Thea Gilmore – Don’t follow leaders
At 21, Thea Gilmore already has released three albums. But Rules For Jokers is the British singer-songwriter’s U.S. debut (released in September on Compass Records), and the disc arrives accompanied by the obligatory folder full of hyperbolic U.K. press clippings.
This time the hype appears warranted. Gilmore has a husky, lilting alto, and her songs are earnest and memorable, filled with evocative images and wordplay. Whether she’s calling out the emptiness of consumer culture or taking a long hard gaze in the mirror (as in the self-implicating, and royally pissed, “The Things We Never Said”), her music expands the typical singer-songwriter palette to a full band, featuring cello and organ and the rollicking electric licks of Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh.
Gilmore’s sound and sense are most clearly reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, influences she’s been absorbing her entire life. “I was brought up in a house where it was pretty much the norm to be wandering around with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ blaring out the windows,” she says. “This was in the mid-’80s, when we had New Kids On The Block on the radio here, and Bros, a terrible, terrible brother duo. When you compared that stuff to what I was listening to at home, I could sense that the one was trying to tell me something while this other was just telling me they’ve dumped their girlfriend.”
Like her father’s folk-rock favorites, Gilmore strives to do more in her songs than simply sing about dumping or being dumped. And she hopes to do more with her music, as limited a platform as that may currently be, to question the values of the music industry itself. “Although I’m still very much on the periphery of it, I feel quite stifled by mainstream pop and the way the industry’s gone, especially the marketing side of it,” she says. “It’s all so cynical now. It’s all hits by numbers.”
Gilmore best articulates that critique with images that haunt and with melodies that, necessarily, encourage singing along. In “Apparition No. 12”, a rocking rant that’s half nightmare, half prophecy, Gilmore hurtles desperately through a righteous litany of social and spiritual ills. “I heard the radio sneeze into the evening, and all the bat-squeak singers selling fake hope to the sleeping,” she testifies. Her voice is spiked with precisely the sort of venom she’s betting we’ve all tasted.
“Sure, some people will look at me and say, ‘Oh, get off your soapbox.’ But you have to risk that,” she says. “At the end of the day, if I was just singing love songs then I wouldn’t be using the voice I have to try and change things. I’d like to see us wake up and not be led around by the nose by those in positions of financial power.
“I believe there is a fighting spirit, a revolutionary spirit, in every single person. The more you probe and ask questions and wonder why, the more alive you are.”