It’s been a long time coming, but Thea Gilmore is finally getting true recognition, with her fan-base ever-growing and each album outselling the last – 17 years after her debut.
She has admirers in high places too – Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen springing to mind – and while her loyal fans have dug deep for some time now to buy her recordings and catch her live, the sales figures have become all the more impressive in recent times.
The Cheshire-based singer-songwriter’s most recent release, last year’s Ghosts and Graffiti, is a fine example – a retrospective with a difference, a 20-track double LP in which Thea looks both forward and back.
It included the 36-year-old’s best-known tracks on one record, plus four new ones, with six re-recorded versions of songs from the back catalogue, including duets with Joan Baez and Billy Bragg, collaborations with Joan as Policewoman, John Bramwell (I Am Kloot), King Creosote and The Waterboys. She also had John Cooper Clarke reading one of her poems and celebrated fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman contributing sleeve-notes, with all of the above signing up pretty sharpish when Thea started planning the project – further testimony to a healthy reputation among her peers.
Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen regularly uses her material as walk-on music, Thea has also duetted with Sting and Martha Wainwright, and her better-known fans also include Richard Thompson, Steve Earle, David Baddiel, Stephen Mangan, William Boyd and David Morrissey.
Should I carry on? Okay, not so long ago Thea was chosen by Sandy Denny’s estate to adapt some of the late great’s unfinished lyrics, leading to a hit LP, with the track London adopted as a theme for the 2012 Olympics. And she also won admirers for her reimagining of the John Wesley Harding album, helping mark Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, offering further examples of many great TG covers featuring a range of diverse artists.
And all this from a singer-songwriter admired for her socially-conscious narrative, her past subject matter including many resonant issues – from the Stephen Lawrence murder and the wars on terror, racism and sexism to pre-Iraq War jingoism, the dumbing down of mainstream TV, and political apathy.
We’ll leave the gushing introduction there though, because I get the impression Thea’s something of a reluctant star and certainly not one to go over the top, as I found out when I caught her between live engagements back home in her adopted Nantwich, where she lives with her husband, producer and sometime co-songwriter, Nigel Stonier, and their two sons, aged nine and four. Although she’s originally from Oxfordshire, Thea’s been in the North West for around two decades now, and based near Nigel’s old patch in Cheshire for around the same amount of time as she’s been recording albums.
The first of those was 1998’s Burning Dorothy, with 15 albums following since, including 12 more studio albums, the last of which was 2013’s celebrated Regardless. There’s the live work too, and the day we spoke Thea was all set for that following evening’s show at a venue not far up the road from her, a sell-out in Alderley Edge. She also had a few more on the horizon, including a visit to Leeds’ City Varieties Music Hall and two in Lancashire – my excuse for phoning her.
Of all those albums I mentioned, the last two have made the top 40, so she’s clearly still moving – slowly but surely – in the right direction … or at least a more commercial direction.
“Absolutely, and I’ve had the most lucky career really. I started out in the late ‘90s, before the technological revolution was in full force, so had the opportunity to build a grass-roots following in the old fashioned way. Then technology caught up and made it much easier to keep me in touch with everyone, I’ve had the best of both worlds. Every album sells more than the last … and there aren’t many people who can say that!”
You’ve steadily built up the critical acclaim too. The world’s been slow to wake up to your talents, but I get the feeling that’s the way you like it.
“That is the way I like it. I think it’s a much more natural way of doing things. Boom or bust is exactly that – if you boom one day you’re going to bust the next. That’s jut how it works. I’m really happy to connect with audience members, the people who put their hands in their pockets and use their hard-earned cash to come and see your show or buy an album. They are my career so I want to look after them.”
I’m guessing Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez’s endorsements opened a few doors too, or at least gave you new platforms to share your craft?
“I feel really lucky! Joan’s been very supportive. I toured with her, and she’s an absolutely fantastic woman. She sang one of my songs and I sang hers – wonderful. Bruce had me for one of his walk-on music playlists, and those who’ve been to his gigs will know what a big deal that is. I’ve got a few connections with Bruce and now know him a bit. When you meet a legend you worry they’re going to be idiots, but Bruce is unbelievable and as much the man as you see off-stage as on it. He’s extraordinary – a lovely, lovely guy.”
When you think how huge Bruce was commercially as an artist in the 1980s, it’s good to hear that he’s come out the other side okay.
“He’s a walking legend and I’ve never known anybody – whatever age – with as much energy as that man. I remember him doing a three and a half or maybe four-hour show, and while all the other bands were getting golf buggies from the stage back to the dressing room at these stadium gigs, he just threw his guitar at someone and ran back. I’ve never seen anything like it!”
People like to categorise in music, and your debut album was labelled as indie-folk-rock, while folk-rock gets mentioned a few times in the music press. But you seem to transcend all that in a sense. I like the fact that there’s nothing clear-cut. For example, tracks like Coming Back to You suggest the indie pop of Ian Broudie and the Lightning Seeds (as does Start As You Mean To Go On from Regardless) …
… then the supreme Love Came Looking for Me has a classic Fleetwood Mac feel, and earlier singles like Juliet put me in mind of Aimee Mann. What I guess I’m struggling to say is that you’re not easily put in a box, are you?
“No, well that’s the story of my life really. It makes it easier to sell something, I guess, if you can give it a label. But there’s something about songwriting, creativity and making music that I don’t think you should put in a box. It makes life very boring, not just for the artist, but for the audience as well. It does mean you don’t sell millions, because no one can label you as a folk artist or rock artist, but I’m quite happy with that.
“Creativity is more important, and it’s as important for me to write a beautifully-crafted pop song as it to write a dark folk ballad. I love to be able to do both, and I’m lucky to be able to do both.”
So is this all down to that eclectic taste you were subjected to through family in your formative years?
“Without a doubt! I don’t stop listening to music and I don’t have any prejudice against any kind of music. I’m not wild about gangsta rap, but there’s some amazing rap out there that I absolutely love, although I don’t like misogyny in music. Beyond that, I just try and take influence and inspiration from pretty much everything I listen to.
“I was brought up listening to classic songwriters like Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, then Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. But that’s not all I love. I love the epic sound-scapes of artists like Lana Del Ray and Lorde, and I’m always listening and always gathering ideas and inspiration.”
There was clearly good taste in the family. Was there musical ability too?
“My sister’s very musical and my Dad is exceptionally so and taught me how to play guitar to a greater or lesser extent. And I was always singing. My Mum loved music, although she would say she’s not musical. We were a wordy family, I suppose, more than anything. We listened to a lot of music but played a lot with words and that combination of music and lyrical ideas was always there. Also, I lived in a tiny village with not much else to do, so had time on my hands to play about with songs and various different ideas.”
I believe you were scribbling down words as a teenager. When did you realise you had a great voice, or at least have the confidence to share it with others?
“I always loved singing and did some work experience when I was 16 in a recording studio, and remember watching these musicians and thinking that was the life and being in music must be fantastic, not knowing how hard it would be. I never really rated my voice and sometimes I still don’t. I always think it’s a bit English and a bit middle of the road. Yet you can’t change the voice you were born with, without being untruthful.
“I just loved singing and the producer who was there in that studio when I was 16 is now my producer. He seemed to think it was okay, so I thought I must have something – it must be alright.”
That was Nigel of course, who went on not only to be Thea’s producer of choice but also her hubby of choice – the pair marrying in 2005, and the father of her children.
So, thinking back on the teenage Thea writing in her notebooks, was it a goose-bump moment hearing the legendary John Cooper Clarke read one of your poems for Ghosts and Graffiti all those years on?
“That was mental! The only thing I’m less happy with than my singing voice is my speaking voice, and when I wrote that poem and performed it on an EP in 2001, it never felt right. It was a gritty poem about prejudice and how people see each other from different angles, and it never felt right with my Oxfordshire accent. When I had an opportunity to ask John if he would read it, I felt he was perfect for it. I knew his voice would work really well. He doesn’t read other people’s poetry very often, but I sweet-talked him into it and I’m so glad he did it. I hope he’s glad he did it too!”
The Waterboys also featured on the last LP, on a track produced and co-sung by Mike Scott. Were you a big fan growing up?
“I slightly missed them first time around. I was a little too young when they were at their absolute peak, but my sister loved them. Then as I got more into my music in my late teens I absolutely fell in love with that music, especially Mike Scott’s Bring ‘Em All solo album, which I adored. We toured with them in 2006 and had the best time. Mike’s an incredible person and such a total force of nature, a man to be seriously reckoned with. I loved everything and watching The Waterboys on stage is a real revelation. I’ve never seen anyone – with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen – put so much into a performance. He lives it, he breathes it … every pore within him is in the moment, delivering that music – it’s an extraordinary thing to watch.”
With The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues and Room to Roam springing to mind, is there a bit of your own Celtic heritage in your music?
“Yes, both of my parents are Irish, with my Mum properly brought up there and my Dad moving over when he was around eight. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. Music’s everywhere and the way it was viewed when I was growing up was so different. It was more a part of everyday life. It’s as normal over there for people to sing or grab an instrument and play in the living room as watch TV. That definitely rubbed off on me.”
I had a similar discussion with The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells just last week. He felt his own Irish roots led to him insisting songs need to be as good stripped down, played around a campfire.
“I totally buy into that. To be able to strip a song back to its bones and play it on an acoustic guitar is the mark of a great song. We do that a lot when we cover something, stripping it right down to a guitar and a voice. For example, Sweet Child o’ Mine. You’d be amazed how well that works – such a great piece of writing.”
That’s a fair point. I hated that song with a vengeance … until I heard Thea’s version. And back on the subject of Irish flavour, I can hear that in songs like Coming Back to You. There’s a bit of a Delores O’Riordan vibe there for me.
“Well, you’re talking about something I listened to when I was growing up – The Cranberries. And there are definite folk elements to a lot of what I do. I’m one of those people who straddles so many different genres, but have the kind of voice that lends itself to something quite melodic – something from the folk idiom, I guess, working with that rather than against it.”
You remain pretty busy out on the road, despite motherhood and everything else. Any idea how many dates you’ve totted up over the years? Ever kept count?
“I never have. I guess I really should, although my gigging in earnest only started really in around 2006 or 2007, just after I had my first child.”
“He loves it. The thing he likes most is being able to sit in the audience and when everyone claps he’ll turn around and tell them, ‘I don’t have to clap – she’s my mother!’”
You’ve clearly proven yourself as a singer-songwriter, but you’re not averse to occasional inspired covers too, such as those heard on 2004’s Loft Music and – seeing as this feature was published just a day or so after the death of Sir George Martin – your beautiful version of The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love on the special edition of Regardless. So – from Bob Dylan, Buzzcocks, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Dead or Alive to Harold Melvin, Ramones and Sandy Denny – what’s the secret of a successful cover version?
“More than anything it’s bringing something completely different to a song. I keep getting asked to do Dylan covers, but shy away from them more than anything because I can’t figure out what else I can bring to those. But with something like the Buzzcocks or Dead or Alive you can hear really how you can get inside those tracks and bring something new. You’ve got to reinvent or re-imagine songs, look at them in a different way, otherwise there’s just no point.”
Talking of the Sandy Denny project, 2011’s revered Don’t Stop Singing, talk me through the process behind London, for example. Was that just words on a piece of paper, in a similar way to Billy Bragg and Wilco’s two-album project utilising Woody Guthrie’s lyrics?
“Sandy’s estate was originally looking for a few people to make the album, putting tunes to lyrics that were already out there. They gathered up lyrics and sent them to me, and London wasn’t even in order, but scraps and ideas I kind of put together and built a tune around. Some of the songs on that album were more formed and read off the page as I sang them, but others were gathered scraps on the same page I almost rebuilt from the ground up. London was a bit of a mix of the two. Some verses were whole, others I just stuck together and tried to work out what she was trying to say.”
There’s been a great response to Ghosts and Graffiti, a fresh spin on the retrospective album that seems to fit your way of doing things – not wanting to shout about what you’ve done before, just subtly redress some of those songs. Was that part of the thinking?
“It was, there were an awful lot of people who came on board to my music around the time of the Sandy Denny album, and I wanted to introduce them to songs I did earlier. Some I didn’t think I nailed first time around, while some spoke to me as an adult that I wrote as a kid. But I can’t stand ‘best of’ records, asking those who’ve already done me the honour of buying records to buy them again in a different format. That didn’t sound very fair. It made me think about my back-catalogue though, and songs I wanted to re-record. I decided to give people something new while acknowledging what I’d done in my past.”
And that album just happens to be your best-selling album, hot on the tails of the success of Regardless. Not bad for some ‘mad-eyed tall bird’ (as Thea decribes herself on her Twitter page), eh?
Thea Gilmore is at Burnley Mechanics tonight (Thursday, March 10th, box office 01282 664400 or online here) and Southport’s Atkinson Theatre tomorrow (Friday, March 11th, box office 01704 533 333 or online here).