sat 20/07/2024

Thea Gilmore Rediscovers Christmas | reviews, news & interviews

Thea Gilmore Rediscovers Christmas

Thea Gilmore Rediscovers Christmas

Songwriter ruminates on writing Christmas songs and the internet era

Singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore brings season's greetings on Strange Communionphoto: Kirstie Hunt

As Bob Dylan has reminded us recently, The Christmas Album is one of those music industry traditions more likely to deserve an ignominious burial rather than praise. Fortunately, Thea Gilmore has galloped to the rescue with Strange Communion, an artfully shaped collection of songs that shines flickering light into the mystical roots of the Yuletide season.

"I don't call it a Christmas album, I call it a seasonal album," she warns, with almost lawyerly caution, though there's no denying that two of the songs do have "Christmas" in their title (she refers to it as "the C-word"). But what she had in mind was an evocation of the powerful historical and emotional connotations of the word, rather than the prolonged frenzy of ordering gadgets from Amazon that Christmas has become.

"It was interesting, I did a lot of research while I was writing the album," reflects the strikingly tall Gilmore, over coffee in the Bayswater hotel from which she'll later head north for a gig in Birkenhead. It's the day before her 30th birthday. "It's hard to do anything about Christmas without acknowledging the Christian side of it, but I was more interested in the winter aspect and the community aspect, I suppose. Plenty of people who aren't practising Christians celebrate Christmas, so I thought I'd look into the secular side of the season, which is where a song like "Sol Invictus" came from. I like to think of that as a secular hymn, with that idea of going from pagan gods into Christianity. I think the album's got a real sense of motion to it, and it tells the story of what Christmas means to me."

She wrote most of the material herself, with standout pieces including the serene and heartfelt "Thea Gilmore's Midwinter Toast", the suitably weather-beaten "Cold Coming" (its title a nod to T S Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi") and the haunting "Drunken Angel", but she also included a couple of cover versions. Yoko Ono's "Listen, The Snow Is Falling" evokes an idyllic Christmas card of the mind, a kind of universal Yule, and Gilmore's minimal arrangement lends it an air of weightless meditation.Thea_new_1_TRIM

"I didn't even know the song," Gilmore admits. "I was on tour with the Waterboys and I was talking to Mike Scott about covering his song 'December', and he said 'yes you can, that's great, but go and listen to this Yoko Ono song because it will really suit your voice'. So I listened to it and I loved it and I thought it was just beautiful. Everyone said 'you can't do a Yoko Ono song! What's the matter with you!' but it's gorgeous, and it comes at a point on the album where it really needed to draw breath and just stop. I think it really works as that."

For balance, there's the Elvis Costello/Paddy Moloney composition "The St Stephen's Day Murders", a snapshot of the booze-sodden anarchy that envelops many a family Christmas.

"I think that's the best song about the realities of a family Christmas I've ever heard, and it's just such a laugh," Gilmore reckons. "It's hilarious to play, because it's got more chords than you can practically take breath in, and it ties my fingers in knots. It took forever to get it right in the studio because it hasn't really got a standpoint. Normally if a song's in 4/4 it'll have a point where it stops and starts again, but it doesn't have that, it just goes round and round in a circle. It's an amazing piece of writing."

There's wry irony in the idea of Gilmore doing a Christmas album at all, since her whole career has been an extended essay in how not conform to the commercial expectations of the record industry and to survive by nurturing a dedicated fan network. She's grown tired of telling the story of how she stumbled inadvertently into music when she did a couple of weeks' work experience at Oxfordshire's Woodworm studios (established by Fairport Convention's bassist Dave Pegg) when she was 16. Thinking she quite fancied trying her hand as a recording engineer, she suddenly saw with blinding clarity that being a singer and songwriter offered vastly greater scope. Fate, the planets or whatever chose to  make that particular fortnight the most cataclysmic one in Gilmore's life. As well as finding herself being signposted towards her future, this was when she met producer Nigel Stonier, now her husband and father of their three-year-old son Egan. And over the in-between weekend, her parents suddenly and shockingly split up.

"It was a bit of a car crash and also hugely unexpected," she says. "I thought we had this idyllic family life and we lived in this idyllic part of Oxfordshire and everything was really sweet, and then suddenly this big bomb went off right in the middle of everything and everything that I'd come to think of as my safe place was just ripped away. All my history just changed, just like that. I'd just turned 16 and I didn't realise what that meant. It's only now really that I realise how it's affected me as an adult, and how your sense of trust is dented and stuff like that. It makes me realise what a big responsibility having a child is as well, because you are your kid's safe place. That's terrifying, because if you fuck up then you're ripping the roots out of your child's life, and that frightens the life out of me. But I can't do much about that, can I? So yes, it was a big deal."

Hurling herself into music was a logical response, and when she brought a tape of some of her early songs to Stonier, he agreed to produce her first EP. Stonier later commented to Salon magazine that "she had this quiet intensity about her, and striking intelligence. I guess you knew she was someone who'd be successful in whatever field she chose."

This may well be true, and there's plenty of evidence of rampant creativity in the Gilmore genes. Her father was an equine chiropractor, but after a spat with the chiropractic council now describes himself as a Statutory Holistic Integration Therapist ("that's my father I'm afraid, with his nice little acronyms"). Meanwhile her Irish mother, who "grew up on the side of a mountain riding horses", now puts on medieval-style falconry displays on horseback, and her home in north Oxfordshire is teeming with horses, rottweilers, falcons, owls and a Harris Hawk (normally a native of west Texas).

And Thea has a sister who she describes as "extremely tall, extremely skinny and she's a scientist, and she works at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. It's really strange, when we were kids she was the musical one and I was the scientist. She wanted to be a musician or an artist and I wanted to be a doctor - this was when we were really little. She also loved animals and wanted to try and be a vet, so when she hit the age when they make you decide what you want to study she left the arts behind and went into sciences. I just dicked about for a while and said I wouldn't choose, and music chose me. I didn't have to take any of the responsibility, it's great!"

thea_mono_TRIMThea released her debut album, Burning Dorothy, at the start of 1999 when she was 19, and it fired the starting gun on a sustained songwriting splurge.

"When I was 17 or 18 it was a bit of a game really - 'oh, this album lark is interesting'. I got to record my music, which was fantastic, but I didn't know what you did with it. Then we got a review in Mojo by Colin Irwin and I thought 'oh, this is serious!' It was significant because to be able to put a review in front of somebody and say 'we did this' was great."

By August 2003 she had released six albums, and the last of them, Avalanche, marked her first appearance on the UK album chart, at number 62. But for Gilmore, chartbusting hits have never been the point, since her goal has always been to build a sustainable, survivable career. In that sense the internet era and its intimate, super-flexible approach might have been designed with her in mind.

She has been courted frequently by major labels, and spent some time on Sanctuary just as it was speeding towards financial collapse, but has always clung tightly to control of her own destiny.

"I am a bit of a control freak. It runs in my family, unfortunately. The music industry's the only place where you pay back a loan and you still don't own what you bought in the first place. It's unbelievable, but that's the nature of it. If you're trying to make music independently you've got to explore every single avenue open to you. There are some musicians out there whose business skills are just unbelievable, and they're so tenacious and they seize every single little opportunity. I know MySpace and Spotify and Facebook but there are a million things out there you can put music on that I've never even heard of."

Does she view herself as a pioneer? She scoffs at the idea.

"I wouldn't call myself a pioneer. There are plenty of people who have been doing it well before me. Look at somebody like Ani DiFranco, she's been such a force to be reckoned with. But I looked at it logically and thought there has to be a better way of doing this where I can make music that means something to me, and doesn't get bastardised by an industry that just wants to sell me like a tin of beans. And I actually try to make some money out of it."

To that end, she has quietly set up her own subscription music site called Angels in the Abattoir, which offers bespoke services from the artist to loyal fans. It was partly inspired by Kristin Hersh's CASH Music, which bypasses the music industry altogether and reaches out directly to listeners.

"It was a two-pronged thing really," says Gilmore. "One was I really needed to make some money, and the second reason was I felt I was in a very privileged position to have an extremely strong fanbase of people who passionately wanted to help and support what I did. I called it Angels in the Abattoir because it's kind of like theatre angels really. They pay a yearly fee and I give them an unreleased song a month and a whole load of other stuff, like access to the website. It's basically access to me pretty much 24/7. They can ask me questions and they get backstage privileges and stuff like that, and as a business model it's worked really well. These are the people who for 10 years at least have supported my career and enabled me to keep making  records. It's a privilege to me to be able to talk to them directly and get to know a few of them as well."Thea_chair_TRIM

Listening to Gilmore's rational, analytical conversation, it's difficult to detect any signs of the emotional depression she suffered in 2005. It became so severe that she feared it was going to destroy her relationship with Stonier, as she recorded in her song "The Wrong Side" on last year's Liejacker album. Is that now all in the past?

"Oooh... I wouldn't be too sure about that," she cautions. "I don't think you get beyond depression. I think it's just a part of my make-up. If I'm tired or stressed it's something that will definitely come back, and I have to really watch it. I have to have my little round white friends with me wherever I go. It's not very pleasant, but it's manageable."

Maybe it's something that comes with a creative temperament?

"I don't know about that," she says, tersely. "I think people think that because people with creative temperaments are the ones who get to talk about it all the time. Creative people are so fucking arrogant, they like to think, 'Oh, I'm so creative, that's why I'm depressed all the time.' There are plenty of people in 9-to-5 jobs who suffer from depression, they just don't get to talk about it in newspapers."

Then she brightens.

"It's really dull hearing musicians talking about being depressed, because in all honesty what do I have to be depressed about? I've got a great kid, I've got a great job, so I should be really happy."

And hey, it's Christmas.

Thea_artwork_BESTStrange Communion is released on December 8. Buy it here

Thea Gilmore tours the UK until December 21. Buy tickets here

Ms Gilmore's homepage

Creative people are so fucking arrogant, they think, "Oh, I'm so creative, that's why I'm depressed all the time"

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Cheers for this, Nice to see an in depth interview with one of the best contemporary songwriters, inexplicably overlooked by much of the media. I was at the gig in Bush Hall last night and it weas terrific. Anyone who has the chance to see Thea on the reaminaing dates should run, not walk, to the box office.

Hi Ken. Glad you liked it and thanks for the note. Keep 'em coming (we like feedback).

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