Singer-songwriter Gemma Ray knows the power of intuition. From the intricacies of her moody, throwback pop songs to the nuances of her stripped-down live show—we just saw her with knives out while on tour with Ane Brun—Ray’s music is orchestration in the most organic sense. Before Ray left for tour, CMJ got a chance to chat with her via phone from her Berlin home about her intuitiveness and, most excitingly, her upcoming album, Island Fire, out May 29 on Bronze Rat. She let loose about some drunken guitar purchases, too.
Let’s talk about Island Fire. The album has a lush, vintage sound to it. Where did you draw the inspiration to develop the sound of the record?
Well, I always follow my instinct with a song. I don’t make conscious decisions to sound a certain way. In terms of guitars and equipment, I tend to go for older models because they just sound better. So I end up with a vintage sound, which isn’t so much contrived or deliberate.
I don’t really listen to music all that much anyway and particularly when I’m recording. But I’m always after that Lee Hazlewood sound. I’m always chasing that dream, which I don’t often achieve. But I was really happy with some of the bass sounds and those sort of country sounds on the record.
You’ve also been compared to the girl groups of Phil Spector.
That’s definitely an influence I wear on my sleeves. I do have a very big soft spot for a lot of the innocence and these great old songwriters. I try to bring out those elements of myself when I’m making a record, and I try to cling to as much naivety as I can with music. There’s a lot of sentimental things that I strive for that tend to be encapsulated by many girl groups.
You really strike that sweet spot between melodrama and innocence. How do you find that perfect balance in your music?
I guess a lot of drama in my music comes from a lot of the teasing, cool changes I’m drawn to. I don’t know anything about serious music, but I’m drawn to these chord progressions that have almost a Tim Burton-y backdrop. But I’m not sure. I’m just all instinct with music, really, and I end up with a point where it all sounds intriguing enough to me and, hopefully, to other people as well.
I’m glad you mentioned Tim Burton because I wanted to talk about your video for “Rescue Me.” Lucy Dyson, the director, had mentioned that your music is practically from another dimension, and that Island Fire was this planet in a Lisa Frank-esque dystopian world. How were you involved with the crafting of this alternate world?
Well, with the name of the album and the fact it was recorded in a lot of different places, it naturally felt like a fantastical place. I wanted the cover art to reflect that place. But Lucy Dyson also did the cover art and all the album art, and I went to her because I was such a big fan of all her work, and I was hoping there was some common ground there. And I really handed the videos over entirely to her, so I handed her team the baton and let them run with it. That video is definitely Lucy’s baby.
That’s what I love about all [her] videos: The heart’s in the song, and there’s great attention to rhythm. Some approaches we took were where I was in this world, i.e. my real body, but I didn’t quite integrate into the world enough, so we went to an approach where they cut my head and cropped it onto the digitally made body, which was best for the kind of mystical magical world they’d created.
Will you incorporate any of this magic into your show?
Yeah, definitely. But I’m also excited by re-interpreting songs in different formats. These songs are quite hearty, quite comfortable dressed up in different ways. My organ player plays on the album a lot, so I’ve got that element with me live. I have the same drummer live as well, and I play guitar, which is a distinctive part of the songs. I’m lucky to be able to use the people I had on the record. I keep it fresh, really. I try to change it depending on what my resources are.
I know that you like to collect guitars. When do you know when you’ve found the perfect guitar?
It’s funny, really. I had this one binge where I bought three Harmony Rockets because I love them so much. I was really drunk and [in] panic bought quite a lot of them. Ever since then I haven’t really bought any. Like a lot of things in life, they tend to find you. For example, my main guitar that I use is a ’60s Gretsch that my friend Matt Verta-Ray [of Heavy Trash] gave to me in New York when I was recording with him. It was an amazing act of kindness and a brilliant gesture. I’m not so into going into a shop and buying. I think it’s more about getting a guitar that feels special.
There are things I like to modify. But I did come home to Berlin, and a friend was storing things in my house. I thought they were storing their guitars here because I saw all the cases, and then I realized I’ve been slowly collecting all these guitars. But yeah, I tend to pick them up. It sounds too lucky and smug, but I tend to collect them along the way. I find beat-up old guitars and restore them.
How many guitars do you have right now?
I don’t know! I could probably look in my lounge and count. I think I’ve got about… [counting] I see 11. But I’ve had guitars since I was 15, so I feel I need to justify it. But I have nine of the Spanish flamenco guitars and 12-strings, and you know, I use them all in the studio. And a couple basses, too.
It should be great to hear all those guitars on tour.
Yeah, when I tour Europe I can put everything in a van, so I can swap to different guitars a bit more. It’s a bit more fun using them in the studio because when you’re on stage it’s a bit difficult unless you have some guitar techs to hand you different stuff.
Thankfully there are roadies for just that reason.
Hopefully one day I’ll have a couple of guitar techs in an army of khaki shorts. But I try and keep it simple for now.