide to believe anything and it’ll be true for you. It’s absolutely there for the taking.”

As I said, we were talking about the afterlife, and how the departed sometimes visit the rest of us in dreams so vivid you think you’ve met them again. Trust me, we weren’t being morbid. Like a friend of the subject once sang – it’s a wonderful life.

Today, Mayday, Bastille Day, Paris is a riot of colour and noise, sound and fury, banners and thundering drums. But no trouble, just one massive demonstration. The French are a famously demonstrative lot. The anti-Le Pen lobby are out in force for the Bank Holiday, the kind of force that will drive his stake in the national elections down to 18% four days later. If you’re the glass-half-empty sort, you might wonder how such a far-right candidate could snatch a fifth of the vote, but that’s another story. Right now the city is black with people marching, singing, bearing placards, scaling the Bastille monument. Side streets and alleyways act as arterial tributaries feeding the great river of humanity on the main drag. Here at grass roots level it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on so you navigate by sonar. Every so often a huge roar goes up from the crowd, as if someone’s just scored a goal, or a headlining band walked on stage. Afro-Caribbean drummers clash with ad-hoc choirs who are in turn drowned out by brass bands. People chant anti-fascist slogans, cars honk, and a benign madness prevails.

A few blocks away, down a narrow deserted side street and inside the Café de la Danse, a small theatre type venue similar to The Project, we find Gemma Hayes, an Irish ingénue biding her time between soundcheck and gig. She’s waif-like and bespectacled (although she switches to contact lenses for the photos), not unlike the kind of bohemian heartbreakers who haunted this city’s boulevards thirty years ago, singers like Juliet Greco and Françoise Hardy.

We find a café and sit down to talk, first hashing out the history. Gemma Hayes was born in Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary into a family of eight kids. Her father played in a band called The Hillbillies and insisted the children all learn music. She attended boarding school in Limerick, then moved to Dublin to study Arts in UCD in 1996, but ended up dropping out and working in a launderette for two and a half years to support her fast growing music habit. A&R ears pricked up and she was getting offers before she even had a full set of songs together. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Soon she found herself in a rehearsal room backed by a bunch of Dublin veterans playing saccharine licks she didn’t like while the biz-bodies tried to figure out how to package her.

After a rethink, she junked the whole development deal rigmarole and went back to scratch, putting together a new band from her circle of friends and sorting out a contract with French independent label Source (whose other clients include Air and Kings of Convenience). Then came two EPs, 4.35am and Work To A Calm, each markedly different, the first sculpted from acoustic wood shavings, the other hacked out of lush drone-rock, both produced by the Phil Spector of New Weird Americana Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev/Sparklehorse) and former Frames guitarist David Odlum.

And now, cometh the hour, cometh the album. Night On My Side is a slow burner. It’s not easily pigeonholed either, although if you want to get anal about it you can spot bits of Cure bass lines, the rivery rush of the late great Mary Janes, the avant-folk of The Frames, MBV’s walls of noise, the acoustic/electric bi-polarity of Neil Young, even the odd noodley post-rock organ line. But if the first half dozen songs are condensed, confident and warm, the rest of the record takes a little longer – especially if you harbour prejudices against the Dublin-based singer-songwriter set with which Hayes has been vaguely associated, but wisely keeps her distance from.

The present writer must admit such prejudices. I’m an avowed Frames fan, but the folk on the periphery of the party – Damien Rice, David Kitt, Mundy, even David Gray – do nothing for me.

“I kind of have to mind my words here,” Hayes says, “because I think the Frames are an amazing band and they’re like the cornerstone of this big thing in Dublin at the moment, and I kind of think if you’re not part of that you must be against it. I mean, it’s always nice to go home to Dublin and feel like you’re part of something, but I’m not, and I’m not gonna try to be. It’s funny, we actually were talking about this the other day – it’s not The Frames, it’s what happens around them. It’s almost that, despite what they do, people come in from the outside.”

Anyway, the deal with Source effectively places Gemma Hayes beyond any minstrel mafia expanding in ever-increasing circles from Dublins 2 to 4. Some say too far beyond, arguing that her airy cowgirl’s voice, not unlike Lone Justice-era Maria McKee, veers close to Dawson’s Creek territory. This is not the kind of thing that keeps her awake at night.

“See, the most important thing for me is recording the music,” she reasons, “and when I do that and I’m happy with it, then there’s post-mortems, people dissecting it going, ‘You sound a bit like this,’ or ‘You’re Irish – where did you get the American accent?’ People can tear it apart, but it’s done and I like it. I’ve read the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack thing and had a bit of a laugh to myself and thought, ‘Maybe it is!’ My voice is my voice and it is quite sweet. I don’t try to make it anything it isn’t. I don’t sing with a full-on Irish accent, I don’t have a full-on Irish accent. So it’s all after the fact; I don’t mind it.”

Besides, if the twilight section of Night On My Side, from ‘I Wanna Stay’ through to the title track, bears cosmetic resemblance to heartlands folk-rock, the substance of the record is often more opaque, impressionistic.

This imagistic approach, not to mention the slo-mo surge of the band, keeps her closer to Sigur Ros or Sonic Youth territory than Lilith Fair.

Plus there’s the ache and the hunger in the melodies, songs like ‘Tear In My Side’ and ‘My God’.

Is there a Catholic guilt complex at work here?

“No . . . God comes into it once or twice, but it’s more trying to figure out what the fuck it’s all about more than having any particular opinion about anything . . . I dunno, maybe it is the Catholic Church, being brought up with this fear, sin, guilt, having this weight on our shoulders from the start and trying to shake that off, maybe it is that.”

It’s certainly a remarkable premise on which to found a belief system: someone died on behalf of your immortal soul 2000 years ago, so you should feel bad about it your whole life.

“I don’t believe it,” she stresses, “I certainly don’t believe it. I do believe there’s something spiritual and something beautiful, but then I think humans come in and fuck it all up and make it about power and hierarchy and all that kinda shit. But I don’t feel like I have a guilt complex. Maybe I’m just too close though. Maybe it’s staring me in the face and I can’t see it. Actually my mother said to me about ‘Tear In My Side’, she said, ‘Is that about God on the cross?’ And that never entered my head.”

Okay, from one patriarchy to another. Was Gemma treated like some twittering pop nightingale by the old boys’ club in the music industry when she went shopping for a deal?

“I got the impression from some of them that they saw me as potential or something,” she says. “It was like, ‘Mmm, you’ve got potential’, always this question mark, always the comparisons. They’d come out with, ‘You could be the next Alanis Morissette, or a more mainstream PJ Harvey’ and I was like, ‘Jesus, can I not just meet a record label who like what I do and are willing to help me develop and give me a chance?’ And then when Source came along I signed within a month, and it was just because the elements were there.”

Does she think there’s a glass ceiling for women working in the music business?

“I think they definitely have it a little bit harder. In England there’s a lot of women in good positions in record labels, but the top notches are always from the boys’ club, it’s still there. At the start it really pissed me off. It really pissed me off. And I became very paranoid. It even came down to eye contact in a room, whereby they spoke about me in the third person and I’d have to kind of go, ‘Excuse me, I’m sitting here.’ They’d talk to each other about music, looking each other in the eye, and then they’d talk to me about insignificant things: ‘Oh Gemma, did you have a lovely day?’ Couldn’t have a proper conversation with me. It didn’t happen all the time, but I became aware of it. I’m trying not to let it piss me off now. I did a radio interview in Brussels the other day and the guy was there going, ‘Okay, so you play acoustic guitar. So are you responsible for all the quiet songs on the album and David Odlum is responsible for all the loud ones?’ And I was so tired, I’d had four interviews that day, I couldn’t be bothered, so I just said, ‘Yeah, David does the loud stuff and I do the quiet stuff, you got it right.’”

The point being, it’s not either/or. The record may be schizoid, but that’s infinitely preferable to radio homogeneity.

“It’s like a day, a cycle,” she decides. “You have all this business at the start, then you have the ‘Tear In My Side’/‘I Ran For Miles’ part of the day which is probably about four or five o’ clock where you’ve had your dinner, you feel full, and then it starts to go a bit hazy towards the end, which is kind of like the night time. It’s definitely a slow grower. I listened to it the other day for the first time since we mastered it. And at the start I was going, ‘Oh my god no,’ ’cos I thought it gave off this sort of melancholia, even in the happier songs – or the one happy song! But then I just got to really like it. I stopped listening to the songs and started listening to the atmosphere they would create.”

Which is heavy with duende. But then, so are some of the finer things in life – Lorca’s drama, early drinking and The Dirty Three. And as Hayes sings in the album’s most likely candidate for a hit single ‘Let A Good Thing Go’: “Such a sorrow was to be expected”.

“I pretty much embrace it,” she says. “I love melancholy and I think it can be hopeful, it doesn’t always have to be something that brings you down. From where I’m sitting there does seem to be this thin layer of melancholy over a lot of things that come out of Ireland musically. There’s a strange sadness, even in the landscape. Fuck it, maybe it’s just the weather! We’re all lookin’ for this big answer and it’s like, ‘No, it pisses rain all the time, it’s freezing cold, there you go!’”

Has she ever cried while singing?

“I’ve come close to in the studio, during ‘Tear In My Side’. Before making the album when I was all full of beans, I remember David Odlum saying to me, ‘Gemma, god bless ya, you have not a clue what’s in store for you. D’you know what? You’re going to get close to having a nervous breakdown making this album. And you’re going to feel the best you’ve ever felt in your life.’ ’Cos he knew how serious I was about wanting this album to be perfect. And I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. Let’s just start recording. Don’t be so fuckin’ dramatic.’ Didn’t know what he was talking about. And he was absolutely spot on.

“I think maybe it’s got something to do with being in this creative mode all the time,” she elaborates, “you’re constantly thinking about the mood of songs, the feeling, the melody, the words you want to use, it’s all about emotions. And you end up walking out of a studio like this big swollen emotional ball trying to have a normal conversation with somebody. It was terrible, I started getting panic attacks, you could literally pinch me and I would start crying. Suddenly you’re aware of all your day-to-day actions, you become an observer, you’re looking at these people doing things and you feel separated.”

Like a cipher. Or a ghost. We can’t go much further down this route without talking about the late Mic Christopher. Gemma’s band are of course plucked from the Frames/Mary Janes family tree, but more to the point, two songs on the record, ‘I Wanna Stay’ and ‘Dartmouth Square’, were touched by the hand of Mic.

“It’s funny, ‘I Wanna Stay’ was written before Mic died,” Gemma says, unconsciously covering her heart with her scarf as she speaks. “I used to live down the road from him, so we used to hang out in Dartmouth Square all the time. I actually wrote that because we used to go out on the tear sometimes. We’d go into The Kitchen drinking absinthe, and I wrote about just staying out all night with him because it was such good fun. Himself and myself met each other at a very strange time. He had given up on music and I was championing the acoustic thing, and I was feeling really low about it ’cos I kept getting slagged off about being a folk singer. I’d get up on stage and straight away people were throwing their eyes up to heaven before I’d even sung anything. And I was going, ‘I don’t want to play acoustic music anymore, I wanna forget about it’, and he met me going, ‘Gemma, I saw you play and you made me want to play music again, so please don’t give up the acoustic stuff.’

“And at the end of ‘I Wanna Stay’ it goes into this little acoustic thing, ‘Dartmouth Square’, we put that down, and then we were over in Mic’s house when he had had his motorbike accident and we were sort of looking after him. And there were little kids out in the back garden and we put out a microphone and recorded them. I’m really glad that ended up on the album, ’cos there’s a little part where you hear him snigger. And we were doing all that not realising what was going to happen, not realising how much I’d cling onto those songs after Mic died. And now I think maybe I wrote them for a reason. They’ve taken on so much more of a significant thing than they did at the time. But I don’t want those songs to seem depressing ’cos to me it’s really great, I just sit back and I think of the two of us absolutely out of our faces screaming at each other over something at five in the morning.”

He hasn’t left the building yet, has he?

“He sure hasn’t. He hasn’t at all. He is absolutely still around.”

Cut to showtime. Gemma Hayes still has a way to go with her live performances, but she’s chosen the right band to get her there. Graham Hopkins, Fiona Melady and Karl and Dave Odlum have locked together to the degree that they can still find new dynamic currents in songs as spare as ‘I Wanna Stay’, or make the walls of ‘Tear In My Side’ bulge outwards at will. Then there are the tunes that didn’t make the album, the sheet-metal pop of ‘I Worked Myself Into A Calm’ or the epic ‘Stop The Wheel’. But this writer’s favourite remains ‘Lucky One (Bird Casadaga)’, a lumbering closing-credits class of a song whose genesis recalls the circumstances of Mercury Rev’s formation, Donahue and Fridmann creating original soundtracks for nature programmes on television. Gemma wrote this as a paean to a daredevil bird on the Discovery channel. Although, as she admits, sometimes it’s easier to play the thing than talk about it.

“I remember trying to explain it on stage once,” she says, “and I became aware of the fact that I was this woman introducing a song going (adopts airy-fairy voice): ‘This is about a bird flying and swooping up in the air and he kinda aims towards the ground and swoops back up again’. And the minute I said that I could imagine all these people going, ‘Oh, she’s writing about little birds now. Next it’ll be rabbits.’ But that song to me is about absolute facts, it’s about freedom, and it’s about a piece of meat in the sky, do you know what I mean? It’s meat and it’s got life-force in it and it’s fuckin’ there.”

And all this time I thought she was singing to herself:

“Ain’t you the lucky one/Never needing more than this…”

Like the man said. It’s a wonderful life.


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