Thea Gilmore: No holds barred

After three years when her world turned upside down, the uncompromising singer-songwriter is back

Without a blog to her name, let alone attention-grabbing webcasts, Thea Gilmore may appear to be a shrinking violet among female artists. Meeting her in a Covent Garden members' club, the trendy sort where suits are barred, I soon discover that nothing could be further from the truth. The Oxfordshire-raised artist has much to say. The last couple of years have seen her diagnosed with depression, split with her partner of seven years, and become pregnant. No wonder there has been a two-and-a-half-year gap since her last album.

This may not sound long, but you have to consider that, up to 2003, Gilmore had released six albums in four and a half years. Now she has returned with Harpo's Ghost, a collection of tracks where she has spent the time and money to do justice to her startlingly mature voice and rich wordplay. It is a real leap forward from the previous release Avalanche, which was meant to be Gilmore's breakthrough. Competing against the glamorous Dido and Sophie Ellis Bextor, the rarely smiling artist gained Radio 2 airplay and column inches from broadsheets to The Sun, yet the album failed to shift serious units and a single stalled just within the Top 40. Gilmore rolls her eyes when asked what went wrong. "Oh, Christ, people have been saying that about every album I've made since [2001's] Rules For Jokers. To cross over you have to like what's on the other side and I'm not so sure yet. What I'm fussed about is a career and you don't get much of that these days."

While Gilmore was unaffected by Avalanche's lack of commercial success, it led to an irreparable rift with her label, Flying Sparks. "It was a one-man band and the guy wanted to concentrate on real chart success. He enjoyed taking on the music industry, and I was never going to be the person to deliver that. Seven albums in I'm still here and people don't know what to do with me." Gilmore suggests there has been pressure to "play the tabloid game" and get off with a footballer, indulging in enough swearing to seduce Wayne Rooney, though it is a subject close to her heart. Around the time of Avalanche, she derided the industry for the sexualised marketing of other female performers. I wonder if now she feels comfortable with the more down-to-earth Sandi Thom and the outspoken Nerina Pallot around, though Gilmore remains as cynical as ever. "As the years go by the industry becomes more savvy and learns how to package people in different ways," she says. "It's still as dolled up, just in different colours. If enough people are told something is really worthy or leftfield then they believe it."

Gilmore has signed to Sanctuary, the heavyweight home of Morrissey and The Charlatans, yet still expects the same degree of artistic independence. "I'm not an easy person to work with, but they've left me alone to make the album I wanted. For a big company, that is a lot of control to give away."

She has certainly taken advantage of the situation with a fuller sound than on previous releases. Gilmore also took the opportunity to pick up on a long-standing offer to write with The Waterboys' frontman Mike Scott. It is testament to her experience that she was in no way fazed by this, or Scott's own difficult temperament. "We floated around each other for a while, so it was always going to happen, though we were both nervous about sitting in a room together," she laughs. "So he left a 10-minute message on my voicemail saying he would send me a CD." On the album, the snarling "We Built A Monster" is a 50/50 split, with Gilmore's words given a suitably strident arrangement by Scott in a way that would have been alien to her. "Whistle And Steam", meanwhile, is her ideas given direction by him.

Gilmore describes Harpo's Ghost as her most personal album. This explains the title, which comes from the mute Marx Brother. She used to watch their movies as a child and fell for Harpo, always at his most expressive when playing music. "Part of the process of getting over myself was not to try and hide. I'm very good at hiding behind words, it's what I've been doing since I was 16 and I can write songs and not be entirely direct. I couldn't apply that rule any more, so I needed to be a bit more open."

Long a bedroom scribbler, Gilmore began to concentrate on songwriting when her parents divorced after a pretty idyllic childhood. Brought up in rural Oxfordshire, dad was a book editor and mum an illustrator. The former taught his daughter to play guitar, while she was happy to listen to her parents' Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell records, rather than to get into the latest teen heart-throbs.

Until recently, Gilmore was an intensely private person and worked hard to make sure that people could not see that closely into her. She admits that she writes few love songs, though not always out of a sense of privacy. "Anyone can write a fluffy, cheesy, red hearts and roses song, because it's a real cliché. But a real love song is hard because there are so many different colours and unpleasant stuff, razorwire, which make the good bits so fantastic."

Rather than break-up songs or testaments to undying devotion, Gilmore writes of a relationship's thorny path and the rewards for sticking to it. Perhaps the most open song on the record is "Slow Journey", where the lyricist thinks about travelling alone "Like a ghost girl/ Like an empty space". "To me you can really hear someone thinking, 'everyone would be a lot better off if I wasn't around'. Even now, it doesn't feel like me who wrote it, and that's quite a strange feeling."

Not that Gilmore is suddenly wearing her heart on her sleeve in the manner of Lily Allen. She has always belied her youth (still a mere 26) with a thoughtful lyrical style and taste for rich imagery, so "Contessa" has an enigmatic, timeless feel, yet really is the writer's most personal song to date. "It is the keystone of the album, because I'm a believer in those cartoon characters that have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on other. Contessa was always my devil and I realised that I was letting that devil run my life."

The finest songwriters delve into dark recesses, but rarely want to know exactly where these wells of inspiration lead. There is always concern that too much self-awareness can damage a muse as much as psychological problems can damage the mind. Luckily, this was not a problem in Gilmore's case, as she avoided therapy. "I think it would be a dangerous path for me to tread," she confesses. "You can hear my demons in the songs, but I'm lucky because I can exorcise many of them through writing, then bury a few with pills."

Hopefully she can survive the next few weeks without tablets, which the mother-to-be stopped taking when she discovered she was pregnant. At least this is a positive sign for her relationship with Nigel Stonier, not only her partner and father of her child, but also producer and occasional co-writer. "I realised that even when we weren't together, he was still there trying to help me and I suddenly thought that's what love's about." They split a few months previously, when Gilmore was at her lowest ebb, but finally being diagnosed with depression meant she could start afresh. "It was really fucking my life up, but now I've finally realised that I'm not totally on my own. I didn't realise at the time because I'm quite a volatile character anyway with extremes of mood. It destroyed my relationship, because I would disappear into myself for days on end, but realising there was something I could do about it meant I could be more proactive."

Given her personal problems, you could be forgiven for thinking the album would be an introspective affair, something Gilmore expected herself. Instead, it contains what she describes as a more global outlook. Part of the reason for this is her ongoing attempt to make an impression Stateside, touring five times in the past three years. "I'd never been to the States and setting foot there you're going to apply what you see to your life back home," she says among pauses that suggest she is choosing her words carefully. "I'm not anti-US, but there are certain aspects that intrigued me."

Most startling for her was the American attitude to patriotism, hinted at in the mournful "Red, White And Black", where she sings of "The last tequila sunrise/ The last pink Cadillac" as if the country had lost its innocent exuberance. "You see the Stars and Stripes in everyone's gardens and you think that's quite alien, then you come home and see loads of Union Flags. It's not something that I'd noticed before. I got to thinking about why flags are always those colours. Is that the way people see their patriotism? Does it always have to be in such regimented form? Because it's not my sort. I consider myself to be patriotic, but you have to take in the rainbow, the mauves and pinks. You have to celebrate your country but to change the stuff you don't like, while for other people it is a bit more black and white."

"Black" in the song was inspired by bunting hanging across a street in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ran red, white, and blue, apart from one section that was red, white and black. It looked like a flag had fallen off and that was the only colour they had to replace it. It's a far cry from the scruffy St George flags hanging from windows near the home she shares with Nigel in Nantwich, Cheshire.

Just to balance the books, there was much Gilmore enjoyed about the USA, mainly how she was treated as a musician. "They understand women songwriters in a different way. Over here, there is an attitude that it's another female artist and you get lumped in with all the rest, while in the States they take the music on individual terms, so you get sectioned off into musical genres."

Also, Gilmore met what she calls "real revolutionaries", especially in Texas, which came as a surprise. "Texas was the first place I went to, which was strange, and I was amazed by the number of people who desperately wanted to change things. You don't find that here to the same degree, probably because we are a smaller country and there are not as wide extremes." While Harpo's Ghost may be more passionate and fully realised than previous efforts, at its heart this is still the same old Gilmore. There is usually an attack on the music business somewhere, and here it is on "Everybody's Numb": "You're squeezing hands and squeezing hits as good as anyone". "I have my stock rants that tend to involve the music industry and apathy," she admits, "Those are the two things I wish I could change."

Another recurring theme, or at least a motif, is games of chance. On this record there is the opening gambit of "The Gambler", one of its few love songs, albeit as twisted up as only Gilmore can write. Later, "Red, White and Black" features the line: "Roll the sixes gently".

"I don't consider myself to be a big gambler. Well, not in a playing-cards or one-armed-bandit kind of way. But I guess maybe I am, in life in general. It's a gamble being in this business for a start, anyone in a relationship as well and having a baby is the biggest of all."

As for the forthcoming single "Cheap Trick", Gilmore dismisses it as "just one of my story songs, about a wayward woman, it's the least autobiographical of the lot." One of her own tricks over the years seems to have been preferring to write about characters, like the protagonist here, a girl who uses her wiles to make it on her own. Though, as someone who could hardly care less about chart positions, the songwriter takes little interest in what tracks are released to promote the album. "I'm a firm believer that if you put enough great songs on a record you really shouldn't care what gets put out there. I tend to let other people do that, people who are better at deciding those things than me."

One of those is her manager Sara, also down from the same part of the country. She reminisces that they considered moving to London a few years ago, but it was during the time of 1999's "new acoustic" movement and the artist refused to be mixed in with that scene. It's another reminder of how long Gilmore has already survived.

Gilmore's only problem now is the surfeit of material waiting to see the light of day. Despite her eventful recent past, she has managed to build up a backlog of songs. Woe betide Sanctuary if it stands in the way of their timely release. "There are two or three albums waiting to be made, all stacking up behind this one. There's part of me that understands [the delay] and I've bought into a slightly bigger label, but when you write as much I do..." Her eyes narrow. "I've got a short attention-span. I'll do a bit of damage if they're not released."

Sanctuary has been warned. Even if Thea Gilmore is more stable, you still don't mess with her.

'Harpo's Ghost' is released on Sanctuary on 21 August

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