The G-Man Interview w/ Gemma Ray (Southern Gothic Special)

Gemma Ray
"I speak fluent Gaelic."

Another newcomer to Cork as part Southern Gothic 2012 is genre-gurgler Gemma Ray, currently touring new album Island Fire. The retro raven’s debut album - 2008’s Hard Shoulder - quickly became a feather in many converted critic’s cap of choice but the songwriter fell ill and was forced to cancel a number of high profile shows before the chance to capitalise on the new found attention could be realised. Since then Ray has set about forging quite a colourful - and diverse - discography.

Fortunately, The G-Man got a chance to catch up with Gemma Ray before her upcoming Saturday evening gig in The Crane Lane Theatre.

Island Fire (2012)
Island Fire is just about to be released. Tell us about the origins of your new album?
I wrote much of Island Fire in transit, and recorded it on various islands around the world.

You have skipped from genre to genre with glee in the past. When writing, what process do you use to fit the songs together as one cohesive album?
I tend to have a lot of songs to choose from, so first I record the ones which wave their hands in the air for attention. Then I select the songs which want to sit together and play nicely - it can be a brutal culling process, but most of the time instinct and serendipity make decisions for me. Sequencing it very important too; A record has to have a natural rhythm to it, and the songs need to hang together well - like a series of scenes from a film. Andy (Zammit - Bronze Rat Records) helped me with this, I find his ears, outlook and taste essential when I'm blinded by what I've been working on for so long.

The record is receiving great reviews from the likes of MOJO, NME etc. What does a good/bad review mean to you personally?
I care more about a journalist creating a vivid picture of the record so that record buyers can have an idea of whether it's something that may or may not appeal to them.

Many reviewers seem to write imaginatively and evocatively about my music, some get fixated on my gender, but many seem to be inspired. I try not to get too hung up about it either way, but the feeling when someone "gets" what I'm doing, whether that's a journalist, friend, musical peer or fan is always nice.

Would you consider yourself a prolific songwriter?
Yes, but it's a part of me that I nurture and don't ever take that for granted. I'm careful to protect the part of myself and the moment of creation. I like to keep a certain naivety about that moment and never switch off from writing, wherever I am.

Besides music, into what other activities do you pour your creativity energy?
I think if you're a creative person, anything can stimulate that part of yourself - even menial actions can feel very satisfying on an inspired day: getting dressed, taking pictures, writing to friends, sketching, taking pictures, cooking. I try to write without the aid of music too which I find quite hard, but it's interesting to see what comes out and I think it's important to keep that muscle flexed and primed for action when the moment strikes.

Do you feel more at ease in a recording studio or on the stage? Why do you think that is?
I feel at ease in both, but as long as it's the right environment. I don't like performing in venues with no atmosphere but equally don't I like recording in sterile studios - but if push comes to shove, I would have to say recording is my favourite medium, maybe because I love the idea of making a time capsule for someone to find in the future.

After the launch of your debut album you were set to take the world by storm but fell sick and had to cancel a number of high profile shows. How do you feel this has affected your musical journey/career path?
It's not something I dwell on, and at the time, I was just very happy to have released my first record and was keen to move onto the next one. Being on my own has always inspired me, and having no pressures to go and tour gave me the freedom to write and write which is what I did. So I guess it helped me have the space to develop my songwriting.

Artists/bands in it for the long haul tend to build the fanbase more slowly, often resulting in better songwriting and more credibility as they have been allowed to sharpen and hone their talents over a longer period. Is it possible if you did not fall sick at the time you may have gotten "big" quickly but maybe had a shorter career span as a result?
I don't really think of music in terms of having a career, so I know that whatever happens I would never stop making music - if I earned alot of money in a short period of time then I would just spend the money making more albums for myself, luxuriate in some no-pressure studio time and keep doing what I do.

How did the collaboration with Sparks come about?
I met up with the Mael brothers in LA, as when I first started working on - what I thought would become - this album (Island Fire). I initially had a bunch of very different songs and dared chance upon the idea that Sparks themselves might produce the album for me. I'd never really thought about asking a producer to take control of a project before, but I felt so influenced by them that I thought I would try going straight to the source of my inspiration! They were too busy with other projects at the time, but we stayed in touch and in the meantime Island Fire was evolving into what it is now, and then Russell asked me if I wanted to try singing 'Carnegie Hall'. I leapt at the chance to work with them, but it was a natural, curious process where I didn't know what was going to happen at the end of it - the way I like all my music adventures to play out!

What is it like collaborating with other, established artists?
Well, I think that Sparks are truly a one-off, so the experience I had with them was unique, and I was very excited to be able to work with them. I imagine a collaboration with other legendary artists could either be weird or contrived, but with them it felt like a playful, wide-eyed experiment that utilised technology in a really original way.

What memories do you hold of previous visits to Ireland?
I only visited Dublin very briefly, it's was all a bit of a blur - I just remember the hotel room, so I'm excited about coming back properly.

You supported Joe Gideon & The Shark in Dublin a few years back? What does it mean to return as a headliner?
I try not to anticipate what a show will be like and just crack on with it - you never know which shows will be the most rewarding or interesting.

Tell us one thing we might not know about Gemma Ray?
I speak fluent Gaelic.

- Gemma Ray plays The Crane Lane Theatre, Phoenix Street, Cork Saturday at 7pm (FREE) as part of Southern Gothic 2012
- New album Island Fire is now available from all good record stores
- For more info on Gemma Ray visit
- For more info on Southern Gothic see the official facebook page here