Afterlight represented the start of a regeneration.
Thea Gilmore is 20 albums and 25 years into her career which on the face of it is not the most obvious point to release her eponymous album, particularly an album written, played and produced by herself. She adopted the persona of Afterlight for her previous album which was a clue that Thea Gilmore the artist was gearing up for some form of artistic change. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Thea Gilmore to discuss her first eponymous album, the future of Afterlight, and how she sees her career now she is at the quarter of a century mark. She explains that making music is like breathing to her, and the fact she was able to take a trial and error approach to recording in her home studio before applying the finishing touches in a commercial studio, means that ‘Thea Gilmore’ is possibly her most representative album to date. While it fits within her overall prolific catalogue, it introduces new sounds to keep the music fresh and modern, something that the striking cover art hints at. While she is an experienced musician she lets slip that she still suffers from stage fright, but the fact she has played solo shows with trigger pads and loops, notoriously fickle technology, has in a strange way eased her anxiety about playing live.
How are you and where are you?
I’m at home and I’m good.
You are a very prolific artist with a new record, ‘Thea Gilmore’, what does creating music do for you personally?
It is mainly because I just can’t not. It’s become a bit like just breathing for me, making music, and I’m aware it doesn’t fit with what most people think of as making a career in music, if there still is such a thing, should look like. You are meant to meter out your content delivery and take your time, take things really slowly but that is just boring for me and I can’t do it because it is so dull. The thing I enjoy most is making new things, and I feel really lucky that I can just pull something out of the air and make something that wasn’t there five minutes ago because it is the closest thing to magic, and that really matters to me. I guess I also think I still have something vaguely interesting to say otherwise I would stop, or maybe it is only interesting to me, I don’t really know. Ultimately I love making beautiful things, or even things that aren’t beautiful but make you think. And that is just what I do, like breathing.
You mentioned pulling things out of the air, but it normally isn’t that easy. How do you tackle writing a song?
It varies, and sometimes it does feel like pulling something out of the air, so much so I have to double-check I haven’t simply knicked it, which I’m sure I have many times over. What’s that saying, amateurs imitate, professionals steal, and there are only eight notes and all that. My process really varies, sometime I will come up with a title, and I will be like I really want to create something around that title. Recently, and this is more unusual for me, there has been more of a musical impetus for me, normally it is a lyrical kind of thing that drives me. I’ve got a little home studio and I’ve been playing around with things at home creating different noises, most of which you will hear on the record because it sounds different. That will drive an idea that will drive me to find the right lyrical hook to hang it on. So, on this record, I’ve maybe worked a little backwards to what I would have usually done. If you stop experimenting you are dying, you are going backwards, and it really matters to me to not keep making the same record over and over again.
What has happened to the artist Afterlight, and why after twenty years have you issued your first eponymous album?
Afterlife is still there. I see Afterlight as definitely drawing a line under everything that came before and at that point I didn’t want to issue anything under my own name at that time for a whole host of reasons, mostly personal, I just needed to do something that didn’t belong to my name. Afterlight will make more music, there is no doubt about that, and I really like it is sitting there as a potential and I can really do anything with it because nobody knows what to expect with that. Whereas with my name there is always a slight tension, is she folk, and I’ve been going for so long and nobody knows where to put me, and I guess I’ve always solicited that, but people do because I’m a white woman with a middle England accent, and I write melodic songs. So, people always use the folk word, but actually, if you listen to real folk artists they are so blisteringly talented and such exceptional musicians, and I can’t be put in with them any more than they would want me put in with them. I always call myself a songwriter but even that’s restrictive, so Afterlight is there in case I want to make a dub record or something, and Afterlight can put that out, or a metal album, but this record very much fits within the Thea Gilmore canon, albeit it has elements of dance and beats in there. I love that because I listen to a lot of it, so I love playing around with it just trying to twist the concept of what people expect me to be. As far as an eponymous album after all these years, I just wanted to make a statement and if you look at the album sleeve my name isn’t even on it, it is on the spine. I wanted people to see it and wonder what’s that, and not make any assumptions about it and just pick it up and listen to it with completely fresh ears and not necessarily know it was me and see what they thought.
‘Thea Gilmore’ is written, played and produced by yourself. How easy was it to create what you wanted?
I’ve been recording in my own space since about 2018, and I did quite a lot years ago in about 2008. It has been magical I have to say, just having the absolute autonomy to do whatever I like and try whatever I like. There’s a lot of pressure for an artist of my size in the studio where I don’t have the budget to sit in the studio for three or four weeks and work on just one song. I have a really strict timeline if I book a studio because they are expensive, and I need to know I will come out of the studio with something I can deliver to people, so I don’t have the luxury of just messing about or experimenting which I can do at home. Also, probably because I’ve spent so much of my career being produced and being told how to sound. There is always an element of being slightly fearful of experimentation when you are in a room with other people, whereas if you are by yourself with no one looking over your shoulder I know I can put some ridiculous baseline on it that probably won’t work, but there is a possibility it just might sound quite good. It sort of boosts your confidence in a way so that come the point when I do take it into the studio, which I did with this record. I built those tracks at home then took them into the studio and the engineer I work with closely to pull them up on some beautiful Genelec speakers he has in the studio, and then you hear what is missing. We then work together to fill in the gaps, so to speak, but the main body of the tracks are present and I know exactly where they are going before I hit the studio. That has been a revelation for me and it has been a really important learning curve because it is not something I’ve done before Afterlight and this record, it was always somebody else’s job and I didn’t have much say in how things sounded or how things ended up. Whereas with this, every instrument and every part has been specifically mapped out by me.
The way you are taking is like a regeneration, you seem to be starting a new phase in your career. Do you agree with that?
It absolutely is, it is big and more reimagined.
The cover for ‘Thea Gilmore’ is quite striking, were you involved with the design?
I was very involved with the whole thing, I worked with an incredibly talented artistic director, Andy Goff, who has exactly the same twisted sense of visual imagery as I do, and we worked with an incredible photographer, Carsten Windhorst. Me and Andy talked through the idea, and he’d always wanted to do something with mannequins, and because it sounded so daft, sorry Andy, I thought this is brilliant we have to run with that. The whole concept of identikit perfection amongst women was so important and his vision was so aligned with mine. So, we worked really closely together spending a rather long day in a London studio taking photographs for that, and he just smashed it out of the park, I think he is just so clever. It also makes people feel uncomfortable, that cover, which I also really like, and I’ve noticed people won’t print it which I find really curious. Everywhere an announcement has shown up for my record it is very rare to see the album sleeve, you see a picture of me with mannequins in the background. Also, I do my own social media, and I tried to boost the announcement post for the album, but Instagram wouldn’t allow me to boost it because they saw it as nude women and you’re not allowed to do that, even though they were not real they were plastic. Indicative of the times we live in, I think, show a real nude woman and that’s fine, show a plastic one, that’s not OK.
Women are getting a lot of coverage at the moment, how political do you feel about the whole subject?
It’s hard not to feel political about it because I am one. There are all sorts of incredibly sensitive topics cropping up now, and I do feel our culture has eroded our ability to have a proper conversation. When I get at my most political, that’s the bit I get most upset about. I don’t mind differing opinions, I don’t get upset about the fact that there are people out there who don’t agree with me, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I like it because the more I have a conversation with people who don’t agree with me the better I understand where other people are coming from. I think it is most important that we don’t stand on top of a hill and shout at each other, scream at each other, and tell each other we are wrong, and that is the bit I miss. The conversation about women is vast, and broad-reaching and could go on forever, and it is really delicate in so many situations, but actually, it just needs to be a conversation. Just a reasonable conversation where nobody is screaming the other party is wrong, and we just listen. It is so important.
If you met your 16-year-old self, who could have released an eponymous album, what would you talk about?
Blimey, I think the thing I would say more than anything, is trust your gut, if it feels wrong then it is wrong. It has taken me so many years to figure that one out. I’ve gone against my guts over and over again, and I’ve always paid the price for it, and these days, if my gut is telling me something is a bit weird or not quite right, I tend to try and walk away from that situation now. It doesn’t always happen because I’m very used to not trusting my gut. I think it is a very hard thing for young people to learn, I keep saying it to my kids, if something feels wrong, if something feels off in your stomach, you need to do something about it or walk away from it because generally speaking your gut doesn’t lie to you. Yeah, that’s what I would tell her because she could have done with that little nugget of advice.
You’ve had some mainstream success, and the new record is still in singer-songwriter territory. What are you doing to promote it?
It’s a funny old world now, promoting music. I would say promoting music is almost impossible. I’ve been doing this so long that I’ve had the benefit, if it is a benefit, of remembering and seeing what it was like back in the late nineties and early noughties where you released music and effectively there was a machine. It didn’t always work for the likes of me who was low down the musical food chain, but there was a machine you plugged into and everyone supposedly knew what they were doing, record labels had a job, PR people had a job, and everyone had targets to hit if you like. It doesn’t exist like that anymore, it is totally the Wild West. In some ways that represents a huge opportunity because as an artist you can drive your music into the places it theoretically should be in, but it also means there is so much noise, there is just so much to wade through and find.
If you’re twenty and just beginning you sort of have time to do all that, but I’ve got two kids and I’m finding my way through the whole social media thing. I love socials in lots of ways, and I absolutely hate them in other ways, but that is what we are expected to do now as artists, drive our own success through social media, and I’d say it is more or less impossible at this point because there is too much out there to get a foothold, and I’m one of the lucky ones because I started early enough to have benefited from when that wasn’t the case. I look at really brilliant artists now who have had millions of streams, and have had TikTok hits if you like, there’s even one who went to number one in the Billboard Charts, but nobody knows who she is, and she is extraordinary, an incredible artist called Chinchilla. She can walk into any room, and nobody knows who she is. I suspect with her, she is going to do amazing things because she is incredibly talented and very tenacious. But for every one of her, there are thousands of others who can’t even get a look in, and I find that quite heartbreaking in music these days, that there are so many amazing artists who are really going to struggle. Again, I was the lucky one, one of the last lucky ones, really.
You’ve toured and recorded with Joan Baez and wrote music for Sandy Denny’s lyrics, who are your prime influences?
They never stop, but certainly, in the early days, all the great lyricists were my musical bread and butter. In the really, really early days, I used to listen to Tori Amos when I was like sixteen, I’d listen to Arni DiFranco, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and I listened to the Beatles a lot. It was anyone who had extraordinary lyrics, the lyrics were always the thing for me, if I heard a brilliant line in a song I would just keep playing it over and over again. It was almost like dissecting the song to work out how they got that line in the song to hit so perfectly. It just never stops, I’m listening to and I love Fred Again, there’s an artist called Ren who is a rap artist who is just astoundingly talented. I look at these young artists, and I’m like I want to be them when I grow up, and then I remember I’m in my forties and I’ve kind of missed the boat.
Your eldest son is the age you were when you started your career, how easy is that for you as he gets more independent?
I wish. Both my sons are incredibly talented, both are exceptionally good musicians and writers. It is in equal parts terrifying and amazing, and again, I look at the way the business end has gone and my eldest would certainly like a career in music, I know that. I very gently, or as he would say, not very gently, saying you need to learn other things too because to have a career in music is not just about making music, that is only a small part of it, you have to learn marketing, you need to learn design, you need to learn social media. You need to be this whole 360-degree kind of creature, who also creates music. Trying to get that through to a kid who has watched his mum, and his dad to a degree, but certainly me, pick their way through music he has just seen the good bits, he arrived at the height of it all and he didn’t see all the work and the slog it took to get there. He sees a lot of work and slog now, and I look at him and I don’t think those sorts of careers are to be had anymore but if there are, he’s the sort of kid who will find it, and my youngest will definitely find it but he is more into urban music, so he has a different path, one that delightedly I know nothing about which is great because it means he has absolute freedom to do whatever he wants and say this is how it works, mum.
What can people expect on your up and coming UK gigs, are they solo or with a band?
I haven’t actually decided that yet. I’m doing a gig in London at Union Chapel on 12th October which is going to be a band gig in October, and then the tour starts in late January, and it will probably be solo I think, but I’m not entirely sure so it is still in debate. Basically, I going to see how the Union Chapel gig fits and how it works with the stuff on the record. It is a funny album to tour this one because there are a lot of beats on it, a lot of electronics and I’m using London as a very nice and warm test audience, but don’t tell them that though.
I’m getting better and better at using trigger pads, and I use a lot of loops so when I go out solo it is still obviously just me on stage, but very often I effectively create a whole band up there. So you get the effect, and I’ve recently done a gig at Towersey and I brought a whole load of trigger pads, and I did the first track of the album, ‘Nice Normal Woman’, and I was triggering all the beats myself. So, it is an experience and a real joy for me because it is something I haven’t done before and again, it is a learning experience, which I love. It is edge of the seat is this going to work or isn’t it going to work which is great fun, and the audience thinks it is hilarious because very often the loop pedal will go wrong and we all have a big laugh, and pretend it never happened which is perfect.
John Martyn managed to play solo gigs with his basic technology a few years ago.
It is great and very good fun, and for me personally, there is something really empowering about just standing on stage as one person, and it is probably the deepest connection I’ve ever had with an audience is just a completely solo gig. Again, up until 2021, I’d never done that, not once had I stood on a stage on my own. Knowing that I can do it, and not just knowing that but also knowing that the crowd really likes that and they enjoy that connection as well has been hugely important to me. It has been a massive part of me gaining the confidence to know I’ve got something to give in that situation.
You can’t hide anywhere when you are the only person on stage.
Absolutely, but there is something really lovely about that because I do suffer from stage fright and have done for my whole life, and there is always this part of you if you are frightened of going on stage that feels somehow the audience is the enemy, and if not the enemy then they are waiting for you to fail. One thing they taught me when I went on stage on my own was that they are completely on your side, and even when you do fail they are completely on your side, and that is a human moment, a really beautiful thing and we all share it, laugh about it, and then move on together. I still get terrified, don’t get me wrong, but it broke down that fear into don’t be silly, these people are your friends, and actually tonight they are your family. That’s the magic of it.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Definitely one of them would be ‘Hi Ren’ by Ren, which is just an extraordinary track. I’ve just put the song ‘Blessed’ by August Charles on the playlist which is stunning. Fenne Lily is a stunningly good artist. There are so many I could go on forever, we are so lucky to be living in an era with all this incredible music, and those three are just beautiful.
Thea Gilmore and band are at Union Chapel, London, on 12th October.
Thea Gilmore’s ‘Thea Gilmore’ is released on the 17th November on Mighty Village Records.