Let’s say you’re a young, aspiring singer/ songwriter. People have always said you’ve got talent. You believe it, too. So you decide to make a go of it. Against your parents’ wishes, you pack in university; throw in the towel at your menial job. You sign to hip record label and release a couple of EPs. The critics are kind, the sales even kinder. Then you record your debut album. It’s a beautiful, finely crafted set of songs that belies your young years and bristles with magic. It pulls off that rare trick of having universal resonance. You find you’ve won over fans young and old. It turns out you were right. You’re good at this. Magazines fall over themselves to feature you. Those ‘Best Album’ end-of-year polls – from serious music mags to more frivolous titles, broadsheets to the Rough Trade shop – all make sure your record’s in there. Then comes the Mercury Music Prize nomination and the award for Best Female Singer (Hotpress Irish Music Awards). You tour like mad. Everything you’ve ever dreamed possible has come true. It’s great. Now let’s say you sit down to write your second album and… you can’t. Time passes and you keep trying. Still nothing. Two years go by, during which time you figure: ‘That’s it’. What happens then? What happens when you lose your mojo?
“Sometimes when you come off the road, you get the blues,” says 27-year-old, Tipperary-born Gemma Hayes. “Your days are no longer planned and you don’t know what on earth you’re going to do with your life. I had that feeling for two years. ‘What do I do? I can’t write. I’m too restless.’ I don’t know what caused it. All I do know is that I didn’t want to listen to music at all. I stopped listening to the radio. It was like I’d overdosed on music.”
This, of course, is by no means uncommon. It happens to musicians, singers and lyricists all the time. And perhaps when your whole life has been surrounded by music, from growing up with seven brothers and sisters in a house crammed with different musical tastes to pouring all that love and lyrical honesty into two EPs – 2001’s 4.35am and Work To A Calm– and one debut LP – 2002’s Night On My Side– to working your socks off to promote them, then you can be forgiven for needing to give your brain a break. In truth, reconnecting with her mojo was never going to be a permanent problem for Gemma. After all, it was her own steely self-belief that helped create her success in the first place, and it was her own steely self-belief that would get her out of this. Last summer, in a remote part of Ireland , she cut herself off from everything she considered familiar - it was here in County Kerry that gemma began to write.
“I really took advantage of it,” she says. “It was just myself and an engineer. I isolated myself from everything that was going on.”
Slowly but surely, the songs started to come. Next, though, she had to find musicians and a place to record them. She chose Los Angeles. And before you think that she wanted to add some glossy West Coast oomph to her homespun tunes, think again.
“I’d just heard there was a really good music scene in LA, some great musicians,” says Gemma. “Plus, I was kind of curious about seeing the place.”
So, at the end of last summer, armed with her new arsenal of tunes, Gemma upped sticks and moved out to America. She met musicians, she met producers. It was one of those positive, all-things-are-possible times. One night she was jamming with drummer Joey Waronker and he mentioned that he’d co-produced Lisa Germano’s Lullaby For Liquid Pig album, one of her faves.
“He said ‘I know you’re probably looking for a big, hotshot producer and your record company will want a big name, but I want you to know I’d like to produce your record with you’. I thought ‘Fuck it. That sounds really exciting’.
The idea of working together on this project was a great challenge.’ But who to get to play on the album? Joey had an idea. Make a list of all the musicians Gemma admired and ring them up and ask. So it came to pass that Josh Klinghoffer, the youngster best known for his mercurial guitar work for PJ Harvey, came on board. Cedric LeMoyne, rubber-fingered bassist with Remy Zero was in, too. And so was Roger Manning, Jr, best known for assisting Beck on extra keyboard vibes. Through the first half of 2005, the new team worked quickly in a small, no-budget, unflashy LA studio. For mixing, Gemma then headed to Cello Studios, the place famous for buffing and tweaking Pet Sounds, Frank Sinatra and The Mammas And The Papas, amongst others.
“The day after we finished, we got a call saying it has shut down,” says Gemma. More importantly, the album was finally done. So, after the wait, how does this new record compare to Night On My Side? It’s unmistakably Gemma Hayes, of course. The dazzling way with melody, the terrific voice is there. The remarkable ability to somehow join the dots between the loud of My Bloody Valentine and the calm of Joni Mitchell you’ll recognise, too. And her way with a mantra-like truth still beats at the heart of this album – But this is an even more confident, assured set.
“I think my personality is stronger on this one,” says Gemma. “What I have to say is more definite. If the first one was about self-discovery and first experiences, now I feel ‘This is who I am’. All of us are trying to figure shit out all the time. This album is saying ‘Look, I don’t know what the answer is. And I don’t care anymore’. Just get on with things, you know.”
Getting on with things is where Gemma Hayes is at today. She got lost, found herself, moved to LA, tracked down a brilliant band, made a brilliant record and emerged victorious. She's still only 27. “It was such hard work but I had such a good time,” she says. “I was in trouble back there for a bit. But now I think anything is possible. I achieved what I always wanted to achieve. An album of songs that mean something to me.”
Rest assured, they’ll soon mean something to you, too. Some things are worth the wait.
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