ISLAND GIRL Gemma Ray

There’s nothing
shameful about the British chanteuse.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The most important thing to know about Gemma Ray, the
engagingly prolific and eclectic British singer-songwriter-guitarist whose
latest album is Island Fire (Bronze
Rat), is that she really, really trusts her instinct.

 

Growing up in Essex where she developed an early interest in
the arts, she took up the guitar without ever trying to emulate virtuoso
British guitar gods like Clapton,
Page and Beck: “I was inspired by working out with the guitar and seeing what
noises you could make,” she says on the phone from Berlin, where she now lives. “I’d play
around with different effects. I couldn’t really see the point in learning
these boring chords-I just made up a tune and it sounded good when you banged
it and dropped (the guitar).”

 

With that kind of attitude,
and the fact she has been known to use a carving knife in concert to get the
right edgy guitar sound, you’d figure Island
Fire
would be a continuation of the grungy, low-fi nature of last year’s
covers album, It’s a Shame About Gemma
Ray.
When she started working on this, actually before Shame, she was thinking along the lines of riff-based, repetitively
rhythmic rock ‘n’ roll.

 

But remember: she is
eclectic. And just as It’s a Shame was unlike two earlier albums, Island Fire is different, still. The arrangements are layered with imaginative instrumental
and vocal ornamentation; most of the songs have melodically strong, varied
verses and rousing, memorable choruses. Yet they aren’t just bright, cheerful
pop-Ray has been influenced by the sonic mysteriousness of film composers like
Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti and her guitar burrows into all sorts of
unusual side pockets.

 

Her approach is a good
match for the vividly descriptive
yet enigmatic lyrics and titles of the album’s songs, such as “Alright!
Alive!,” “Put Your Brain in Gear, “Flood and a Fire,” Runaway” and “Trou De
Loup.”

 

Ray, relying on instinct, switched to a more “classic” song
structure while she was working on this album. “All of a sudden I found the
age-old challenge of putting a lot of emotions and drama and atmosphere into a
three-minute pop song, and then doing something slightly odd with it, became
the new Holy Grail for me,” she says. 

 

Island Fire was recorded, Ray notes, on a series of islands-Britain,
Australia, Giske in Norway.
“I feel like these songs come from a mythical place, a fantastical place, so it
made sense they should have some kind of geographical location.”

 

It also contains two bonus tracks, released earlier this
year on a single, of her collaboration with L.A.’s
iconic Sparks
duo/band (Ron and Russell Mael) on their songs, “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall”
and “Eaten by the Monster of Love.”

 

“When I was starting to
write this album and had songs a bit more riff-based, I thought maybe they’d
produce it because I was so influenced by Sparks
albums from the millennium onward,” she says. “I contacted them and they were
really busy and couldn’t commit. And my album went in a different direction in
the end. But then Russell contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in
singing one of their songs for fun, and it went from there.

 

“I’m incredibly proud to
have worked with Sparks
and it made sense for the songs to be there,” she continues. “But they’re in
their own island within my island, I guess.”

 

 

 

Gemma Ray kicks off a UK tour next week – tour dates
here.

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