Analogue Music | Gemma Ray

Gemma Ray

By Matt Conner

Gemma Ray has spent the last few years reaching toward a cold beauty.

Coming out of an endless parade of record release cycles, Ray wanted her new album to represent a true sonic shift. Not only would she venture into a completely electronic terrain, but she would do so with the motto "No Happy Shit" on the walls of the studio space shared with friend and producer Ralf Goldkind.

Gemma Ray & The Death Bell Gang (Bronze Rat Records) is the resulting full-length, a stark release marked by songs both seductive and unsettling. As she describes it, there's a warmth and coldness that both occupy the songs on Death Bell Gang, and the cohabitation is a true achievement in itself.

We recently sat down with Ray to hear more about motherhood and making music on the other side of a break in the pattern.

Analogue: I’ve talked to a number of artists who’ve described how the pandemic has shaken things up for them. Does that change how this release week is feeling?

Gemma Ray: It’s a bit different of a release week for me anyway since I’m not touring this record. I mean, I’ll do some special gigs maybe sometime but I’m working on a different angle to performing. Due to the pandemic, I’ve had a break and realized I want to do something a bit more challenging to me, and for personal reasons, I wanted to step outside of touring for a little while.

So this release is different because I’m just relying on the record and a little bit of publicity. I’m used to touring for a couple of years and seeing these wheels slowly turn and making friends and serendipity happening. So I’m not expecting to have that same feeling when I’m running into the tour van while doing press.

And I think after the pandemic, as you said, everything has changed. Everyone has changed. Your expectations are quite small. It’s nice to connect in some way, but everything feels a bit smaller for me, actually.

Gemma Ray & The Death Bell Gang
Gemma Ray & The Death Bell Gang

Analogue: Artistically, how would you say the pandemic has changed you?

Gemma: Well, I was forced to take a break as we all were, but I also had two children. [Laughs] So that’s been a very cool thing.

Analogue: Congratulations!

Gemma: Thank you! So leading up to that, I think I was still getting a lot out of performing live but I was hungry for a break actually. The pandemic coincided with that natural feeling anyway so I jumped on that circumstance that life has given me. It’s amazing having this very clear line in my head where I can actually think fresh again.

Not sure if I’m being clear, but normally everything artistically is that one thing leads to another and I follow my instincts. I’ve never had a master plan, but when everything suddenly stopped, time forced me to not think about the next live show, it’s made me have all these abstract ideas of what I might want to do in my head. I’m determined to not play live concerts until I’ve had the time to experiment with these ideas. You end up back up on that train, you’ll end up doing concerts exactly the same as you were.

So I’ve been quite strict with myself. And this album has a very electronic feel anyway, it’s also forced me to reevaluate what could be exciting to me in terms of how I perform live.

Analogue: Glad you mentioned those sonic changes. Was that a result of having more time to experiment?

Gemma: I actually had the album done before the pandemic. It was almost finished and it was such a big project, such a lifestyle while I was making it. The person I was working with throughout, he and I pushed everything to the outer limits. It always felt good, but I really needed a break from it. Also, I was on this trajectory of my other albums coming out and touring and I never really stopped long enough to put the work into finishing that final 10 percent. I did that final 10 percent during the pandemic, just at the very end, not that long ago—maybe a year.

"I’m determined to not play live concerts until I’ve had the time to experiment with these ideas. You end up back up on that train, you’ll end up doing concerts exactly the same as you were."

Analogue: I read from the press around the album that the motto “no happy shit” was the guide and even written on the studio wall. What was behind that?

Gemma: [Laughs] Well, basically Ralf [Goldkind], who was the producer I collaborated with, was a springboard for the project, really. We were talking and I guess we must have been some part into it, because we were already exchanging sound files and talking quite a bit as soon as we met. I think I was talking about my other records and that I’ve always satisfied myself with every record—I don’t look back once I’m finished.

I can be quite cold and move on, but there’s always a song that always feels a bit too poppy for me and I don’t want to reinterpret it live. That’s just the way my records are. I don’t know why that happens. I always enjoy doing those kinds of songs in the studio but not to perform, so I thought maybe they’re not really me.

I think I said at one point that I don’t want any happy shit, but he immediately just painted it across the whole wall and we lived with that for a couple of years. It was the only aesthetic we were working to, really. I mean, that’s with a sense of humor. I’m never not searching for beauty and empathy. It’s not a totally dark record, but it was a fun comment to look at for two years.

Analogue: I love what you just said about the fact that you’re “never not searching for beauty and empathy.” Were you surprised you could find that given that with a heavier lid, so to speak?

Gemma: That’s interesting. There is an element of surprise to this record, and all records really, because I never know how they’re going to turn out and what they’re going to say holistically. But then again, not really because I was very conscious that we used a lot of minor keys and that we played with that drama. I see a lot of beauty in that and that’s where I fit artistically. I think that’s where my tastes land in general, so it’s not different from other records in that way.

I had a long listening break, so I felt quite distant from it in a good way. When I listened again, I was quite pleased with how much warmth there was and how much coldness there was, too. I like how those two emotions were sitting quite well together, so that was a nice surprise.

Analogue: That experimentation is interesting to me. When you have all the tools at home and can infinitely work on something, how do you know when to stop and pull back? What’d you learn about restraint?

Gemma: Oh god, yea. I feel sick just thinking about it. I think both of us are quite similar in this way where we’re obsessive and we never would have stopped, y’know? We have the kind of compulsive personality. Neither of us ever run out of ideas. We’re just not those kinds of people. We never really sit down and wonder what to do, so over the years, I’ve learned that you have to take a break. You have to cull it and cut it back.

I am quite strict with myself in the process, but this album did get a bit out of control. We had enough songs for three or four albums. I’m not sure they’re all going to be good, but that experimentation, but it was overwhelming with the experimentation. The fact that there were no limits to the electronic side, it could have maybe never got finished.

But that was the most difficult part for me was to question what’s boring to someone. I make music for myself, which a lot of people do, but I certainly don’t think people want to listen to indulgent stuff. So that’s why I think it took years, really.

VISIT: Gemma Ray

Photo: Steve Gullick