Gemma Ray - Interviews - Soundblab

Gemma Ray

by Ian Johnston Rating: Release Date:

Glamorous young singer/songwriter and guitarist Gemma Ray has created a wonderfully inventive and diverse covers album, entitled It's a Shame About Gemma Ray, as the follow up to her award winning LP, Lights Out Zoltar! Sparsely instrumented yet all the more powerful for it, It's a Shame About Gemma Ray, highlights Ray's fragile but powerful vocals and her dynamic 1950s flavoured guitar styling's. Recorded with Matt Verta-Ray of Heavy Trash over a five day period between Christmas and New Year 2009 in New York, It's a Shame About Gemma Ray delivers seductively thrilling and gratifyingly punchy pop-noir interpretations of numbers by an imaginative array of diverse artists: from Gallon Drunk to Billie Holiday, by way of Buddy Holly, Mudhoney, soundtrack composer Krzyszlof Komeda, Gershwin, The Gun Club and 50s r 'n' b legends Lloyd 'Stagger Lee' Price and The Cookies, to name but a few.

The overall impression that It's a Shame About Gemma Ray creates is a contemporary and highly distinctive expression of passionate 50s/60s girl group melodrama with an alluring dark edge. Jimmy Page is a Gemma Ray fan and you should be too.

Hi Gemma, thanks very much for speaking to us.

That's all right, love too.

I love the record; I think it's fantastic. It's like you've been going through my record collection or something… A lot of my favourite songs and artists are featured on here.

Thank you. That's weird; it's an odd mixture, fairly eclectic…

IsIt's a Shame About Gemma Ray a collection of some of your most beloved songs or are they numbers that you that you could see bringing something of your own to them?

Some of them are my favourite songs, some of them I don't really like, but they've stuck in my mind for various reasons. I didn't anticipate doing a covers album as such. I met a guy called Matt Verta-Ray (Jon Spencer's partner in the Heavy Trash duo) in New York when I was doing some gigs there and we'd become friends and he's got a great analogue studio (NY Hed) and he invited me to record a couple of tracks just for fun over a couple of days sessions. I did all the covers that are just stuck in my head. It's been interesting- a blank and fun canvas to do it just off the cuff. Some of the songs on the album I play live, they were in my head so I thought I might as well commit them to tape. One or two of the tracks I did choose to do.

I did like the idea of doing an Alex Harvey cover ('Swampsnake' from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band album Next…) because I think he just wrote the best lyrics but most of them where just stuck in my head because they are such a big part of my life. For example, 'Everyday' (originally by ill fated 1950s rock 'n' roller Buddy Holly) which is one of the earliest songs I feel in love with. Other songs, like 'Big Spender' for example - I don't particularly like Shirley Bassey but I like the version that was used in a 60s musical (Peggy Lee). My best friend who I grew up with passed away and it was played at her cremation, bizarrely, as the red curtain came down and then 'Hey Big Spender'. Obviously, it was one of the saddest moments in my life but the humour of that appealed to me. I can't bring myself to say the word 'funny', but it just stuck in my head in a warped way. It's not one of my favourite songs but it was something I'd been knocking around on a Saturday night, for fun, sitting on my own.

With 'Bet Mir Bistu Shein' (a Yiddish song recorded by the Andrews Sisters in 1937, the German interpretation of which was actually approved by the Nazis until they realized its origins), I didn't hear the Andrews Sisters version. I read about the song before I heard it, and I thought that would be a great cover to do, because I loved the Nazi/Yiddish twisted story behind it. Anyway, there are various reasons I recorded them, I guess, but a lot of it comes from 'hats off' to bands I love and things like that.

I thought your version of 'Big Spender' brought out a totally different aspect to the song, one of desperation and fear that I've never heard in any rendition of that number before…

Yeah, well I think like a lot of great songs, especially a lot of show tunes, people can just cast them off because they listen to them in one way. But a lot of the old fashioned lyrists like Leiber and Stoller and Gershwin and people like that, that style of writing is open to so many interpretations. It's sort of glam and sexy and everything, 'Big Spender', but it could be seen as the other side of being one of those women, I guess. That stereotype of that kind of man-eating woman is kind of selfish too.

The album starts with a great cover of the intense Gallon Drunk song 'Put the Bolt in the Door'. Are they are a band that you particularly like?

Yeah, I love them. They're like my favourite band that are still alive (laughs). I guess when they where first around I was a little young to be cool enough to know who they were. I only really heard them four years ago, when I went to a live show and it felt like… Even though my music is very different, I felt complete affinity with everything that came off the stage. It summed up everything I want live music to do to me, that's what happened when I saw Gallon Drunk. I've got some of their albums and I particularly like their last album (The Rotten Mile). I've done a couple of live covers from songs on that album and 'Put the Bolt in the Door' was one I played live quite a lot. I thought it was worth putting on and I quite like it as the first song because it's a welcoming song, somehow.

The next track is a marvellous reworking of Lee Hazlewood's 'I'd Rather Be Your Enemy' from his 1971 masterwork Requiem for an Almost Lady. That's such a good record…

"I know. Lee Hazlewood is so staggeringly amazing. To be honest, it's not my favourite Lee Hazlewood song, because it's kind of dumbed down Lee Hazlewood but it's my favourite car driving song and I'd always be singing the harmonies to it. And that's why I recorded it really. The songs I prefer of his are more complex in arrangement but this song I felt naturally drawn to cover. I also looked at a lot of Leonard Cohen and Bad Seeds songs but they have so much… I think there are two types of songs - some songs are just perfect in that they can be reworked and some songs are so perfect and have so much character in them that you can't do them justice, you know? Most of the other Lee Hazlewood songs I felt where just quite untouchable but this was one was just a fun one to do, I thought. "

You then impressively cover The Gun Club's 'Ghost on the Highway', which was on their 1981 debut LP, Fire of Love. How did you discover The Gun Club?

"Well, I grew up in Essex and I didn't have that many friends who where into music and I didn't get to hear that many cool bands but I think a friend had a CD of their Fire of Love album. I actually had that Fire of Love album at quite a young age. I think they where the one cool band that I knew when I growing up.

The second Gun Club album Miami (1982) is really good too.

Is it?

Yeah.

I haven't got anything else by them because I was scared I would be disappointed, so I just stuck with the one album.

No, check out Miami… Mother Juno too. I love what you brought to Mudhoney's 'Touch Me I'm Sick'. All that reverb and slow slide guitar….

Oh, thank you. One of my favourite things when I was growing up was listening to Sub Pop stuff, A friend had this 7 inch single which I think was Sonic Youth doing 'Touch me I'm Sick' and Mudhoney covering Sonic Youth. I think it was the Sonic Youth version that stuck in my head. Matt got the drum machine and I was a bit scared, because that's a new thing for me. Since then I've got into drum machines sort of old analogue ones. Recording that song was quite a turning point for me, a new kind of effect.

It's just the two of you playing on the record, isn't it?

Yeah, I'm playing most stuff I think, but Matt plays the live drums on 'I'd Rather Be Your Enemy' and programmed the drum machine. Matt's got such a great studio with great sound but he's got such a great personality that actually affects the recording a lot. I recorded the songs all at the same time with one microphone, one amp and for me that was cathartic, I prefer recording like that. Play it one or two times, choose the best track and move on. And Matt's quite stanchly into that fresh approach. Just nailing it really and not fussing around too much. He had a big input in that way, because if I were left to my own devices I'd use up about a hundred tracks (laughs). The studio is old and has a lot of character and the record's sound really comes from that."

The best covers albums, such as Bryan Ferry's These Foolish Things, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Kicking Against the Pricks and James Luther Dickinson's Dixie Fried; they really tell you a lot about the performer. Do you have any favourite covers records?

I definitely like Kicking Against the Pricks a lot. I think it's great and the recording itself is great, in that it feels quite primal and in the moment. I think people relax a lot more, in respect of covers records. They haven't got so much to prove. If you write a song you want it to rear its ugly head to the world, just how you want it. Whereas if it's a cover, you feel it in the moment. I'm trying t think of other great covers records I like, but I can't think of any at this moment.

Some people seem to be down on covers albums, don't they?

I'm sure people do have options about stuff but I don't really feel connected to that world. I was more interested to have the chance go to New York for a few days at Christmas and record in my friend's studio (laughs) and he runs my label. I certainly haven't given much thought about how it would be received. Quite a random album, really.

Probably the best attitude to have, I suppose.

Yeah, I don't think there's any other way, really. I'm working on my new album now. I'm in this amazing place in Norway, which is the middle of nowhere. The studio is actually surrounded by sea. Killer whales, which I haven't seen yet, apparently go past. If I didn't have these songs that I've written and recorded maybe I'd be worried but…

This new record you are working on - has the experience of making the covers record fed into the direction of the song writing or the sound?

Not so much the direction. I think I've enjoyed it more. I've never had enough money to relax in the studio, time-wise. This covers album was the first time I was encouraged by Matt to enjoy the experience rather than panic all the time about money, basically. This next album, funnily enough, I recorded the first batch of it in Australia when I got stranded there because of the volcano eruption in Iceland. I got free recording time there and I have in Norway. Certainly I'm inspired by that sound, I'm recording to tape, but with the new album I'm adding a lot more tracks. I don't think people will hear much similarity. I'm not sure, we'll see.

Your version of the theme from Rosemary's Baby, featuring the lyrics of 'Drunken Butterfly' by Sonic Youth's is particularly inspired…

Oh, thank you. I'm a massive fan of Krzyszlof Komeda, who composed the soundtracks for a lot of Roman Polanski's films. It was a happy accident really. I like writing a lot of instrumental music and I had thought of doing a tribute thing to Krzyszlof Komeda, but I knew it wouldn't be right for this album because it would require too much time and tracks. But I was toying with covering a Sonic Youth song and I had the lyrics written out in front of me for 'Drunken Butterfly'. And again, they are pretty hard to cover, really, without ruining what they're doing. It just so happened when I was playing the melody to Rosemary's Baby, the lyrics where in front of me and they worked together, I thought (laughs). I'll admit, it was a bit of luck.

1950s black r 'n' b is well represented on It's a Shame About Gemma Ray, with Lloyd Price's 'Just Because' and the female vocal group The Cookies 'Only Other People'. Is that a type of music that really resonates with you?

Yeah. I just think those two songs are perfect songs and nobody could do them wrong (laughs). I love a lot of the girl groups singing that was released at that time; they are very close to my heart. I wish I could go back in time and be friends with all those groups, because I love singing with other girls. I've got a couple of friends I love singing with but they are so busy. But back in them days it seemed like every girl had a great beehive hairdo and a great voice.

The Cookies did this great song called 'In Paradise'…

I haven't heard that, must check that out.

'Looking All Over', a hit for Memphis Minnie in 1941, why did you choose to cover that song?

I love Memphis Minnie and I have an album with loads of her songs on. A friend of mine who got married, who works at my record label, his wife asked me to cover that specific song while they were getting married. I always oblige at these things, because people want me to do it. It was a bit of a disaster, actually, because I was so nervous and I split drink everywhere and I swore about ten times. But I did really end up getting into the song. I wasn't that keen on the cover at first but then Matt hit his glass with his cup of tea and put it through this crazy delay and created that cool, percussive sound on it. With that on it I thought it sounded a bit more modern, a bit more interesting. That turned it round into a different kind of track.

You really step up to the mark covering Etta James ('I'd Rather Go Blind') and Billy Holiday (I'm Gonna Lock My Heart'). Did you feel any trepidation in doing numbers by those singers?

Not really, because they are, as clichéd as it is, two of my favourite singers. It just wouldn't occur to me to record them in a way that was similar to them and try and sing like them. I never really feel like that, not that I think I'm great or anything, but more that I feel like I'm in my own world. I don't feel much connection with many other bands or musicians anyway.

Were there any songs you wanted to cover but didn't for any reason and you might in the future?

Yeah, there were loads. But I stopped myself writing a list because I thought this is getting ridiculous. But I am planning to do another one in the same way. I'd like to do one this year. I really did want to do a Bad Seeds song. I guess it's a cliché but I wanted to do 'No More Shall We Part'. I love all of their stuff, the more aggressive stuff, but the real heartbreaking songs. I play a lot on my own. But every time I cover one of them I sound totally gay, an annoying girl singing a Nick Cave song, which sounds so fucking clichéd. And I couldn't seem to change them enough to make them interesting. There is no way I'd do that. The same with Leonard Cohen. I love his lyrics but I just felt like I was singing a Leonard Cohen song.

Jimmy Page had some very complimentary things to say about you when he saw you perform. That must have been gratifying?

Yeah, it was nice. I just spoke to him a few times. I did record, with my band, a version of 'Walking in the Sand' by The Shangri-Las, which is quite popular. I did a version of that for a b-side and he was going to play a solo on it. A bit cheesy, but I really wanted him to do it. We arranged the date. Then he… He knows Jeff Beck, and they have a history of doing things at similar times. And he went to a Jeff Beck concert and Imelda May walked on the stage, she's like a young rockabilly singer, and they did a cover of 'Walking in the Sand' and Jeff Beck did a great big fat guitar solo in it. Jimmy Page said that he put his head in his hands, although I'm sure he wasn't that bothered. He said that there was no way he could it now, because they have a history of them looking like they're copying each other. And Imelda May; she's not similar to me but there are enough similarities for it to look like we were doing the same thing. It would have a surreal, fun thing to actually go ahead and do it but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. So, that's my celebrity story (Laughs). It's the only one I've got.

It's a Shame About Gemma Ray is released on July 28 on Bronzerat Records

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