Gemma Ray: “I am mainly writing words without music and music without words”
I saw Gemma Ray perform at the Volksbühne last year. She was pregnant and alone on stage. When people go see a show they rarely understand how much is needed to perform a good show. Talent, charisma, professionalism and skill are but a few of the necessary attributes. When you perform unaccompanied all of the attention is focused on your every single movement but besides being the artiste you also have to attain a connection with the crowd, announce your own songs and entertain while you are fixing a broken string or tuning for the third time.
It was the first time I saw Gemma perform and was quite excited to finally see her play. What struck me was the warmth of her music and personality on stage. Her performance was intimate and larger than life simultaneously. I was impressed with the ease she played her beautiful songs inspite of being pregnant and how professional she was. It is not surprising that she has collaborated with legends like Alan Vega or Nick Cave: Gemma Ray is excellent. She has released eight albums on Bronze Rat Records and is working on her next songs which I very much look forwards to hearing. Her style is sometimes described as pop-noir, sideways blues or gothic folk. Put together they express how rich and opulent her music is and how many different genres it touches. A couple of months after seeing her show I asked Gemma, whom I had met at a couple of shows backstage over the years, if she felt like doing an interview and describe how she has been faring during the pandemic. She kindly agreed so I am very happy to present her here today.
How have you been experiencing 2020 ?
I started 2020 with a small baby and a rough plan to continue touring my record ’Psychogeolgy’. I started the first leg throughout my pregnancy in 2019 but was looking forward to resuming playing guitar normally (! – I had to learn to play in a new position, helped by a yoga instructor, classical pose, and sitting down for the tour whilst pregnant, as I was getting RSI, and couldn’t reach some chords). Then in January, I broke my elbow after falling into a hole in the sidewalk. And then the pandemic happened shortly before my cast was taken off! Nothing was confirmed at this point, so I do feel very lucky that I didn’t have to cancel anything.
I have to admit, I haven’t felt a proportionate amount of doom in relation to the enormity of world events as I have been distracted, absorbed in the process of helping someone grow. Motherhood has been a great shift for me, and I really appreciate that I have had this brilliantly hyper-real lockdown experience of it rather than of the crushing disappointment of cancelling hard-won gigs like many of my musician friends who have had to let go of tours, lose money and a way of life for a while. It’s really competitive and difficult to even book concerts for a tour, let alone to figure out the pre-production and then to promote it – especially if you are working independently.
So my experience of 2020 has been processing, processing and processing some more – both on a personal level, as an artist, and reflecting upon the many issues that we are learning to confront and deal with – I don’t think I’m anywhere near done with that yet.
Do you usually tour a lot? If you do what circuit do you perform in most? Festivals? Small Venues? Large venues? Single shows or long extended tours?Solo or support act? Do you think these places will survive?
I have toured non-stop in recent years and pretty extensively over the past ten years, in Europe, Australia/NZ, USA/Canada, South Africa, even playing in places like Bali – so it’s been a way of life for my partner (Andy Zammit) and myself, and way more than just a way to make money. Getting out there and just playing music was the best way for us to stay inspired and in love with what we do. Serendipity seemed to lead the way, meeting likeminded folks and finding adventures, it’s a lifestyle which feeds the cycle of independently making, producing and releasing records. It is also hard work and challenging of course, because we have to create all the opportunities ourselves before we’ve started. Being on stage for me is a rare moment of peace in the day.
I have never really fit into any kind of scene, so in terms of touring this has been pretty cool because there is no normal for me. My tours are quite unpredictable – I have had opportunities to play pop-up venues to larger concert halls like Volksbuhne or Barbican or Royal Albert Hall (not as headliner!), typical circuit rock venues, jazz cafes, open air art events and festivals occasionally. I have focused mainly on headline tours for my last few records but always really enjoy opening for acts I admire, especially if my music is really different to theirs – I come away with better chops and my musicality feels more 3D somehow. The Sonics tour was fun and I’ve toured a lot with Jon Spencer in recent years – opening for Nick Cave was very cool too. I don’t enjoy going to or playing at festivals much unless they are smaller, multi-venue things, and curated well – I hate the cross-phasing of hearing more than one act playing at the same time and get really overwhelmed by the amount of musicians and people. I have really enjoyed some festivals like Pop Kultur.
I love playing with my band, but for solo shows I enjoy making it a little more experimental and collage-like. Andy & I have also had some great experiences touring as a guitar/drums duo – he simultaneously plays the drums and the Acetone organ whilst triggering noise and I get so much freedom as he can just follow me wherever I go. He plays the drums in a really free way and I love experiencing how much our sound can expand and mutate over the period of a long tour.
Last weekend my band & I played with the Filmorchester Babelsberg which was cool – especially to experience this during a pandemic! Only a fraction of the seats could be filled due to restrictions but it was a nice feeling to play again. It was my fifth time working with them, and I feel honoured every time.
I have no idea where the live music scene can go from here – it was already very overcrowded and touring the USA is a nightmare. I feel like there is no choice for me right now other than to focus on what I am able to do creatively and the see how it pans out next year. I feel so sad at the idea of venues shutting down. I hope that we can all bounce back. On a personal level I think, like many other musicians I am highly trained in being adaptive to financial insecurity! I hope we can all find our way through together somehow.
Would you say that your style of music is especially good for touring or performing live or is it easier to do a digital performance?
Performing live is best for me personally, although I think my music could survive other ways of being presented. I tend to thrive in intense, one-to-one, sink or swim type of situations where I have no choice but to focus on the music and nothing else. The more controlled and contrived something is the more removed I feel from it and therefore more self-conscious I become – as a performer I need to really lose myself to be in the zone.
I can’t bear the idea of a playing concert with backing tracks that have no room for change, error or manipulation! But the idea of some kinds of digital performance could be interesting but only if another visual or interactive element comes into it somehow. I have an electronic album project almost finished, so maybe that could lead to a new approach.
Have you been thinking of alternative ways of presenting your music if the pandemic continues to hamper the music world?
I must admit, I haven’t really… I already feel like so much of modern music culture is staged and faked to some extent. The human element has become so far removed in many cases that I hate the thought of that being reduced even further. Maybe there is an artful way to evolve and that new and inspiring ways will push their way through the soil! I think I am just craving something very simple and very real right now, much like everyone else – I can’t immediately see a way forward via the internet yet which appeals to me personally… I think it’s important that performance isn’t just about projecting oneself onto others, and that it’s a two way thing.
Do you work thematically with your lyrics? If yes what is the theme you think most interesting at the moment and why?
Sometimes. I did with my last record Psychogeology, which explores the connection between landscape and emotions. The guts of the songs were quite personal and direct but they also reflected on the vastness of time which I was witnessing on trips and explorations that sprouted as offshoots from tours. I worked within this theme early on in the process for this record – but for some other albums the theme has become apparent later on in the process. I’ve found that most collections of songs from a period of time are held together by a thread whether its visible at first or not.
I have heard your music described as POP NOIR – is this how you describe it?
Not really, but I don’t mind if people say that. I am heavy on melody so I think people often use the word Pop, although I think that can be quite misleading. The noir thing I get because I use minor keys alot, but generally I am searching for beauty and depth rather than just plain sadness.
I don’t think people find it very easy to describe my music – I quite liked the phrase ‘Cinematic Torch Song Psychedelia’ – anything other than ‘female singer-songwriter’ will do! I decided a long time ago when asked at Customs what my music was like, to just say ‘Jazz’. That avoids all the long-winded, awkward self-conscious descriptions and conversation…!
Some musicians mentioned feeling so helpless in face of the pandemic and threatening climate change that they question music in general because it seems superfluous in face of these catastrophes. Do you ever have doubts in this way or does music carry you through tough times?
Music has carried me through many tough times, from both sides – I think it’s more important now than ever that artists keep doing what they do, creating, and questioning through their work even if it does feel hard to validate it at times. I acknowledge that music has an environmental impact, that vinyl is a petrochemical product, that streaming has a bigger footprint than physical product even back in the heyday, and that all productivity piggy backs off some form of destruction. But we are here, and we have to keep ourselves sane, and I think music has the potential to lift people up from the hole they’ve been beaten down into by other people’s exploits, so in that sense music can be a tonic and can be less morally questionable than some other activities. Also, I have to say, making music for me has not been a conscious choice, it’s a natural instinct and a way of communication. So stifling it because it’s not ‘valid’ is borderline sadism for me! Of course I have periods of doubt, of feeling like this. Sometimes I think it’s self-serving. But then some people will always try to put down music as invalid, or a luxury, because it’s not ‘productive’, financially or otherwise. But what about landlordism, politics, technology, civic servants, fashion, the service sector, film etc etc… If music is superfluous then surely everything else, all human endeavour, is too. Progress is a myth.
What is your main motivation ? Inspiration?
To feel content, happy, sane – to celebrate being alive through art.
What are you working on momentarily?
I am mainly writing words without music and music without words. I’ve been walking around 3 hours a day throughout the pandemic and writing something, no matter how loose. I have an ongoing experimental project with a film director, and a few commissions recently put to bed. I am trying to leave my songwriting album projects alone for a while – the time doesn’t feel right to finish them and I am really enjoying a break from that particular pleasure/pain cycle. I reached the end of an 8 solo album loop when I became pregnant – 8 is a very significant number for me so feels right to take a brief pause. Having said that, I do have a mountain of ‘work in progress’ which is starting to niggle at me…
What are your plans for the future?
I am trying to be in the here and now – to have no fixed plans. I am processing. But when I indulge myself in musical fantasies I am imagining more film soundtrack work, more experimenting with electronics and new sounds, and some very simple but powerful solo shows for when the time is right.