Gemma Hayes: While my guitar was sleeping

After her lauded debut album, Gemma Hayes fell out of love with music. Now she's back, she tells Alexia Loundras
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"I'm sorry," says Gemma Hayes, unleashing a long, feline yawn. Curled up on the raggedy sofa of her Camden rehearsal studio, the singer-songwriter looks the picture of contentment. Taking a break from rehearsing with her band, she stretches out lazily and speaks in long, dawdling sentences punctuated by dreamy, satisfied smiles.

Yet, with Hayes, appearances can be deceptive. Politely drawing her hand across her mouth again, the 28-year-old explains: "I yawn a lot when I'm stressed." You would never guess it, but the Irish ingénue is in the midst of a pre-tour panic.

The singer is about to undertake a 24-date UK and Eire tour to promote her second album, The Roads Don't Love You, and the prospect of playing to packed houses has her nervously excitement.

Hailing from a musical family, Hayes has been a serious performer since she dropped out of university nearly 10 years ago. But the thought of standing in front of a room full of expectant fans, she admits, still quickens her pulse and moistens her palms.

"It's so scary," she says. "That moment when you register the audience, it's like, 'Holy shit!' Having all those people standing there listening and looking at me still freaks me out."

In spite of that admission, you'd have to look very closely to spot any evidence of these nerves when she plays. Seeing her live, you'd never guess from her stage presence that she's anything less than confident and comfortable. The Tipperary lass possesses an easygoing charm - not to mention a sumptuous voice - that is very disarming.

Hayes might be all porcelain prettiness and Zen-like poise on the outside, but inside she's clearly a bundle of fraught emotion. It's a similar story with her album. Recorded in laid-back Los Angeles, The Roads Don't Love You is gilded with golden Californian sunshine. Compared to the stylistic pick'n'mix of her first album, 2002's Night On My Side, this second effort falls squarely into the realm of acoustic-led pop. Rather like Tom Waits's haunting Closing Time married to the feminine pop splendour of Beth Orton and KT Tunstall, it's full of glimmering hooks.

However, the album's effortless aural glory belies the anguish of its conception. This is not the first time an artist has found it difficult to follow up a well-received debut - Night on My Side was nominated for the Mercury Prize - but for Hayes the creative impasse had nothing to do with not being able to write any new songs. She insists that her Mercury nomination gave her all the confidence she needed - she just didn't want to write any new songs.

When Hayes came to make her second album, she found that her relationship with music had changed. "I no longer felt, 'Ah, I'll play the guitar now because I love it,'" she says. "Once I'd put the guitar down after touring that first record, I didn't want to pick it up again, not at all."

Hayes had fallen out of love. "It's like when you have a favourite chocolate bar," she says. "You devour it all the time, and then comes a day when it just makes you sick. And that's what happened. Sick? Sing? The feelings were just merging together."

And, after more than a year of half-hearted and unsuccessful attempts at reconciling with her guitar ("I'd tried to make myself want to write and I hated everything that came out," she says) the singer started seriously to consider packing in music altogether. But the thought of having to go back to her old job working at a Dublin laundrette brought her to her senses. "It made me realise that music is the only thing that gives me pleasure. I just couldn't imagine a life without it. That was the thing that made me think, 'Oh no, no, no - I'm going to make this work.'"

Having firmly committed herself to giving music one last shot, Hayes followed in the steps of all good procrastinators and promptly went on holiday. But it was there, holed up in a holiday cottage in Kerry, that her muse unexpectedly came back to life. While watching EastEnders, Hayes absentmindedly reach-ed for her guitar. "It was the first time in so very long that I picked it up purely for the love of it. And just like that, the sickness was gone - the songs just fell out."

Hayes can't remember what contrived soap cliff-hanger had inspired her but, freed from her self-imposed pressure of expectation, she began to pour several years of tangled emotions into her new creations. As a result, The Roads Don't Love You is filled with gently insistent songs that bubble with an emotional depth that belies their lush sonic exterior.

The Roads Don't Love You is not as musically adventurous as its predecessor, but it was not intended to be. With its glistening production and streamlined feel, Hayes wanted to draw attention to the emotional exorcism in her lyrics. Her tender vignettes are odes to secret infatuation that sigh with a graceful melancholy that's warm enough to wrap yourself up in. "I don't know how to write music that isn't personal," she says. "I can't help it. It's like I'm walking around with an open wound - you let things in that you don't want to and you let things out that you don't want to. I have no control over it. These songs are about all the things I want to say to people, but can't. How else do you tell someone that, just by being with them, they're saving you?"

With The Roads Don't Love You, Hayes has rekindled her passionate love affair with music, and everything about her is blooming as a result. "This is my baby," she says through an infectious grin. "It's everything I hoped it would be."

Her face lights up when she talks about the new album. She is deservedly proud of her record and, despite her anxiety about performing live, she's visibly thrilled to be taking her music out on the road again. "I am so excited," she says, quite unnecessarily. "When I sing these songs, I really feel them and can't wait to have other people feel something when they hear them too - I'd like some involuntary audience participation!"

Her pre-tour nerves are now all but forgotten, replaced instead by a wayward enthusiasm. "I guess I've been storing all this up for too long," she says, a great big smile cracking her delicate features. "I just can't wait any longer. Come on, bring it on!"

Gemma Hayes tours from 7 February ( 'The Roads Don't Love You' is out now on Source