Britain-born, Berlin-based singer-songwriter Gemma Ray draws from a variety of styles including early rock ‘n’ roll, film scores, psychedelic, Flamenco, and more, creating fantastical musical soundscapes that make her not only one of the best underground pop artists around, but also one of the most interesting.
For her seventh album, The Exodus Suite, Ray headed to Candy Bomber Studio, which is located in a Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport. Although she had recorded there before, things were different this time around as 8,000 Syrian refugees were living in the hangar below the studio. Although Ray had composed the songs to her two-part suite prior to recording, her surroundings undoubtedly permeated the album’s moods and atmospheres. It all comes across even more striking and personal by her decision to record the album almost entirely live (only backing vocals, organs, and a few other touches were added later on).
The Exodus Suite won’t be out until 6/10 in the US (via Bronzerat Records), but She Shreds is bringing you an exclusive premiere stream today, along with an interview with Ray about the album’s creation and her favorite gear.
How much of The Exodus Suite had written before you headed into the studio and how much was written once you got there?
I wrote everything beforehand, and most of the arrangements were written before too, but some lyrics did take on a deeper meaning in situ, leading a few to be tweaked a little as they grew to connect more specifically to the environment I found myself in. I did improvise a little, as always, but the foundations were set in my pre-production.
What are some songwriting or studio techniques you tried for the first time this time around?
I have never recorded both my guitar and voice live in the same room with a band in a professional studio situation before – at least not without having the option to re-do my vocals or guitar if needed.
Being an independent artist with limited financial means, this was a bit of a risk, as I only had one shot at making this record – but the sound and atmosphere I wanted to reflect was only achievable by recording an actual moment, a time and a space. Most new music I hear sounds the same to me, in the way that it is so safe and lacking in a human quality, over-compressed and soulless. Many productions go as far as to re-edit back in mistakes. I wanted to make something as far away from this as possible. I wanted to make something that if someone heard it on the radio, they would have their sense pricked in a way they wouldn’t usually these days, and to put myself on the line.
Also in a technical sense, the microphone bleed is a big part of the sound – which would have occurred in many old records we know and love. The vocal sound owes a lot to what the drum mic captured, and a big part of the drum sound was the bleed that went into my vocal mic. And a big part of the guitar sound is the acoustics of me playing the guitar in the vocal mic.
There was no real separation, no way of going back to redo or edit, and no hidden tricks – it’s all there on the record. I was totally committed to it.
Did the experience of recording above a space housing thousands of refugees impact the end result?
I’m actually used to arriving at the studio feeling very focused and wrapped up in nothing but music and the day ahead, but seeing the previously almost empty airport (where I had also made other records in the past) turn into a new community every day was quite surreal. I think at this point many refugees had newly arrived, and the mood of relief and positivity seemed to permeate the air, though I may have imagined this, and would never want to second guess how these people were actually feeling. The noise of the children playing in the hangar below travelling up to the live room via an architectural pipe-like structure, this is never something I have experienced in a studio before. It certainly added a lot more life to the record, brought us all out of our bubble and totally infected a typical locked-away-in-the-studio feeling.
I couldn’t help but tap into what was unfolding around me, imagined or real, they were channelled into every take I made. There is no way, in a live recording that the sounds, sights and even smells couldn’t make their way into the record – especially as the main emotions I drew from were about connecting with others, remembering and reaching out to the dear people I lost last year, and also themes of love, compassion for all creatures, class / inequality and togetherness. I think this hangs with the record as much as the music does.
While this record contains many themes from real life, the music contains a bit of a fantasy vibe. How do you find a balance between these influences? What do you think is the effect on the audience, versus a more straight-forward approach?
All my music is fantasy, as is much of my life! I’m both a dreamer and a realist, and I seem to be writing from somewhere between reality and subconscious – my music always seems to sit in those two worlds, even my songs which seem more lyrically straightforward on my previous records are really more like film scenes to me. I would like to think that listeners would find my music transportive, there is space there for anyone to jump in and relate to it in their own way (I hope). I did go an extra step on this record by messing around with my fictitious goddess ‘Caldera’ – she was lurking around on the periphery on my previous records, but she really came to the fore on this one and even has her own 7” in the vinyl edition. It’s nice to have a powerful female figure out there out there to mess around with – there aren’t enough cool heroines out there so I figured there was space for her to come out the closet on this one.
As the saying goes, “Art imitates life.” Do you think musicians and artists have a special responsibility to comment on the issues of their time?
I don’t think artists necessarily have a responsibility to comment on anything they don’t connect with and respond to naturally, but I do think that if you’re going to put something out there it should be meaningful.
Art can fuel, nurture, provoke and instigate action indirectly too. The only thing I personally have a problem with are faux-artists putting out work just to showcase “talent” (i.e. “‘impressive’” playing and acrobatic vocals) and building a career around it, usually leading to vacuous style-over-content advert music.
Tell us a bit about your guitar. What drew you to the Harmony Rocket?
The guitar I’ve been using the most in recent years is actually a doctored Hagstrom from the 1960s, with Bigsby and Gretsch pickup, which Matt Verta Ray (Heavy Trash) gave to me when recording “It’s A Shame About Gemma Ray.”
I do still use my Harmony Guitars too, I have three Rockets and one Bobkat. I love the tone of the De Armond Goldfoil pickups they use. The sound is evocative and expressive and unique, they have so much character and are harder to place than more famous guitars with a similar tone. I also love that some came out of the factory (they were made very cheaply in the 60s) a bit wonky, and this makes them more fun to play in a way – one of my Harmony Rockets defies to be tamed by any luthier, but I always it’s the one I seem to write the most songs on.
I am also in love with TV Jones pick-ups.
What other gear do you consider essential to your sound?
Ideally I like to play through a Fender Evil Twin. The extra 20 Watts gives more body to the tone compared to a standard fender twin – and also I like to use various delays and tremolos. But nothing is essential. I am a self-taught guitarist and use my own open tunings, so when forced to come out of my comfort zone (on acoustic radio sessions etc.) I am often surprised how much I still sound like myself.
Whether producing or composing, the same goes. It’s really more about the approach to making music and melodies than the gear I’m actually playing and recording through that matters. As much as I love real tape echo, dusty old combo organs, spring reverb etc. it’s always more about the performance for me.