Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thea Gilmore: Songs were Thea's way out of depression

Before the release of Harpo’s Ghost, Thea had been diagnosed with depression. During this time Thea had split with her previous record label and (temporarily) with her long term partner. Prior to Liejacker, Thea was faced with further hard-times when she parted company with her manager of ten years standing, split with her “new” and biggest record label yet after one album - and, almost as if for good measure, gave birth to her first child.

Liejacker is the testament to that journey. It began with Thea still battling off the shadows from her illness, writing her darkest, starkest songs ever. Liejacker also sees Thea at her most direct, “where in the past I’ve probably been guilty of hiding a little bit, falling back on an image or a metaphor - this time I was trying to get to the bone, to just tell it like it is. The genesis of this record was very different from my previous albums. It’s the first album that I’ve really felt a deep burn to make.”

Even whilst making Harpo’s Ghost - perhaps as a reaction to that record’s harder, glossier sheen - Thea spent hours buying up reams of quirky acoustic instruments - old banjoes, harmoniums from India, dobro guitars: and these became the instruments on which the new songs found their home.

The next step was to practically barricade herself in her newly acquired home studio, “Well I say studio... it’s basically a tiny 9 foot square room in my house. I practically had to mount the mike stand on the desk to sing and when I recorded the guitars I’d have to be halfway out the door. But for all the recording oddities, I was making music that was gritty and genuine. The songs kept coming and coming and I was able to record them as they arrived. As a result, I think they have a much less self-conscious feel to them. They are entities in themselves, quite apart from me.”

Thea went beyond merely the writing stage to create musical parts and arrangements herself. Before playing them to producer Nigel Stonier and her team, “The new material was so personal, it told a new story and I wasn’t even sure at first whether I wanted the world to hear that story in quite such direct terms... but the words kept appearing.”

Some of them were positively harrowing; “And You Shall Know No Other God But Me” is a chilling account of the dependencies we all fall prey to at some time in our lives. “The Wrong Side” has a jaunty lope that masks a descent into self loathing and a sympathetic suggestion to her lover that he should jump ship for his own sake and, right at the core of them, “Black Letter”, which has to be the most pithy song about depression since Nick Drake wrote “Black Eyed Dog”.

Just around the corner were the redemptive “Breathe” with its triumphant air of self-acceptance, and “Dance In New York” an exultant ode to the power of longing and the deep need for solid ground. New York takes the role of the eternal lover, arms always open. And then there’s the ethereal “Old Soul”, the album’s first single. Thea wrote the song while 8 months pregnant, and says “I was determined not to turn to mother-mush after having my son. So many people just wait for the fluff to appear in your music as soon as you so much as whisper “pregnancy” and I never really could figure out why. But the concept of “Home” and what it really means to me is a recurring theme in my music, has been for a long time. When I had a child, I really understood what home meant to me. That very deep, primal instinctive warmth for another and the roots that bind you in this life and down every generation to come. That’s my home, and it is eternal.” The metaphysical search is there in the lyric for all to interpret.

And ultimately, there’s the bonding force that both pulls the album’s themes together and also closes the record. “The Lower Road” is an almost unbearably moving peaen to hard won victories, to endurance and forgiveness. It begins with a racist lynching, references the grim shadow of the war in Iraq and everyday domestic abuse, in amidst insisiting that “We will be rolling on”. Not exactly “You’re Beautiful” then. The song closes with perhaps Thea’s finest words yet:

“There’s no telling which way, boys,
This thing is gonna take hold
From the fruit on a poplar tree
To the bruise round a band of gold
From the blood in a far country
To the war of just growing old
We travel a lower road
It’s lonely and it is cold
But we will keep rolling on...”

Emerging from the home studio with her new store of songs, Thea chose to leave the performances untouched - and that’s how many of them appear on the final record. Hence many of the original vocals remain, hence the groove on ‘The Wrong Side “ comes from a cutlery drawer, grill pan and a chimney hood rather than orthodox drums and.hence any guitar solos on the record are by Thea herself.

But having brought the material into her favourite studio, the Loft in Liverpool, and for good measure adding a couple of new tunes to the pot, Thea then called upon some of her favourite kindred spirits. Erin McKeown added vocals to ‘Dance In New York”, and Waterboy Steve Wickham was invited to play fiddle on “The Lower Road.” Zuton-in-chief Dave McCabe duetted on “Old Soul” and unearthed magical, hitherto unheard soft tones to his bluesy voice. Thea was then left with the task of finishing “The Lower Road”, whose narrative is told in several different voices: she delivered “Liejacker”s last trump card by inviting the legendary Joan Baez - a long term fan with whom she has toured the US - to duet on the song. “Joan Baez practically invented my job some forty odd years ago - I can’t think of anyone else on the planet with the voice, the presence and the standing to carry this off.” Not only was Joan pleased to be asked, but she fell in love with the song and has recorded it now for her own forthcoming album.

So Liejacker, born of the darkest beginnings, ends with positives abounding. The mood remains stark and acoustic, with celloes, dulcimers and ukeleles adding colour here, texture there. “Old Soul”, chosen as the first single sets the record in motion with its quest for the truest of truths - and “The Lower Road” closes it. The album is thus framed by guest appearances with an arena filling indie rocker and an iconic folk singer/activist: but while the compliment paid implicitly by their involvement is indicative of the esteem in which Thea Gilmore is held, the songs and the story of Liejacker are solely the work of one pen and one voice, Thea Gilmore. According to Mojo she remains “the most coherent and literate of singer/songwriters”. Liejacker is a beautiful piece of work that will only enhance the evolving legend.

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