Gemma Ray’s new album, Lights Out Zoltar!, is out now in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on Bronzerat Records and has a release date of September 7, 2009 for the U.K. and October 27 in the U.S..
Delusions of Adequacy: Hi Gemma! You’ve posted 3 songs off of Lights Out Zoltar! at your MySpace site at http://www.myspace.com/gemmaraymusic. How did you pick those 3 and are they representative of the vibe of the album? Based on that intriguing aural sampler I’m picking up dense, textured production with sweeping orchestral instrumentation, rich, layered harmonies, supremely sticky melodies, and lyrics that exude the bittersweet blues. The tunes are retro, but not in a dusty ‘n’ musty way; they sound in full flower, rife with dramatic and melancholic power.
Gemma Ray: Thank you v. much! The tracks on the album all have different characters, but knit together as a whole – it’s always hard to pick a few tracks to represent an entire album, but I guess I chose the ones that feel most instant and welcoming and stand well on their on two feet.
DOA: Your lead-off single, “100mph (in 2nd Gear)”, is a torchy, melodramatic affair where you emote with longing against swooping strings on the chorus. I just love how the chorus takes off, with your voice charged with regret and a yearning for the unattainable. Could you go into your creative process for forming this song and what instruments fill out the sound?
Gemma: Thank You! The bones of this song came together when I was in Cannes for the music festival last year. I was pretty much stuck in the hotel room on copious amounts of Tramedol most the time, but I was rewarded with this track and “Fist of a Flower” so it wasn’t all bad. I wrote it flamenco-style on my Harmony Rocket, and the layers of percussion immediately screamed to be tracked up. I then recorded a big choir (but it’s really just me) which created the swell and swoon of the chorus. I think my reference points for the drums were Roy Orbison/Bolero style – I wanted them quite linear so all the oomph in the chorus came from my vocals to grab people by the throat. Michael Sheehy (who co-produced the album with me) laid down his bass line and twinkly toy pianos that gave it the feeling of constant motion which sealed the deal.
DOA: “Fist of a Flower”, with its sighing, layered harmonies harks back to the 1960s girl group sound. What was the inspiration behind this number?
Gemma: I think I was subconsciously trying to push my songs into a sunnier, brighter place because I wanted it to provide that escapism for myself and the listener. I was determined not to slip into self-indulgent doom and gloom. My motto whilst making this album was to ’embrace the cheese’ – I’m naturally drawn to the beauty of darker chords and soundscapes, so if I aim for The Beach Boys on E, the halfway point where I end up becomes an interesting juxtaposition!
The harmonies were an integral part of the song from the beginning so I made sure they pushed to the front without too much else to distract from their sunny veneer. I think the bittersweet tradition of 60’s pop in under 3 mins is a great formula which I hope this song adheres to! The Super Furries were definitely floating around somewhere nearby when I wrote it too…
DOA: Okay, who is that on dusky male co-vocals on “(You Got Me In A) Death Roll”?! I could swear that’s Mark Lanegan, but I’m probably mistaken! The swamp blues feel and dynamically rolling sway of the chorus call his work to mind with Isobel Campbell…
Gemma: Nope, it’s not Mark Lanegan, although I am a fan of his voice! The male vocals needed a certain austerity and not so much emotion. I originally wanted to use a Welsh Male Voice Choir, but the guide that Michael Sheehy put down sounded so good that I just got the boys in my band (Mal Troon and Nick Foot) to track it up and it sounded just how I imagined it would! And I love getting as many friends on my records as possible because it makes it more personal than someone I don’t know.
DOA: What does the album title refer to? It sounds like a 1950s film where space invaders are taking over the planet!
Gemma: It’s about the battle of Science vs. Superstition, and references a character called ‘Zoltar’ who you can find in Victorian seaside arcades in Britain. You put your money in, and a token comes out which tells you your fortune. I chose the title because I loved the imagery it conjured up, and the feel and sentiment of it really suited the songs and the way I felt when recording this album. It’s also a bit of a ‘nod’ to the Sparks track “The Rhythm Thief” which features the lyric ‘Lights Out Ibiza!’ which I am a huge fan of.
DOA: Lights Out Zoltar! is actually your second album. You released your debut album, The Leader, way back in…June of 2008! What compelled you to produce another album so quickly after your first one?
Gemma: I write a lot of songs, and I find the best way to recover from the trauma of finishing an album is to start another one asap! I find recording really inspiring, so I often write songs during and straight after – it’s like when you’re waiting for a bus then they all come at once! Also, I wasn’t feeling too well at the time and it was important to have an outlet for something positive and achievable, and the more creative I am, the better I feel as a person.
DOA: You mentioned that Michael J. Sheehy (solo artist and member of now-defunct Dream City Film Club) co-produced Lights Out Zoltar!. Did he also co-produce your first album, The Leader?
Gemma: Yes – we made the first album by ‘accident’ (I wanted to record some demo’s for fun, and a friend recommended approaching him and the result turned into an album). I love the simplicity of his set-up (a tiny, tiny lounge and SM58 Microphone!) and the way we work together is telepathic. I can’t deal with letting anyone in on my music unless they can read my mind – talking wastes too much time.
DOA: What did you learn from the process of making your first album that you ended up applying to your new album? Did you make any technical/production changes?
Gemma: I knew that this album should sound bigger than the first, so I did drum overdubs in a studio – although the strings (arranged by Fiona Brice – which really opened up the sound of the album into something bigger and otherworldly) were still recorded in Michael’s lounge. I also chose to mix it with Ben Thackeray, who I had wanted to work with for years – and he really opened it out and added a lot of space and separation to the mix. I stuck to the same formula of the first album in some respects though – I generally laid down all my guitars and sculpted the tracks with my Vocal, BV’s and choir sections so that they remained the priority in the structure of it all, and it didn’t sound like a generic band recording, if that makes sense. I wanted it to sound like an orchestra without an orchestra.
DOA: Did any of the songs that you wrote during The Leader time period make it on to your new album or did you start the song-writing from scratch?
Gemma: Um…I think “Something Shifted” was on an album I recorded (but didn’t release) before The Leader, but all the other songs came after. There were a lot of tracks I wrote and recorded around the period of The Leader but I’m not sure if they are meant to see the light of day or not…
DOA: The Leader was actually not the first album you ever made. You were formerly in a band called The Gemma Ray Ritual and released the album Radiology in 2003. What made you decide to strike out on your own?
Gemma: The Gemma Ray Ritual was really a solo project, but the name lent itself to including the rotating cast of who I was playing with at the time – so I left some more space for other personalities and characters which was a big learning process for me. Around the time of Radiology it was very much solo, but towards the end when I released an EP called Whitebait/From The Teeth it became more of a band-driven project which was cool. But ultimately I have always been more of a loner musically. I have memories of being 5 or 6 at infant school, and whenever we were given a creative task, I ran off to the cloakroom with my dried noodles and PVA glue to be on my own so I could think more clearly and I guess I work the same way now.
DOA: In the grand tradition of B. B. King’s Lucille guitar(s), you have your Harmony Rocket guitar. Has the same guitar held in good stead for you all this time, or do you use other guitars too?
Gemma: I have a Harmony Bobkat too, which is nice and bendy and twangy and a bit more visceral for solos. So I use that too – I used to use a Telecaster too, but I only really like the older ones which I can’t afford. But yes, I am more than happy with my Rocket, all the beautiful details jumping out those Dearmond Gold Foil pickups were made in sync with my eardrums I think – maybe they’re the same shape?! I just bought a new brown Rocket from Ebay too. Oops – it was an accident. I’m scared they’ll become extinct and Ryan Air will lose mine and I would never hear that sound again…
DOA: I think I read that you sometimes play your guitar with a knife to its strings. Is this a technique you use only while playing live and what result does that have on the sound?
Gemma: No, the droning sound is a huge feature throughout both my albums – it makes everything 3D and nauseous.
DOA: Speaking of playing live, you were recently in Germany and Austria to promote your album. I know you did some press, but did you also play some shows? Who is in the band and what were the shows like?
Gemma: I did 2 tours in Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year and both have been immensely enjoyable. I love playing in the Alps, it feels like Twin Peaks 24/7. My live band are – Nick Foot (Drums/BV’s/Twinkly Stuff), Alex Petty (BV’s/Perc), Tom Brown (Bass/BV’s), and Mal Troon (Guitar/BV’s/Drones).
DOA: I’ve read that you cover certain songs at gigs. Do you have a set repertoire or does that list keep changing? What are some of the songs you enjoy covering and would you consider putting out an album of covers a la Cat Power?
Gemma: The last few tours I played around with quite a few covers to keep it fresh and on tiptoes – but recurring ones were “Put a Bolt on The Door” – Gallon Drunk and “(Remember) Walking in the Sand” -Shangri-Las.
I recorded the latter in a studio in East London last weekend actually, and I am putting together a covers EP. I could record and mutilate other peoples songs every day – the endless interpretations of a good song is such an inspiring and humbling concept to play around with!
DOA: I’ve heard you’re into vintage and thrift store finds. What have you found lately that’s rockin’ your world?
Gemma: Ooo, my new Harmony Rocket! I’m waiting for the postman everyday. Also, a new black patent 60’s handbag. I live near lots of charity shops and I don’t think I ever need to buy anything new – apart from underwear and guitar strings.
DOA: Your MySpace profile and T-shirts have a foreboding “impending-storm-on-tropical-island” film noir look. For the most part, I can understand how this relates to your music – except for the island theme. Does the island imagery represent a means of escape – from your hometown of Essex in England or from the dramatics and melancholia of your music – or am I reading too much into this? LOL
Gemma: I like your interpretation, maybe subconsciously that was the case – I’m sticking with your take on it anyway!