The looks of an angel and a voice to match has meant little to Irish singer Gemma Hayes when it comes to her music. George R Vaughan caught up with the thinking man’s Dido at her home in Los Angeles to talk about what being a female musician with a message really means in the 21st century.
Although many a new musical discovery is hailed as the next big musical genius of the age, you only find yourself in the shadow of true creative potential on very few occasions.
I have been a big fan of Gemma Hayes right from the very first time I heard her music, so would my interview disappoint? We build our icons up without expecting to ever meet them so when the opportunity comes along, it can be disconcerting. Fortunately, she proved to be one of the most down to earth and gracious music stars I’ve ever had the pleasure to interview.
Based in the US but of Irish origin, Gemma comes from a large family.
“It was a household of big personalities who all shared a love for music but with very different tastes. We were fans of everything from Iron Maiden to Chaka Khan and with my father also being involved with a band, music was never far away from the centre of my life.
“From the time I was tall enough to reach the keys I started to learn to play the piano and once lit, the musical fire just seemed to grow from there onwards.”
But although she had a deep love for music, academically, Gemma was inclined more towards cerebral pursuits and was studying History, Psychology and Sociology at college although she does admit to skipping off lectures whenever she could to play her flat mate’s guitar.
“Although I didn’t study music it was never far from my heart. In fact, through those difficult teenage years I’d have to say it saved me in some ways.”
Her big break came whilst she was in Dublin when she went to a singer songwriter night that was held at one of the local clubs.
“Creating music and songs is a magical experience for me and it is doubly rewarding because not only do you get to ‘give birth’ to something unique but when people then come to you and embrace what you have written it endorses what you are doing in a special way.
“I became addicted to these songwriter nights and it was during one of them, when I decided to stand up and sing a song I had written that a representative from Polygram (now Universal) happened to be in the audience and signed me on the strength of that one performance.”
Gemma was 20 years old with a body of work inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchel and Nirvana and a record contract that gave her more control over her music than she would ever have dared to hope for.
“In that one moment it seemed like all those nights as a child spent singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror were somehow validated and I was finally on my way. Of course, that meant leaving college and my parents were devastated but I had no doubt in my mind and was more determined than ever to succeed.”
When her first album – Night On My Side - hit the shelves back in 2002 it was to critical acclaim and she found herself short-listed for the Mercury Music Award and suddenly touted as a bright, young talent for the future of female singer/songwriters.
“I read everything that was written about me; every word, even the bad press – you’re never going to please everyone. For me it felt surreal.
“Then I went out on tour to promote the album, which was fun but exhausting, and at the end of it all I wanted to take a break so I took 2 years out to clear my head in preparation for my next record.”
For Gemma Hayes, her next release in 2005 really followed on from where her last one left off and she received further acclaim and nominations for her work.
“As I developed so I sought to steer myself away from the pretty blonde stereotype that I was afraid I would be labelled with. I wanted people to continue to appreciate me for my ability rather than my looks.”
Admitting that she was much more satisfied with her second release, Gemma had high hopes but even before it had a chance to sell the record company dropped her and took her album off the shelves.
“It was a pretty big shock and it made me realise that my own destiny wasn’t really in my hands.
“The music industry has changed a lot over the years but there’s no denying that at the top it is still run by men and just like any business, the bottom line is profit. Taking a risk on certain musical types is individual to the company and less and less of them are doing that today. The rise of shows such as X-Factor and Pop Idol demonstrate that if nothing else.
“Male singer songwriters are expected to be talented but when it comes to women there is still an air of scepticism in certain quarters. In some respects it means we have to work harder for what we want.
“The music charts are also dominated by youth and age is more forgiving to men than it is to women. Older male artists still draw in the crowds but aside from the very few big stars at the top, older female artists seem to be a harder thing to sell which makes our shelf life as performers much more limited I feel.
“The pop world is dominated by image and women are seen more as sexual beings in the industry which means they need to be able to sing, play and look beautiful otherwise it isn’t often going to work for them.
Coming off the back of another successful tour where she played a gig back home in Ireland, Gemma is busy working on her new album, which she hopes to have out for Christmas.
Living in California she has adapted to the slower pace of life and as she enters the next decade, there is a maturity about her that seems to help her deal with a business that is unpredictable as it is fulfilling.
“I’m not as well known here as I am in the UK and Europe – although I am working hard to change that! I spend a lot of time reading, exercising and generally looking after myself because a healthy body really does make for a healthy mind.”
I asked her if she had any advice for budding young musicians.
“It’s hard you know. Forget what you see on the television or read in the glossy magazines. At the end of the day it is a business just like anything else and you have to be prepared to put yourself out there and never give up. You also need to be lucky as well as talented and that one factor can sometimes be the difference between failure and success.”
A new 5 track EP entitled Oliver is currently available for download from iTunes and for more information on this decidedly talented woman, head over to her website at www.gemmahayes.com
George R Vaughan