‘If I tried to reach people solely on radio play, my music would never get heard‘ – Gemma Hayes talks crowdfunding, advertising and motherhood with Dave Donnelly
Since she released her debut album, Night on my Side, in 2002, Tipperary singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes has released a record every three years virtually like clockwork (so set your watch for the follow-up to Bones + Longing around this time in 2017).
Over those 15 years, she’s had everything from major label releases to indies and completely self-supported releases, and jumped from soft acoustic to rock to electronic and back again, but it’s Bones + Longing that she considers to be her “brave” record – where she makes musical and emotional decisions she wouldn’t have been able to make in the past.
Much of that is down to the birth of her first child during the album’s creation, an experience that served both as inspiration for her creative process and to alter her perspective of the world, allowing her to experience feelings she’d never had dreamed she’d feel, and helping to harden her shell and allow her to care less what other people think and more about what feels right to her as a musician.
Rather than funding and releasing the album completely on her own – as he did with 2011’s Let it Break, she invited fans to use the pledge system to pay for the album in advance to ensure she could give it the release it warranted. Though she was initially sceptical – and had to be talked around by her manager – she was won over by the experience, which she describes as a kind of pre-promotion for the record.
Are you pleased with how the album’s been received? I am. Number one, I can’t believe I released it, because it’s a really busy time at the moment, being a mother and all that. The fact I even managed to release an album at all blows me away. The reaction to the album has been such a welcome force in my life, to have some positive response to this quirky little album. It’s a quirky one.
Are you happy with how the album itself turned out? I am indeed. The thing with me is that I’ll work away on an album until I’m happy with it. If I wasn’t, it wouldn’t be out there. Im delighted with it because I know it’s a subtle breakthrough for me, musically. There’s a shift from my previous album to this album. I find this album to be very brave – some of the choice I made were very brave choices. I open the album with a song called ‘Laughter,’ which is an intense song. I love the song, but it really sets a certain tone for the album. There’s stuff I’ve written about, heart on my sleeve-type stuff, that sometimes I’d shy away from in the past. I’ve been very brave, creatively, I think.
It does seem like a light and shade album – there are songs like ‘Joy’ and ‘Laughter,’ then songs like ‘Dark Moon’ that are a little more grave. I suppose the music represents different aspects of me as a person. Like any human being, I’m never all light and I’m never all dark. Even as a lover of music, I don’t only listen to one type of music – it depends on my mood. So, for me, my albums tend to meander in terms of mood quite quickly. In a way, I sort of embrace that. I’ve never made just an acoustic album, or just a rock album – it’s always been a bit of a ride of emotions. That’s just the way I am and the way I write. Some people see it as a strength and some people see it as too confusing, but it’s the way I do it, and it’s honest. I think I’d be pretending if I put out an album that was streamlined, with a certain mood that starts and then doesn’t end until the album’s done.
You wouldn’t consider it an album of love songs, then? I mean there is a love song on it, called ‘To Be Your Honey.’ It’s more of a longing as opposed to love. It’s more about what a person’s messed up idea of love is, because they’ve decided that they need a person in their lives in order to feel fulfilled, which is not what love is. It’s this person singing about that. The album is more about change and upheaval, and the need for some sort of peace in a time that is very chaotic. Whether that peace comes from a person or something else, that’s what I’m dealing with.
You mentioned becoming a mother, and you deal with change a lot on the album too – did that sort of change in your life have a massive effect on the way the album turned out? Massively, yeah. I didn’t write about it directly. There are no references to motherhood in there, but whether it was me having a child or whether it was somebody else, there’s a new beginning, walking into the unknown. Whatever it is in your life, you have to leave the comfort of what you know, and walk into the terrifying unknown, and that very action is very potent creatively. At those times in my life, I really get to dig deep with songs and come up with lots of different stuff.
When I was pregnant I was very much aware of the fact that life as I knew it was about to end, and it was such great fuel for writing. Then when my little boy came along, I was amazed by how the knock-on effect of how I felt about him rippled through everything else in my life. I have this kid, and I never knew I could feel love as big, and all of a sudden I have a lot more compassion for human beings, which I didn’t expect. I didn’t realise I would all of a sudden feel a lot more for human beings in general. That’s been really inspiring of late, the writing I’m doing now.
Did you plan to keep working on the album as long as you could until you needed to take time off? I usually just work on an album until I’m happy with it, regardless of whether it’s two or three years. It’s one of those promises I made myself when I started: once I release something, I can’t ever unrelease it. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, so I always make sure I’m happy with it before it goes out. What was different this time around was that I worked with Pledge Music, which is kind of a Kickstarter type thing, to fund the album, and I was amazed by the number of people who pre-ordered the album that wasn’t even made yet. This is the first time I nearly owed it to them not to take three years to make an album, do you know what I mean? So I put a lot of time aside to focus on the album to make sure that I got the album out in a respectable amount of time. It’s not fair to ask somebody to pre-order and album and then three years later they receive it. There was definitely pressure this time, but it was a good pressure – it was like a hand on my back pushing me forward.
The pledge system is becoming more and more common – is that something that you do by necessity or does it allow you a certain degree of creativity? With the last album, I self-released it as well and I didn’t go this route. It was part necessity – not that I needed the funds to make the album, but I needed the funds to actually finish the album and release it. What I learned from the previous album was that I put it out myself, but then I had to promote it. As my manager put it, even the fact you’re doing a pledge campaign is promoting in itself. Before the album’s out, you’re out there promoting it in this quirky new way.
He had to sell it to me because I was reluctant at the start, because for me it’s like letting somebody in behind the Wizard of Oz. I didn’t want people to see the machine and how I make albums – I just wanted them to see the final album. The way he said it to me made so much sense, that it’s such a novelty that it’s going to help me reach new people as well. I was amazed at the amount of people who did pledge, and there was more than enough to finish the album and release it the way I wanted to release it.
Have you already seen it to be beneficial in terms of how well the album’s done? Yes, because it’s not a straightforward album, so the fact that I’m based in England and I’m doing a healthy number of shows in England for what I’d call a quirky album, it’s down to how I’ve been able to put it out properly. It’s had really positive reviews, which I wasn’t really sure it would, really. You never really know, when you do something and put it out there, how it’s going to be received. I am a small cottage industry and this is all very, very small, but I like it. I love how comfortable it is, and now that I’m a mother it suits me to keep it ticking along. Having said that, if it took off and became absolutely massive, I wouldn’t complain about that, but it’s not my aim. It’s not my aim to reach the top with this album.
Another thing that helped with the promotion was a song that I think everyone in Ireland knows, which is ‘Making My Way Back,’ which is on an Aldi ad. How did that come about? An agency that do the music for their ads said ‘we’re looking for songs for the Christmas campaign – do you want to submit one?’ I submitted ‘Making My Way Back’ simply because they said the ad was about people coming back home, and it’s the only song on my album that’s about going back anywhere. I thought nothing about it and submitted the song, and literally a few days later they got back and said ‘we’re going to go with your song,’ and that was amazing because I had literally just released the album a week before that.
All of a sudden, I had an opportunity to reach every household in Ireland for like five weeks, through the Christmas period, and it was unbelievable. You could see the amount of people who didn’t know the song, it clicked then, and the amount of people who downloaded the song, the whole thing was fantastic. For me, it’s all about trying to reach people at the end of the day. I don’t get played on the radio, and I’ve never had a big hit, so things like this are invaluable for me in terms of reaching people.
Is it literally about making your way back home? I know you’re in London now after having been in Los Angeles for a number of years, but you’re closer to home. Yeah, I was in Los Angeles for a few years and then I moved back to Dublin, and then I’ve been in London for the past two years. Actually, ‘Making My Way Back’ is about how no matter how far I go, you almost take who you are with you. You can’t run away from yourself, if you know what I mean? You’ve got to be happy with yourself, because who you are is going nowhere. It’s going to be stuck with you for the rest of your life. It’s the idea of taking on all these tasks, but each one leads me back to you, you being just another part of me, if that makes any sense.
You mentioned earlier about how when you put anything out, you lose control of it. Is putting music in an ad losing control in a different way? Once the musical aspect is done, and pure, and potent, and from me, that I’ve been able to work and focus on the album the way I wanted to, I can’t stop anyone from taking a song I wrote and doing, you know, a reggae version of it and putting it up on Youtube. I have no control over so much once it’s released, which is fine, because once I’m in control of it creatively, it’s out there and it’s what I want it to be.
I do get your point, sometimes the worry is that my music will be synced up to something like a toilet roll ad, and would that be durable? [I assume she means would the experience be durable, not the toilet roll – ed.] These people can use my music without my consent to promote a product. Hopefully I’ll never let that happen. There is still some control. For now, my focus is trying to reach people in new ways. If I tried to reach people solely on radio play, my music would never get heard.
In terms of future plans, I know the album was released in Europe the last couple of months, but what’s the plan for now beyond the tour of the UK and Ireland? I’ve just signed a publishing deal in the last couple of weeks, and I really want to start writing with other people, and for other people. I’d like to start writing more score music for, ultimately, movies – I’d love that. They don’t have to be big movies – they can be small independent movies – but just the idea of writing pieces of music in order to enhance an emotion in a scene. I’d love to get into that. I’ve had the opportunity to do it once or twice, and it’s such a different creative muscle that I use when I do that. I just got absolutely hooked.
Also, I’d like to, every now and then, keep putting out an album. I was putting out albums because I love music, and it’s right in the core of me. I’m not trying to take on the world with these albums. I’m not trying to get to number one. As long as they’re being positively received, and there are some people out there that get something from it, that’s enough for me to keep putting them out.
Is there anything in particular you’d like people to take from the record? That’s a big question! There’s a real honesty with this record, in the core of the songs and the attitude. There’s a real honesty and a residual heart-on-the-sleeve about life. I think it’s a brave album, and it represents who I am in my life. The older I get, the more potent I feel as an individual. I don’t really give a shit, and I mean that in the most positive way, not a nasty way. In terms of people liking me, or what do I need to change about myself to be liked – the older I get, the more content I am. I am who I am, and if anybody can take that from the album, it would be that. This is an album that is very real and it represents [me]. It’s an honest album about a real person, as opposed to a tailor-made person.