“The reluctant politician”, a term we’ve all heard before to describe an ordinary individual fall into politics and succeed. But what about the “reluctant music star”? This descriptor might best describe UK singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore, who has been writing music and performing for nearly twenty years and in that span has released 14 – now 15 – albums. In that time, she’s established a strong, loyal following around the UK and parts of Europe and North America, but she has never quite achieved superstardom. The main reason for that is Gilmore’s desire to create music that raises people’s awareness on social issues and challenges them. She also crafts music that is meant to move people emotionally. This formula, though, doesn’t always yield mainstream success because Gilmore doesn’t rely upon electronic beats, standard pop arrangements, or repetitive choruses that everyone could sing along to.
Despite all this, Gilmore has established a reputation among her peers as being a tremendous singer and songwriter. This is evidenced by the numerous guests on album #15, Ghosts & Graffiti (iTunes (UK/US/CAN), Amazon (UK/US/CAN)), a compilation of songs from her 17-year career that have been remastered and some even re-worked. Billy Bragg, Joan Baez, and The Waterboys are just some of the names who make appearances on this album.
Will the release of her latest album, Ms. Gilmore discussed her longevity in music, why mainstream success has alluded her, and what this “milestone” means, if anything at all.
Hi Ms. Gilmore. It’s a pleasure to be speaking to one of the UK’s most distinguished artists.
Flattery will get you everywhere…
That’s good to know! You’re about to release album #15. What does this milestone mean to you? And how do you plan to celebrate?
I guess it means you can’t keep a gobby girl quiet. It’s funny really but I don’t really think of albums as milestones. This one is a celebration in itself because its re-examining old songs as well as new, but album #16 will be just as important.
I understand, however, that this album will be a Greatest Hits of sorts, but you’ve been reluctant to release such an album. So what convinced you to now release Ghosts & Graffiti, which is a Greatest Hits of sorts and what are the “twists”?
I don’t like Best Ofs or Greatest Hits because when you’ve released 14 albums, there are a lot of opposing views on what your “bests” and “hits” actually are. I’ve been asked a lot to make a Best Of and always resolutely refused.
But this time, I started to think about some of my old work that I still play and that has changed so much from when I first wrote it. Songs are like that – they have lives and twists and angles to them that sometimes you only find after the 30th time you’ve played them. As such, I decided it would be interesting to re-record some of my songs and sit them alongside some new ones, partly as a way of introducing them to new people – a lot of whom have come along due to my last album Regardless or the project I did with Sandy Denny’s estate – and partly to make versions more relevant to me now. On this album, I invited a host of brilliant collaborators to join me, to give perspective and to open the process out.
Who are some of the guests that will be on the album?
There are a lot of great artists on this record: Billy Bragg, Joan Baez, The Waterboys, John Cooper Clarke, King Creosote, John Bramwell from I Am Kloot and my friend Neil Gaiman did the sleeve notes. It’s quite a party.
Basically, on a scale of 5, 5 being incredible, life changing music and 1 being incredibly dull, the mainstream looks for the perfect 3. That way they can’t offend anyone and its the perfect music to cook a casserole to. I’ve never wanted to be casserole music. Maybe I enjoy offending too much.
With nearly 20 years in this business, you’ve established quite a following yet at the same time are somewhat unknown. For instance, it took you until album #14 to crack the Top-40 charts. How did you feel when you heard the news?
It was an achievement for sure, but chart position really isn’t the most important measure of success. Longevity is. I bet we can all think of a hundred acts who made it top-ten and disappeared within 5 years. The artists who are still releasing beyond that point are the ones who are really successful in my eyes.
What do you think has been your biggest obstacle to achieving mainstream success?
Disinterest in the mainstream I would imagine. You’ve got to be obsessed with making music tailored to the broadest base of people. I once heard it described as the “perfect 3”. Basically, on a scale of 5, 5 being incredible, life changing music and 1 being incredibly dull, the mainstream looks for the perfect 3. That way they can’t offend anyone and its the perfect music to cook a casserole to. I’ve never wanted to be casserole music. Maybe I enjoy offending too much.
I’ve described you as the UK’s version of Bonnie Raitt. Is this apropos?
I’m not too up on Bonnie’s music or activity to be honest, so I’m not best qualified. She’s 30 years older than me so was making music in a kinder time I think. The industry was less saturated and the joy of just making music was still very much alive. People were so enthused and driven by music in the 70s. It takes a lot to mobilise an audience these days.
You’re very politically and socially active. With an election in the UK just ended, what to you are the three most important issues that need to be addressed?
Apathy, Apathy, Apathy. Political parties need to engage at a deeper level with the disenfranchised electorate. That’s a pipe dream, though. Politicians are more comfortable with a disengaged electorate because it means that they have to please less people in order to be in power. That’s why I bang on so much about people using their vote. You’re not making a statement by abstaining; you’re just amping up the volume of someone else’s vote and you’re making life easier for politicians. Make them earn their money by making them answerable to the broadest possible voice of the British public. We are an amazing country, we are so lucky to live in a democracy where we have the right to vote, and we deserve to be properly represented.
Would you – or even have you – consider running for office? And if so, what would your platform be?
No. I’d be a dreadful politician, as I’m too volatile. I’d get too frustrated with the process. There are people out there who are perfectly suited to that job and I’m not one of them. I prefer to ask questions.
But let’s say you did run for office, what song would you choose for your campaign?
There’s a song somewhere called “Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too” isn’t there? That would be it I think.
Let’s assume you’re Prime Minister. What other socially and politically active musicians would you like to include in your Cabinet and what ministry or portfolio would they be responsible for?
I’d enlist Billy Bragg and then resign immediately so he could do the job. I’m not sure a cabinet of musicians would run the country too well, but I’d definitely back Billy to take the PM post and nail it.
Final question, which is with respect to Joan Baez. What did it mean to be asked to go on tour with her, given her importance in the folk scene?
It was a great honour as you can imagine. I didn’t really expect to see much of her, but she made us so welcome on that tour. She is such a giving person and so prepared to help out other musicians. It was an experience I wont forget.
Songs are like that – they have lives and twists and angles to them that sometimes you only find after the 30th time you’ve played them.
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