Artist of the Week: Gemma Hayes

Music Features Gemma Hayes
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Artist of the Week: Gemma Hayes

Hometown: Ballyporeen, Ireland

Fun Fact: Hayes co-wrote the song "Hazy" with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows for his band's New Amsterdam live album. Duritz is rumored to have subsequently referenced her in the song "Washington Square," when he sings "I wandered the highways from Dublin to Berkeley / And I heard the songbirds of Ballyporeen."

Why She's Worth Watching: Hayes' elegant, thoughtful songs span a variety of sounds and stylings, but it's her songwriting that sets her apart from her contemporaries. At times achingly romantic, and other times piercingly melancholic, her words are the words of a visionary with a mindful eye for catchy pop hooks.

For Fans Of:   My Brightest Diamond, The Weepies, The Frames

Gemma Hayes loves music so much she had to take a two-year break from it. Not just time off for traveling or pursuing other artistic ventures, either. She physically did not write a song, pick up a guitar, attend a concert, or listen to the radio for two entire years. It was right around the time her debut album, Night on My Side, really started to pick up steam, netting a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination for album of the year.

"The first album was by no means a big success, but I expected it to do nothing," Hayes says. "I resigned myself to the fact nobody would ever hear it. But all of a sudden it started to grow legs and I gigged for two years. There was one year I did 169 shows. I was really exhausted. I found myself not wanting to write, and tired of music. It was one of those weird moments where I had to go away and figure out why I was doing this again. In a way, it sounds ungrateful. I enjoyed it, I did; I just burned myself out."

Luckily, that fire for music came back ("subtly and in drip form," Hayes says) and inspired two subsequent albums, 2005's The Roads Don't Love You and 2008's The Hollow of the Morning. The remarkable part of Hayes' music is its almost literary ability to tell stories, crafting gorgeous, delicate tone poems that invoke a specific image or place or mood. Take, for example, "In Over My Head," a track from her latest. Hayes dedicates the better part of its first 30 seconds to sounds of birds chirping and fluttering, set against church bells ringing softly in the distance.

But her music isn't easy to pigeonhole in terms of genre and sound. The singer/songwriter label alone doesn't cut it. "There were eight kids in my family, so there were a lot of different types of music being played," she says of her childhood home in the small Irish village Ballyporeen. "It massively affected my sound because to this day my albums stretch over a lot of different types of music. There are folk songs, and pop/rock songs and slightly country songs, and I think that's because I from an early age I realized the quality of a good song, regardless of the genre."

"A good song is a good song," Hayes reiterates, and indeed that sentiment shines through brightly on The Hollow of the Morning. Featuring production from fellow Irishman Paul Noonan, of Bell XI, and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, the album is sonically her most lush and sophisticated to date. It also showcases her dalliances with several types of genres and sounds. "Out Of Our Hands" is an up-tempo anti-love pop song, with a soaring hook that wouldn't be out of place on Top 40 radio. Contrast that with something like "Sad Ole' Song," an hushed whisper of a track soaked in hurt and longing, and you have an artist whose claims of versatility are not unfounded.

Despite the complete and total break she took from music after the first record, Hayes is in this business for the long haul. Right now, that means getting to work writing and recording a fourth album. Hayes, just 31-years-old, made the decision over a decade ago to drop out of university and pursue music full time. A decision like that is always rash, yes, but it also displayed a heady, strong-willed commitment to her craft.

Creating music, to Hayes, is her life. "The whole process becomes this cycle of writing, recording and touring, and the whole thing usually takes up about a year and a half. Then, you go back to writing again, recording and touring for different albums," she says. "The cycle is so ingrained in me now that the idea of going to one particular place every day...well, I couldn't imagine myself doing that now. There's a lot of security in that, but this way of life is not glamorous. It's really hard going, but it's sort of all I know."