If I was pushed into compiling a list – I wouldn’t take much pushing, I like lists – of singer-songwriters I admire, Thea Gilmore would be right up there. If I had to name any under the age of thirty, she might well be on her own. Still only twenty-nine, she’s just released her ninth album (and her first live one), which is not counting occasional EPs. Her first album, Burning Dorothy, appeared when she was only nineteen. And she is a terrific live act, too, as I discovered with ease a couple of years ago when looking at her tour-list, and spotting that, in addition to a host of capital cities and large towns, she was also playing Sandford. Sandford is the next Devon village along from me. I thought I might be hallucinating when I saw it, but it was true, and it was a little like having summoned up a star for a private performance.
The new album, Recorded Delivery, which is half-acoustic, half-electric, includes one of her best songs, previously only available by watching her home video on YouTube. It’s called You And Frank Sinatra:
Gilmore is a prolific writer, as her output suggests (one of her albums, Songs From The Gutter, included not just a couple of ‘bonus tracks’, but an entire bonus CD’s worth of material). You can tell from her style and attack that she’s spent a great deal of her childhood listening to records, and that Dylan (in his more hectic moods) and Joni Mitchell have been in the mix somewhere (she can do that upwards octave jump in her voice at will). But her style is an interesting English take on what is usually described as alt(ernative).country – her voice is often somewhere in the Shawn Colvin/ Mary Chapin Carpenter/ Jess Klein area – you probably won’t have heard of Klein, whom I also admire, but it seems to me significant that Gilmore was supported by Erin McKeown, a Klein collaborator, on her last album, Liejacker. She’s more assertive for the most part than they are, and a lot more lyrically interesting:
Through the iron winter/ To the fires of June/ Through the five o’clock skyline/ To the deadlocked moon/ There’s a flickering figure dancing alone/ Making her junk picture out of rags and bones … (‘Rags and Bones’ – originally on Avalanche, and reprised on the new album)
Her songs are generally dark, although her stage personality could hardly be more approachable. She towers over her audience (she is tall) but doesn’t glower over them. She is also an exceptionally good cover artist – one wonderful short album, Loft Music, consists entirely of really novel takes on songs you thought you knew inside out – what she does with ‘Ever Fallen In Love?’ by Pete Shelley (The Buzzcocks) is astonishing: slow, dreamy, wistful. And her musical partnership (and marital) with her producer and guitarist Nigel Stonier plainly anchors her.
Joan Baez has already snapped her up as an ideal opener for her shows, and the Baez imprimatur has to be earned the hard way. The main thing about Gilmore, however, is that she has no obvious interest in succumbing to cheap limelight. She is a class act, and true to herself. If the live album does its job, it should send you back to her earlier material – I can’t say I have a favourite, either. I just like them all.