Thea Gilmore on Making Stuff that Matters
Thea Gilmore doesn’t subscribe to the belief that an artist’s best work comes early in his or her career.
“I think one of the biggest myths in music is that you make your best art when you’re super young,” the prolific British singer/songwriter tells me. “It’s bullshit. Look at Leonard Cohen. He was making some of his best, most vital music just before he died.”
At age 38, Gilmore has a long way to go before anyone accuses her of artistic regression. She released her 16th album, The Counterweight, last year and has released a constant string of must-buy albums since her late 1990s debut.
“My main aim has always been to keep creating one way or another ’til I shuffle off,” Gilmore says. “I want to make stuff that matters, helps people, and makes things a tiny bit better until I’m gone. It’s what I do best and how I can be of the most use. So, living, loving, helping, watching, and, above all, growing are my big plans.”
The Counterweight aims to tell a story, she says.
“Perhaps I’m a woman out of time by using the album as a whole to create a narrative in a world that’s looking for single songs to hit the mark. It might be a bit retro of me, but I love the album as an art form. The Counterweight is trying to bring the listener on a bit of a journey through the ups and downs of personal trouble and out into the wider world to take a look at everything that 2016 specifically threw at us in a global context.”
Gilmore says she wrote mostly personal songs on her previous few albums, and The Counterweight is a departure.
“The Counterweight really fires me back into a social and political commentary frame which, in all honesty, is more my comfort zone. And, truly, how can you not write about the shit that has gone down over the past few years? We’re living in a dystopia that none of us saw coming!”
Gilmore worked on the album’s fourth track, “Reconcile,” as Britain voted to leave the European Union, and recorded the seventh track, “Johnny Gets A Gun,” three days after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. “War,” the 13th and final song on the album, mentions the Orlando tragedy and was inspired by the murder of Jo Cox, a member of the British Parliament.
The slaughter at the Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed and 53 wounded, “was horrific and gut-wrenching,” Gilmore says. “I cannot begin to imagine the pain that people who were caught up in it felt.”
Gilmore doesn’t hide her distaste for guns.
“I have always hated guns,” she says. “They literally make me feel nauseous. Something that can take a life so quickly and from so far away feels inhuman to me. I feel that gun legislation needs to change, and it needs to change fast. There will always be bad people in the world, so it makes sense to make it as difficult as possible to give them access to such an effective, destructive tool.”
Prior to The Counterweight, Gilmore released a 20-song album, Ghosts & Graffiti, in 2015. She considers the album a retrospective.
“It’s me looking in the rearview mirror and to the horizon,” she says. “I revisit and rerecord older songs of mine and set them alongside brand new tracks to tell a story. Plus, it’s got a huge array of amazing guests on it, including Billy Bragg, the Waterboys, Joan Baez, and John Cooper Clarke. They add their special voices to the album, making it a celebration of everything I’ve done.”
With 16 albums recorded, does it seem like time has flown for Gilmore?
“It’s true, and time does fly for sure,” she tells me. “This business is getting heavier and heavier. It has a habit of dragging artists down into it which means a lot of music gets dull ’cos it’s not coming up for air.
“I get bored fast. I like to be constantly moving and be light on my feet. That means, out of necessity, I’ve worked outside the mainstream for a long time, which is hard but lucky, too.”
Another artist who has always worked outside the mainstream, Bob Dylan, was saluted by Gilmore seven years ago when she released an entire cover album of John Wesley Harding.
“It’s not my favorite Dylan album,” she says. “But I get asked to cover Dylan songs a lot, and I’m not really into doing covers unless I feel I can bring something new to the party. John Wesley Harding was the album I almost always went to. It suited my voice and my way of doing things best.”
Gilmore says Dylan’s song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from his classic 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, “literally had me high on lyrics from about the age of 10.”
She marvels at “Dylan’s way of telling a story, but not telling it — of making the audience work and bend and shift position to see it from all the angles.
“His work, at its best, is transformative,” she says. “You come out of it a completely different person. I certainly did anyway!”
Gilmore cites a July 1997 concert by Ani DiFranco at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London as the best one she ever attended. She was 17 years old.
“I don’t think I’d ever been to a gig that made you feel such a part of what was going on onstage,” she recalls. “And to see a woman command a crowd, play the guitar like a demon, and exercise humor, wit, and political engagement. It made me want to be that good. It made me want to do what I’m doing now. I will always be thankful to her for switching on that light in me.”
She points to another concert, however, as the one that most influenced her as a musician. It was a show by Paul Westerberg at the London nightclub Scala in October 2004.
“I’d been a massive fan of the Replacements and Westerberg’s solo work for years, but I’d never come close to him live,” she says. It was a revelation. He was loose and fluid and completely mad. Half the audience joined him onstage on a sofa. That show made me realize that live performance isn’t an us-and-them experience. It taught me that one of the joys of music is the community of it, and the best musicians are as indebted to their audiences for making the shows explosive as they are to themselves. That’s an important lesson for a performer to learn.”