At just 25-years old, British singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore’s success story might be expected to read like that of any other blondish up-and-comer. The distinction lies in what The Telegraph calls “the pure static jolt of her intellect,” paired with a rich, clear alto that she keeps refreshingly devoid of modern vocal gymnastics. With the assistance of a talented team (including producer/collaborator Nigel Stonier, co-producer/engineer Mike Cave, and manager Sara Austin) Thea has assiduously avoided the fast-track to success. She has chosen instead to release five carefully produced albums entirely on independent labels, including her own Shameless Records. Thea’s lyrical talent has earned fans in high places, including folk hero Joan Baez and graphic novelist/musical tastemaker Neil Gaiman, who calls her “the smartest, sharpest UK singer-songwriter since Elvis Costello.”
Thea invited Guernica to tag along on her interview at Sirius Satellite Radio, where legendary rock journalist Dave Marsh was so taken with her that he kept her live on air for nearly two hours. No mean feat, considering MC5 was waiting their turn in the lobby. After her interview we chatted at the studio outside “The Future Home of the Howard Stern Radio Show,” then went in search of the band’s hostess (Mary Lee of Mary Lee’s Corvette) in the East Village. We got the band tucked in for breakfast then strolled across the street for a chat in Tompkins Square Park. Thea is a frank conversationalist. She is tall and unconventionally striking, with intense eye contact and a sideways, intelligent smile.
[Interviewed by Taya Mueller; Photographed by Bram Muller]
Guernica: Your career has been defined by your independence. What was the biggest factor in choosing to start off on your own label rather than pursuing the path of the mainstream industry?
Thea Gilmore: It started off being just blind arrogance on my part and thinking I could do it better. I was seventeen or eighteen and thought, “These big labels don’t know what they’re talking about.” They all said the same thing: “We can make you a star, but…” There was always the but: “You have to dress prissy, or change your songs so they’re not as raw, or not as aggressive.” I do want to be accessible…but it’s tricky. I want to be accessible to a certain type of person who wants to walk around with their eyes open, or at least is open to the idea of change. When the people who go out and buy, oh, I don’t know, Norah Jones, for example—who incidentally I think is a very valuable artist—but there is definitely a certain type of person who will go out and buy one album a year from a supermarket, and that’s not the type of audience I’m really after.
Guernica: Your own musical sensibility shows quite a bit of depth. How is it that you became the sort of consumer who buys more than “one album a year from a supermarket?”
Thea Gilmore: I guess it was my parents, particularly my dad, who is very into music and used to play me all sorts of stuff. But a lot of the time he used to actually play it on the guitar, in true folk tradition. I don’t think he’d quite see himself as a musician but he was good enough on guitar to get a few songs across. So I would listen to Paul Simon songs and I’d listen to Dylan songs and all sorts of stuff that he would play. And then there were the records. You know, I remember when I was about twelve years old putting on “It’s All Right Ma,” and for the first time ever understanding the power of words and music together. As soon as I heard the line, “money doesn’t talk, it swears,” I understood it. Bob Dylan had been a big sort of presence in my life but I’d never quite registered what he was trying to tell me. He was always this kind of figure, a sort of bear-like figure in the corner of the room. You know, every time I imagined what Bob Dylan looked like, he looked a bit like Steve Earl used to look—with the beard. (laughs)
Guernica: Are you a fan of Steve Earle as well then?
Thea Gilmore: He’s a really, really extraordinary guy. I mean, there is a properly political musician. I would always consider myself to be political with a small “p,” although it makes me mad when people say politics should be kept out of music. Music is politics—it always has been and it always will be. Art is one of the last lines of defense we have and you can’t ignore that. People who say it’s about the art and nothing else, that’s fine and there is music that that could be totally applied to. But eventually it comes down to the fact that every person in this world is responsible for the mess that they make and if you have a platform and you have the opportunity to change something—God knows there are few enough people out there trying to change something—you’ve gotta fucking use it. There is no excuse. If you are a Steve Earle and you’re up on a platform and there are people out there listening to you, say something to them. Tell them something valuable. Tell them something they need to know. It doesn’t have to be dictatorial, it just has to be informative.
Guernica: Much has been made of the fact that you were personally invited by Joan Baez to open for her pre-election tour last fall. Tell us what it was like for you, as a young Brit, to tour with a major American folk hero during such a volatile presidential election.
Thea Gilmore: I didn’t know an awful lot about Joan Baez personally, apart from the fact that she was a legend and that she influenced Bob Dylan. I mean, for heaven’s sake, who can say they influenced Bob Dylan? But what an incredible woman to be around at the time! She was just inspirational, and very giving as well. I thought she’d be quite aloof and wouldn’t really want to impart any of her wisdom necessarily; but she was very open. I was really surprised because if you’re a Brit you kinda get used to people being cold and aloof and just generally arrogant—particularly musicians. (Compared to Londoners New Yorkers are a walk in the park!) But she was just incredible and a real force to be reckoned with.
People keep saying, “Oh, you look much nicer than that in the flesh,” and that’s not the fucking point.
Guernica: Do you have any specific memories of our Election Day?
Thea Gilmore: It was Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a funny town there anyway because it’s a Democratic town in a Republican state. We were walking down the street just before the gig, looking for something to eat and checking up on the score, as it were. There was a local newspaper with a window where they had TV screens and the Kerry concession speech was being beamed out and Joan was furious. She was fuckin’ furious. I’ve never seen anybody get so angry and yet so eloquent on stage. It was big stuff. I mean, there were people crying in the streets. But it was a really good night to see Joan’s show. She sang “We Shall Overcome” for the first time in thirty years. Well, I say she sang it but she led the audience pretty much; they all stood up and started singing with her. Some of the audience did get up and leave, which kind of makes you wonder what part of Joan Baez did they not understand?
Guernica: The tour ended shortly after that—what was the reaction like back home?
Thea Gilmore: People were very, very depressed. My generation in the UK, they’re very apathetic, a lot of them. But the people it does register with, it registers with hard.
Guernica: Our 2004 election had the largest turnout of 18-29 youth voters in over three decades, but that still only accounts for 52% of the eligible voters in that age bracket. What do you think are some factors in the apathy of this generation?
Thea Gilmore: I think that youth culture is now very deliberately designed by both corporate entities and by governments to not involve people directly. Because as soon as you involve people you have a small loss of control; and as soon as that happens, anything could happen. (And big, big record labels are ultimately affiliated with big companies who are ultimately affiliated with the government…so it’s kind of all part of a package in my head.) I think the US and the UK are gradually growing closer together in a lot of ways. They’re inextricably linked. Bush blows his dog whistle and Blair goes running. I would say Tony Blair is very much a lapdog. I’m terribly scared that when he finally goes—and we can only hope it’s soon—that he will be remembered for all these terrible things that he’s done. Which is kind of a scary thing for a Labor Prime Minister. It’s a very strange thing. We had such high hopes—it was such a fantastic thing when Labor finally got in after such a long time. You know Thatcher defined the 80’s, for Chrissake; and finally in the early ‘90’s we got rid of her only to get this instead.
Guernica: The cover of your Lipstick Conspiracies album evokes the punk sensibilities of the early ‘80’s and you certainly seem to channel some of that energy. Are you conscious of being a bit of a rebel?
Thea Gilmore: The only thing rebellious about it is the way I wanted to be portrayed wasn’t necessarily the way other people wanted to see me. I mean, people keep saying, “Oh, you look much nicer than that in the flesh,” and that’s not the fucking point. The point is it was a strong photo and it’s a very good representation of the way I was at the time. Incidentally, that photo wasn’t released here, only at home.
Guernica: Now, understanding that nobody can possibly listen to protest music all the time, are there any guilty pleasures in your personal music collection?
Thea Gilmore: Oh, it would be a horrible business, a horrible sort of culture if you didn’t have the candy pop as well as the real hard-hitting stuff. And I love some pop music. Sometimes you definitely need to just let go. You need to sort of forget everything. I really like those Rachel Stevens records, actually. I’m kind of fond of ABBA—but, you see, ABBA were quite political in their time, weren’t they? And in the summer there’s a record…have you ever heard of a band called Divine Comedy? Very English band. Well, I say English but he’s actually Irish—Neal Hannon, he’s called. Really sort of quirky. They’ve got a song called “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count” which is just a fantastic song to listen to in high summer. Really good.
Guernica: Your album Loftmusic is an incredibly well-conceived collection of cover tunes. How did that album come about and how did you pick those particular ten songs?
Thea Gilmore: Those were chosen because they were songs I loved; and in some cases artists that I’d grown up with, and in other cases just artists I’ve kind of come to really adore. But there are some real notable omissions, like Dylan—there’s no Bob Dylan song on there. There’s no Leonard Cohen song on there. Those are two artists that I obviously adore but you have to be able to make it your own in some way. The definitive version is already out there with a lot of Dylan’s stuff. The only one that I could ever see differently was “I Dreamed I saw St Augustine,” which I’ve already done. Now, live cover versions tend to be entirely different, though. I’ll go for really slightly off-the-wall stuff, like I do a Paula Abdul song which I really enjoy doing. See, there’s a pop song I love—“Straight Up” is a fantastically crafted pop song. Really brilliant!
Please visit the Guernica jukebox to hear some of Thea’s songs, and view her official website at theagilmore.com
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