Cork Folk Festival & Triskel presents Thea Gilmore
“Deceptively populist” one noted music journalist called her in 2010…
Thea Gilmore’s fans famously range from Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson and Joan Baez to poet Simon Armitage and novelists William Boyd and Neil Gaiman, but of all the many plaudits the press have hurled her way in an extraordinary 14 year career it may be that the above is the most relevant right now…
Last summer she and her posthumous Sandy Denny collaboration “London” were all over BBCTVs Prime Time Olympics coverage, propelling her into the upper reaches of the itunes singles chart and winning legions of new admirers.
At the same time she was donating free music to the Morning Star anniversary compilation “We’re All In This Together”.
She may be a regular fixture on the Radio 2 playlists, but she’s never far from an invitation from Billy Bragg to join him on the Leftfield Stage at Glastonbury.
Whilst her new album “Regardless” may feature more lush string sections than scruffy acoustic guitars and harmonicas, you’ll still find cryptic Orwell references, a conversation between God and Satan about grammar and grey areas, and a wryly scathing look at cultural tourism.
And if after enjoying the journey through the albums rich landscape you conclude that “Regardless”s prevailing theme is enduring love, and that it is as sweetly melodic as anything Gilmore has ever created, you’ll still notice that even the album’s simplest declaration of devotion manages to rhyme “non-starter” with “persona non grata” and declares “The cynics found me over-qualified”.
> Thea Gilmore is nothing if not prolific – “Regardless” is her 14th album in as many years – but the songs collected here grew out of an enforced hiatus. In 2011 she gave birth to her second son and had to take several months out from music making – an unusual and potentially frustrating state of affairs for a musician with a fierce work ethic (she was onstage at Latitude Festival two days before her son was born).
The break, however, allowed her the distance and perspective she needed to look at her own work with fresh eyes. ‘It helped me to reassess the way I was doing things,’ she says. ‘When you write as much as I do, it would be easy to get stuck in a rut and end up putting out the same album. This helped me relearn what I do. “Regardless” grew out of that – in a way it’s an acknowledgement of the way life had changed dramatically. These songs are little punctuation marks in intense periods of real life.’
[She continues ” I once had a conversation with a friend about a very famous female artist who had had kids… he thought that the album she released subsequently was twee, self absorbed and made her sound as if she thought she was the only woman ever to go through the birth experience. I never wanted “Regardless” to come across like that… in fact] I’ve always fought shy of writing overtly about motherhood… For me, these are songs about being the custodian of somebody, but also about the process of letting go and accepting that you’re a landmark in someone’s life, but beyond that you don’t have control. That’s a difficult thing for me, because I’m a very controlling person.” The title track perhaps captures this feeling best; its lyrics look ahead to an unknown future, asking ‘Will you be a friend of mine, or will you turn your head?’ and answer with a beautifully understated declaration of love, the embrace of the unknown: ‘I’ll be here, oh I’ll be here, regardless.’
Gilmore’s long-standing fans have had the privilege of watching her sensibility and musicianship develop from her first album, Burning Dorothy, released when she was just 19. Six albums in four years followed, with 2003’s Avalanche marking her debut in the UK charts. But Gilmore has held firmly to her artistic and intellectual integrity, turning down several offers from major labels, keeping creative control of her music and her image, and in recent years taking advantage of the opportunities the digital world offers for interacting directly with her fans. She tours tirelessly, and now takes the children on the road too “Like any working parent, it’s a balancing act,” she says. “I feel very lucky that I can do both, but there’s always a lot of guilt involved. I think it’s a good learning experience for them, but they do have a fairly lateral take on normality… My older son grew up thinking that hanging out with Mike Scott and Bruce Springsteen, and spending weeks on a tourbus going round the US was just routine pre-school experience”.
The expression of unconditional love and adoration, surely one of the tougher challenges a writer can face, is something that Gilmore pulls off on “Regardless” by constantly shooting her lyrics through with an intrinsic sense of human fallibility, of the transience and fragility of all things precious, and an eye ever mindful of the dark side.
At times it’s as if her own emotions shock and unnerve her (“this path is so well trodden but it still feels so unreal”) while elsewhere she seems almost aglow with self acceptance and enlightenment (“I’m snow blind, I’m re-defined”). Occasionally she muses movingly on the changing cycles of the human heart (“I find it best to be prepared for tricks of the light, and the shadows things throw if you hold them too tight. Time is a train and its lost to the bend.”)
Looking deeper into the riches the album yields, you may notice that “Start As We Mean To Go On” with its impossibly upbeat pop chorus, is no mere excuse for her to get in touch with her inner Katy Perry but contains thinly veiled references to the global banking meltdown and to last year’s tabloid hacking scandals. And that the sharp and sparkling “Spit And Shine” casts a caustic eye on the morals of groovy globetrotting and socio-economic smash and grab, throwing West African percussion and Township jive guitars into an audacious musical mix quite unlike anything she’s produced before.
“Regardless” bears all the hallmarks of Gilmore’s best work – glass-sharp lyrics, dark humour, melodies that refuse to leave you and that haunting, smoky voice – but with a lush, full sound that will be familiar to those who enjoyed “Don’t Stop Singing”, her 2012 collaboration with the late Sandy Denny from which “London” was taken.
Gilmore and long standing musical partner/producer Nigel Stonier have repeatedly journeyed into new territories this time around, spending over nine months in a total of five studios, and hooking up alternately with collaborators Seadna Mac Phail (Elbow, Badly Drawn Boy) Danish producers The Suppliers (Ron Sexsmith, Martha Wainwright) and string arranger Pete Whitfield (Plan B, Olly Murrs). There is a widescreen finish present, and the painstaking process has clearly been worthwhile, resulting in an album that feels like a natural evolution of Gilmore’s songwriting talents – bigger and glossier, perhaps, but with that recognisable wit and honesty that sets her work apart.
“Dont look now, the view just changed…” she asserts, a few seconds into the album’s first single “Love Came Looking For Me”.
For Thea Gilmore and her growing body of fans, the view has surely never been better