Monday, December 19, 2016

Gemma Ray!

The captivating British performer Gemma Ray recently played some dates in the United States, and my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending a performance here in the Washington, DC area. She’s released over a half dozen records, brings a powerful sound and presentation to both her records and her live show, and makes music that’s unique and totally her own. Her songs are carefully constructed and arranged, while also very moving and soulful. Her guitar accentuates the passion of her vocals, yet it never overwhelms her powerful singing. Often borrowing from the torch singers of the past, her music has been described as “noir” like; to me, it’s a David Lynch soundtrack waiting to happen.

I spoke with Gemma about her music and her excellent new release, The Exodus Suite, and I also had a conversation with her long-time collaborator, Andy Zammit, about how he approaches his drums and keyboards to support Gemma Ray’s music. Gemma's website is worth checking out, as is her Facebook page; I also recommend a second website that is very informative and worth checking out.

I hope you enjoy reading about Gemma and her music. Oh and did I mention she’s a Sparks fan, and that she’s covered two of their songs? Well yes, we talked about that too!

Gemma Ray and her Music

Monte: How did you get started in music?

Gemma: I gravitated toward being a musician, really, just by become more and more obsessed with writing music and playing with sound. It was a slow, long and consistent process, that was a slow journey from when I was about 14.

Monte: What led you to the guitar in particular?

Gemma: I grew up playing even when I was six, it was just an “after-school” thing that I had a flair for. I played piano, guitar, got the idea of instantly accessing bands that I was into, trying to imitate some of those chords and it felt like something a bit more tactile than a piano.

Monte: Your music doesn’t sound like other bands. It sounds like you singing from your heart. I’m a big fan of film noir and I hear that. I hear you singing your own unique interpretation of music, whatever it is you are doing.

Gemma: Yes, I didn’t try to emulate bands, it was just a way to learning chords. I just bought a couple tab books with basic chords, and then quickly got bored with those chords and started playing around with tunings. By the age of 16 I discovered certain tunings that I preferred that made it quicker and easier to play songs that I was writing. I just wanted to quickly, as quickly as I could, have a palette to work from. So it made sense to me to tune it like a keyboard, really, an open tuning. So I could just re-figured it to something that suited my impatience, and curiosity for searching for melodies and writing songs.

Monte: How would you describe your music?

Gemma: My music is just an extension of myself. It’s always grown with me. I always saw myself as someone who did not have a musical upbringing, because my parents were not into music as such. But they would encourage me, as good parents do, with anything I was good at. They encouraged me to stick with writing and piano. Even at six, I had these funny little Irish jigs that I’d play again and again, and I just saw music as an extension of my life - a documentation of my life, an extension of myself, a fantasy that I could step into. So of course it’s not all biographical, sometimes it’s just strumming on a guitar. It’s sound collages that I’m interested in,  satisfying my own curiosity, and sometimes of course you meet people along the way that provide that path to (exploring something) further.

I’m quite drawn to sounds from the past from the actual instrument, but then again that can make you pigeon-holed into something that I’m not.  But my music isn’t aping the past at all. Since I was young I always liked discovering old things and making them into something new. I just think that often things were made better in the past, so I guess a lot of my sound and music stems from my love of old vintage (music).

Monte: You have such a unique approach to the guitar. Not so much about establishing traditional “rock band” parts, but about using it as an extension of yourself, to convey your vision.

Gemma: Even as a teenager playing the guitar, I’d be listening to bands and not really being that interested in working out what was the bass, what was the guitar...I wasn’t that interested, really. I’m a slow learner, really. Now I can control what I do, I can produce things in the way that I choose. But I can follow my instincts, really.

I think about seven years ago, really, I suddenly went nuts about guitars. Before then I was still playing them but I was a bit “anti-guitar,” I just used it.

Monte: It’s a reflection of you. When I hear your music, your voice comes out very clearly. Your guitar playing supports that. When I hear music, I hear you.

Gemma: That’s nice, it’s nice that people want to hear me! It’s nice to have a sound that people can recognize as a bit different. But I suppose there’s an honesty to it. I’ve never had that somewhat pretentious desire to create something, and I’ve always admired that great art can be made with a concept that is adhered to, but I’ve always been more intuitive (in my approach).

The Exodus Suite

Monte: Let’s talk about the new album, The Exodus Suite. It would be great to hear your perspective on it.

Gemma: It’s got a bit more of a holistic concept than the other albums, mainly because songs that made the record, it wasn’t until after they were selected that I realized they were about a similar theme. They all kind of draw on the idea of wanting to connect with other humans and a need for that in these times. A few songs reflect on a fantastical future, which is a bit of a tired theme at the moment, and not something I wanted to get too deep into...they’re slightly playful, really, a couple, and some of them are...driving home the point that none of us are from one particular place.

One song in particular, We Are All Wandering, the lyrics starting coming together in situ, because I recorded it in a situation where (the area where I was recording) had become home to a lot of Syrian refugees. It wasn’t a cheesy situation like “hey, let’s write a song about it.” It was more serendipity that the song was addressing that theme. It started as a kind of folk song, I had certain ideas within that theme, but the lyrics became more porous to the situation. Andy and I collaborated a bit more than usual.

Just themes like empathy, and nature’s sovereignty as well. Some songs came out meditating on a topic, the quality of creatures, of humans, and environmental issues. But it’s all in a storytelling sort of way. Not too literal.

Monte: It seems like this album is really important to you.

Gemma: Yeah, and it’s been nice to play live because you know, as recent events are, it’s scary. I feel very connected with these themes, especially at the moment traveling in America (which lets you) transcend what you originally intended and apply it to where you are. I recorded it live as well, which gave it that connection in the production that I hoped people would be able to connect to, the human flaws and imperfections, rather than a super-shiny, super-modern kind of production. That was another part of the concept as well, keeping it real.

The album is nearly all the two of us, but we had a friend that played bass. So we toured in Europe with a third person, but two people (works). Andy plays drums and keyboards, he’s really great at that. So two people live has an intensity, where the minimalism is pushed.

Monte: How has the reception been here in the States?

Gemma: It’s more of a road trip for me - some of the bars are great, some not really. New York was really nice. It’s nice to be driving around and getting a sense of a bit of the country.

The Sparks Connection

Monte: How did you get into Sparks? And there's a rumor that you once fainted at one of their concerts?

Gemma: I got into them from Lil’ Beethoven and onwards. I got obsessed with this record and went to see them in London. They had these tympani drums...I just passed out. But I’ll say that I either feel completely apathetic to music live, or I cry. I haven’t passed out before! I’ve seen them do a couple of shows since. I’m a big fan. It’s a journey, going back to the earlier stuff as well.

Nancy (my wonderful wife, who was with us): How did you choose the two covers?

Gemma: I actually approached them to see if they’d like to produce a record for me. I’ve never really been drawn to asking someone to produce a record in a particular style before. They were way too busy but they were really nice about it. Then Russell e-mailed me out of the blue and said, “hey, would you like to sing on (How Do You Get To) Carnegie Hall and I said sure, but I don’t know if I can do it justice because I’m quite addicted to the original. So I sang along to the original and sent them my vocal file, and they created this whole new backing track to it. It was kind of like a weird fairy tale.

The other one (Eaten By the Monster of Love) is a bit different. I sent them a recording of that I did on my guitar which was kind of a twangy guitar voice, and again they took the components and made a new track out of it. So that’s why it says me, singing Sparks, with Sparks.

Nancy: it was very collaborative. You re-created what they did, and then they re-created it.

Gemma: They put so much work into it. I think they’re perfectionists in everything they do, and it was an honor really. A real trip for me, it was very easy for me to step into their world!

Monte: They're planning a world tour next year. You should be their opening act for the whole thing!

Gemma: I would love that!

Summing Up

Monte: To finish up..what does the future hold, and what would you like people to know about you and your music?

Gemma: The future, I’m not sure. I’m open minded to keep making records and touring as long as I can, I love touring and I love making records. But it’s not easy to make records without a big label. Andy and I are quite perfectionists and we want everything to be just right. But it’s hard to do without a lot of money.

I’ve got another record in the wings, a different collaboration that I might release. I’ll probably take some time off next year, and do another record. I’ve got a tour of Australia coming up...Italy and Switzerland...I’ve been on tour since mid-September, and I love it. But I haven’t had a day off since July or August.

Monte: Thank you very much, it’s been great talking with you!

Special Bonus: A Conversation with Andy Zammit!

Like Gemma, Andy Zammit is a captivating performer, not only playing a full drum kit and keyboards, but often doing both simultaneously! We talked about the importance of his drums in Gemma's music, and yes, he too is a Sparks fan.

Monte: Thank you for taking some time to talk and let me start off be mentioning, as you listen to Gemma Ray’s music, it’s clear to me that your drums are pretty integral.

Andy:  Gemma and I started making music together in 2003, maybe a bit later. We formed a band that became known as the Gamma Ray Ritual, with a rotating cast of musicians in London. We were going for about 2 or 3 years, doing a lot in London. We were asked by a start-up label in London if we’d record a 7-inch for him, and we did, but then the label didn’t happen. So we had this recording, I decided to start my own label up. I knew that a lot of the bands I was playing in, lots of friends that were touring, they needed an outlet. There was a scene we were a part of and it seemed like a good thing to do.

No one started a label in 2006 with the intention of making money. It was a labor of love. The label became a labor of love. The label became a full-on job for me, and Gemma’s first two records were released on that label. But it became a full time thing for me, and Gemma and I stopped making music together. Gemma went on and did her own thing, she essentially became a solo artist. But after a few years we started playing again, because I realized that I didn’t get in this game for a desk job, I wanted to make some music.

Monte: The way the two of you interact musically really comes across on the live videos. The sound is really dependent on both of you.

Andy: Now it is. (After the album) Island Fire we played a lot of shows as a two-piece and that kind of dictated how we moved forward. We really haven’t made a two-piece album; the last one (Exodus Suite) is probably the closest we’ve come to that.

How would you describe the role of the drums?

Andy: We’ve evolved together. We’ve been playing together now for over ten years. Before I was playing mostly rock or punk bands; volume was always something I brought to the table. With Gemma I’ve become a very quiet drummer. I play a lot with brushes. I try to inject some kind of playfulness to it without getting in the way of what Gemma does.

Often we’ve approached a song with a specific sound in mind, but sometimes it’s very free-form. I never play the same thing twice. We do improvise a lot. She doesn’t write from jam sessions; she brings pre-written songs to a session that gets side swiped by me, I guess.

I don’t just play drums; I play bass and keyboards, whatever is needed.

Monte: Your set appears to be a vintage Ludwig?

Andy: It’s a Rogers - the front skin is a Ludwig! The Rogers front skin got ripped in storage; when I picked it up from storage it had a Ludwig head on it, but I don’t care. The set is a lovely Rogers from 1969. It’s a Frankenstein. It’s a Fullerton rack toms mixed with a Fullerton bass drum. The snare...I’ve got a lot of drums, a lot of snares, but they’re all in the UK or Berlin. So this is a Rogers.

Monte: I have two sets, one is a TAMA, the others is a Ludwig. I’m not tied to either brand, but the cymbals do need to be Zildjian.

Andy: I’m using Sabian Paragons. At home I use Paiste Giant Beats, which I love. They have the potential to be loud, the potential to be quiet.

Monte: It’s hard to find the right cymbals.

Andy: I’m open-minded. I’ve also got the Zyn cymbals that Premier made, the 5 Star Versions.I have two Rogers kits and I love my Rogers. I also have a beautiful Dynasonic Snare drum. If I want a more tightened, 70s sound, then I’ve got a Heyman kit and a snare drum that was recommended to me by Jim Sclavunos from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He said Andy, you’ve got to try this, have you ever played a Fibes snare drum, it’s the one that Buddy Rich used. So I bought one on EBay, he’s right it’s really tight and crisp. But with Gemma’s sound, very reverb and sometimes ethereal, a lot of different textures and sounds, that usually means cheaper drums oddly enough. They’re more...temperamental.

(For Gemma) it has to be a nice mix of jazz, rock, pop, and orchestral cinematic sounds. A lot of that is if I change from sticks to mallets or brushes. I really like playing with Brushes. I have these Vic Firth white ones, which are very solid. So you get a certain sound, but you can get the volume that you can get from a stick, if you need it. With sticks I use the HD-4s. Again, I’m always trying different things out. I go with what feels right.

Here's a video that captures a recent performance featuring Gemma and Andy, featuring four songs from The Exodus Suite. Hope you enjoy!

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