Dave Odlum had reached the end of his tether. Midway through yet another laborious session for the forthcoming Gemma Hayes album, he got up from the mixing desk, walked in silence to the wall and started banging his head against it.
He’d had his fill of the songs. And, says Gemma Hayes, he’d had enough of her too.
“I asked him if he was okay and he eventually said, ‘Gemma, you promised that we would have this album done in three weeks. It’s been a year of working on it, on and off. You’ve got to let it go. I need to move on to other work.”
Hayes, sitting with me in a Dublin hotel, smiles when she recalls the mini-meltdown. But it wasn’t quite so amusing at the time. “I had told him initially that I would have an album ready in three weeks, so I can understand why he got so frustrated.
“I’m sure I’m very irritating to work with. I never know when something is finished. I keep tweaking and tweaking it. I needed someone like David to draw a line in the sand. Otherwise I’d still be working on it.”
The resulting album, The Hollow of Morning, is her first in three years. Gone are the forced mannerisms and super-slick production of her last album, The Roads Don’t Love You. Back are the sort of delicate, finely composed and largely acoustic ballads that made Hayes a force to be reckoned with at the start of the decade.
The album was recorded in Odlum’s Black Box studio in France as well as Hayes’ home in Los Angeles. She’s been based in the City of Angels for three years now, but is glad to be back home, with a new collection of songs in the bag.
“For a long time I thought it would never happen, so it feels really good to be sitting here and talking about a new album.”
She “borrowed” the title from American poet Samuel Menashe. “The hollow of morning is that moment when you’ve just woken, before thoughts and worries and things-to-do come into your head,” she says. “I thought it was the perfect description for what I was trying to evoke — a mellow, spacey mood.”
She admits to concerns about being out of the picture for three years. “Will people still be interested in me? I just don't know. Of course this is a fickle business, but I hope there’s an audience for me out there.”
One thing she is likely to encounter again are the people who think they’ve got her sussed, even when they patently don’t know that much about her.
A colleague, on hearing I was about to interview Hayes, expressed incredulity that “that boring Joni Mitchell-wannabe” was still in the game. When I asked him which of her songs caused him greatest offence, he said he couldn’t remember the names. “I heard a song from her years ago and didn’t like it, so I haven’t bothered with her since.”
Hayes has heard such blinkered views many times. “I don't mind if people actually listen to what I do and then decide that they don’t like it. But to be dismissed out of hand…well, there isn’t much I can say to that.
“I remember a journalist once referred to me as Ireland's answer to Dido. I just thought it was lazy. I mean, my music is very different to hers, but he just looked at me and thought of the blonde hair and the singer-songwriter thing and made the connection.” I ask her if she ever feels objectified — she is, after all, blessed with remarkable good looks.
“Once, somebody from the record company said I could do more with myself. The implication was to get a sexier look that annoyed me. I mean, I’m happy with what I wear and how I present myself.”
Today, she sports a black wool skull cap, a fitted off-white mac and dark blue skinny jeans tucked into short black Ugg boots. Her skin tone betrays a life spent primarily in the Californian sunshine. She’s striking, in an understated way.
She will remain in Ireland for the next few months to promote the album and tour before returning to LA. “I hated it when I first moved there to make my second album, but I met fantastic people that I’m really close friends with. I now realise that a city is only as good as the people you know there.” She lives in the Beechwood Canyon district of the vast metropolis, at the foot of the famous Hollywood sign. “It’s very close to nature which really suits me and I’ve got a massive city on my doorstep as well — it’s the best of both worlds.”
In Ireland, Hayes is dividing her time between her sister’s place in Chapelizod, Dublin, and the family home in Ballyporeen, Tipperary. In the 1980s, the tiny village achieved a modicum of fame as the ancestral home of former US president, Ronald Reagan.
“It’s good to get home to see the folks,” she says. “Much as I like LA now, it can be a ridiculous place and it’s nice to come back to familiar things.”
She says she is proud of how some of her acquaintances from the Irish music scene are doing well in the US right now. “I was really delighted that Glen [Hansard] won the Oscar and Damien [Rice] is still doing really well over there.”
She is particularly enamoured with the recognition Bell X1 are achieving in the US. Frontman Paul Noonan — a drummer at heart — played the drums on The Hollow of Morning and was the credited drummer on her first album, Night On My Side.
“It’s great to see a band get the sort of acclaim they deserve,” she says. “They have worked hard for a long time and I always felt they had the songs to make a serious impression in the US.”
Recognition for Hayes came quite early in her career. Her debut album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and for a time in 2002 she could do no wrong. “I really loved being on Source — it was this Parisian hip-hop label that had released Air and Kings of Convenience. It was exciting to be part of that roster.”
Almost on cue, we realise that the music playing discreetly in the background is Air’s classic chill out album, Moon Safari.
“Those were good days,” she says, wistfully. “I had as much creative control as I needed. But that was never going to last. Source dissolved and was subsumed by Virgin, its parent company. So, I found myself on a major label, which I didn’t want, working with people I didn’t know and didn’t know me. All these big-wigs came in and they were telling me to do this and do that. That happened during the recording of the second album and I could actually feel myself buckling under the pressure.”
The problems intensified when that album, The Roads Don’t Love You, was finished. “The guy that had been working with me was let go and a new guy came in and didn’t like my stuff at all. He said, ‘You only have one single, we won’t do any more videos, the budget for touring is being slashed.” Going from being the darling of a small, hip label to being an also-ran at a major was hard to stomach. “Myself and my manager met this guy and we asked him if we could come to an arrangement where I could get out of the deal and keep my album.
“He said, ‘Well, you can walk away, but we’re keeping the album.’ That was really hard to hear at the time and after all my work. I had to leave my album behind.”
The Roads Don't Love You received decidedly mixed reports. Some had a problem with the glossy production. Others quibbled with the odd strangulated vocal. Was it a case of Gemma Hayes actively striving for the big time? “That’s probably an accurate assessment. I think the songs are good, but they were tooled in such a way as to make them as commercial as possible. I lost my way with that album.”
The new album is far closer in spirit to her early work, not least in it’s melancholy undertones — “that’s so me,” she says, grinning. It’s unlikely to convert those who didn’t like Hayes first time around, although there are songs here that have the potential to catapult her into the sort of league Damien Rice currently operates in.
My favourite song on the album is the penultimate number, At Constant Speed. The following lyric stands out: “I’m beginning to forget you/ I just see an outline/ I’m beginning to forget you/ I hope that's all right.”
“Someone might mean so much to you when you are with them and then you split up and move on with your life,” she explains. “Sometimes there can be a very frightening moment when you think back to the person you were with and you try to picture them in your head and you can’t. That happened to me. I tried to get their face in my head and I couldn’t and I was thinking if everything is so easily forgotten about?”
I ask her if she has concerns about writing lyrics so personal that they could upset the people about whom they’re written. “Obviously, that does pass my mind, but you know what, on the last album somebody thought I was writing about them and I wasn’t. It was a song about letting go and they said to me ‘I didn’t realise you felt that way about it.’ I actually felt awful telling them it wasn’t about them.”
Already, Hayes is thinking of another album — and it’s no idle talk. She has spent much of the past 12 months working with Kevin Shields, the somewhat reclusive frontman of the much-loved My Bloody Valentine, whose reunion has sent certain indie aficionados into a tizzy.
Shields plays guitar on a number of songs on The Hollow of Morning, but it’s the material he is currently working on with Hayes that’s likely to cause genuine excitement. “It’s very much his trademark electric guitar, with loads of feedback,” she says. “I’m singing vocals over that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will work out and the album gets finished and released. Kevin is famous for taking even more time than me on his music.”
Two years ago, Hayes read an interview with Shields in which he expressed admiration for her music. “I was blown away when I saw that,” she says. “I had been a huge My Bloody Valentine fan and to read that he not only know of me, but liked what I did was just incredible. I got in touch and asked him if he wanted to play with me at an acoustic show in London and he said yes. That was the start of it, really.”
Of such little acorns big trees can grow. “That’s what I love about music,” she says, “chance plays such a part. If I hadn’t read that article, I might never have got in touch with him and I would definitely have been working on something very different now.”
The Hollow of Morning is out May 2. Gemma Hayes plays a short Irish tour which begins in Cork’s Cyprus Avenue on Wednesday, April 23, and concludes in Dublin’s Tripod, on Tuesday, April 29. She will also be appearing at Electric Picnic. Go to gemmahayes.com