From the first dramatic, guitar-strumming moments of lead-off track “Old Soul,” Thea Gilmore’s Liejacker exerts a strong emotional and musical pull. You can’t tear your ears away, and with good reason. As Gilmore herself says, “Essentially what you hear in Liejacker is the transition from the darkest point of my life to probably the lightest.”
The 28 year-old British singer-songwriter, whose riveting voice at times recalls the elegance of Annie Lennox, has been making intensely personal, socially aware music to considerable acclaim in her homeland since she was a teenager. London’s Independent regards her as “the best wordsmith of her generation.” Uncut labeled Gilmore “the best British singer/songwriter of the last ten years - and then some.”
Though not yet a recognizable name stateside, Gilmore has been assiduously building a North American following through a series of small-label releases and U.S. club tours. Among her better-known fans are the Waterboys’ Mike Scott, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez, who offered Gilmore a key opening slot on her 2004 American tour. However, Gilmore’s steady upward trajectory as an artist was abruptly interrupted two years ago; she found herself battling clinical depression, with all her personal and professional circumstances upended. Gilmore left her previous record label as well as her longtime manager, and, for a brief period, parted with the life partner and creative collaborator with whom she’d spent a decade on the road and in the studio.
Liejacker, Gilmore’s eighth album, is a bracingly honest testament to hard-fought emotional battles won and to the life-saving power of music. It represents a new beginning for Gilmore; she’s found a supportive label, got married, had a son and, on her own, fashioned these wise, poignant songs.
Upon releasing her 2006 album, Harpo’s Ghost, with a record company going through troubles of its own, Gilmore discovered that “the label had taken a lot more control than I was used to, and not always in a way that I thought was particularly appropriate for the music I was making. It made me feel a little bit watched over, and as soon as you feel that way it becomes about somebody else and it ceases to be personal to you. At the same time, I was in the process of going down quite dramatically into a period of fairly unpleasant depression. The combination of those things made me want to escape, to go off and rediscover my own abilities, and trust myself a bit more. If you want to be arty-farty about it, it was part of the healing process, really. And Liejacker was born out of that feeling, it was born out of the need to reassess and reassert control over my own music.”
Gilmore took to a cathartic DIY approach: “The genesis of this record was very different from my previous albums. It was basically me, sitting in a room, writing songs and recording them straight away, in my house. It wasn’t even really intended to be an album -- I was writing songs that needed to be written. That was the best way to vent those particular feelings at the time. It was only after I’d recorded about five songs and stood back from them that I thought, this is forming an album. I hadn’t expected it to, but there was clearly something growing out of all of this, which is marvelously organic compared to the way my previous album had come about. It made me feel so much closer to what I was doing.”
Emerging from her home studio with this new store of songs, Thea chose to leave the performances untouched - and that’s how many of them appear on the final record. A number of her original vocals remain; the groove on “The Wrong Side “ comes from a cutlery drawer, grill pan and a chimney hood rather than orthodox drums; and all of guitar solos on the record are by Thea herself.
As the album began to take shape, Gilmore showed her work to Nigel Stonier, her longtime producer, confidante and now husband. Gilmore reflects, “Although we rarely write together or do anything like that, Nigel knows my songs inside and out. He’s able to listen to a fledgling song and really understand what I’m saying with it – sometimes even more than I do at the time. His perspective helps solidify my own. In the studio he’s a musician-producer, not a button pusher. He’s got the ability to hear musical landscapes; he’s always thinking about the way a song should progress, and that’s quite extraordinary. He can’t put up a shelf to save his life, but he’s wonderful with music. And that kind of closeness and intensity makes for an exceptionally good pairing.”
Gilmore and Stonier finally took the home-recorded material to her favorite studio, the Loft in Liverpool, and for good measure added a couple of new tunes to the mix, Thea then called upon some kindred spirits. American singer-songwriter Erin McKeown added vocals to the gorgeously cinematic ‘Dance In New York.” Dave McCabe, lead vocalist of British band the Zutons, performed a heart-melting duet with Gilmore on “Old Soul” – unearthing magical, hitherto unheard soft tones in his bluesy voice. Waterboy Steve Wickham contributed bittersweet fiddle parts to “The Lower Road” and the legendary Baez eloquently swaps vocals with Gilmore on the song, which features a narrative about political struggle and social upheaval told in several different voices. Says Gilmore, “Joan Baez practically invented my job some forty odd years ago - I can’t think of anyone else on the planet with the voice, the presence and the standing to carry this off.”
On the title, Thea says, “Making music is one of your best chances in life to be honest. Writing songs is about telling your truths. But you know, the way marketing has gone, there is an assumption that people who take the trouble to buy music can have the wool pulled over their eyes, that they can be sold any shit and as long as the story behind the act is sensational enough they'll keep coming back for more. I don't buy into that. As a listener I can hear dishonesty, when people aren't really living what they're singing about. But there are those that will always kick against that. There are a lot of Liejackers out there. I want to make it clear I line up alongside them.”
The overall feeling of Liejacker is uplifting and redemptive, from the yearning of “Old Soul” to the examination of the dark impulses stirring within all of us on “Icarus Wind” to the romantic rapprochement of “Breathe.” The album’s first single is the joyous stunner, “Come Up With Me,” a newly written track that is only available on the North American release of Liejacker.
This collection of songs is very much a journey, with some vertiginous twists and turns, and Gilmore’s destination ultimately turns out to be home. As she explains “The idea of exploring the feelings of home and where your roots are have always been quite pertinent to me. I think Liejacker as an album, explores those feelings – from a geographical home to a spiritual home, a metaphorical home.”
“There is a big part of me,” Gilmore continues, “that feels the States are the spiritual home for the music I make. The UK is all well and good, but when it comes to people understanding what I do, I think the only place to be is over here.”
To which we must enthusiastically respond: Welcome back. – Michael Hill