Keep the noise down


Gemma Hayes, who enjoyed more freedom on her latest, self-released album than she ever had during the major-label years, set out to write a rock album but realised something was wrong, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA

FOR GEMMA HAYES, her songs start with silence. For this most artful of Irish singer-songwriters, however, silence is not empty, it is full. It has all the notes, all the words and everything she needs to create melodies.

“If I’m full of noise or clutter, I can’t write. Is my life cluttered? No, my life is busy, but I’m adamant in having time where it’s quiet, so I’d go out of my way to make that kind of time. And yet I jump in and out of that too. I love people, and I love being out and about during the day. I have a lot of people in my life, but I also like turning off the phone.”

It comes as no surprise to discover that Tipperary-born Hayes initially wanted to be a psychologist. She is always asking questions, she agrees. Over the course of four fine, sometimes almost casually overlooked, albums – from her 2002 debut, Night on my Sideto the just released Let it Break– Hayes has proved she’s a good listener too.

There are points in her music when she allows the listener time to breathe, to ponder almost. One would have thought that by this stage Hayes might have had little left to say within the context of her eminently melodic happy/sad songs, but Let it Break, in particular, highlights how good she is at letting people know that there is world of difference between misery (her incorrectly perceived default setting) and melancholy.

Part of Let it Break’ssuccess is the fact that it bears the traceable scars of connective tissue: this time last year it was two albums. As Hayes explains it, she was swayed by people whose opinions, as she stresses, she respects who advised her to write an uptempo rock album. Part of her, she says, half-heartedly agreed, but fairly soon into the recording process, she knew it wasn’t for her.

“I prefer to do mellow music. It’s just where I am,” she says, almost apologetically. “So I found myself with my head writing songs that were very much trying to sound the way my heart didn’t. Part of me told myself that I missed having the band to make noise, doing the big festivals, while the opinion of the people I cared about was feeding that aspect in me.

“Yet when I was in the process of recording, I realised that mellow is just more natural for me. Halfway through last year I decided to scrap the work I was doing on the ‘loud’ album, which was about four songs. So I scrapped the style of them, kept the songs and then reworked them into the style I wanted.”

Hayes’s style is a calling card for quality. Despite the often low-key nature of her music, none of her albums underachieves. After four albums, where is she at creatively? Or does she think about that at all?

“I just do it as I do it. You need to live, not just write songs. That’s why it takes me so long to write an album; I need to write about substantial things so that I can enjoy singing the songs. If it is actually about something, then it resonates within people because, ultimately, we all have similar human experiences that we can connect with. So I usually wait around until I’ve lived a little, and be tipping away at ideas until I feel it’s time to put together a song.”

Life has changed for her over the past few years. Her first two albums, Night on my Sideand 2005’s The Roads Don’t Love You, were on the Source label, an offshoot of Virgin/EMI. She is now without a record label and a manager, but she realises each of these matters has to be resolved soon. Have those changes affected her creative and personal lives?

“The logistical stuff comes in after the creative process. After I made the new album it was then I asked myself, er, how do you manufacture this for distribution?”

She discovered doing such work on her own immensely liberating, as she does not have to worry about whether an album is made for radio play, which songs to keep on the album, or what length the songs are. In the past, she didn’t have so much creative freedom.

“My second album, The Roads Don’t Love You, was the most difficult recording experience. The record label would sit in the recording studio every day.

“Everything was a fight, because we never agreed on anything. Now I can do whatever I want. ­There’s nothing to fight against now with the suits.”

In a more pragmatic sense, surely the financial side of being an independent artist is hurt by lack of major label input? “It can be difficult, yes. When I was signed it was a big deal, very secure and all of that, but then it disappeared overnight. I was scared as to how I would survive, but I’m happy I didn’t decide to buckle under that pressure and do something that I wouldn’t be proud of, musically.”

Hayes says that if it wasn’t for the American TV syncs (music aligned to specific scenes in television shows) she obtained in the past two years, it would have been financially difficult. The fact that her music has appeared in Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practiceand others has given her freedom.

There is more work in the US, too:the provision of original music for young actor Abigail Breslin in the well received indie movie Janie Jones, as well as forays into instrumental soundtrack work.

Hayes is quite a special fixture in Irish music. Her petite presence notwithstanding, she exudes a subtle steeliness that has seen her engage, retreat and then ­re-engage with the music industry. That takes courage and resilience as well as confidence.

“I don’t shout about things,” she says. “I believe in what I do and I enjoy what I do. I definitely have massive doubts, as most people have, but overall there are things I want to do and achieve creatively. And I like it that I’m doing them bit by bit in my own weird way, a way that is always to the side of the norm.”

Let it Breakis released on GHM Records. Gemma Hayes is performing nationwide throughout June