Gemma Ray

5 May, 2017, The Old Mill, Napier

The Old Mill, Napier, is quite possibly the perfect venue for the intimacy, drama, and retro-stylings of British singer-songwriter Gemma Ray. Main Street hides this local hacienda in a narrow gully that snakes up Napier Hill. Once inside the dated lobby, you take the stairs down to the basement and find yourself in a cavern-like bar richly illuminated by a constellation of gold fairy lights.

When I arrived, Gris-de-Lin, a slight young singer with a large vintage electric guitar (a Hoffman 335 copy, if you’re interested) was already holding the audience’s rapt attention; and this audience, believe me, was here for the music. When local music promoter Jamie McPhail organises a gig, it comes with a loyal clique of followers, music lovers that never allow the music to become simply a background to a social night out – a performer’s dream, no doubt, as Gris-de-Lin agreed afterward: “Often when I’m playing in London, the audiences are quite blasé…” And you can imagine how easily the subtle widescreen atmospherics this talented artist achieves with guitar and loops might be lost in an ordinary bustling club setting. In her lightness and sensitivity of singing and playing she reminded me at times of Joni Mitchell’s drifting travelogues circaHejira”, an echo underlined by the southern States, bluesy tremolos of her guitar work but she also manages to weave into some songs the tough English folk sound that’s lately been explored by PJ Harvey.

When Gemma Ray, in severe black beehive and dress, took the stage, it was with Gris-de-Lin on keyboards and Andrew Zammit on drums. With tempos rarely above morphine, their sound describes the flammable, tattooed American goth-ique of David Lynch’s surreal ‘90s film, Wild at Heart, a world of decadent romance and sudden violence distilled in Chris Isaak’s famous contribution to the film’s soundtrack, Wicked Game. Gemma Ray uses her vintage Harmony guitar like an expressionist steel tool, carving out unpredictable sound, sliding and attacking, using the whammy bar to drive it around dark corners. “Everything’s gone wonky today – I think its me,” she said at one point as feedback interrupted the beginning of a song. Somehow the feedback seemed to underline the songs’ unpredictable melodrama alongside the Hammer Horror keyboards and prowling drums.

This Southern Gothic Blues style is nothing new, of course. You can trace its lineage in various forms through Lee Hazlewood to Mazzy Star to Rowland S Howard, but Gemma Ray inhabits this territory so intuitively that she can bend and cut it into strange new shapes ranging from anxious lullaby to spacious melancholy soundscape. At one point she produced a kitchen knife to bow the strings of her guitar, evoking a simmering domestic violence. But her drama is more often subtle and spare, documentary and lived – “Don’t call me, ‘cos it only makes it worse,” she pleads in a voice smoky, unpolished and close.

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