Genre: Singer-Songwriter, Acoustic
Location: Manchester, UK
Discography: Burning Dorothy (1998), The Lipstick Conspiracies (2000), Rules For Jokers (2001), Songs From The Gutter (2002), Avalanche (2003), Loft Music (2004), Harpo's Ghost (2006), Liejacker (2008), Recorded Delivery [live] (2009), Strange Communion (2009), Murphy's Heart (2010), John Wesley Harding (2011), Don't Stop Singing with Sandy Denny (2011), Regardless (2013), Ghosts And Graffiti (2015)
Record Company: Hungry Dog/Flying Sparks, Sanctuary, Fruitcake/Fullfill, Ryko (Independent)
It makes for an interesting trivia question and one that probably few could answer ... "Name the UK artist who first hit the top 40 with her FOURTEENTH album... The answer of course...Thea Gilmore.
“In the current musical climate of pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, people figure that careers like mine can't happen any more.. The idea of an artist releasing 14 albums over 17 years and selling more with every record is an anathema to most of the industry.. “
Anathema indeed, Thea Gilmore strikes an enviable pose within the clatter of the mainstream. Still just 35, she has - over 17 years - carved out a home from the solid rock of the music business and has been throwing album shaped house parties at a startling rate.
And now, album number 15 "Ghosts And Graffiti" - a different beast again. A compilation with its own twists - part new album, part retrospective. Gilmore revisits old material but does so in stellar company - the album features collaborations with Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, The Waterboys, Joan As Policewoman, John Cooper Clarke, King Creosote and I Am Kloot. Their contributions join forces with six all-new songs, and just for good measure Gilmore's recent run of radio hits are included, alongside selected jewels from her back catalogue.
"People have asked me many times about a compilation ... But I've always said no, I'm a bit of a 'best of" skeptic and also I've never felt it was time to look back, I always had new stuff I passionately wanted to get out there".
“Then I realised last year I wanted to bring new light to some older songs... colour, and the perspective that just living for a while affords. I was so young when I wrote many of them, and I've come to see some of the early versions as no longer definitive."
"Ghosts And Graffiti" has one eye on the horizon and one in the rear-view mirror.
“I didn’t set out to make so many albums... there was no master plan, I just had things to say so I found a way to say them. Now I see every record as a snapshot of that particular time in my life. I go back and listen to myself singing when I was 18, its like a haunting, the songs are the ghosts of my past”
Born in Oxfordshire in 1979, young Thea was surrounded by the records of her father. Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell were never far from her fingertips. Says Thea “As a kid, that group of songwriters felt intensely relevant to me, even though I was growing up in the musical black hole of the late 80’s. I knew those guys had started making music long before I was born but I was still hearing about them, about new records they were making or their importance to other, newer artists. I drew the obvious conclusion that music was a lifelong relationship. But when I got absorbed into the industry and saw first hand how it could chew up artists and spit them out again, it was a bit of a shock.. It made me angry. Luckily for me I was a belligerent little toad, and decided that I had to have a different type of career, one more like all those artists I’d admired.”
And so she began to pick her way quietly through the minefield. No acquiescing to a hyper sexualised vision of female artistry, no tabloid fervour... Thea Gilmore has never been photographed falling out of a club at 5AM ... she’s settled for music and honesty.
“It was a slow, frustrating road in some ways. I long since made peace with the fact that I’d probably never be a household name or a girl on front covers...but there were more important things to me. Music never stands still, music and its business are constantly in motion but I was determined to connect with people on the most direct level.. looking them in the eye and saying ’this is me, this is my song.. come along for the ride”
And you know what? They did. I began to grow a solid fan-base from the most fundamental source of human connection. That’s what music should always be about.” Gradually, organically, Gilmore's fan-base grew bigger with every release. Never chasing fame or chart success, she somehow landed them anyway ...some of her biggest moments have seemed almost accidental, random. After ‘Juliet’ became a top 40 single in 2003 her stock rose, she played bigger venues, toured the US 4 times in 2004, and in the process garnered many heavyweight admirers including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Neil Gaiman.
But in the shifting climate of mid noughties UK her refusal to compromise and throw what she describes as 'industry shapes' saw her entering a turbulent time both professionally (switching record labels twice in the years, parting company with her longstanding manager) and personal (she was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2005).
Remarkably the momentum and quality of output never stopped and when she achieved her first Radio 2 A list record through the unlikely medium of a Christmas themed track in 2009, all doors were open again and her passionate cult following found itself joined by legions of new admirers.
In 2010 "Murphys Heart" saw her back in the albums chart, and the following year "London", her collaboration with the late Sandy Denny, was used by the BBC as the London Olympics song of choice in 2012, reaching #5 on the iTunes singles chart... all of which set things up perfectly for her fourteenth album “Regardless” , a melodic suite of songs partly inspired by her new experiences of Motherhood, entering the charts at #21 in May 2013.
Now Thea was a regularly playlisted artist on BBC Radio 2 whilst at the same time busy contributing to compilations for The Morning Star and Amnesty International.. Her list of high profile fans grew to include Sting, Richard Thompson, Martha Wainwright, writers David Baddiel and William Boyd, actors Steven Mangan and David Morrissey, to name a few. These days she is as likely to produce an intelligent, witty pop anthem as she is a dark twisted folk epic, her appeal as broad as her ever increasing fan-base. Perhaps no surprise then that the iconic guests listed earlier signed up quickly for "Ghosts And Graffiti"
“I’ve made so many extraordinary friends, worked with so many legends.. I often turn to them when I make a record anyway, I naturally ask their opinions about what I do. This time, I wanted to take it a stage further and ask for their input.. almost as a way of setting these songs into their own cultural landscape.”
“To be singing a song like "Inch By Inch" with Joan Baez is more than a random cameo.. I wrote that song on the day that Barack Obama was elected for the first term. With Joan's presence as an original voice of the counterculture and an active Civil-rights campaigner the historical importance that Joan's input brings to a song about the first black US president is monumental.. and that’s before you hear her extraordinary performance she turns in!” And Baez is not the only political heavyweight to make an appearance.
“When I was 19 I wrote a song designed to be a duet with Billy Bragg. (He never heard it!) I was in love with his writing, listened to "Levi Stubbs Tears" til I wore the cassette out... He represented a different way of doing things. A way of engaging with people that I hadn’t seen from a musician before. He refused to put himself on a pedestal, he reminded me a little of the way Pete Seeger did things, and I learnt such a lot from his style. In 2010 I wrote "My Voice" on election night, in a Leamington Spa dressing room, it was an angry reaction to what was going down in the polling stations that day. The song was left off "Murphys Heart" as it simply didn't fit an album of love songs, but Billy called me to say he loved the song and that was it for me ... I knew I wanted him to sing on it whenever the time came to release it. And he said yes …" The collaborators line up as a powerful reminder of the respect with which she is regarded.
"I found myself onstage with Joan Wasser on a series of UK gigs in 2012,celebrating Sandy Denny's life. Much as I love and admire her work as Joan As Policewoman I was still taken aback by her musicality, versatility and vocal presence. Her talent has such breadth. "This Girl Is Taking Bets" is a special song to me, the first song I ever had playlisted...some would call it my anthem. I knew that I if ever cut it again I had to have another female voice breathing some new life into it. Joan did this, and blew me away with the energy and honesty she brought to the performance."
"I met John Cooper Clark on the BBC radio show "Loose Ends" 4 years ago. He is an English original, a complete one-off and his work makes me laugh and cry in equal measures. I wrote a poem called "Don't Set Foot Over The Railway Track" after listening to a House Of Commons debate in the late 90s, I loved it but never really felt I could pull it off...Hearing John deliver it is like having it come home".
"I came to the Waterboys in the mid 90s and I have loved Mike Scott's work ever since. He came to one of my London gigs unexpectedly and we've been friends ever since. He is a singular man who mainlines light and energy into everything he does, and he was keen to bring the spirit of the Waterboys to my Sandy Denny collaboration "Glistening Bay". We recorded the track in Liverpool, then Steve Wickham added his inspiring fiddle parts from his home in Sligo". “John Bramwell of I Am Kloot is one of the great English songwriters of the last 20 years. He and I live in neighbouring towns now, so when I invited him to re-invent "Razor Valentine" from 2004' and be the bit of rough that the lyric has always hoped for, he said yes quickly. It was very tidy and convenient, he even brought his dog to the studio... and it all fell together before either of us had time to over-think it.”
Ghosts & Graffiti is as much an artistic achievement as it is a career celebration. Weaving the past with the present, this is an album that has its eyes firmly set on the horizon line. Whilst perhaps not a household name, Gilmore has crept up on us all as a quiet icon.
She is the conscience of the music industry, that little voice in your head that proves that beyond hyperbole, beyond the glitterati, twitterati and the Facebook flash-in-the-pans, there is music that matters and the people that it matters to. That is where true, lasting careers are born and that is exactly where Thea Gilmore shines.