Thea Gilmore Christmas Party
“Here’s to tonic, here’s to gin, here’s to sparks and here’s to gasoline…” You’re The Radio
We are lucky to have musicians like Thea Gilmore, musicians that want more from themselves and more from music than some pre-formed, whistle-friendly cud, something to chew on but never fully digest. In an age where artists – male and female – tend to be either hyper-sexualised or completely neutered, Gilmore is that rare creature, an actual adult with a heart and a soul, a grown up with an opinion. Thea Gilmore is a real person tackling the sort of issues real people deal with every day, only, unlike the rest of us, she tackles those issues with an utterly beautiful voice and songs that touch on folk and jazz and rock and Americana.
Not for no reason does Bruce Springsteen buy her records, do artistes ranging from Martha Wainwright to Mike Scott seek to collaborate with her, and not for no reason does Tom Waits’ celebrated percussionist Michael Blair appear on Murphy’s Heart, Gilmore’s tenth album – one that follows a sustained period of artistic and critical success.
2008’s Liejacker was a deeply personal collection that included a track with Joan Baez. It was, in Gilmore’s words, “the lovechild of whisky and heartache”. The Observer seemed to agree, noting that these songs would, “make your heart catch, your skin prickle and your eyes fill with tears”, which seems a good place to start. The Times said that last year’s Strange Communion was so good it just proved that Gilmore is, “unarguably one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation.” There is the sense of a tipping point being reached. Album ten is a serious landmark release in anyone’s book except, perhaps, that one owned by the artist in question.
“It’s just a number,” Gilmore says, laughing, a cup of tea in her hands. “If it’s a milestone at all it’s because I feel my guard has dropped a bit and that’s something I’ve always battled with in the past. There’s been a bit of a glass wall in front of what I do. I never tended to let people in. If that’s not all gone, then it’s only clingfilm now.”
Gilmore says she’s not “an easy going sort of girl”, but if that translates into firmly resisting pressure to conform to singer-songwriter stereotypes then we should hope more people take up the fight.
“Maybe being 30 and being a mother has changed me,” she says. “That’s my everyday now, but the greatest art comes from the everyday. I always used to be getting told what to do, getting told to be more like whoever was happening at the time, but that’s what happens when you put baked-bean salesmen in charge of art. I hate calling it “art” as that sounds awful, but when you’re dealing with what comes from the human psyche, you’re dealing with art. Trying to make one person’s mind like another inevitably leads to failure. It struck me even at 16 or 17 that this was weird. So I got this name as someone who was stridently against signing a major record deal, but I just thought of it as being sensible.”
For someone who has grown up “standing back and making great state of the union addresses”, Gilmore is quietly delighting in examining the tiny aspects of life and pulling at each thread to see what just how enormous the repercussions can be.
“I don’t have to live my life with this sense of impending self-importance anymore,” she says. “That’s very liberating. You don’t have to be trying to write Masters Of War every time. You can write about your own decisions, turn small parts of your life into songs that people can relate to.”
So Gilmore’s new record Murphy’s Heart is smart and honest and confident enough to concentrate on life’s most important themes: love and sex. She considers both the damage that love does, the violence that it can invoke, the guilt that comes with parental love, but also the maddening truth that one means precisely nothing without the other. Gilmore is wise enough to write a song like God’s Got Nothing On You which casually nails an habitual self-regarder (already speculation has it that one Tony Blair was the inspiration) who abandons “all those friends you outgrew with Bombay gin and a rose tattoo…”, while being uncynical and open enough to write something as beautiful as Due South where a young man heads off, “feet on the dash of a rented car” only to soon find himself alone and lost, “looking for hope in stiletto heels…”
If not all of life is here, then certainly the bits that really matter are dealt with in ways that will have you going back repeatedly, poring over her thoughts and words, her actions and their attendant inactions.
“I’m a 30-year-old woman with a 3 1/2 year old son,” Gilmore says. “I feel like I know life a little more now. I am in the dance rather than watching from the sidelines.”
Parenthood crops up – subtly – on the album. Mexico is about impending parenthood, how your life is changed forever in that moment of discovery, while Wondrous Thing is about suddenly being a parent, imagining that the world might just stop at any moment with the shock of this strange, undying love.
As for sex, well if the song Teach Me To Be Bad had a subtitle it might well be, Teach Me To Do Bad Things. “I’m from a small dreamy village in rural Oxfordshire,” Gilmore says with a twinkle… “So I grew up appreciating people who take their time over things… and, err, further education can never be a bad thing?”
She also describes Jazz Hands as, “a pure sex thing. I wrote it and it made me laugh so it had to go on. I love that track…”
The single, You’re On The Radio is a decidedly sunny take on being properly in love, appropriately as it’s a co-write with her partner, Nigel Stonier. It is, Gilmore admits with a laugh, a distinct artistic departure for her.
“I’ve not done much like that, no! But you can’t be dark all the time. I wondered about whether I wanted a bright, breezy, happy person for a few minutes – then I thought, why not? What could go wrong! In fact, being upfront and honest about the positivity in my life is way more of a challenge for me than getting the dark stuff across”
That darker side (“I think of it as bleak optimism…”) is well represented by How The Love Gets In, a piano-led piece that considers the “glimpses” we get of fulfillmnent and happiness, while Automatic Blue deals with a friend of Gilmore’s who met the love of his life some years after getting married and having children to someone else.
“Watching someone so in love with the person they couldn’t have made me very, very sad,” she says. “I come from a background of having experience of that – my father did the same thing for years and years and years – so I know what the fallout feels like. But my friend was very dignified. He backed off and it made me feel very sad. That was an unknown feeling for me as I’ve always been on the side of the injured party, the person who had been cheated on, as that’s what I’ve always dealt with.”
Gilmore grew up in a house was full of “hippy” music. Dylan, Beatles, Fairport Convention, Hendrix, Cream, but they found room for Dire Straits and Abba too. Her dad was a fairly hardcore folky – there were John Renbourne and Jake Thackery records – while her mum was a huge classical music fan who, famously, refused to even enter the Isle Of Wight festival when she saw the state of the place.
Gilmore was a solitary child. There were only two other children in her village, both boys. She was “gobby”, but the youngest of two, so she could be gobby and not get a smack for it. “I was pretty bookish,” she says. “I loved to read and write. I enjoyed my own company.”
When Gilmore was 6 she had an all-three-books-in-one copy of Lord Of The Rings. She took it into school only to be told she was not allowed to read it as it was “too grown up”.
“My mother steamed into the school and tore shreds off this teacher. I loved her for doing that, but I also thought, why aren’t more people doing this?”
Gilmore was, she says, “raised on Guinness and live music”, though she insists she never wanted a wild party lifestyle, which was lucky as, “there wasn’t one to be had!” At 17 she moved to the heaving metropolis that was Sandbach in Cheshire taking her Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits records with her.
Thea had got some work experience at a recording sudio when she was sixteen. She loved words and loved singing but she never wanted to be a singer – it never crossed her mind apparently. But she met Nigel, wrote a few songs and got a deal with a tiny label in Oxford. “I was passionate,” she says. “But I never thought anyone could get that lucky. I thought it was magic – and it is! Writing music is magical and the idea of selling it was too much to imagine. But these things kept on happening.”
She still looks back on the ten years that have passed with bewilderment, like she can’t quite believe the way things have really evolved. The first time she got on the radio she was already on album three. Her career had been fuelled by her own passion for writing and making music, but also by the small, close-knit team she had put together.
“That feeling never diminishes,” she says. “Especially as I don’t have a £300000 ad campaign behind me. When I get radio play it’s because they like the song. Incredible. And it keeps getting better.”
So now Gilmore gets to play Glastonbury and go backstage to meet Bruce Springsteen.
“His whole team is amazing,” she says. “The first time I met Bruce he’d just done three hours on stage in Manchester and he was still bouncing off the walls – he has so much energy. He said he’d just bought another one of my albums. I said Bruce you buy albums?? You so should have just called me I could have spared you one!!But he goes to record shops and buys what he likes. He puts his hand in his pocket and supports the musicians – that’s an amazing person…”
Ten albums in, Gilmore has a strong and supportive fanbase in place, the sort of people who turn up for every show and want to meet and talk, to share how her music makes them feel.
“So much of our life now is transient,” she says, “but there are people out there who have really stuck with me. I speak to a lot of people who come to gigs, but I try and speak to everyone. With this record I want people to hear the progression, the broadening of what I do. I’ve stepped outside my musical box and actually pulled it off!”
How does that feel, I ask?
“It feels natural,” she says, putting the teacup back in the saucer, “but it took a long time to get here!”