Sultry English crooner Gemma Ray has slowly been casting a strange spell on the indie powers-that-be since the release of her 2008 album The Leader. Her second album, Lights Out Zoltar! (2009) was named for the fortune-telling dummy inside electronic psychic reading boxes on piers and arcades, and took on mysticism, science and old-timey magic as it comes at you through flickering images from a scratched black-and-white news reel. Her songs manage to hark back to a time you remember but certainly weren't fully alive to. It's the well-trotted paradox of the uncanny: the familiar and yet foreign. Somehow Gemma Ray pulls it off, crafting work that is both indie in its aesthetic but loungey in feel.
The chanteuse is back now with a covers album, one that even sports a Lemonheadish cover title: It's a Shame About Gemma Ray. What makes Shame different from the glut of version albums every other act puts out when they have a contractual hole between bouts of inspiration is that Ray allegedly performed her peculiar arrangements of her eclectic selection entirely from memory. That's right: In the age of Google and ubiquitous iPhone fact-checking, the singer resisted the urge to look up the “proper” lyrics and instead used her lapses in memory as a way to reinvent the songs.
It also helps that Ray has impeccable taste in her choice of repertoire. There's not a cliché in sight: She digs Gun Club (who doesn't?), Lee Hazlewood and Lloyd Price, and when she does Peggy Lee or Etta James, she steers clear from “Fever” and “At Last” and instead goes for “Big Spender” and “I'd Rather Go Blind.” She also gets bonus points for marrying the melody of Mia Farrow's lullaby in Rosemary's Baby to the lyrics of Sonic Youth's “Drunken Butterfly.”
L.A. WEEKLY: What made you decide to cover “Touch Me I'm Sick” by Mudhoney? It seems like you took the most artistic license with that song.
GEMMA RAY: I don't think it was that pretentious. I didn't try to cover anything in that sort of way. It was mostly stuff that was stuck in my head at certain times in my life, I guess, and stuff I always sort of wanted to play around with. It wasn't as if I went through my record collection and tried to decide what to do or show the world what I like or don't like. I think I heard the Sonic Youth cover of that song at a really young age when I was living in Essex, where there was hardly any kind of culture going on and a friend of mine had a seven inch of Sonic Youth covering Mudhoney's “Touch Me I'm Sick.” I think it got stuck in my head or something, and I think it was a very basic time when lyrics were sort of ugly and it sounded a bit like a scratch record and I started playing around with it recently and there it is.
Without trying to derail your mystique — your name, is it self-appointed or did your parents just see that they had a really great opportunity there?
No, they went through many names, some of them quite off the wall. I think one of them was Indie, like Indigo, and this one seemed to make the most sense.
Do you ever get confused for Gamma Ray, the heavy metal band?
Yeah, in Germany sometimes because they sort of sound my name Gamma with a Ga and not Gemma with a Ge. I rather sort of like it. It's a nice juxtaposition.
Were you aware of the Gamma Ray growing up?
Well, yes, one becomes aware. I think it pretty much sums me up.
I was curious because you worked with Mark Lanegan on Lights Out Zoltar! and there's a very subtle, almost Nick Cave, Portishead, PJ Harvey vibe on the album. Is this something you hear in your music?
I certainly like the bands you just mentioned and I really leave it up for other people to interpret so it kind of makes sense that you would hear that. I was definitely weaned on that Portishead album, their first one, from such a young age, because of my older sister, and it just sort of got stuck in my system somewhere. I don't think there's a real electronic beat in there but it's not something I'd rule out. I'll probably do it at some point, I'm sure.
I read that as a child you loved dinosaurs. Is this still true? What is your favorite dinosaur?
I've got a bit of a soft spot for a diplodocus, I think. Just because he's got a tiny brain and always seems to be a bit off-kilter, kind of like he's a bit misunderstood. He's got the really long neck and a brain supposedly the size of an egg. I always thought they must be kind of cute.
New research suggests that dinosaurs perhaps had more in common with birds than with lizards.
Yeah. I was in Australia recently and although they aren't that much different than the birds we've got in the U.K. they had a real sort of dinosaur vibe. I really saw that connection more in Australia. I can sort of see it in how they are built structurally and in how they move. Not that I've ever seen a dinosaur move, but you know how I would imagine.
You recorded Lights Out Zoltar! with the help of hypnosis tapes. Is there any other type of similar activity that you adhere to, some type of mysticism?
Well that album was a lot about science versus superstition, and I actually really like the power of the word superstition. I've worked with a lot of hypnosis and a lot of meditation, and not in a hippie way, but in a kind of experiment where I conserve my energy because I wasn't feeling very well at the time and it was kind of the only way I could get through the day recording and — as a happy accident of that — it put me in a good place. I hate talking about it because I don't want to sound like some kind of annoying hippie, but I really think it's just great and gets your mind in a really receptive, open place, and I sort of got all the rubbish out of there.
You were quoted as saying you were going to 'Tear a new hole in Texas' during SXSW. Mission accomplished?
Yeah, I think so! I didn't really indulge in the festival too much. I just kind of did my shows and I really enjoyed those, and my friend that I was staying with had a really nice backyard and big Rottweiler so I kind of was really happy just drinking brew in the yard with the dog.
What do you miss most about London when you're on the road?
I miss my sauerkraut really. I love sauerkraut and can't find much of it in the States. I miss my food things. That's another clue to my rock & roll lifestyle there. Aside from that, I don't really miss too much because I'm not really settled at the moment. I'm moving out of my flat currently. And really, I guess I miss London in the summer. It's got sun and the snow and it sort of has that old, antiquated feeling — a nice, Victorian grimy edge that anything can happen. But when it's grim it can be a bit too grim.
I just sort of am looking forward to getting to L.A. and not really doing anything. I guess that isn't a very inspired thing to part on.
No, no, it's fine. L.A. welcomes you to come and turn your brain off.
Yes, I suppose it is a safe place to turn off your brain.
Ray presents It's a Shame About Gemma Ray at the Redwood Bar June 18; at Origami Vinyl, June 22; and at the Hotel Café June 23.
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