- 30 Sep 21
Gemma Hayes revisited her phenomenal debut album Night On My Side as part of the Up Close and Personal series at The Grand Social last night. The Up Close and Personal series is made in conjunction with Aidan Shortall of Up Close and Personal promotions and supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
In 2002 Gemma Hayes released her breathtaking debut album Night On My Side. The Mercury Music Prize-nominated LP was home to beautiful songs like ‘Hanging Around,’ ‘Back Of My Hand’ and ‘Let A Good Thing Go.’ Co-produced by David Odlum and David Fridmann, Night On My Side was an instant classic and was cemented as one the greatest Irish albums of all time after its release. As part of Hot Press’ ‘Up Close and Personal’ series, the inimitable artist talked about her seminal debut with Hot Press’ Lucy O’Toole.
The 50-strong crowd ambled in at 8pm and took their seats, waiting for the songwriter to appear. 5 years after her last on-stage performance, Gemma was welcomed by Hot Press’ Lucy O’Toole and the raucous crowd. “I need to get my heart to slow down,” she said laughing.
“I’m so glad you remember me,” she added as if the audience could have forgotten. The singer admitted that she had never listened to the album in full until a week ago — and that she never realised it was a country album. “That was definitely from my father,” said the 44-year old about the evident country twang on the record.
Gemma relived the days before Night On My Side’s release. From jamming with her musical family in Tipperary who said the rosary every night to attending a boarding school run by nuns and finding freedom in UCD. “I wish I knuckled down a bit more,” said the guitarist.
The musician said a songwriting roommate in UCD inspired her to delve into the craft at a time when she only knew three chords. Gemma said she only wrote depressing songs — her first being a tune called ‘Dead Man.’ But it all fed into Night On My Side which was a time of liberation for her.
“I didn’t know to care,” she said of recording the album. “There’s such freshness and nativity and freedom and passion,” she added, and every ounce of it is evident as Lucy introduces the opening track ‘Day One.’ The song filled the room and every ounce of Gemma’s vulnerability and songwriting prowess was still evident on the nearly 20-year old record.
“I got into music really as a healing process,” remarked the artist. Over the course of the evening, Gemma talked about the difficult time she was having personally during that period as she struggled to be comfortable in her own skin. Music was her escape.
The star also admitted that she has forgotten how to play a lot of her own songs. “I’d really love to know how to play ‘Tear In My Side’” she said to laughter from the crowd.
One song she hadn’t forgotten how to play is ‘Back Of My Hand.’ Before launching into the song, she recounted the story of the iconic riff on the song. It was inspired by New Order and came after Gemma had struggled with the song which she found “too nice.” Slapping a bass string on her guitar, the riff was born and the track was completed — the night before it was due to be mastered.
As Gemma broke out into the song, the already quiet room grew more silent still in awe of her haunting, sweet and pitch perfect voice. Even without the riff it was just as good as the recording.
Gemma wasn’t alone on the record she said later in the evening. Legendary producer Dave Odlum, his brother Carl and Paul Noonan all played on the LP with Dave producing a number of tracks; one of them being ‘Tear In My Side.’
Another instrumental component of the unique sounding album was Dave Fridmann who Gemma was determined to have on the record. She wanted him for the “unapologetic,” sound he mined from each instrument. Virgin, the parent company of her label Source, didn’t like it but Gemma went ahead anyway with support from Source.
“I was just following the sound of what I liked,” she said. The guitarist gave props to her manager Kieran Owens who helped her negotiate the deal with Source instead of the massive labels that were vying for her signature.
Between stories of the album’s recording process, Virgin’s interference and the support from those around her, ‘Over and Over’ and ‘Let A Good Thing Go’ played; a song Gemma said she was “really proud” of.
The singer talked about recording in upstate New York with Fridmann. Although she felt “underqualified,” she said the entire experience was “very special.” She recounted a funny tale of a picture of Britney Spears Fridmann had in the control room which she would turn upside down every day and Fridmann would turn it around each day. The pair have never spoken about their Cold War: Britney Edition struggle.
Gemma then played ‘Ran For Miles’ which the singer said was “very hard to talk about,” because of the difficult experiences it was inspired by — epitomised by lyrics like “Wanna tell you how hard it’s been / Trying to talk myself out of jumping.”
She said she wasn’t actually suicidal but did suffer severe panic attacks as she struggled through her early 20’s with self-loathing. But this co-existed with “belief and passion and confidence” when she entered the studio.
‘What A Day’ and ‘Tear In My Side’ followed, the latter of which featured an accordion. Gemma laughed, retelling the story of a farmer living near the studio in France who they recruited to play on the record. He would freeze once they pressed record so they told him they weren’t taping him, and then taped him as he played flawlessly.
Odlum also produced this who Gemma has “absolute faith and trust in.” Odlum is also producing her upcoming album, her first since 2014’s Bones + Longing.
‘I Wanna Stay' and ‘Lucky One’ from the album followed before Gemma remembered being joined onstage by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. The pair apparently have ten songs written together but not one of them has been released. Maybe someday.
Gemma also discussed how as a female artist she was perceived to only be the cherry on top of the recordings and not the driving force behind them. Much of the credit was given to the men around her when it was her who was curating both the soft songs and heavily distorted atmospheric ones.
The crowd was treated to the first ever live performance of ‘My God’ which she wrote inspired by religious imagery whilst watching telly. Religion was a central part of upbringing in a devout Catholic household as the youngest of eight. “A good Catholic number,” she laughed.
The title track played, followed by ‘Pieces Of Glass,’ a hidden track on the album before the genre-bending artist picked up the guitar for one final song. Finishing with ‘Hanging Around,’ Gemma saved the best until last and received a standing ovation for her phenomenal performance.
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Night On My Side which Gemma says there are plans to do a vinyl for it possibly along with a package including demos from the time that were never released.
Despite spending the evening reliving the past, Gemma is firmly focused on the present with her two kids who are “just nuts,” with an eye cast towards the future for her latest album which will hopefully be arriving soon.