You’d think that after hauling an 800-pound organ on a U.S. tour that included SXSW, a musician might be a tad disheveled. But the British, Berlin-based newcomer Gemma Ray didn’t seem to have a hair out of place when we met for an interview last week. She arrived in her signature 60s mod outfit and high-rise bouffant, as easy-going as the music on her debut album, Island Fire.
The album — out May 29 on Bronze Rat Records — has been showered in accolades for its eclectic blend of folk, surf rock, pop, and cabaret sensibilities that, when pitted together, set her far apart from sugar-coated lady-and-a-guitar fare. Her ingenuity has earned her a U.S. tour, an opening slot for Nick Cave’s Grinderman and Denton’s Midlake, and a collaborative cover album with 70s quirk gods, Sparks. Here’s what she had to say about it all.
When I heard your music, The first sounds that came to mind were Ladytron, Dick Dale, and the occasional pirate-style Decemberists type stuff. What is the best, most accurate thing that has ever been said about your music?
Well, there’s lots of complimentary things that have been said, like the things you mentioned. When I write, I tend to become a bit of a slave to what I’m writing, but I don’t really try and go for anything. I don’t feel like anyone’s sort of summed it up, and I’m glad they haven’t. It’s also open to the listener. I think the lyrics are quite ambiguous, and I like that—the idea that somebody else could be what you want them to be, and I’m happy for that.
Do you like Dick Dale?
Oh, absolutely. I do like Dick Dale, and I think it’s a cool reference, and funnily enough, I’ve only heard snippets of Ladytron. Sometimes I end up checking out artists people reference me to, especially when people have heard me and have been around in past eras, and dig what I’m doing.
It must be interesting to hear your music pigeonholed.
Yeah, it’s interesting to hear people try to, and I’m just speaking about my own personal experiences in my music. And there are huge gaps in what I haven’t listened to. I don’t often buy records, just because I don’t often have time — I get quite overwhelmed by the amount; there’s just too much out there. Anyway, getting intros to things, finding new music, that’s the most positive part of people trying to pigeonhole me. Hope I’m not being egotistical, but they kind of turn me on to new music, stuff I’ve never heard.
Where are you based right now?
I’m from Essex, near London, and I sort of feel like I’m based nowhere since I’ve been away from Berlin since November, and just returned briefly to change my suitcase.…I’ve been living in Berlin for like one and a half years.
What made you want to move there?
I’ve always been interested in Germanic history, and things change every day; there’s always a new art exhibit outside my house, and I think people are very open-minded there, and elsewhere people are often quite cynical, so I find it a very fertile place to explore things you might not have before, so it’s cool.
I like your style a lot. Are you a Nancy Sinatra fan?
Yeah I couldn’t really try to steal her style. She’s got a whole different look to me. I do tend to go through a lot of looks and fabrics, not because I’m trying to look like I’m from the past, but I love that classic, timelessness look of a lot of makeup and clothes from past eras. The only really modern things I like are way out ridiculous sportswear in storefronts, like the horrible neon stuff. But I stick to what I know.
What is your story? What turned you on to making music as a young person?
As a young person I never really liked rules. Not that I tried to break them purposely but I didn’t really see the point in things, you know, I finished school, didn’t go to college or anything and just got into guitars at 15, and it just felt like a place where every bit of me made sense. Even if that’s a young age, it just seemed to be the vehicle for me. A place where rules don’t exist.
What was the last album that really stuck with you?
Actually, I’ve just been doing a tour in America, and I played in Denton. Do you know the band Midlake? They helped me get a gig up there and I got really into their album. I’ve got a Nat Coleman record. And I’ve gotten into St. Vincent of late, it’s a good record; really blew me away, very interesting.
What’s it like touring with Grinderman?
They’re really wild, famous musicians, a force to be reckoned with, and being their support actor can make you feel small, but actually as a support actor I’ve found their fans really great. They’re just people who are looking for something a bit more from music than just entertainment, and they were very reactive to what we are doing.
Was there any place in middle America that really surprised you by being really cool?
I think Denton was really cool, I wasn’t massively surprised because I’d had some friends who’d been there hooking up a gig. It was interesting to go through all the states, and see how different the terrain was, but nothing in particular. We would tour with a big Hammond organ that’s like 380 kilograms, a 1949 monster and there were only three of us in the band. It worked at every one, and felt like quite an achievement, and it sounded great. It sort of reminded me of old horror films, and they used to use it in old horror films, so that was cool. One day on the way back from a New York gig, I was trying to hold it up in the back of the van, and basically it fell on top of one of the guys and pushed his ass through the window. So it’s been a bit National Lampoon the whole trip. So in that way, Austin was “eh, whatever”
What’s next for you now that you’ve wrapped up the tour?
Well, I think I may be back spring or summer in America to actually do a proper tour, cause really that was just a road trip. Our album’s not out till May, and I’ve finished a different album actually, a soundtrack album which I’m working on the artwork for, then I’ll go back to Berlin because I’ve been recording there.
Yeah, a fantasy soundtrack album. It’s largely instrumental and I’ve recorded it with Thomas Wydler from the Bad Seeds who’s my all-time favorite drummer. That’ll hopefully come out this year, too. I’m hoping to do a lot more of Island Fire, and really get my teeth into those songs live. But I’m really looking forward to touring that all over the place.
Is there anybody in an ideal magical world that you’d want to work with?
I’ll tell you what, even though he passed away last year, John Barry producing a pop song for me, I just feel like that would be my ultimate dream, so if it’s a fantasy, that would be amazing.
What do you think of the whole woman and a guitar thing — the sugary stuff that’s popular now?
It’s nice when it seems like people think you’re doing something different, not so gender-specific. The whole singer-songwriter thing as well has a bit of a bad rep. There’s good and there’s bad to everything, but there’s quite a bit of people who lack imagination. Just songs about themselves on their acoustic guitar, and it can be a bit frustrating because obviously those people would not like my music, and I’m not going to sound like those kind of people. It’s nice not to just be compared to Adele or Duffy or Amy Winehouse. But I do hear things about there being too many singer-songwriters, and it’s always women. People don’t compare men to each other in the same way.
If you were able to take a month off and do anything in the world—go anywhere, do anything. What would you do?
I’d plow through all my demos! I’ve got this stupid recorder with so many ideas that I haven’t had time to just be on my own with. So I think I’d just get a little cabin on my own and power through and finish all these songs. That’s what I’d do.