Gemma Ray does it herself. The singer-songwriter is more interested in limitations than big productions, creates her own fusion-instruments, and mostly just wants to hole up in a musty old studio and create. Born in Essex, the British artist draws inspiration from an eclectic mixture of old sounds from Stevie Nix to Pink Floyd.
CONVICTS caught up with Gemma after her recent tour stop in New York. We got her word on globe-trotting, how important it is to sow something positive in the world , and the borderline magical way boundaries between artist and audience blur during a rocking show.
Hey Gemma, can you tell us where we are right now?
We’re in NY HED Studios and that’s in Manhattan, New York.
What do you like about this particular studio?
I love this particular studio for many reasons, but especially the smell of old organs. Anything from the past I immediately feel connected with. It gives me the desire to create something and make something new out of old stuff with history. That’s one sort of primal thing. Even as a kid I’d be snooping around charity shops, making something out of nothing. As a musician I walk into this studio and immediately want to shut the door, shut off all the other things going round my head and just hole up and make music. It’s an immediate transportation.
Talk a bit about the transportation, that headspace?
It’s that environment where when you’re being creative and you certainly don’t see the time fly. You’re just totally lost and transported. If I’m in a studio and I’m not doing something it seems to suck energy out of you at ten times the rate so I prefer just working really hard.
Can we circle back to your connection with the past? You’re music is really inventive and seems to draw from these recognizable old reference points.
It’s a compliment to call it inventive. I’ve always been into making something out of nothing or perverting stuff slightly, even as a really small child, of course I liked toys but I preferred cardboard boxes and weird things I collected. I’ve always been very interested in making something with limitations.
Did you study music growing up?
I deliberately have never studied music. I did grow up playing violin and piano at a very young age but I got bored of it. I wanted to find my own sound and would rather spend ten years doing that than one. It would have freaked me out too if I learned all these chords in one go. I would have been overwhelmed. A lot of the inventiveness for me is is always born from making sure I don’t have too many options.
How does that drive come through in your sound?
I guess the sound of some of my records goes against that because I haven’t held back on the production for a lot of them. A couple of them are more minimal, but I’ve really gone for a more visual thing which comes across as more filmic.
Can you talk about some of the ways you manipulate sound?
If I’m like, ‘Oh, how can I make a droning sound if I haven’t got a keyboard?’ Maybe I can use a flat thing on my strings and create a wall of noise that way ‘cause I’m too lazy to go and borrow a keyboard off a friend. That’s how I started using a knife on my guitar. It was the nearest thing I could find and that was a limitation that I guess is inventive. Nearly all of my sounds really are created from trying to invent something new but of course it’s not that radical. I like a lot of sounds from the past, but my compositions aren’t traditional.
Can you talk about your writing process a bit?
I write in lots of different ways cause my life’s not consistent. Ideally I would be messing around in my own little studio room in Berlin and stuff would all pop out holistically. But to keep the muscle flexed for words independently, I need need to really just keep, keep doing it. Words can be so detrimental and they’re too powerful to use carelessly. Yeah. I write in all kinds of ways, I don’t have any set way anymore.
Talk about the feeling of being up on stage?
When it’s working out on stage and you’re doing what you should be doing-which is just playing music and not worrying-those gigs where you’re completely disconnected with normal stuff but subconsciously connected with people in the room if they’re up for it, those are the only gigs worth doing. I love that totally lost feeling. I don’t really get that in any other way and it’s like a total separation from the part of your consciousness which nags at you all the time. It’s a really nice thing for me.
What have you learned from touring?
Travelling and touring mainly taught me that I should worry less and that everything-surface stuff like logistics and dramas, lost guitars and lost voices-works out alright. The other thing you learn from touring really far away places is that we’re all just dumb humans and there’s not many things that separate us all. I like feeling like somebody who lives in the world and isn’t just from one place.
Where did you play your first gigs?
When I was growing up in Essex, I’d done my first little concerts at age fourteen or whatever in venues that closed by the time I’d turned sixteen. Essex is so close to London but sadly not much culture seeped into the part of Essex where I grew up. There was nowhere really to go, so my musician friends and I used to go to the pub with all the old men in it and try and avoid the chavs that would be throwing bottles at our cars. But I love it very much you know?
How do you unwind from making music, either on stage or in the studio?
I’m lucky enough to get some downtime, I find somewhere nice to eat or like chill out. These recent tours I’ve been quite tired but nothing too out the ordinary. Normally I just go for a walk and try and take as much in as possible.
Well, love is the most important thing for me. And the people I care about. Close and connected to that is just being happy-not at the expense of others-and making sure that you’re satisfied and trying to contribute something to the world even if it’s not going to change it. If you’re lucky enough to be healthy and alive and not struggling too much, you owe it yourself to do something positive.
Right on. Thanks, Gemma. Best of luck with the rest of the tour.