Following the success of her Mercury-prize nominated debut album, Gemma Hayes was struck down suddenly with writer's block. Her artistic recovery was a long, painful process, taking her from a sleepy Kerry village to downtown L.A.
Gemma Hayes doesn’t look like she’s been stressing out over her new album. If anything, she looks more relaxed and chilled than I’ve ever seen her.
Sitting in the lobby of an exclusive club in London’s city centre, where she has just played a spine-tingling showcase gig for the great unwashed of the combined Irish and British media, Hayes is all smiles. In fact, she’s far more friendly and open than most musicians who admit to having agonised over their latest album for some time.
“Everybody talks about the ‘difficult second album’,” she says of her new record, The Roads Don’t Love You. “I always thought that was like, you’d be in the studio going ‘gotta make a new single’. The difficult part for me came with the two or three years of not writing. I couldn’t do a thing.”
Creative exhaustion played its part, she admits. “I counted up all the gigs I did in the last year of touring the first album, and it came to 169 gigs in one year. No wonder I was seeing double.”
Following such a gruelling schedule, her enthusiasm for music understandably grew jaded. “After that, I just couldn’t deal with music: I even stopped listening to the radio and rarely went to gigs. And then, after a year away from music, I tried to write and I couldn’t.'
Inevitably, Hayes started to wonder if she was capable of making meaningful music again. Would her creative drought last forever? “I was thinking ‘Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m one of those people who have just one album in them’. Maybe that was all I had to say. “
Then, when she least expected it, her muse returned.
“Last year, the songs started to come together, thank God,” she says. “Something clicked and suddenly I felt like I needed to record in the next few months or else it might leave again.”
It must have been a worrying time for the Tipperary singer.
“I was really upset,” she admits. “I really scared myself. I know it sounds cliched, but the funny thing is that, the moment I gave up and thought ‘Fuck it, I can’t write any more’, the minute I stopped trying, that’s when it started to happen and came together.”
Once the songs started to flow, Gemma upped sticks and headed to...well, the sticks. Ventry in Kerry was her destination. She brought with her the barest necessities: her guitar, an engineer and a mini recording studio. Settling into a holiday home near the coast, she began to “make sense” of the new material.
By September 2004, the songs were in place, more or less, and Hayes was ready to hit the studio again. The big question was: where to record? She eventually settled on Los Angeles. Southern California can be a weird, frightening place, and Hayes says she needed to “scare” herself.
“In Dublin and Ireland, I’m comfortable, so it’s a great place to write. It’s inspiring,” she explains. “But to record, I need to scare myself. I need to go someplace and feel like I’m starting all over again and I just have my songs.”
Having met with various big-name producers, she eventually decided on former Beck and REM drummer Joey Waronker, who co-produced Lisa Germano’s Lullaby For Liquid Pig, one of the singer’s favourite albums. Waronker was also instrumental in finding the right musicians to record with.
“I was afraid to start using LA session musicians, because I had my own stereotypical idea of these people who come in, and it all sounds jazzy,” Hayes recollects.
Waronker suggested that Hayes draw up a wish-list of collaborators. Eventually, she had recruited an impressive roster of players, including Josh Klinghoffer, PJ Harvey’s guitar player, Remy Zero bassist Cedric LeMoyne, and Beck’s keyboard player, Roger Manning.
The end result is a fine collection of songs, whose mood is perfectly encompassed in lead single, ‘Happy Sad’.
Melancholy and bittersweet, the new compositions are still unmistakably the sound of Gemma Hayes. How personal is the new album?
“The songs on this album, for me, are just the complete truth,” she states. “A lot of my friends commented that there aren’t a lot of different themes on it. But I can’t pretend that there are. It’s what I feel. If that means that I’m saying the same thing in different ways, so be it. But at least it’s real.”
Honesty, she says, is a recurring theme of the record.'
"It’s like when David Kitt put out his album of love songs because that’s how he felt: he couldn’t pretend to be anything else. The thing about this album is that I mean it. I mean every word of it.”
Concentrating to the lyrics, this listener got the distinct impression that Gemma Hayes isn’t the happiest chimpanzee in the zoo.
She giggles: “What could possibly give you that impression?”
Well, what about tracks such ‘Another For The Darkness’ or the aforementioned ‘Happy/Sad’, where it seems like the Ballyporeen singer feels all alone in the world?
“Those songs are little moments in time. They’re not general,’ she says. “‘Happy Sad’ is one of the only songs that’s written as a character, because it’s from a young girl’s point of view. There’s a CD cover from a band called Golden Republic for an album called People. The picture shows this real goofy girl at a prom and everybody’s dancing around her. When I saw that photograph, it made me think about the girl. So I wrote that song with her in mind. The line ‘My friends are few’ is about her being in school and feeling like a nobody. There’s definitely a part of me that feels that way sometimes. But the song is not about me. The other song you mentioned, ‘Another For The Darkness’ – when I wrote that I was crawling the walls. It was like ‘that guy is the light and everything else is dark’. So yeah, that’s about me.”
Melancholy maybe, but there’s a new toughness and confidence about the 2005 model Gemma Hayes that wasn’t apparent on her debut.
“I think I’ve learned a lot from the last time,” she explains. “Before, it was everything to me how the album went, but now, I’ve just let go. I do care, but it’s not going to crush me. This is an album in time and I’m proud of it. Hopefully, it will have its day in the sun but it’s in the lap of the gods.”
Was she pleased by the response to her debut, Night On My Side, which garnered a Mercury Music Prize nomination and hotpress Award for Best Female Singer?
“On a human level, when [media coverage] is great and good, you can’t help but love it. Similarly, when it’s bad, you can’t help but be hurt by it,” she admits. “You can pretend that you’re not. But that’s why a lot of people stop listening to the good and the bad, because you’re affected by it so much.”
Good reviews were encouraging, but she’d tried not to let the positive press go to her head.
"Having people hear the album and like it and getting great reviews was fantastic. I got some hairy reviews too so I knew how that felt. But the fact that I got more of the good ones was great. At the time, all that was very new and so it meant a lot to me. Over time, for your own sake, you stop putting a lot of weight to all of that: if you did, you’d be up and down like a yoyo. But at that time, it was absolutely brilliant. It still is a lovely thing to hear.”
Having spent so long thinking about The Roads Don’t Love You, planning the songs, the sound and the overall package, Gemma is chomping at the bit to hit the road again.
“I’ve been sitting around, eating so much tea and toast, watching so much Coronation Street and Eastenders – to the point where I was really thinking about not going to Los Angeles because I couldn’t watch my soaps,” she admits with a laugh. “I got so stuck in my ways that I can’t wait to get back up on stage and start the whole thing again.”
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