Spellbinding Hayes proves she’s special

The work of Tipperary native Gemma Hayes has been featured on a number of primetime television shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “One Tree Hill” and “Pretty Little Liars.”

By Colleen Taylor

Gemma Hayes has been giving Irish indie music a good name since 2002. In fact, Hayes stands as a founding figure of the rich singer-songwriter electro music scene thriving among so many burgeoning artists in Ireland today. She was one of the first Irish modern artists to forge new bonds between genres like folk and electronica. Still, general consensus seems to be that Hayes is underappreciated, that she hasn’t yet attainted the widespread, popular attention and reputation she is worthy of. Her latest album, “Bones + Longing,” however, might be her ticket to the fame she deserves. For me, what’s interesting about this latest album isn’t just its creative low-fi folk style, it’s also its blend of space and time. “Bones + Longing” is the Irish mythic imagination in musical form—a haunting, spellbinding kind of music that proves Hayes is something special.

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Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary, native Gemma Hayes got her start in 2001 at the age of 24 with the release of her first EP “4.35am” through a French record label. The following year, her career back in the UK and Ireland skyrocketed with the release of her debut album, “Night on My Side,” which won her not only the 2002 Hot Press Music Award for best female artist but also a Mercury Prize nomination for best album. A couple years later the singer re-located to LA, the birthplace of her second and third albums. Although those releases were not as dramatically successful as her first perhaps, they kept Hayes a beloved subject of music critics and indie-folk fans alike. Over the years, she earned the 2006 Meteor Ireland Music Award for best female artist, as well as a nomination in 2009, and MTV Ireland’s best female live artist in 2012.

Her tracks have been featured on a number of primetime television shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “One Tree Hill” and “Pretty Little Liars,” as well as the film, “Janie Jones.” What’s more, she has participated in charitable music events, like “30 Songs/30 Days” to support women worldwide. Still, the recording studio is Hayes’s pinnacle of creativity and productivity, and she boasts of six accomplished original albums, as well as a number of EPs.

Released toward at end of 2014, “Bones + Longing” marks a real turning point for Hayes, as critics other than myself have noted. This album is more mystical, more emotive, and I would argue even more elegant than her previous works. “Bones + Longing” truly honors the folk integrity of Hayes’s genre meshes. It scales down the sounds so that her signature reverberations and electronic distortions truly enhance the melancholic, mystical feel of Hayes’s harmonies, rather than detract from them. The song “Palamino” is the perfect example of this. A soft, acoustic song with a hint of electronic echo on Hayes’s folksy vocals, the ultimate effect is a perfect match of lyric and style. “Palamino” is a clever, yet unsettling and somewhat sardonic take on the Western, romantic trope of hero on horseback: this time, Hayes gives us a woman on a “palamino” horse looking for a man. It somehow manages to be both charming and unsettling—a complex effect that boils down to Hayes’s seamless, unforced marriage of the folk genre with electro-rock adornments. “Iona” is another soft standout on the album. Sweet and enchanting, this track really spellbinds the listener with Hayes’s airy vocals and simple, yet powerful backing rock chords.

As much as this album might go against the grain of traditional music practice, it is, in sound and feel, spiritual to its core. What’s more, there’s something distinctly Irish about it. The culture is not there overtly, in national lyrics or in traces of trad. Rather, Hayes’s Irishness emerges through the imaginative realm of her album, its wistful reflections, its lyrical embrace of the magical and folkloric. Slightly gothicized folk, sounds that exist in the then and now, the there of other worlds and the here of modern day—that’s what makes this album stand out.

Give “Bones + Longing” (available on iTunes) a listen and learn more about Gemma Hayes at gemmahayes.com

Colleen Taylor is the Irish Echo’s “Music Notes” correspondent.