NEXT BIG THING | Gemma Hayes

Meet Gemma Hayes, the lass from Ballyporeen now signed to the home of Air and Phoenix, Source Records of Paris. Interview: Cat Hughes.

She writes tunes soaked in honeyed vocals, tailor-made to keep you cosy on lazy Sunday afternoons. She's been courted by every major label worth a mention. She's just signed with the coolest record company around. And she's only 23. It's time to get acquainted with Gemma Hayes.

So first off, on behalf of all the struggling singer/songwriters and bands in the land, lets find out how she's joined ranks with Air, Phoenix and the like by hooking up with the folks at Source. "My publisher sent Source a six track demo - no information, no pictures, no nothing - and they signed me on that. It's funny because the guy who signed me still hasn't seen me play! I said to him 'are you not worried that I'm crap live, or all the rest of my songs are shite?' But apparently, he's not!"

Of course he's not. With gently beautiful songs seeming to come as easily as breathing, Gemma's only concern is where to put all those nice Source freebies! "Ah, I tell you what, they sent me twenty free CDs the other day! Heh heh, it's brilliant!"

The hunt for a suitable producer is under way, so thoughts have turned to recording that debut album. "It's not gonna be too far from what it is now, probably a bit quieter. There's gonna be a lot of acoustic guitar. And then just little electronic sounds, guitar, bass, if it's needed, lots of harmonies. It's gonna be a girl thing, probably!"

Not entirely surprising, you know, Gemma being a girl and all. But with begrudgery our favourite national pastime, it's no surprise to find some folk even have issues with that. "People are kind of (patronising tone) 'ah, she's singing about love'. But if you think about it, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Van Morrison, their songs are mainly about love. But if a girl writes about it, she's just a typical female songwriter. It's very easy to be put into a category, but the world is a lot bigger than Ireland and I have to keep telling myself that."

While it may not be long before the world (and Ireland) finds itself merrily loving Gemma's sounds, the life of a jet-setting megastar might not be on the cards. "I'm not looking to be sprawled over the pages of magazines and being in Hello showing people around my house. That's not what I'm after. If anything, I wanna make a really fucking good album and if I'm gonna be famous for that, brilliant! But I don't want to be famous for being in the back of U magazine."

If the trappings of superstardom may not appeal, jetting back and forth to the Source office in Paris sounds fairly glamorous. Looking forward to your holidays, Gemma? "Life's a holiday! Actually, it'll be a lot of hard work because I only have two or three months to find a producer and do the pre-production so there's probably not gonna be that much actual holiday time, but I'm sure I'll get to go up the Eiffel Tower at some stage!"

So it would be fair to say that life right now is good? "It's bloody great! Things have just started falling into place and I don't have to worry about paying my rent anymore, which is cool!" - Gemma Hayes

Making Waves on a quite afternoon in Dublin.

Sometimes it can happen and other times it won't but in those exceptional cases where the music of an artist effortlessly softens the senses, it becomes like a beautiful moment, that moment where true affection begins and all else matters not. So rare are these moments that they become associated with a snapshot of life and with a time and a place that will stay with you always.

Gemma Hayes is one such artist with this unique and very special gift. Her delicately raw honeydew vocal style and graceful melodies creep ever so silently into the consciousness until one is rendered immobile by the sheer exquisite beauty of it all. The music works because it is crafted by an individual influenced by beauty who recognizes beauty and whose natural, God given ability enables the creation and expression of beauty through her music. If you have never heard Gemma Hayes' music thus far, don't worry it will find you and when it does it will grab you, transfix you and refuse to ever let go.

Hailing from Ballyporeen in Co.Tipperary, Gemma was raised in a household immersed in a broad range of musical styles and it was from here that her great and lasting affair with music began, 'there was 8 kids in my family and I'm the youngest so when I was 10 there was a lot of teenagers and a lot of different types of music in the house. My brother used to listen to Iron Maiden, Dio and AC/DC, my older sisters would be listening to the Bee Gees and Barbara Streisand while my dad would be listening to the likes of Glen Miller and Glen Campbell'.

Quite an eclectic selection then but what was the moment that made you say 'right stop everything, I want to make music'?
'There's two different moments, there's a time I became a real fan of music instead of just turning on the radio and that was when I heard Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', I am of that generation (me too, I know what you are saying!), from that moment on it was like OK! there's something about music in me, there's something really special here and then when I heard My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless', I just went right I don't know how or when I'm going to do this but I'm going to make music because this is beautiful'.
From here Gemma briefly attended UCD, the path of academia being incompliant with her inner mission to make music. In an effort to satisfy this calling vocation, Gemma took up a part time job in a launderette thus leaving her with time to concentrate on the somewhat more important task of making the music which today has stirred so much attention and affection.
'I remember being in college' she reflects, 'and saying to myself 'y'know I don't give a damn if I pass or fail as long as I play music' and while my parents were initially disgusted they got over it and one day my father came up to me, gave me £500 and said 'if you're going to do this, do it right and get yourself a proper guitar'.

What a wise investment that has proven to be and it's even more remarkable to think that all this has only occurred in the last few years. It truly is a case of destiny taking over and catapulting Gemma into the situation she has always yearned for, to be able to extract that inner talent for making music and making it to the extent that it exudes such warmth and tenderness that it unfailingly reaches out and touches the listener in ways where one is left gasping for air.

And speaking of Air i.e. the electronic French duo, Gemma has had the fortune to become labelmates with said band along with other lauded acts such as Turin Brakes and Kings of Convenience by way of securing a recording contract with the very credible Source Records label. 'It happened real quick' she recalls, 'there was a lot of English record labels that came over with the big meals and the flashy jackets and it just never felt right because they wanted to change things whereas Phillippe from Source came in, had coffee stains down his top, had his breakfast on his beard, he was just so messed up, he never tried to smose me, he was just like (adopting a wee mignon French accent) 'we like your music, we are about music, so please join us!'
You must have been over the moon to sign to such a highly regarded record label?
'Yeah there's definitely an element of luck involved, my family have never won more than a tin of biscuits so yeah! I have been very lucky'.

On the Source label, Gemma has so far released two EP's, '4.35 a.m.' and 'Work To A Calm' and also the forthcoming album 'Night On My Side' due to hit the shops in May. The album is a timely and fitting summertime soundtrack for those reflective evenings where the window is open and all that can be heard are the sounds of sirens and traffic in the distance and where the music takes you from the close of daylight to the gradual onset of darkness. The album was recorded in Buffalo, New York and produced by Gemma with David Odlum (he of ex-Frames fame) and Dave Fridmann (who Gemma describes as an 'off the wall producer') who has produced albums for the likes of Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips.

I suggest that the titles of her releases so far appear to have a common theme running them all as if the hours of darkness are an inspiring time for creating and writing music?
'Absolutely', she blurts out almost immediately, 'in the daytime you have this starchy head on you but at night everything just dies down and I can just think of things and as well as that you are not worried as to where you have to go and what you have to do so it's quite freeing in that respect'.

In the live arena, fortune has graced Gemma as well in acquiring quite prestigious support slots with artists such as David Gray, Sparklehorse, Zero 7 and Ed Harcourt. She has also assembled a permanent live band to accompany her on stage. This is made up of David Odlum on guitar, his brother Karl on bass and Graham Hopkins (yes, he of ex-Therapy fame) on drums. This is something that she regards as 'very important'. 'I just love the feeling of being on stage and having a bunch of people around you who get into the music and contribute something to it and that's really important because without them I don't think I can get across all that I need to get across'.

With the release of the album imminent, Gemma's forthcoming schedule is largely made up of heavy promotional duties and getting the music out to as many people as possible.
Things they say will always run their natural course. With Gemma Hayes and the touching elegance of her work, it can only be natural that her music will spread far and wide and that she receives many accolades for being one of the most refreshingly outstanding and gifted artists to emerge from this country for a long time.

Justin Dowling - Gemma Hayes

Irish songstress Gemma Hayes is the woman behind a diverse, Mercury Prize-nominated debut album which will blow apart your preconceptions

When you see Tipperary-born Gemma Hayes standing with an old Gibson acoustic in the late afternoon sunlight, it's easy to imagine that you already know what kind of songwriter she is. But unless you've already had the pleasure of listening to her stunning debut album, Night On My Side, it is almost certain that you don't.

Sure, the record has moments of tranquillity, when Hayes' voice is accompanied only by the isolated plucking of her acoustic, but those moments are more than matched by big, driving, indie-rock numbers that sound more like My Vitriol than Joni Mitchell. This is not an artist prepared to be bound by convention.

Growing up in rural Ireland, Hayes was subjected to a wide range of musical influences. But like anyone who was a teenager at the start of the nineties, the music of one city left an indelible imprint.

"Like all kids of my generation I listened to grunge music," she explains in soft tones.

"I hate the term grunge, but you know what I mean. I used to absolutely love Nirvana, I thought they were the best. They were my coming of age band really. So it was that kind of music I listened to, but I had an acoustic guitar and I could barely make a barre chord back then, so Nirvana and that kind of thing didn't come across in what I played myself. I found singer/songwriters later on in my teens."

Her musical education began much earlier, however, on the family's piano. "I never learned piano properly, I just used to bang away on it for hours. I think I was in my teens when my sister got a guitar for Christmas. She never played it, so at weekends I'd come home from boarding school and play it. I picked up a little beginner's book and found the normal chords and then started writing songs straight away. I never even had a spell of doing covers, apart from things like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and a couple of Bob Dylan three-chord wonders.

"My desire to write folk music came around kind of because it was slower, and used fairly easy chords. As I say, a lot of the rock at the time used barre chords and folk seemed the easier approach. It was only after a while, as I got better on the guitar, that I had the confidence to try different rhythms and incorporate the sound of a band in my mind."

And make no mistake, Night On My Side is a band record. That grunge upbringing extends beyond the obvious squally guitar tracks. It's famous quiet/loud dynamic is evident on tracks that start off deceptively mellow before building up to a thumping chorus, such as Hanging Around, and it is very much the presence of drums, bass and a second guitar that enables Hayes to fulfil her musical vision.

"It pisses a lot of people off that I make diverse music," she confesses. "Some people want to see an acoustic folk gig and they get pissed off when it gets loud, and then other people want to see a loud gig and they get pissed off when it goes all folky. But I can't try to please everyone else.

"Most people do get it though. When I put out the first EP people immediately put me in a certain category, but I'd already been playing in bands for three years by then, it was just that I decided the first EP should be a little mellow thing and see how it went. I put out the second EP, which was more band-y, and people suddenly said, Look, she's totally changed her style. But that wasn't true. All those songs were from the same period and I'd been playing them for ages. That's the whole thing about putting out an album, it can tell the whole story. I mean, my music is by no means abstract, it's pretty straightforward really, and if people are into it they are and if they're not then they can go buy something else."

Such a forthright attitude is born of the knowledge that to get this far has been a real success story regardless of what happens next. Studying at university, it was a leap of faith for Hayes to walk out and pursue a music career. But she insists it was one she had to make.

"It didn't just happen over night, I was an absolute chicken shit for a year and a half. One month into college I knew music was what I wanted to do because I didn't like the scene where I was. But I didn't just leave, it took me a year and a half of hating the place. On the day I made it, it was a single-minded decision, but it took me a while to reach that point.

"I didn't really have a plan because when I left college I didn't know how you go about putting a band together, or where to go to record a demo or anything. It was a nightmare, but it's been a case of learning as you go along."

After going out on such a limb, and with so many songs and ideas in her head, it is perhaps unsurprising that Gemma introduces some kind of discipline to her songwriting.

"When I write a folk song I sit down with the guitar and I write a song that sounds whole on guitar," she explains. "But if I'm writing a song with the band in mind I go to the eight-track. I won't start with the guitar but with a drum loop. I'm not even a big fan of them, but just to get an idea I'll put in a drum sound. Then I put down a bass riff. I'm a shit bass player, but I can just about hold it down. Then I go to the guitar.

"The difference is, if I try to write a band song on acoustic it doesn't work. If I start writing a song acoustically, it usually stays that way. I usually choose before I sit down what kind of song I'm going to write, it depends in my mood. If I'm in a moany mood I'll sit down with a guitar and strum a load of minor chords. But if I'm in the mood to hear things other than myself, then I start working on band songs."

With such a diverse set-list, Hayes never uses the same guitar two songs running. But this, she reveals, has even more to do with a love/hate relationship with altered tunings.

"I have so many guitars with so many messed up tunings, I'm a real freak when it comes to tuning," she explains. "On one of my Telecasters we have a baritone string for the E string, which is a lot fatter, because I tune it down so low. We had to make the nut slot bigger. I go over the top in my use of capos too and it does my tech's head in because there is so much to remember. I have some songs uncapoed in regular tuning, but I end up just sitting there late at night thinking, I wonder what this will sound like, and it sounds great. But then once it's recorded I'm kicking myself because it's such a pain in the arse live, trying to keep it in tune and stuff."

A wide ranging set-up was necessary from the outset, however.

"I have another guitar player in the band now, David, but on the faster songs I do strap on an electric. In the old days, when it was just a three piece band and the songs had acoustic and electric parts, out of necessity I got myself a distortion pedal and put that through the amp and still had the clean acoustic coming out of the DI. So when I hit the distortion the clean acoustic was still coming out and the distortion was also coming out, to try to sound like a bigger band. Rock doesn't always equal electric though, sometimes I'll pick up an old acoustic and shove a distortion on it if it sounds good."

A quick glance towards what will clearly be an exciting future reveals Hayes in determined mood, steadfast on sticking by her guns.

"I just love music full stop," she stresses, "and everybody is a whole mixture of moods. I don't think I'd ever be able to make an album of just one thing because I don't think anyone is that one-dimensional, y'know?

"I was in the studio recently though and things were a bit rockier because I was sat there with loads of vintage amps and guitars and there was just an up-tempo mood. Having said that, I'm sure there'll be a few moany numbers on the next record too. I think the next album will be shorter and hopefully flow better, but I think the dynamics will be similar."

Paul Robson