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Mapping her emotions: Gemma Ray

Gemma Ray on her new album, having fun with multitrack recording and playing the guitar with a kitchen knife. Catch the release of "Psychogeology" Feb 15, 20:00 at Music & Frieden.

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Photo by Alessandra Leimer

Gemma Ray on her new album, having fun with multitrack recording and playing the guitar with a kitchen knife. 

Since she first dabbled in music as a teenager in Essex, Berlin-based musician Gemma Ray has continuously been refining her sound comprised of twang-y guitars, haunting melodies and dreamy vocals lodged somewhere in between vintage 1960s pop, sinister blues and mesmerising psychedelia. On February 15, she celebrates the release of her new album Psychogeology.

You’ve recorded eight albums. What makes Psychogeology special?

It’s really personal and very honest. I really worked hard on the lyrics and bullied myself a lot to communicate more clearly how I was feeling whereas on a lot of my other albums, the lyrics are far more abstract and playful. I also continued with that thread on the arrangements and the production. So much of the energy and emotion can change depending on how the mastering is done. So, if I meant something slightly ironically or funny, I tried to make sure the music had that joy and energy.

How was the writing process?

I wrote a lot of the songs on various little road trips on tour. Emotions and landscapes were really luring and feeding off each other. Being in constant transit conjures up so many memories as well. I don’t think there was much that I wrote in a stationary position. In Berlin, I don’t crave nature so much. I wake up every day and go to the studio, working on music in a dark room without a window. So, it’s kind of the polar opposite which I also love, shutting the door and feeling isolated.

How did you start playing your guitar with a knife?

In my flat in London 10 years ago, I had a long pipe that I was using in my little studio room to make noise with open tuning. I lost it and in a rush tried to find another object, and the kitchen knife was the first thing that I found. Then, I just stuck to heavy kitchen knives because they make the particular kind of tone I was after.

Vocal harmonies are another one of your trademarks.

Since I’ve learnt how to multitrack stuff my whole world expanded. I just couldn’t stop, and the harmonies grew out of that. Sometimes I feel like I’m in multiple characters. I’ll chuck in the cheeky girl in the back of the choir that can’t sing to make it more real, or maybe two girl group backing singers giving the responses to the lead singer. It’s like acting in a way.

What kind of music are you influenced by?

I like to listen to a lot of soundtracks. The idea of separating image and music and appreciating them in a different way really appeals to me. I’ve been listening a lot to The Conversation by David Shire recently. In the past I listened more to John Barry or Krzysztof Komeda. That claustrophobic dry double-bass from [Roman Polanski’s] Fearless Vampire Killers has been a constant reference.

Have there been profound turning points in your career?

Recording on my own has really changed my world. I was quite sick for a long time, not able to go out and rehearse, interact that much socially, meet musicians to form bands with. So, I borrowed my boyfriend’s multitrack digital recorder. I had always written on my own, but I had never sat down and experimented with recording. I felt such extreme joy and pleasure, adding ideas 100 percent on my own. Everything I do now is still pretty similar.

Gemma Ray Feb 15, 20:00, Musik & Frieden, Kreuzberg