Gemma Ray: A Little Past, A Little Present, A Little Future

Something tells me that, by the end of the year, Gemma Ray will be the Western hemisphere’s most popular indie-electro chanteuse.  Flavorwire is comparing her to Phil Spector and...

Something tells me that, by the end of the year, Gemma Ray will be the Western hemisphere’s most popular indie-electro chanteuse.  Flavorwire is comparing her to Phil Spector and David Lynch, while Village Voice is likening her to Amy Winehouse and Norah Jones.  The UK singer/songwriter is the perfect blend of darkly subversive siren and a just-plain-lovable retro pop songstress.  Ray’s brief jaunt through the US, supporting the lovely and amazing Ane Brun, wraps tonight in Chicago, but her latest release, Island Fire, drops next Tuesday, May 29th, on Bronze Rat Records.

Island Fire includes the biggest array of Gemma Ray’s sounds on any of her releases to date, yet there are no two tracks that don’t sound as though they belong together forever.  She does ring of Spector’s girl-groups at times and she does embrace an existential darkness characteristic of many contemporary legends of postmodernity, but she also ventures into psychedelica and experiments with strings.  The album even includes, as bonus tracks, a previously recorded collaboration with legendary proto punks Sparks, which is described as “Sparks’ re-interpretation of Gemma’s interpretation of Sparks.”  I recently caught up with Ms. Ray in the middle of her trek through the states to talk about her latest album, her highlights from the first bit of 2012, and what she plans to do with the rest of the year.

Izzy Cihak: How would you characterize your upcoming release, Island Fire, compared to your previous work?*

Gemma Ray: Island Fire has a very specific sound and was born from a period of travelling and setting up temporary homes in many motels so I could work in transit. (I’d previously written almost soley in the isolation of my London flat.)  I finished and created much of it suspended in air or on a journey to somewhere new and I think that gave me real clarity to my songwriting – it’s leaner and less cluttered. There was a lot more time between tracking and post production, which gave me a wider perspective and the song arrangements had to prove their longevity again and again when I came back to work on them. I also had the new luxury of recording around 25 songs, which allowed me to sculpt the album the way I wanted – a freedom I haven’t always had.

I also worked with Michael Szumouski on the wonderful orchestral arrangements and his input has really broadened and sharpened the sound.  Much of my previous work focuses on finding alternatives to the classic bass/drums/guitar nucleus, but I embraced that foundation this time and recorded most songs live in this way.

IC: The album includes a very intriguing collaboration with Sparks.  Are there any other artists that you would especially like to collaborate with or any other postmodern methods of collaborating you would like to attempt?

GR: I like the idea of collaborating via technology as it bypasses that cringeworthy idea of passing a guitar around in a room and allows musicians to share ideas less self consciously.  I would like to work with an electronic artist, with a big focus on rhythm – I very much admire the Dutch artist Solex, and would love to work with her someday soon.

IC: Do you have any especially significant non-musical influences? Flavorwire has compared you to David Lynch.

GR: I don’t really feel directly influenced by film directors as such, but maybe I put my albums together in a series of film-like scenes, which draws those comparisons.

IC: You’re currently on tour in the states.  How has that experience been so far?  Any particular highlights?

GR: It’s been very interesting to see the less well-known parts of the US. I just spent the day in Reno and really loved the faded faux-grandeur of the casinos and also endless amounts of thrift stores – just browsing through those places tell 100 stories about a place. I also really enjoyed LA, I got to play with some local musicians and the palm trees and sun were really cathartic after weeks spent in a dark sleeper bus!

IC: What are your plans for the rest of 2012?

GR: I hope to release a fantasy-soundtrack album I recorded and to make a dent in a new batch of songs I have in the periphery of my vision. More musical output and lots of interesting travels on the back of Island Fire.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.