Why is one of Britain's most accomplished songwriters not better known? Will her latest release redress that injustice? These are the questions customarily raised whenever a new Thea Gilmore album arrives.
Now aged 30, the singer/songwriter from Oxfordshire has toiled on the margins for over a decade, often on albums repeatedly touted as the one that should earn her mainstream acceptance. In a timeline on her website, Gilmore describes two as "alleged 'breakthrough'" records – 2001's spiky Rules For Jokers and 2003's more thoughtful Avalanche.
The solo artist releases her ninth full-length studio album this month, and it's an unexpected bonus to report that Murphy's Heart contains some of her most accessible work to date.
Sitting on a leather sofa in an office off London's Carnaby Street, Gilmore is dressed all in black, a reminder perhaps that all is not sweetness and light on her latest album. Still, the unashamedly romantic "You're the Radio" is her most wireless-friendly single to date, while long-term Gilmore-watchers will probably be gobsmacked by the lustful "Teach Me to Be Bad" – "No, I'm not hard to please/ Boy get on your knees".
Nowadays pop is littered with barely hidden double entendres and graphic sexual imagery, but over the past nine years Gilmore has avoided lust and treated love as a minefield scattered with mantraps. "I've found it a lot easier to be happy in song all of a sudden and it's made my writing more mature and less fearful," she explains. "There's something about hitting 30, having a kid and suddenly not being frightened to talk about it or having to apologise for those feelings. When you're in your teens or your twenties, you feel that if you allow yourself to let them show you'll look soft, while now I think it's the toughest thing you can experience. You want to be all hard and dark when you're younger, but now I just want to tell the truth."
Gilmore readily admits that erecting such a facade was actually a defence mechanism. "I've had many, that wasn't the only one. Using as many words as I possibly could was a way of putting walls up between me and other people. Lyrical dexterity meant no one knew what I was really feeling and I battled that for quite a long time. It was a process of looking at what I was writing, paring it down and peeling away the layers. Where's the truth? What are you trying to say? For the first time, really, the core of these songs, you can see right through to the centre of them."
Over the past decade, Gilmore has fought depression and finally settled down with her long-term producer and partner Nigel Stonier. Now she seems able to let down her guard and write about personal feelings.
"It ended up being a love album and I wasn't planning that at all," the artist admits. The breakthrough came with "Wondrous Thing", one of the songs that refers to the birth of their son, Egan, now three-and-a-half years old. "It is unreservedly positive and it wasn't a song I was intending to write, but I suddenly became aware I was talking about having a kid and I was so anti that – everybody writes one – but I managed to get into it the absolute terror that most people feel when [babies] arrive and you're totally responsible for someone else's life. You feel that this massive thing has happened to you and that the whole world should stop and look in on you and say 'wow', but it doesn't. It just keeps on going. I wasn't aware that it had changed my perspective until I lined these songs up and I realised there was a much more positive spin.
"I think it has been inevitable, though being a mother has made me outwardly angry," she adds. "You've got that protective instinct that makes you want to punch anything that's not right. In that respect, it's made me more assertive."
Oddly, writing about the effect of motherhood seems to have been a delayed reaction. Back in 2006, Gilmore was heavily pregnant while promoting Harpo's Ghost, yet there was little sign of her new-found tenderness on its follow up, 2008's Liejacker. Maybe there was a hint of it on last year's well-received, Christmas-themed work Strange Communion, with her wry seasonal near-hit "That'll Be Christmas".
"It's been a gradual transition, an acceptance that it's not a terrible thing to be positive," she concedes. So was Gilmore avoiding the issue of motherhood? "I had to get over the shock and blind terror of it," she laughs, then, with a steely edge in her voice: "There was a fear of letting it in. After I made Harpo's Ghost and found out that Egan was on his way, there was a lot of secrecy about it because I was on a big label and we thought the shit would hit the fan. There was a huge feeling of, 'she's pregnant, she's not going to want to make music anymore or be able to do it'," Gilmore continues . "As soon as you bring kids into the fray, everyone thinks your career is over, so I decided to wrap things up a lot. You can hear some of that in Liejacker, where I totally ignored this and paid no heed to this major thing. In a lot of respects, I actually worked harder, toured harder."
Murphy's Heart is not all champagne and roses, though. Gilmore is particularly adept at the aching vulnerability of love, especially as regards the life-changing emotions of motherhood. As she softly sighs on "Mexico", "Come a little closer so I can trace your eyes/ And copy that light onto my insides."
"Those moments of happiness are fleeting, but love remains," the artist warns. At least Gilmore finds herself on a more even keel. She has found a smaller label happy to indulge her idiosyncrasies (no picture of her on the record sleeve) and also developed a fervent online fanbase, via her subscription service Angels in the Abattoir. Launched a year ago, the club offers an exclusive monthly download amongst other perks, including meet-and-greet sessions and lotteries to suggest cover versions for Gilmore to sing. This way, she maintains a relationship with hardcore fans independently from her label and, importantly nowadays, opens up another revenue stream.
Above all, she has her rock in Stonier – husband, producer and occasional co-writer. Even if the stubborn lyricist admits that she is not always the easiest person to work with. "I get very autocratic and all the politeness disappears. It is a testimony to his talent, really; Nige's very good at knowing when to back off with anybody; he knows there's a point where every writer needs to feel they're holding the reins." Gilmore, you believe, is firmly in control of her own destiny.
'Murphy's Heart' is out now on Fullfill Records. Andy Gill reviews it on page 20