Gemma Ray

With her eerie, sometimes melodramatic sound and vintage look, Gemma Ray is being hailed as the new queen of dark pop and retro.

She’s working on a soundtrack for a Gozo-based movie together with Bad Seeds drummer Thomas Wydler. Even without actually hearing her music, that should be enough to get you all excited. Add the fact that her voice gets deep into your psyche with hauntingly unique melodies and some rather wicked lyrics and…well, the news that Gemma Ray will be performing in Malta this Friday and Saturday should be enough to kickstart a summer of good music.

Ray is being brought to Malta by Coach & Horses and Hairyamp Promotions – both are known for catching musicians who are just off the mainstream radar but who have a strong following among serious music lovers. 

How do you describe your  music?

I try to leave that to other people and let the music be whatever it is to the listener. People often use the term ‘filmic’ – maybe this is because when I’m writing and recording my songs I’m always trying to capture a scene or to relay images that appear when the first seed of the idea comes to me.

Which were those artists that got you into music when younger?

The friends that I first clicked with when growing up led me to listen to early Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett, Jeff Waynes’ War of the Worlds, Groundhogs… I was drawn to any music that fired my imagination and that didn’t seem to adhere to rules. Then there was my elder sister’s copy of Portishead’s Dummy that really took me to a different place and still does. But I think I was more inspired by the sound that came out of my first guitar than other bands and musicians really.

Are there any musical influences that find their way in your works?

I’m pretty sure there are echoes of the television theme for ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’ in nearly everything I write. My earliest musical childhood memory consists of being equally scared and intrigued by the carousel-like melodies at bedtime. I think that’s where my slippery chord changes might come from – I only realised this recently!

What are your thoughts about being unofficially crowned queen of noir?

The noir tag is not something I’ve ever pursued, but maybe it comes more from the visual approach I have to making music when I write and produce my songs. I find beauty in things which are maybe perceived as dark or moody to some others – also, I’m not really sure what ‘noir‘ means in the context of music.

 When did you know that music is what you wanted to do?

I was a gradual feeling that slowly become an all-consuming passion. I knew I needed something to be focused on from an extremely young age  – to fuel and control the compulsive urges I felt. I never fretted about what that would be, but realised soon after getting my first guitar  that composing and performing music made sense of things that would otherwise totally overwhelm me.

Do you have a “happy place/happy time” for songwriting? Or is it all pretty spontaneous?

Spontaneous! The best ideas should always be born from a moment. From capturing a moment and being true to it comes the feeling, from the feeling comes the melody and from the melody the song.  The seed of song-writing for me is about preserving the immediate history to stop it from becoming the past.

The notion of having inspiration in a new, exotic and beautiful place is a romantic way to conceive an idea, but they can equally pop up in the most ugly of circumstances too. If anything triggers this process for me, it’s the notion of change.

Island Fire is your fourth album. How do you describe the evolution of your musical journey?

Real. Honest. A historical documentation of my life and creative ventures untainted by commercial pressure. A time capsule, a diary, a recovery programme… a learning curve, even.

Which has been your zaniest gig ever? That one time that was particularly memorable/things didn’t go quite as planned/things got a bit crazy?

I played on Women’s Day in the cafe of a township (Soweto) in South Africa. It was a small cafe full of children – I looped up my knife-guitar and they ran out screaming.

Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to music?

I don’t feel guilty about any music I like. I hate pretentiousness in any of its ugly guises, especially when it comes to categorising music. I’m open to anything.

Last good concert/gig you attended was?

Gallon Drunk when I played with them in London recently. It was euphoric, transcendental and visceral.

What do we find on your MP3 player?

I don’t own one but recent record purchases waiting to be played before I return to Berlin are:  a prison-song compilation, Alex Harvey’s Rock Drill, and the Life Is Dance  compilation by Sound Of Wonder.

Your top three albums ever and why?

I couldn’t choose, but a recurring favourite is Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, because the moments captured move me so much. There’s also  No More Shall We Part by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – because it sucks me into a special time and place. And maybe a cheap Billie Holiday compilation CD which has been everywhere with me. I know every word and morsel of the melodies inside out and am always in the mood for it.

Which of your own compositions is your favourite and why?

Currently, a piece from my soon to be released fantasy-soundtrack album, a track called Gozo Theme. A lot of strange things happened in the writing and making of this album, odd coincidences and spooky occurrences related to Gozo and its rich folklore. Also, the main part (which I’d been playing on the guitar for the last couple of years) had became something like a meditation –  I played it so much during some trying times that it took on a lot of meaning, and I was delighted with how it came out. I’m so happy with my organ player’s input and the way the performance was captured – the drummer on the track is Thomas Wydler from the Bad Seeds and his expressive playing plus the atmosphere of the studio in Berlin (Candybomber) was a really great experience.

Another band/musician  you’d like to collaborate with and why?

Solex, a great Dutch artist I admire. I love everything I’ve heard that she’s produced and she seems to have a knack of hooky groovy rhythms and production gold-dust which you instantly recognise as being her.

What are you expecting from the Malta gig? And what’s after that?

I try not to imagine what gigs are like, I like to be surprised every time. I hope to write lots of songs in Malta, I sort of know I will somehow, I’ve had this feeling for a long while.

Gemma Ray will be performing at Coach & Horses, Valley Road, B’Kara on July 6 and 7. Tickets are limited to just one hundred per night so do think ahead. For details look up the Coach and Horses (Malta) or Hairyamp pages on Facebook or else call/text 99848199 or 99846382.

An edited version of this interview was published on The Times TV Guide.



  1. […] Gemma Ray is this weekend taking Island Fire to the fiery island of Malta, to give it a fitting rite of passage. For more info, click on the poster and check the link for an interview with Maltese webzine Ramona Depares. […]

  2. […] talking about yesterday’s live performance by Gemma Ray, of course.  Those who missed it are still in time to experience a gig that is memorable on all […]