Exclusive interview with Thea Gilmore
Having just toured the US, Thea Gilmore is taking a small break before playing a series of festivals throughout the summer. Somehow the Stirling Tolbooth has roped her in to close their mini-festival for two nights in a row - the event seems to have attracted people from as far afield as Manchester - with dedicated fans of the sort, it seems only a matter of time before Thea achieves mainstream stardom though from talking to her, she seems more than content with her current status.
CDtimes: So how did you come to be a singer/songwriter?
I didn't really realise I wanted to be a singer/songwriter or ever that I wanted to be involved in the music industry for quite a long time. I hit 16 before I realised that I could write music but music had always formed a big part of my life, as had words as I used to write poetry, short stories and other stuff. When I was 16, my school farmed me out to do work experience for two weeks which I chose to do at a little recording studio studio called Woodworm which was a couple of villages away from my house. It was a great, rootsy recording studio which belonged to Fairport Convention. I just went along because I liked being surrounded by music and I was interested in the technological side of it, since I was considering becoming an audio engineer. But watching these musicians having such a great time, doing something they really love and were passionate about, made me realise it must beat working in a bank! I started writing songs from that point on and I also met my producer, Nigel [Stonier] on the work experience, and he's been playing with me ever since. I've been very lucky since I've always had people ready to invest in my music.
What were your influences when you were growing up? Was it your average 80-90s bands?
No, not at all... My family were kids of the 60s - my dad was a big fan of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles... That was the music that was always getting played in our house. Maybe the occasional bit of ABBA [laughs] but that was as new as it got! All of my mates were listening to BROS or working out the dance routines to New Kids On The Block but by the time I was 12, I'd learnt all the words to Subterranean Homesick Blues. I obviously was working on a completely different plane to the rest of my contemporaries!
Are your influences pretty much the same nowadays?
Yeah but they've broadened out a lot. I didn't discover Tom Waits until I was 17-18, but as soon as I did, I just ate him up. The same happened with Leonard Cohen; though I'd heard him before, I didn't really get into him until later on. Then there's the likes of Paul Westerberg and Neil Young - I'm a huge Young fan. On the British side, I'm very much into Elvis Costello.
You've been really prolific since you hit the scene. How do you make sure the songs keep on coming? Is there a main source of inspiration?
I don't really know - I'm not very good at explaining how or why I write songs. All I know is, I sit down and without necessarily wanting to do it, I just end up writing a song. To me, it's a very natural process - like eating, drinking or sleeping. It just happens and I feel very lucky because it feels like the songs have been written somewhere before and I'm just kind of "channelling" them - if that's not too anal a phrase! It's a pretty interesting experience - I know lots of people who work very hard to write songs, and there are occasionally songs that need to be bullied out of me, but they don't tend to me the best ones.
Do you mostly compose on the acoustic guitar?
Usually, though I sometimes compose on the piano. I'm not a very good pianist but sometimes your limitations on an instrument bring out the best in the song.
You've got your own music label. Is that to avoid ending up like Ryan Adams, where the record company wouldn't release what he wanted to?
I'm actually not on my own label anymore. I work in conjunction with a label called Hungry Dog which, in fact, is just this one guy who is extremely passionate and understands the music is the most important thing for me. I've been with him for 2-3 years now - he's the only label I've stayed with for more than one album.
So he doesn't have a problem with you releasing an album a year?
No, he doesn't seem to [laughs]. I'm sure he'll tell me if it is! I've got very solid grounding in the music business, as do the people I work with, so if he were to turn round and tell me to piss off, it would be a pain in the arse, but it wouldn't stop me from releasing stuff.
You've made a vinyl release recently which is quite rare these days. Are you a vinyl fan?
Yeah - that's exactly why we released the single on vinyl - I've been wanting to do it for such a long time but we just didn't have the money. It's quite a costly process but with the Mainstream single, we decided to go for it. Really, it was only for me to put it in my record collection!
Given your influences and your interest in politics, do you ever feel you were born in the wrong era?
I definitely was - my generation in particular is very stifled; they're not encouraged to look beyond the TV screen really. In a way, I think most musicians are born in the wrong era. If you look back at the sixties, the music industry was so naive, wide-eyed and young - it really was about music back then, the industry bit came second. People seemed to really care about what you were playing or singing about and, in a way, it changed the world. Music can probably never do that again and I find that really sad.
An acoustic revival has been announced every few years but fails to really materialise. Do you think it's quite difficult to get an acoustic guitar onto Top of The Pops?
Well the attitude towards acoustic music is quite strange, probably because a lot of the acoustic music was the music that changed things, so it's natural for the boardroom suits to be worried about it. I don't really give myself a label, but I'm always branded as a "folkie" and they write me off because of that. But I consider most music that really, really touches people to be folk music so, in a way, that's actually quite a compliment! I consider Smells Like Teen Spirit to be one of the classiest folksongs of the last 20 years. Folk music to me is music that talks to people directly so Bob Dylan is as much a folk artist as Kurt Cobain. I'm sure Nirvana fans would hit me for saying that [laughs].
You've been breaking in the US. Do you think your style of music gets a bigger audience Stateside?
Is it a certain scene that comes to see you, like the folk or the alt.country scene?
To be honest, I don't really think they have this "scene" thing in the US - they just have music. Obviously there are people who like very, very opposite ends of the musical scale (hip-hop or folk) but I genuinely think that most people in America who are into music, don't instantly relate to a particular scene, they'll just turn up to the show. That's the best thing about playing there - they are most incredibly open-minded bunch of people. They'll sit there listening even if it's the first time they've ever heard your music or any music for that matter. They give so much passion back, that as a performer, is a fantastic thing to feel. In the UK, however, we like to build people up and champion the underdog, but as soon as they become successful, we try to knock them down again. Americans don't tend to do that - they will champion their grassroots heroes and, if they end up playing to 50,000 people, they are delighted they helped them get there.
Neil Gaiman has been championing you in the US via his weblog. How did that come about?
I just got in contact with him, said hello, sent him some records and we've been mates ever since. Neil is just a massive music fan - he's into all styles of music. He sent me a huge boxset of all of his books which takes up an entire shelf!
Has this celebrity endorsement helped you a lot in the US?
I wouldn't say it has had a major impact, in that it's changed everything but he has certainly had an impact and his support is very, very valuable. Lots of people who came to the show in the US told me they came because of Neil Gaiman.
You've done quite a few internet-only releases. Do you think this is the future of music distribution?
I think I'll always focus on both the internet and the music stores because I'm a bit of a record store girl. I love going into a store and picking up a record. When people tell me that record stores and the album (as a format) are going to die out, part of me thinks it's probably right, but another part of me really doesn't want to believe it because I like having an actual product with the cover art and the tracks in the order the artist wanted it. I like the idea of the album being a cohesive body of work and I don't really like the idea of people ripping songs together and burning off a disc that they like. I don't mind them doing it, I just don't like the idea that the album format will die out.
How about file-sharing - some argue that lots of artists are losing out because of it...
Well lots of records companies are arguing that anyway!
So do you think it has helped you or the opposite?
Well I think the whole hoo-ha about file-sharing is a load of bollocks. The record industry will argue that it's killing the music business. That's rubbish - what's killing the music business is record companies with their lack of belief in music and their lack of faith in artists they can't control every single aspect of. At the same time, I don't like the thought that people think that music should be for nothing, I think that's wrong; I think music, like any form of art, should have a price on it; people shouldn't feel it should be free but I think that file-sharing is a fantastic tool. I tend to find that most people who file-share, are the very same people you'll find in a record shop on a Saturday, buying a record they downloaded off the internet.
Do you prefer playing live with a full band or acoustic?
I like both - they're both so different. Every time I play live, the formation changes; I have the three person setup (like tonight), I have the two person setup - just me and Nigel, there's a full band 4-piece formation, and with Avalanche, we've been doing a 5-piece band, taking the loops with us. The setup changes all the time - it makes it very difficult though [laughs] but it's fun and people never know quite what to expect when they come to my shows, which is something I quite like too.
Does your setlist change quite a bit depending on the setup?
Well, there are staples that people come to here so I don't like to wilfully not play them. Some artists do that but I think it's a bit mean to do that to people. If someone's gone to the effort to get out of their houses and pay their hard-earned cash to see you play, I might as well play the songs they want to hear. I don't like things to sound exactly the same as the record though and besides that, I wouldn't necessarily be able to make it sound the same!
You cover very diverse artists from Creedence to Paula Abdul passing by The Clash. How do you choose which songs you're going to cover?
It's just songs I like. I loved Abdul's Straight Up, though I had an argument with someone yesterday who preferred Opposite's Attract. I always loved Straight Up - it was probably the only bit of the 80s that stuck with me. Regarding Creedence, I always thought that nobody really got what Bad Moon Rising was all about. It's a Vietnam song but, probably because they were after a hit, they gave it that upbeat feel. They infiltrated the hit-parade with an anti-war song which no-one saw coming. I like the idea of redoing it to put the emphasis back on the lyrics rather than the tune.
Could you tell us what music you're listening at the minute?
I saw Nellie McKay when I was in the States - she's a 19-year old girl who has been described as a cross between Doris Day and Eminem which is pretty accurate. The first I Am Kloot album, Natural History - that's a really good record by this band from Manchester. I've also just made Jim go out to buy John Hiatt's Crossing Muddy Waters and Tom Waits' Rain Dogs.
Finally, what are your literary influences?
Well Kerouac - the beats begin with Kerouac. I've also just read Meet The Wife by Clive Sinclair and I also read The Catcher In The Rye for the first time. I know 24 is a bit late to do that for the first time but it was great. I know this guy who read it when he was 29 and according to him, now he's read Salinger, he won't read anything again! Maybe he's kind of right in a way.
See Thea live this summer:
Friday June 4th: The Guardian Hay Festival
Saturday June 5th: The Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, Manchester 0161 832 1111
Thursday June 10th: Islington Academy 0870 771 2000
Saturday July 3rd: Cheltenham Festival 01242 227979
Saturday July 10th: T In The Park - X-tent
Friday July 23rd: Calgary Folk Festival, Canada. 403 233 0904
Thursday July 29th: Cambridge Folk Festival - Radio 2 stage www.cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk
Saturday August 21st: V Festival, new band stage - Weston Park, Stafford www.vfestival.com
Sunday August 22nd: V Festival, new band stage - Hylands Park, Chelmsford www.vfestival.com