Singer- songwriter Thea Gilmore told David Hennessy about escaping a toxic relationship, touring with Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen saying he liked her cover of his song.
Oxford singer- songwriter Thea Gilmore has released 20 albums but for her, her most recent material is like a new start.
Thea’s previous albums, since her debut Burning Dorothy in 1998, were produced by Nigel Stonier who she was married to until their separation in 2019 and divorce last year.
She then released two albums last year. While The Emancipation of Eva Grey was released under her own name, she released an eponymous album under the new moniker Afterlight to symbolise the new beginning.
Thea told The Irish World: “I think it (Afterlight) was me drawing a line under everything that had come before and just saying, ‘Right, we’re starting again’.
“I just wanted to draw a very definite line in the sand.
“The catalyst for it all was the breakup of a relationship.
“I was in a relationship with someone who produced me.
“That was a very unpleasant end to not a very pleasant relationship.
“His presence filtered into the work that I did and it always felt kind of wrong.
“So being able to make music for the first time completely on my own, without any external influence, and just making music that I was feeling at the time was really liberating and I felt like I had sort of been reborn.
“It was nice to begin again after a horrible few years.
“It was great to be able to just put something out there that was just me and represented exactly where I was at the time.
“I’m on album 21 but I see this as album two.”
Still a teenager when she released her debut album Burning Dorothy in 1998, Thea has never had such freedom to express herself before.
“It was terrifying for the first time in my life to step onstage on my own.
“And it was terrifying for the first time in my life to go into the studio and actually be calling the shots, telling everybody what I wanted them to play and how I wanted it to sound, at the age that I am after having made so many albums, but it was brilliant as well.
“I finally managed to put something into the world that felt like me, even though it wasn’t under my name.”
The relationship may be done but the healing is not.
“I think when you’ve been in a relationship like that since your formative years, it’s very difficult to understand who you’re supposed to be.
“Every impulse that I’ve ever had, every reaction I’ve ever had has been informed by that relationship.
“It’s almost like you’re 16 again and learning how to figure out what you really want rather than kind of bending your life in the shape of somebody else’s needs and wants.
“I’m very lucky to be able to do it.
“I’m very lucky that things went the way they went for me and I could get myself out of the situation that I was in.
“Other people aren’t quite so lucky.
“I constantly remind myself how lucky I am.
“But it’s a process and I’m not sure that it’s a process that will ever be finished. But then who is ever finished anyway?
“The first time I stood on stage on my own, literally my legs were shaking.
“To be honest, they continue to shake.
“It’s going to take some time, I think before I convince myself that I can actually do it.
“I definitely haven’t convinced myself of that yet.
“I’ve got to keep telling myself that I’m able to do it.”
Thea’s current release Was will be followed by three more EPs made up of original songs with a cover version on each. The original songs will next year be made into an album.
Was features her take on Gin Blossoms’ Hey Jealousy.
“Gin Blossoms fans will probably go, ‘Oh my god, it’s awful. Why’s she done this?’
“Even that’s part of the fun, you know?”
Whether this cover gets any response from the Gin Blossoms themselves, Thea has a good record of getting the approval of acts whose work she has reimagined.
“I do remember when I covered Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) with someone and Pete Shelley actually liked it.
“So I sort of felt like I had the Buzzcocks’ seal of approval.
“He didn’t glow about it but he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s not bad’.
“But you know what? I’ll take that from Pete Shelley.
“I’ll take ‘it’s not bad’ from Pete Shelley. That’s fine.
“The ultimate one I had was I did a version of Cover Me by Bruce Springsteen and I never imagined that Springsteen would listen to it, but he did.
“The very first time I ever met him he said to me, ‘You know, I can’t believe that you covered that song’.
“He said, ‘I actually originally wrote it for Donna Summer’. I was like, ‘Oh my God’.
“So he said it was meant to be sung by a woman anyway, and he really loved it.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible. Springsteen liked my cover of his song’.
“That was one that I dined out on for a while.”
You recorded Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album in its entirety, ever get any reaction from the man himself? “As far as I’m aware, he’s never listened to it but I’m kind of all right about that.
“I can live without Bob listening to my version of John Wesley Harding.”
Why do you say that? “Because he’s Bob Dylan.
“I’m sure that he’s probably had enough people doing cover versions of his stuff to last a lifetime.”
In 2011 Thea was asked to take unfinished material left by the late Sandy Denny, creating the haunting and beautiful album, Don’t Stop Singing.
What was it like to finish something left behind by a folk great who had passed on? “It felt really scary and honestly, I said no about three times. Because I grew up on the music of Sandy Denny.
“So when they came to me, her estate, so her daughter and they said, ‘We found these lyrics and we want someone to put music to them’.
“I said, ‘I can’t do that’, because I know how passionate Sandy Denny’s fans are because I am one.
“And it would feel really kind of weird to sort of almost take stuff from a notebook that she hadn’t made into songs and then make songs out of them because I know what I would feel if somebody took my old notebooks and then wrote tunes to them.
“I’d be really embarrassed, I think, if it was stuff that didn’t make it.
“But then they sent me this book of the lyrics and they seemed so complete, they seemed like they were destined to be songs, like that’s what she always intended for them.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’m wrong, maybe she always intended these to be finished’.
“And then I was still very kind of iffy about it but then one particular song, Song #4, the tune just sort of spilled out.
“I know it sounds really kind of hippie, but it kind of felt like I was sort of being guided to do it and that’s when I gave in.
“I was like, ‘Maybe this is meant to be’.
“I still feel very kind of nervy around real hardcore Sandy Denny fans.
“I always feel slightly like I’m kind of treading on somebody else’s hallowed ground.
“But I think enough people liked it who were mega fans, I didn’t feel so terrible. But it definitely was a very difficult thing to do.”
It was the triumphant London track from this album that would be used on a BBC montage of Team GB’s medal winners in their 2012 London Olympics. With Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and the games themselves, it all came together and Sandy and Thea provided the soundtrack.
“It’s almost like she planned it. Yeah, it was amazing.
“I didn’t even know that that was going to happen.
“I was sitting in my living room, not even watching the Olympics when that medal montage came on.
“And somebody texted me and said, ‘Your song…’
“I’m like, ‘It’s not my song, it’s Sandy’s song’.
“And I turned it on. I was like, ‘Oh my god’.
“And yeah, that sort of changed everything. It changed the course of that album.”
One of the reasons Thea was so uncomfortable about taking on Sandy’s work is because she doesn’t consider herself a folk artist like Sandy was. Thea sees herself as more of a ‘musical magpie’ taking bits from folk, rock, pop and other genres- something which has always made her hard to categorise, not that she minds.
But it was her Cavan father’s Irish folk records where she first took inspiration.
Having always written poetry and stories, she began seriously writing songs at the age of 15.
“My dad used to play The Chieftains and The Dubliners absolutely end to end for years and years and years.
“And I had a double tape of The Chieftains’ music and I would put it on in my bedroom, because I used to sit in my bedroom and write stories.
“I would literally have gone through that tape seven, eight times by the time I emerged from my bedroom.
“So I would know that music back to front and inside out.
“And the same with the Dubliners and Christy Moore. All of that sort of stuff was such a huge part of my childhood.
“And obviously I was in Ireland an awful lot and we’d go to pubs and I would hear folk music.
“It was magical to experience because it was just something you never saw in England. Just as much as you’d walk into a pub in England and people were just having a chat, people play music like it was a conversation. It was just magical and it continues to be magical to me.
“I haven’t been to Ireland for a while, sadly but it’s something that I miss terribly.”
With a father from Cavan and her mother hailing from Kilmacanogue in County Wicklow, Thea spent much of her summer holidays in Ireland as a child.
“It’s always been at the absolute core of who I am really.
“And my children, even though my youngest son has not been to Ireland yet. He considers himself Irish, which I think is great,” she laughs.
And Thea has collaborated with Irish acts. Cara Dillon has sung on one of her albums and all the way back in 2002 Thea shared lead vocals on The Reel and Soul Association, a band that also included Manchester- Irish musician Michael McGoldrick.
It would take Thea onto Top of the Pops
“That was interesting for sure. The one and only time I’ve ever played Top of the Pops and I was singing Warm and Tender Love but in a folk way. You couldn’t make it up.”
Was that the only time you were on TOTP? I thought you were on with Mainstream? “They wouldn’t have me at the time. I was too alternative.
“I was kind of down with that. You know, I was 23 and thought I was cooler than Top of the Pops. No one’s cooler than Top of the Pops as it turns out.”
But she was cool enough for her breakthrough album Avalanche to be so admired by Joan Baez that she asked Thea to open for her on her 2004 tour of America.
That was a personal invitation, wasn’t it? “Yeah, it was and it did come out of nowhere.
“Usually the main acts keep themselves to themselves, the support acts keep themselves to themselves and you might say hello now and then but you don’t really interact.
“But Joan is not like that at all.
“She is just the most giving generous, lovely human being.
“I remember the first night we turned up and we were waiting to go onstage and she just came in and plonked herself next to me and started to talk to me like I had been there for years.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘This is Joan Baez’.
“She was just like that.
“She’s such a kind person. Just a lovely person.”
That tour saw Thea in America for the 2004 Presidential election.
Regarding British politics, Thea has spoken out in the past about parties like UKIP and the importance of voting.
How has she felt watching Brexit and other things unfold over the last few years? “Horrified.
“It’s really hard to know what to think.
“Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do.
“I was no Boris Johnson fan. I’m no conservative fan and I would love to see a Labour government back in, but it’s more than party politics now. It’s become a kind of assault on truth and the whole concept of what’s real and what’s not real, the whole concept of what’s true or not true has been shifted.
“I find that terrifying, way more terrifying than party politics.
“But obviously, the government that we have at the moment is in no small way responsible for that.
“I just want to see change, something needs to change because it’s breaking at such a rapid rate now, I don’t know how people are going to survive.
“I consider myself to be one of the very lucky ones and I’m looking at my life and thinking, ‘This is not sustainable’.
“So how people are feeling who are struggling, and were struggling before these crises, I honestly don’t know.
“I don’t know how to help apart from, in my opinion vote the right way. I just hope everybody does when we get the chance.”
You can see Thea’s point. During the darkest days of the pandemic, those in power chose to give lucrative contracts to friends and have parties while being dishonest about all of it.
“And ultimately doing things that benefit the very, very best off in our society while everybody else is hung out to dry.
“And that is a fundamentally hard Tory policy, and always has been but it’s never been like this.
“It’s almost like, because of this sort of post-truth era that we find ourselves in, these people can get away with anything.
“I mean, you just have to look at the budget, that mini-budget that has just come out and ultimately, it’s taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich, like a reverse Robin Hood. It is insane and I just hope that people see through it and can vote against it when they get the chance.
“I think people need to learn how to see through the waffle.
“There’s such a lot of wool being pulled over the general population’s eyes.
“I think it’s time that we learn to see through that very quickly.”
The EP Was by Thea Gilmore is out now.
Thea tours the UK from 13 October and plays London’s Kings Place on 23 November.
For more information, click here.