Spirit in the sky
Gemma Hayes is on a roll, composing her first film soundtrack and taking part in a worldwide campaign for women’s equality. ‘I’m definitely happy to be older,’ she tells LAUREN MURPHY
GEMMA HAYES sinks into a comfy armchair by the sun-streaked window of a Dublin hotel. It’s safe to say that she is content right now, though it took a while for her to get to this point. Ten years and three albums have passed since the release of her debut, Night on My Side, and while the record was an auspicious start to the Tipperary woman’s career – it bagged a Mercury Music Prize nomination – it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
“I’m definitely happy to be 10 years older,” she says, sipping a sparkling water as she mulls over the last decade. “I’ve mellowed out a lot, so I like me better now, personally. Career-wise, I had great fun and it was a great buzz, but age-wise, I was just really not happy for some reason, personally. So I can’t separate the two. Things were brilliant, but there was a lot of expectation and I was miserable as a person. Now, all that stuff is gone and I’m really happy as a person.
“Creatively, I’m happier too, because I’ve got more balls: if I want to do something, I’m just going to do it. Back then, I was struggling with wanting to be accepted by people who I looked up to; thinking that their opinion, their thoughts, their taste was more important than my own.
“That stuff doesn’t matter anymore.”
These days, the gentle, soft-spoken Hayes is a woman who knows her own mind. Incidentally, those two things – femininity and independence – have taken up a good deal of her time in 2012. Firstly, there’s her involvement with Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide – a women’s rights campaign, based on the 2009 book of the same name, which aims to raise awareness of women’s issues through different media. Hayes joined the drive, along with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys, Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones, and her song Sorrow Be Gone was included in the recent 30 Songs/30 Days project.
“I’m part of the National Women’s Organisation, and things like that, but instead of mouthing off about it, I’d rather just support causes and put money into things,” she explains.
“When the people involved in Half the Sky heard that I was involved in that kind of stuff, they contacted me and just asked if I’d put forward a song as part of this compilation, and that all the proceeds would go toward helping women. So it was a no-brainer for me. Because you and I both know that in the world that we live in, if big celebrities get behind something, more people will know about it. When I saw the list of full-on big names that were involved with it, I thought, this is something that is hopefully going to make an impact.” There’s an air of resignation in Hayes’s voice when she speaks about recently reading about the gender pay gap stats and the gender imbalance in industries – music and others. Yet she feels that it’s important to discuss it, nonetheless.
“As a woman, you have to be careful about ‘mouthing off’ too much about this sort of stuff, because you’ll be labelled,” she nods. “So you just have to be very subtle about not having people shut down when you start talking about it. But we’ve got a long way to go. And in the music industry, definitely. For example, my male songwriter friends can just fall out of bed, fall onto the stage, face covered in stubble and whatever – it’s about his music, about his songs. If I was to fall onto the stage with unshaven legs, or if I had hairy armpits, or whatever, it would literally be the talk, because everybody conforms to a certain viewpoint. And I do, too,” she admits.
“But sometimes, I feel like a man in my industry is ‘talented until proven talentless’, but a woman is ‘talentless until proven talented’. You always have that difference.”
Approached by Eleanor McEvoy to take part in the 20th anniversary gigs for A Woman’s Heart earlier this year, Hayes was initially reluctant to participate.
“I wasn’t sure at the start, because sometimes if you get a bunch of guys to play together, it’s OK, but if it’s a bunch of women, again, people tend to pigeonhole that,” she says.
“But then I thought, ‘No, I’d love to do it. I’m not going to let other people’s ideas stop me.’ And it was brilliant, one of the best things I’ve done. Those women are amazing: the lives that they’ve led, the things that they’ve been through, and they glam themselves up and get on stage and they give it everything. It’s funny, I had all these reservations, but by the end I felt so privileged to be part of it.”
In fact, her participation in such a distinctly Irish show seemed to help recalibrate her cultural identity to a degree, too. Having lived in Los Angeles for several years, she returned home to Ireland for good in 2010.
“Where do I belong? I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, to be honest,” she says with a smile. “When I started out in Dublin, there was a very strong, concentrated scene, and it was brilliant. But then people started doing their own things and going their own way, and that core centre dispersed. For me, if there’s an opportunity to reach people, I’ll go to Uzbekistan – so I just went to where my music can reach people. My music doesn’t get played on the radio, so there was a point where I was like, ‘Well, do I change my music so it’ll get played on the radio, or do I find another avenue that will take my music?’. So when the TV people started saying ‘Give us your saddest songs’, I was like, ‘Really? You want the depressing stuff? Great’,” she laughs.
“I could do what I do naturally and not have to be self-conscious about it, so I just packed my bags and went to America.”
Having signed a TV and movie sync on the strength of her “depressing” musical style, Hayes is perfectly fine with pursuing other avenues to make a living these days. She has completed the score for the upcoming movie Quad (starring Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, and helmed by Mad Men director Michael Uppendahl), and found the process hugely rewarding.
Of course, her tentative footsteps into soundtracks and TV work means that songwriting for the follow-up to last year’s Let it Break has been put on “the very long finger”, although she confesses that she’d like to get an album out next year. In any case, a collaborative instrumental project with her regular producer David Odlum will be released first, under the duo’s to-be-decided band name.
“Generally, I just wanna keep doing what I’m doing,” she shrugs, smiling.
“In a way, it’s mad that in my small way of kind of shuttling along for the last 10 years, I’ve managed to survive in the music industry, and I’ve managed to make a living somehow. If I can keep doing that, that’s my only goal.”
Gemma Hayes and her band play Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on December 9th
Sing it! Five songs of female power
Helen Reddy I Am Woman (1971)
“I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore / And I know too much
to go back and pretend, ‘cos I’ve heard it all before”
No Doubt Just a Girl (1995)
“‘Cos I’m just a girl, little ol’ me, so don’t let me out of your sight / I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights / Oh, I’ve had it up to here”
Bikini Kill Rebel Girl (1993)
“That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood, she’s got the hottest trike in town / That girl she holds her head up so high, I think I wanna be her best friend”
Robyn Who’s That Girl (2005) “
Good girls don’t say ‘no’ or ask you ‘why?’ / I won’t let you love me until you really try / Good girls are sexy, like, everyday / I’m only sexy when I say ‘It’s okay’”
Tupac Shakur Keep Ya Head Up (1993)
“And since a man can’t make one / He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one”
Chosen by Lauren Murphy