Gemma Hayes may be a willowy, blonde Irish girl with an acoustic guitar, but as the 25-year-old singer/songwriter assuredly demonstrates on her U.S. debut, Night on My Side, she is definitely not Ireland’s answer to Jewel.
Nor is she just another wannabe pop siren strapping on a Fender for credibility. Evidenced by muscular, brooding but unabashedly lush tracks like “Hanging Around” and “Ran for Miles,” Hayes — a finalist for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 2002 — shows herself defiantly descended from the gritty, rough-hewn grace of rockers like Throwing Muses, My Bloody Valentine and early Liz Phair, with a gentle dash of Laura Nyro thrown in. Not as sweet as Sarah McLachlan but not as caustic as Polly Jean Harvey, Hayes admits she’s a conundrum in an industry quick to tag newcomers with a ready-made label or niche.
“At the start there was a lot of, ’Oh, she’s the Irish Jewel or Dido,’ ” said the Tipperary-born, Dublin-bred Hayes, brushing away a wisp of ash-blonde hair from her eyes. “And then I got ’the Irish Kylie Minogue.’ I don’t know where that came from. I hope it was because of her bum.” She shook her head and laughed. “I do find that I’ve had to fight that ’angst-ridden female’ stereotype for the past couple of years, especially after my first EP, but it’s nice to have an album out now. Because I don’t need to scream anymore — just say, ’Here’s my music’ and let it do the talking for me.”
Helping to further confuse things is Hayes’ eclectic French label, Source Records, which is known for trippier, Gallic bands like Air and Phoenix than for more straightforward rock (though they do claim Brit band Turin Brakes). And then there’s that American, alt-country lilt to Gemma’s sonic brogue. “I’ve always been pulled toward American bands and songwriters — there’s a certain sound that’s just so free and bold,” she explained.
After releasing two EPs in Ireland and the U.K., Work to a Calm and 4.35 AM, Hayes reached out to two co-producers for her debut album — her boyfriend, ex-Frames guitarist David Odlum, and Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips). Although it was a good move musically, it put Hayes in the awkward position of having to defy her record label’s wishes by turning down the help of Grammy-nominated producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck).
“I just had Dave [Fridmann] in my head two years before I even got signed,” Hayes explained. “He’s not afraid to push boundaries in music, to be overly sweet or overly hard. He’s just the one for me. Even the most intimate little song … there’s something daring about him.”
And it’s that very distinctive, Fridmann-inspired juxtaposition between Hayes’ delicate, acoustic songs — like the wayward melancholy of “My God” — and the more brutal, circumambient textures evolving in whisper-to-a-roar tracks like “Let a Good Thing Go” and “Lucky One,” that gives Night on My Side its niche-defying beauty and distinction.
The centerpiece of the album might well be the haunting, deep night confessional of “4.35 AM,” an achingly lonely and lovely song that invites visions of Edward Hopper’s painting of a deserted urban diner, “Nighthawks.”
“We’d all just come from a gig and we were all squashed in a car, coming home [at 4 a.m.],” she recalled. “As we were driving into Dublin, the entire city was asleep and I started humming this melody in my head and literally wrote the bones of the song in my head. When I got home … I got out the acoustic guitar and it was written in about 10 minutes. … So the song was completely written in the same atmosphere, and somewhere, through all of the studios, engineers and producers, I’ve been able to keep that same atmosphere.”
During the time that passed between last year’s U.K. release of Night on My Side and its Stateside release this spring, Hayes utilized some hindsight to make a few changes.
“Putting the album out in America meant that I had a second chance to tweak little things that annoyed me,” Hayes said. “There was one song off the EP called ’Work to a Calm’ that I always felt should have been on the [U.K.] album, so I knocked off another song called ’Over and Over’ since I’d only put it on the album for sentimental reasons. I totally changed the album in the track listing as well so it feels like a whole new album.”
In a nod to vinyl releases and album sides, Hayes also divided the tracks into “daytime” and “nighttime.”
“The daytime head is just full of people, places, time and what you need to get through the day,” she said. “But at night, people think more and allow themselves to dream. The whole world becomes magical. And that’s the time — sometimes at night — when I’m on my own.”