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Gemma Hayes - "The Hollow Of Morning"

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PostPosted: Mon May 12, 2008 6:38 pm    Post subject: Gemma Hayes - "The Hollow Of Morning" Reply with quote

I've just posted the following onto an Internet review site (I make a little money each month from visits to my reviews) and thought I might as well post it here too. This album was released today - I've had my copy over a week now after picking it up at the artist's gig in Glasgow last weekend.

Gemma Hayes - The Hollow Of Morning


In an alternate universe, Gemma Hayes would be probably working in a Dublin laundrette today, forever wondering whether giving up on the music business was such a good idea, especially after becoming the brightest new star in Irish music following the release of her critically-acclaimed acoustic-pop led debut album (2002’s “Night On My Side”). In reality, these events nearly happened – lesser mortals might have called it quits by now, but deep down, Gemma seems to have always had that hard-edged, single-mindedness about succeeding as a musician, even when it wasn’t particularly evident to her. The indie-rock singer-songwriter did nearly jack it all in, though. Once the tour for “Night On My Side” had ended, she simply didn’t want to pick up a guitar again or write any more new material. The confidence was there, but the creativity that had manifested itself on her debut had seemingly deserted her.

After more than a year of fairly half-hearted attempts to try and record some new stuff (no doubt under mounting pressure from Source, her record label), Gemma had had about enough. However, the idea of returning to the laundrette (the job that had financed her early pre-debut music career after dropping out of university in Dublin) was enough to make her come to her senses. She finally managed to pick up her guitar again and actually enjoy it – and with her rediscovered mojo, months of suppressed feelings and creativity finally rushed to the surface. The result was 2005’s “The Roads Don’t Love You”, full of bubbly yet insistent songs that harbour deeper, more emotionally fraught, meanings. As she mentioned in an interview, “….these songs are about all the things I want to say to people, but can’t. How else do you tell someone that, just by being with you, they’re saving you?” However, the title of the album portended towards reality: between her first and second albums, Source had been taken over by its parent company, Virgin, which itself was then bought out by EMI, and the new bosses either didn’t want to know about Gemma Hayes or thought they knew what was best for her career. She felt this pressure during the recording of “The Roads Don’t Love You” – despite being a fan favourite, the bosses weren’t impressed with it and they told her so - its eventual release was afforded very little publicity and she was only allowed one single (“Happysad”). To make matters worse, the associated tour was cut short after just two weeks because her budget was immediately slashed. When she had originally signed up to Source, her creativity had been encouraged – now it had been stifled.

Given the fallout from her first two albums, a lesser mortal may have just given up. Gemma Hayes, however, is something of a fighter, with the strong belief that her future is in recording and touring. Once she discovered that Virgin/EMI would not let her exit the existing deal with control of her second album, she walked anyway: “I had to leave it [the album] behind.” Thankfully, this did not deter her from working on a third album, having set up her own record label in order to keep control of future projects without outside interference – she had already found it hard enough to both record material and fight the music industry at the same time.

The Hollow Of Morning

Her third album, “The Hollow Of Morning”, hasn’t exactly had an easy ride to fruition either, but at least the problems that were encountered were of Gemma’s making, rather than ones that were thrust upon her. She readily admits to “never knowing when something is finished” – producer Dave Odlum was initially told it would take just three weeks to complete the new album, but a year later, they were still working on it. One day, he was apparently found banging his head off the studio wall, telling Gemma that she had to let it go at last. “Otherwise I would still be working on it.”

Ironically for someone who therefore may come across as something of a perfectionist, Gemma seems rather philosophical as to whether “The Hollow Of Morning” will be a commercial success – seeing how she was stung by the after-effects of “Night On My Side” and burnt by the fallout from “The Roads Don’t Love You”, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a ‘damage limitation exercise’. However, she’s firmly managed to put her own stamp on this latest album, for good or for bad – it harks back to the more acoustically-led ballads that were a feature of “Night On My Side” and the first of her two earlier EPs, “4.35am”, with plenty of the ‘fragility versus chaos’ that she’s walked a fine line between. It’s likely that she’s not too bothered whether the new CD is hugely successful. As she explained in a recent interview: “I can’t control a lot of things, but what I can control is what I say, what I write, what I sing. So just put it out and if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, I will never feel as disappointed as I did.” I would say this: Gemma, don’t worry about “The Hollow Of Morning” – it works superbly, even if it’s not as commercially-orientated as your last release. Yes, some people won’t get it – but they’re missing out on something wonderful if they don’t.

There’s also something of an Irish “Who’s Who” in music on the featured musicians listing. Paul Noonan (“Binzer”) is the drummer from Bell X-1, guitarist Joe Chester has released his own album and was previously with the likes of Tenspeedracer and Future Kings Of Spain, whilst Kevin Shields appears on guitars and is better known as the front-man for My Bloody Valentine. With such a stellar line-up, it’s hard to see how “The Hollow Of Morning” can fail as an artistic creation.

I caught Gemma’s gig up in Glasgow at the beginning of May during her short tour of the UK and Ireland to promote the new album – her live shows are pretty damned impressive (if a little on the short side – only 75 minutes long) – but her recorded works are every bit as good and simply cry out for repeated listening. This one continues the trend….

The Songs

“The Hollow Of Morning” only features ten songs spread out over around thirty-six and a half minutes – the shortest number of tracks Gemma Hayes has included on an album so far, and in a departure from previous releases, there are no ‘hidden’ tracks.

01. This Is What You Do 4.59
02. Out Of Our Hands 3.41
03. January 14th 1.31
04. Home 3.10
05. In Over My Head 3.41
06. Chasing Dragons 3.55
07. Don’t Forget 3.47
08. Sad Ol’ Song 3.17
09. At Constant Speed 6.10
10. Under A Canopy 2.10

Song By Song

01. This Is What You Do

Gemma sets her stall out immediately on the new album with a song that is more acoustic-ballad than catchy radio-friendly. Although on the surface it may seem like a rather weak track to open with, don’t let her extra-fragile, breathy, almost ethereal vocals on this one fool you for a second. The song builds up momentum as it progresses – her voice may not change too much in terms of pitch or power but the impressive backing builds slowly and subliminally to the point where you’re swept away in an emotional tide, just in time for her final “Come on smile, smile, smile” refrains – where she finally drops the fragility and lets her delivery shine. “The Hollow Of Morning” effectively charts the lead-up, beginning, middle, end and aftermath of a relationship – couched in these terms, this song describes the attraction phase before it all starts. The track is an excellent example of her acoustic, folky side – which some have often missed out on due to the more powerful attraction of other tracks such as “Tear In My Side” and “Hanging Around” from “Night On My Side”. The great thing about Gemma Hayes is that she believes that her more intimate songs and her ‘band’ side are all part of the same picture – she’s neither one nor the other. It was great to hear her play “This Is What You Do” live in Glasgow the other week, but the recorded version certainly shades it in terms of how fragile yet beautiful and moving her voice can be. Kevin Shields provides guitar back up but it’s almost lost given her vocal dominance, for all their fragility. In terms of longevity, it’s more of a grower – not immediately memorable nor even likeable (I wasn’t particularly struck on it at first on hearing it via her Myspace site at the turn of the year) but like many of the acoustic ballads on “Night On My Side”, simply gets more and more endearing with each successive hearing. Familiarity does not breed contempt!

02. Out Of Our Hands

Whilst the album has a more laid-back, almost ‘anti-commercial’ feel to it, Gemma would have been foolish not to have included at least one reasonably radio-friendly song amongst the line-up. “Out Of Our Hands” is therefore the obvious candidate for lead (and maybe the only) single from the album, with an immediately catchy though fuzzed-up, hollow-ringing but all the while harmonic guitar intro that persists throughout the song. This guitar discord that frequently pops up in Gemma’s ‘band-orientated’ songs is a nod towards My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, but despite rumours to the contrary, he doesn’t actually appear on this track – but does on two of the others. Whilst it does not have the crazed guitars or powerful vocals from Gemma’s previous singles, there’s a quiet determination and beauty about this particular piece that refuses to lie down and admit defeat. The insistent guitars and generally upbeat arrangement add to rather than drown out her muted yet rather melodic delivery – she’s clearly gone for pushing the envelope in terms of how her voice comes across to the listener here, with a softer, more soothing tone that slides through your speakers rather than forcing its way through them. This softness does not exist at the expense of pace, though – whilst it’s not rushed, it’s not ballad-slow either – the verses are introspective, sure, but there’s a momentum about the choruses that simply encourages you to join in. “Out Of Our Hands” may never be a commercial hit – the lyric “maybe we’ll fall, maybe we’ll fly” comes tantalisingly close to a commentary on what she thinks of its possible success, yet works as a simple song about falling in love and letting destiny take its course. It’s still a worthy addition to the list of singles Gemma has released.

03. January 14th

Like the opening to “Night On My Side” (“Day One”), this is an extremely short track (just 1:31 long) and is in effect Gemma reading a letter out loud. It continues her passion for writing songs – long and short – about those little but important moments in life. A really strange piece, this – whilst beautiful in terms of her gorgeous vocals and the relaxed acoustic backing, it feels like one of the ‘hidden tracks’ from her earlier albums, especially as it ends rather abruptly, almost in the middle of a line…. However, I could easily lose myself in the moment when she sings the single chorus – one of those occasions when you hear a truly heart-melting voice. A Gemma-only effort, she plays guitar and piano on the track.

04. Home

One of the strongest songs on the new album is “Home”, despite initially being sung in the same muted tone noted on “Out Of Our Hands”. This is largely due to guest Kevin Shields’ precisely-strummed guitar plus an uplifting arrangement that ascends towards ambience, but also responds well to Gemma giving her vocals something of an emotional kick in the pants towards the end of the track. A fan of My Bloody Valentine, Gemma never in her wildest dreams reckoned on having their front-man and guitarist actually help out on one of her albums, but when the chance came for her to ask him, he quickly obliged, explaining that he was a fan of hers. Of course, his precision and methodical approach to recording possibly had something to do with the time the album took to come to fruition – he’s also known as something of a perfectionist. Despite the upbeat tone, “Home” has a somewhat lonely, desperate feeling to it – classic Hayes melancholy. In terms of the album charting the creation and eventual breakup of a relationship, “Home” could be seen as the high-water mark (‘togetherness’) in those terms.

05. In Over My Head

Another memorable song is the fifth entry, dealing with infatuation’s effect on a relationship. It too bucks the trend of the album and is a fairly rip-roaring affair, although you’d never know it from the intro. For almost the first half-minute you are treated to virtual silence, punctuated only by birdsong and the occasional church bell – visions of impending marriage in this album-charted ‘relationship’? Lulled into this slumber, the guitars kick in at 0.26 but refuse to rise above Gemma’s slightly echoey vocals until the first chorus when they really get going – and there’s a neat homage to the first track with a repeat of its title as a lyric half-way through. For a guitar-led artist, the addition of keyboards is a twist, although a welcome one and certainly unexpected. I’ve heard the end of this track compared to Sigur Ros in terms of tone – and she is on record as saying she admires their “musical landscapes”.

06. Chasing Dragons

Gemma is apparently very pleased with the lyrics she’s dreamt up for “Chasing Dragons”, and the song itself harks back to the days of her acoustic-led EPs in pace, tone and vocals. The title might allude to dabbling in substance abuse, but the artist says its about her own demons, ones that surface when lying in bed just before getting up, the point where she’s dreading what the day will bring – “it’s like a threat and it’s going to take everything away“. The theme therefore ties into the album title, which is taken from a Samuel Menashe poem and deals with that fuzzy time after just waking up, just before said demons appear. It also seems to chart the parting of the ways in this virtual relationship – “go chase your dragon and I’ll chase mine.” In terms of the album’s theme, she’s also explained it’s about the point in the breakdown of a relationship when the partner is all you can think about – you’re effectively in ‘withdrawal’ yourself. If Gemma’s trying to evoke some sort of mellow, spacey yet sadness-tinged mood through this metaphor, then she’s succeeding in spades – this track is another completely acoustic-only affair, and one that dispenses with everything bar her gorgeous, dreamy vocals and a guitar. There aren’t many artists that can do this sort of wistful yet gloomy under-toned song with aplomb and conviction – yet Gemma is one of them. I can see this track appearing on her forthcoming acoustic tour – can’t wait.

07. Don’t Forget

There’s an immediately upbeat and comforting guitar intro to “Don’t Forget” that seems to shrug off the acoustic shackles in favour of a firmly rockier arrangement. In many ways it’s a far stronger song than the first single “Out Of Our Hands” – yet once the intro subsides, we’re straight back into more acoustic territory, Gemma’s voice retaining that immense fragility and the track seems to go into musical reverse gear. Whilst this might seem like criticism, it’s not – the verses retain all of the poise, creativity and wistfulness displayed elsewhere on the album, and once the choruses kick in she’s firmly back in control vocally and that upbeat nature returns. Mid-point, we’ve got a classic Gemma lyric – “late at night, the air is beaten black, we’re lying, you’ve got your head on my stomach” – delivered in an extremely muted fashion yet completely in tune with everything else heard so far on the album. This should be a single if there’s any justice for Gemma Hayes in the music industry, but given the ups and downs throughout the song, it’s doubtful that mainstream radio would understand it, never mind promote it. A shame.

08. Sad Ol’ Song

“That silent, awkward motion, the goodbye that you didn’t say….” – the ‘relationship’ theme of the album finally hits the rocks in “Sad Ol’ Song”, another of those heartfelt yet downbeat acoustic tracks she’s so capable of recording. Despite the subject matter, the artist manages to inject almost a feeling of hope – no, call it relief – into the song. Clever lyrics such as “the longer you look, the further she’ll get from you” simply add to the overall ambience. There’s a concession in that Dave Odlum appears on keyboards but otherwise it’s all Gemma – minimal guitar and those wonderful vocals.

09. At Constant Speed

Everything in “The Hollow Of Morning” so far has been building up to this particular track – the resolution to the problem of the relationship breaking up, and the realisation that you’ve simply got to move on. “I’m beginning to forget you, I see an outline” features heavily throughout. But that’s ignoring the impressive nature of the song. It starts with almost a percussion-led heart-beat, one which persists throughout the first verse and chorus until joined (but not yet replaced) by a slightly more insistent drum beat and subliminal backing guitar on the second verse – the first five of the six minutes are spent developing a slow but gradual build-up – the realisation mentioned earlier, if you will. There’s a clever break before the third verse after which the song finally seems fully-formed. Sympathetic keyboard backing begins through the fourth chorus – said keyboards then take over completely as backing to Gemma’s delicious vocals for the final section, during which Joe Chester’s backing vocals kick in whilst Karl Odlum’s bass also gets a look-in. The final minute is a complete change – the notes almost picked off a piano to wind down the song. “At Constant Speed” is arguably the high point of the entire album – a sprawling, growing piece of work that seems almost vague at first but has a distinct knack of drawing you in to the point where you put it on ‘repeat’ straight away…. I absolutely love it. It’s certainly not radio-friendly as it wouldn’t fit in with most programmes’ playlists – at 6.10 long it would give the presenter a chance to go to the toilet, I expect – but that’s their loss.

10. Under A Canopy

This song is effectively the emotional calm after the storm featured in “At Constant Speed” – a relatively short instrumental piece with guitars and keyboards that takes the listener back to square one – i.e. Gemma’s early (pre-“Night On My Side”) work. Like “January 14th”, it has the feel of one of the ‘hidden tracks’ on her debut album.


Given that it’s almost a home-spun effort, it comes as no surprise to find that “The Hollow Of Morning” is presented in a digipak format. I picked my copy up at Gemma’s Glasgow gig on May 3rd but I’m led to believe that this is how the album will be sold once it is released properly on May 12th. There’s a rather interesting shot of the artist on the cover, displayed in a newspaper type style – lots of dots that make up the photo. She describes it as being taken shortly after she’d been up for 24 hours – make of that what you will. Rather than being a booklet, the sheet unfolds to somewhere between A3 and A4 in size, the only colours used being red and black – which makes for interesting reproduction on the handful of photos that are included. Full lyrics are included – there are a couple of typos involved, but you’d really have to be looking hard to find them. Finally, there is a list of musicians for each track, rather than just a list at the end. Instead of being tucked wholly inside a hollow cover, the inlay sheet sticks out of a small flap inside the front cover. It seems that costs were pared fairly close to the bone, especially compared with the inlays on her previous albums, but that’s not really surprising given that it’s being released on her own label.


Gemma put three of the tracks from this album on my Myspace site back in February and initially I wasn’t too impressed by “This Is What You Do” or “Home”, whilst “Out Of Our Hands” didn’t strike me as particularly powerful for what was rumoured then to be the new single. After a limited amount of listening to those tracks back then, plus hearing them performed live at her gig in Glasgow during early May, I underwent something of a sea-change in terms of appreciation for the tracks, what she was trying to achieve with them and the rest of the songs on “The Hollow Of Morning”. Taken individually and in isolation, it’s easy to see how they could be almost dismissed out of hand without giving them a second look. Do this, though, and you run the risk of missing out on what may be one of the finest yet probably ‘undiscovered’ albums to be released this year – especially if you’re not necessarily driven by requiring power and volume over substance and conviction. Whilst there are some slightly radio-friendly numbers among the tracks, most need repeated listening to truly sink in and be admired long-term – for me, that’s always been one of Gemma’s strengths as I haven’t immediately warmed to everything she’s done, yet strangely find myself returning to her stuff again and again until I eventually find the hidden delights. In terms of the many acoustic-led songs here, “The Hollow Of Morning” is an absolute gem.

My favourite tracks are “Home”, “In Over My Head”, “Don’t Forget” and the truly wonderful “At Constant Speed”, but like her previous albums, I can’t really find a bad track on the album, despite my early attempts to do so. It’ll therefore receive a “Flawless” rating from me….

Buy it…. I’m not biased, honestly.

More to come?

There’s more in store from a possible fourth and more ‘acoustic’ album later this year to coincide with another UK tour (though she admits that based on her track record, it’ll probably be September 2009 before it’s released!), and she apparently also has well over a dozen other songs recorded with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields that they’re keeping under wraps for the time being.
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