In the cockney rhyming slang lexicon there really should be an entry marked “Gemma Ray” that translates to “The Hard Way” for the sultry Essex singer’s career is one filled with false starts, battles with illness and sheer bloody mindedness. Her first foray into the music world leading the Gemma Ray Ritual produced two albums in the mid 2000s that were largely ignored (and are now out of print). Then she was knocked sideways by the cruel condition known as ME and after struggling to record her first solo release The Leader, due to that illness, saw it greeted by indifference. Her luck started changing last year after her cinematic take on blues, rock and pop Light’s Out Zoltar! and the Latin infused single “100 mph (in 2nd gear)” saw her tour all over the world including Australia. While here she made an appearance on ABC’s music quiz show Spicks and Specks — surely Gemma is the only person who could make singing from the Golden Circle cook book sexy.

Ray has just released an album of stripped back, bluesy covers It’s a Shame About Ray (Webcuts review) which draw its song pool from classic rock, jazz and blues artists like Buddy Holly, Lee Hazelwood, Etta Fitzgerald and Etta James, alternative icons Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and The Gun Club, and a few surprises by The Obits, Gallon Drunk and Shirley Bassey. Webcuts catches up with the brunette with the beehive while she was touring South Africa to talk knives, the new album, Rosemary’s Baby, her ill will songwriting and the possible recording of new material.

I’ve got to first ask about the knife you use as a guitar slide. There was an incident in Oslo where you injured yourself with that knife wasn’t there?

Yes, I did a show in Oslo — I use a knife to make beautiful noises, in a nice transcendent way — and on the last song of the set I stabbed it into the stage but by hand slid down the handle and the knife cut my hand. I didn’t realize how bad it was and before I got to the backstage room I passed out and they had to take me to hospital and get stitched up.

The knife is just a means to an end really. I used to use a guitar slide to resonate on the strings because I use an open tuning but it wasn’t quite long enough, I’d stab at the strings and it made ugly sounds so I needed to find something longer and the knife was the first thing I found in the kitchen… It does the job.

You’ve just released an amazing covers album which was recorded in New York in three days between Christmas and New Years last year. When the idea for that come did about, was it somewhere between the turkey and Christmas pudding?

(laughs) Yeah it was post Christmas pudding: “I’m going to do record an album!”

It wasn’t an idea as such; it was more of a happy accident. I made friends with Matt Verta-Ray (a member of Heavy Trash with Jon Spencer) who’s got a great analogue studio in New York and he invited me to record a couple of tracks for fun. We both enjoyed it so much he invited me to come back and do more so I got a cheap flight for Christmas and spent a couple of days there and it turned into an album. I just liked the thought of something being spontaneous and in the moment without having a definite objective. Matt’s set up has a great sound, he’s got these great old amps and we did it live pretty much.

Were you surprised how fast you could cut an album and get it released?

The label really liked it and wanted to release it. While everything I record means something to me this isn’t a big statement to the world it’s just something I enjoyed doing and hope other people enjoy it too. It was cathartic because it’s so stripped down, usually when recording my songs I go nuts and track everything up ten times, so it was an nice change. I’m on an independent label (Bronzerat) who are great because they don’t do everything by the book, they’re quite spontaneous and I think for both of us it just felt right to throw it out there and see what people thought.

You mentioned you’d been playing some of the songs in your live set. Have all the songs on It’s a Shame… been played in concert?

There were only a couple that I had been playing live, “I’ve got a Crush on You” and “Put a Bolt In the Door” were the two that I had recorded in October as an off the cuff late night session, but that’s all. I’ve been playing some of the others at home, knocking around with them for a couple of years and some are totally new. But most of them chose me in a way; they were in my head or came into my life, particularly the Shirley Bassey track (“Hey Big Spender”). I don’t really like her but my best friend passed away and she was a theatrical, glamorous girl and her family chose to have that song played at her cremation, so I had it stuck in my head. That’s why it struck me to totally take the glamour out it and record it in a slightly warped way. Some songs just came into my life, it wasn’t like “oh I love that song I have to cover it” but a couple of them are certainly hats off to bands that I like.

There’s a couple in particular that stand out for me. “Rosemary’s Baby Vs Drunken Butterfly” which juxtaposes the melody from the theme to Rosemary’s Baby with lyrics from Sonic Youth’s “Drunken Butterfly”. How did the idea to combine those two come about?

It was a happy accident really. I’m a big fan of Krzysztof Komeda the composer who has scored most of Roman Polanksi’s films and I absolutely love the theme from Rosemary’s Baby. I had been playing that tune to myself, and I had also wanted to cover a Sonic Youth song but I wasn’t doing any of them justice. One day I had the lyrics to “Drunken Butterfly” written out in front of me and I just sung that along with the guitar at home and I really liked the way they fit together, I think it sounds like a creepy stalker song, but it wasn’t a master plan.

Have you ever merged the lyrics of one song with the melody of another before?

No. It was just the fact that a piece of paper was placed in my eyesight at a certain time. That’s what I love about music there’s these random little moments that you can’t control but you have the pleasure of capturing.

Gemma Ray by Sarah Dawson

I’m also curious how you discovered Gallon Drunk?

Well I was a bit young when they were at their peak (early ‘90s – Ed) but I remember going to a concert a couple of years ago and they just blew me away. They were everything that music should be for me: edgy, dangerous and passionate. It felt cathartic, like being in a Church. I very loosely got to know some members of the band through common friends but I was more of a fan really. I thought they’d done a killer album with The Rotten Mile (2007) which had “Put a Bolt In the Door” on it. I changed it to “Put a Bolt On the Door” but I think they like it.

I saw them in 2000 headlining an indie festival at the Scala in London and their mix of punk, blues and soul was a revelation.

Oh did you! God I’d love to have seen them then. If I’d seen them in 2000 it would’ve changed my life but where I come from you don’t get many underground bands.

For the older songs that you cover were they influenced by your parent’s record collection at all?

No (laughs), my parents are not musically inclined. But my dad had a Country Great’s cassette that had Buddy Holly on it that he used to play in his pick up truck when he picked me up from Brownies or school or whatever. So the Buddy Holly song I kind of did it for my Dad even though he probably wouldn’t like it because it’s a depressing version — “Why can’t you make happy music? In our day everyone made happy music”.

Have you got any feedback from any of the artists?

I must admit because it was so unplanned it was a bit of an afterthought to ask if anyone minded. I heard from Rick Froberg from The Obits, he and his band really liked it (“SUD” appeared on The Obits’ 2009 album I Blame You). Also Thurston Moore and Kim Gorden liked “Drunken Butterfly”, they said nice things via e-mail. A lot of people aren’t around unfortunately. I’d like to get in touch with Lloyd Price as he’s such a great songwriter but I haven’t attempted that yet. Although I wouldn’t assume that every artist will automatically like my version or be even be flattered by them.

I couldn’t help but be struck by your experiences with ME/CFS, something I’ve suffered from for a decade now myself. It obviously impacts all parts of someone’s life but I was wondering how it affected your songwriting in particular?

It made me more focused. I’ve made music since I was fifteen and it’s been a slow journey because I’ve kept my own style along the way but I was going out and getting drunk more often and seeing friends. As you’ve probably experienced, when it hit me bad I couldn’t really do that, not without losing a month to recover. So when I was at my worst it made me record the two records because the only thing I could do was sit at home and play guitar. I was pretty ill when I recorded The Leader and I had to have short sessions and stick to one or two takes, I couldn’t be such a perfectionist. It gave that album a certain character, it’s a lot scrappier and I like the charm of that.

With Lights Out Zoltar! I started to get a bit better and in the studio I’d find a guitar amp room or cupboard and take in a pillow and quilt and take a rest every few hours. So it really focused me and those rests which I wouldn’t have needed normally gave me a lot of clarity on judging the music I was recording and that really became a powerful tool. It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray is the first one where I didn’t have to have more than one rest per session as I’ve been getting better, touch wood.

That’s fantastic to hear. So are you recording any new songs?

Yeah I’m halfway through writing and recording my new album. I started that in Australia in April, when I couldn’t leave because of the Icelandic volcano. I spent a week in a studio in Australia and recorded four songs and then for doing a festival in Norway I was given a studio for two weeks in this remote island which was so idyllic I can’t even describe it. So I’m ten tracks into my new album, but I don’t have a fixed address at the moment so I’m trying to beg and borrow studio time wherever I go. That impromptu aspect is going to be a very big part of the next album.

What direction are the songs heading towards, I’d assume they’re lusher than It’s a Shame..?

Yes it’s definitely going to be a big production. It’s a big step up from what I’ve done before but there’s still similar threads. I won’t give too much away because god knows how it’ll turn out, but it will be fresh and vibrant, and upbeat… it certainly feels more upbeat.

We’ll leave you, dear reader, with an acoustic version of one of the tracks from It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray, a sparse, decidedly non-punk take on The Gun Club’s “Ghost on the Highway”. Thanks to Gemma for her time and enthusiasm and head to Gemma’s MySpace for more Rays of light

Photos: Louis Vorster (top), Sarah Dawson (portrait, thumbnail)