Now don't you think something's gonna happen soon / It's been so long since they changed that tune -- "Juliet (Keep That in Mind)"
Barely 24, Thea Gilmore has released five albums since being "discovered" at the studios of the legendary British folk ensemble Fairport Convention. Believing the industry "has lost that sense of experimentation and rawness that once made it such a powerful force," and that independence is crucial to her artistry, Gilmore released her first three albums on her own Shameless label before signing a U.S. distribution deal with Nashville indie Compass Records.
With edgy, provocative titles like Burning Dorothy, The Lipstick Conspiracies, As If and Rules for Jokers, each record has expanded Gilmore's reputation as a literate and determinedly stiff-necked rising star. Avalanche, her latest release, lifted her into the British pop charts for the first time. Four major labels have tendered deals, but as appealing as fame and fortune may be, Gilmore abhors the idea of accountants' manipulating her artistic direction.
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"The whole indie thing is necessary for me because I need the freedom to make music in the way that feels right at the time. I don't want someone telling me I can't record a song because it doesn't sound like the last one I recorded. The industry is a perpetual battle between 'worthy' and 'commercial,' and if you want to be in it you have to take it on face value -- or two-faced value, as is so often the case. That's not to say you shouldn't try to change it, though.
"I'd like to see the balance of pop domination to interesting rock shift in the latter's favor because I think it would make for a more interesting, organic and ultimately more productive industry. Pop has its place, and I can bop to it with the best of 'em. It just doesn't change things in the way that music has the capacity to."
The self-described control freak says the only way for her to work is to stay true to herself. "If you find the decisions you're making are making you feel nauseous, then stop and try again."
Her independent streak brought a cease and desist order from Mattel Corporation last year for using a collage of Barbie Doll images to "depict the vacuous nature of pop stardom" on her UK single "Mainstream," and she recently sent shockwaves through the British music industry by making her own music video for a measly $35 -- about 60 bucks. Instead of the usual lavish over-the-top production, she used security cameras in a London record store to film herself "shoplifting" CDs. The minimalist black-and-white video exhibited a punk attitude that provided an additional boost to Gilmore's maverick reputation and indie cred. The thrifty Gilmore also objects to "obscene amounts of money being spent just to appease some spotty kid on a music channel who'll never play the thing anyway," as she puts it.
"I just don't like big vids. Also, I didn't want an invoice for $30,000 worth of hot air to show up on my royalty statement!"
While Gilmore "grew up in the Fairport belt of Oxfordshire" and began her music career interning at the Fairport studios ("I fancied doing my school work placement there, and it was round the corner from where I lived"), that band wasn't an important influence. "Mixing a big festival like Cropredy [Fairport's own production] with a young teenager like me was bound to breed something interesting, but they don't really figure in my artistic direction. The folk in my music tends to be more American-influenced. I was always very drawn to Woody Guthrie, songs of struggle and overcoming. They were inspirational, while English folk -- pretty maids in cornfields -- never really did it for me, although some of the Sandy Denny-era Fairport must've seeped in somewhere."
She credits her parents with supplying her musical and literary foundation.
"My dad is a very inquisitive guy, always reading and looking for new ideas and thoughts. He and my mum loved me writing stories when I was young, and they encouraged me to write well. Couple that with their healthy love of Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and you have a winning formula. Dad is a chiropractor, and he has a much more alternative take on life, particularly medicine. I think it's quite a rare person who keeps challenging the norm the older they get. Most people settle with what is comfortable, which breeds apathy. Comfort is the enemy."
Looking at the current British musical landscape, Gilmore, who says her audience ranges "from age 15 to 50 and beyond," describes herself as "a fairly cynical and disillusioned girl."
"I just don't get excited by all these bands who sound the same and these songwriters who talk about 'elusive love.' There really are no brand-new young acts -- acts that the marketing gurus would assume I should like, being 24 -- that have anything to say. I get so bored of the same record coming out of different bands. With my short attention span, unless someone can hit me with a tune or a lyric that pulls my guts through my mouth and stamps on them with stilettos, I turn off very quickly. There's a band called I Am Kloot around Manchester near where I live who [have] incredible, brilliant lyrics, great tunes. But apart from them, I have to take refuge in people like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen or Paul Westerberg to get my musical kicks."
Gilmore met Avalanche producer Nigel Stonier during her internship, and both a professional and private relationship grew. Stonier has become a key cog in the Gilmore sound and touring band.
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"Nigel plays a massive part in everything I do. He is the first to hear new songs, the only one who understands totally where I'm coming from as a writer and a person. We really are more of a duo in a lot of ways. He influences everything I do." He has also colored her music with a few loops and some interesting synthesizer parts that add appeal without glossing over what is in essence a fairly rough and vigorous sound.
The uncompromising singer has never been to the States. But, she says, "I have never been looking forward to a tour as much as I am this one. Apart from most of my musical and literary heroes being from the U.S., I've always felt that, as a musician, Americans are much more open and much less likely to write me off as just another girl with a guitar."
The centerpiece of Gilmore's maiden U.S. tour is South By Southwest in Austin, and she's not quite sure what she expects in the Live Music Capital of the World.
"I'm trying not to head out there with any preconceived ideas. I suppose big is probably the word that pops into my head most when I think about it. When I try to think about just how big Texas is, my brain turns all mushy and I have to think about something simple, like whether to have fish and chips or chili for dinner."