Because she’s stylistically diverse, both lyrically and musically, it’s difficult to sum Thea Gilmore up as an artist, which is no bad thing. If forced to, though, interviewing her and listening to her music, one could describe the driving force of her work as a struggle to imbue music with mystery in the face of an industry that, more often than not, prefers to imbue it with a new clothing line. “I think cynicism is king. I am as much a victim of it as anyone. But there are some unexplainable things left in this world and I think music is one of them. I still listen to the progression of words and music together, and am as mesmerised by it as I was when I was three” she says. At the same time, in songs like Rag and Bones, she has approached a familiar theme in the world of poetry, though less so songwriting: the process of writing [Rag and Bones is a reference to W.B. Yeats’ line from The Circus Animal’s Desertion: “I must lie down where all the ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”]. “I think deconstructing the process, – she explains – behind writing songs is always useful… more than anything because the more you deconstruct, the more mysterious it seems… as someone who is intent on finding the magic in life, there is no better way than not being able to explain why you are able to do the things you do”. [One of her most vociferous fans is cult fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, of whom she says “I love his novel American Gods, and Coraline is one of the best books written for children… it scared the shit out of me!”]
While discussing Yeats, I suggest, with a benign streak of nationalism, that perhaps it’s her Irish heritage that provides the literary leanings in her songs. It’s a notion that she neither denies, nor wholeheartedly subscribes to: “Any wordsmith is an influence, and obviously with my Irish heritage, Yeats is someone I grew up with. I think poetry is always a wonderful source of inspiration”. She enthusiastically recommends Autumn Journal by Ulster poet Louis MacNeice, “I love the way it is so ‘of its time’. It really is just a poetry journal of the time just before WWII and even he wasn’t aware of the resonance that this work would have in the light of world events”. When MacNeice was writing, there was still a fairly widespread respect for poetry. Does she think poetry has been replaced in subsequent generations by songwriters, and if so, is that a good or a bad thing? “I’m not sure that poetry has been replaced by song, – she replies, – I think it is possible for the two to co-exist quite happily alongside one another but possibly the respect for poetry from my generation has diminished. I don’t think that is the fault of song though, there are very few current songwriters around whose work could be considered poetry. I just think that we are the first of the instant generations, things have to be made easy or we just don’t bother”.
For any singer-songwriter there’s a delicate balance between the love of lyrics or melody. “I am always more drawn to words rather than music. I am much more likely to get excited about a song that is ingenious lyrically than one that is musically exciting”, she says, but, at the end of the day, a song has to take on a personality for her, whether it be through the force of the lyrics or the music, or a combination of both. “A song Idea just has to hold water for me”, she says, when I ask her if she consciously tries to avoid repetition in her own songs.”It has to feel real. I try not to consciously avoid very much because I try not to be too conscious when I write. I prefer channelling rather than pummelling an idea out”. Polly Paulusma, in the last edition of Three Monkeys Online, suggested that she would like, provided the resources, to give non-English language audiences a translation of her lyrics. Thea Gilmore, from experience, reckons that audiences will relate to music regardless of language barriers: “Non English speaking audiences do seem to enjoy my work, which I am always very surprised about… In France, one of the most popular songs was Mainstream which to my mind had the most lyrics and the least tune out of anything on Avalanche. Perhaps it’s the mention of Balzac that gets Gallic hearts aflutter.
For me one of the signs of a truly great talent is that they can both write their own songs, and also turn in an inspired cover version. Gilmore certainly fits this bill. She’s done versions of the Buzzcock’s Ever fallen in love, the Clash’s I’m not down, and even Paula Abdul’s ’80s Straight Up. The first track I heard her sing on was Bob Dylan’s intriguing I dreamed I saw St. Augustine from the John Wesley Harding album. It might be easy enough to approach a Paula Abdul song, and add something, but how does one approach a song by the semi-canonical Dylan? “It is a very daunting task to cover a song by Dylan – she agrees – we [with her producer and long time collaborator Nigel Stonier] chose it because it seemed like one of the few Dylan songs that I could bring something new to. It was more of a feeling for the song than a cognitive thought process. I leave the gritty stuff to Nigel! I just felt that I could bring a dream-like quality to the song that felt appropriate”.
Cover versions aside, who are the sort of artists that she respects? For example, if she could work with anyone living or dead, who would it be? “How long have you got? – she jokes – The poets I’ve mentioned, like Yeats and MacNeice because of sheer talent. The likes of Benjamin Zephaniah, because of the beauty and grit in his work. Billy Bragg because of his political opinion and his way of making you fall in love with him through songs, Tony Benn because he’s Tony Benn… All of the above with Neil Young playing the guitar, because he is the best guitarist living or dead!”. When asked how she manages to be so prolific, and whether she worries about writer’s block, she laughingly responds “I do get it from time to time anyway, but usually a good dose of musical roughage in the form of Leonard Cohen or Neil Young is all the fibre I need to clear the constipation!”, which is surely the first time those two Canadians have been referred to in that manner, at least in a positive light.
And what does the future hold for Gilmore? A new album is in the works, no doubt to be followed by extensive touring. Wouldn’t it make sense at this stage to ‘play the game’? Is it such a bad thing to, for example, take on a stylist, and play the game, if it gets the music out there? A pragmatist might say that it’s the songs that matter at the end of the day, not the artistic integrity of the record sleeve. She responds with both the pragmatism, and scorn that the question demands: “I’ve never really deliberately pooh-poohed the mainstream just because it was the mainstream. It is the control exercised over artists within it that has made me shy away from it. I think the result of that control has been a very stale sounding musical output and I object to the narrowing of an industry that is at the core of me and an art form that I strongly believe is very important. Taking on a stylist and playing the game is neither here nor there really, I would find it hard to be styled just because I’m a control freak who hates people touching her. And playing the game? It just depends on what game you’re playing. It truly is the songs that matter at the end of the day, you are quite right, but while we allow the ‘industry’ dictate the nature of those songs, we will never see the true nature of the art behind it. That is my objection. If ever a label came to me and allowed me that freedom, I would have no problem”.
And so, there we end. A gushingly positive interview perhaps, but give a listen to Thea Gilmore in the near future and you’ll understand why.