Words: Hannah O Connell
Photography: George Voronov
Styling: Michael O’Connor
Words: Hannah O Connell
Photography: George Voronov
Styling: Michael O’Connor
Following the announcement of this year’s Choice Music Prize nominees, we are revisiting our archives and dusting off some of our favourite features with the selected acts.
Gemma Dunleavy is a perfectionist and not without good reason. She had collaborated with a number of incredible acts, routinely delivered perfectly crafted features as well as compelling singles. However, this only whetted the appetite for a solo body of work. When we spoke to Gemma for the cover of Issue 005 she said she was ‘waiting for honesty’ and with the release of her debut EP Up De Flats we can safely say the suspense was worth it. Read about the area that built her and the communal spirit that subsequently informed her show-stopping EP.
Gemma Dunleavy has been steadily releasing music for the guts of a decade. She’s collaborated with prolific artists Swing Ting and Murlo, has a Boiler Room live set to her name and spent 2017 working on the score for a contemporary dance production that ran for five nights in Luxemburg.
She grew up in inner city Dublin in the 90s. Manufactured pop music dominated the charts, the heroin epidemic was at its worst and the kids were tough. She’s been to more funerals than parties and used to watch videos of people in morgues on YouTube for fun.
While many wish for an easy and innocent life for their children, Gemma wants her future offspring to inherit her streetwise mentality.
It’s the quality she most values in herself – her USP, her coping mechanism, her identity – and she’s afraid the youth of today are losing the spark.
“You become so resilient seeing people get caught up in drugs or crime. There’s a level of empathy in the kids that you wouldn’t get from most adults… It’s like they’ve been here before.”
She gives me an example, recalling a day when a college friend named Binda visited her house. Gemma’s six-year-old cousin Katelyn was there at the time. Katelyn asks Binda where she’s from. Binda replies, “Faroe Islands”, and continues telling Katelyn all about her family, her brothers and sisters and then gets on to her relationship issues, completely forgetting she’s talking to a Senior Infant.
Gemma is a singer and producer now, but her creative output started with dancing, freestyle and ballet. Classes Monday to Saturday with competitions on Sundays. You’re probably thinking ‘pushy parents’, but you’re wrong. Gemma’s mother would beg her to take a day off, to stop being so hard on herself. It must have been tough to watch.
“If I was in a six-hour dancing class and I did everything perfect and then in one move I didn’t point my toe, all that night I’d stew on that toe that wasn’t pointed. In the next class, it would be all I’d think about… If I was in a competition and I didn’t win I would be so angry and I’d punish myself by working 10 times harder.”
When she did win, she’d tell herself that the competition wasn’t that great anyway. Add on top of that pressure the judgemental snobs, or “posh cunts” as she puts it, in her classes, with their misconceptions about the neighbourhood she was raised in.
“You could see them turning their nose up at you. Or you would say, ‘I’m after being in school all day’ and they’d be like, ‘What did you say? What does that mean?’. It made me really self-conscious. I would have never thought about it before. But I used to just visualise them walking down my area, them saying something, and just getting battered. They wouldn’t stand a chance. It was such a cushion for me.”
Gemma’s smiles telling me this. There’s not an ounce of self-pity or regret. We laugh at the irony of certain people in the area now thinking Gemma’s gone “posh” with her college qualifications and burgeoning music career.
She’ll never abandon the community that raised her though. Her roots are firmly planted in North Dublin City. She left for a time to attend Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts [LIPA], but she’s back now, in her family home, her childhood bedroom;the room we’re in for this interview. White floors, white walls, a single bed, a keyboard, speakers and a selection of other instruments and machines she uses to achieve her sound.
Her latest single ‘I Was Never Young But I’m Not Yet Old’ is a love letter to the community that raised her. Her attempt to preserve “the essence I can’t even articulate” that the young females in her area exude.
“As I get older, I realise that thing that I was blessed to have, that I find hard to articulate, is getting less and less common. The community is dispersing. It used to be that every kid in the family was an old soul, now it’s a few. That’s something that I want to get a snapshot of. That’s why that video [for ‘I Was Never Young But I’m Not Yet Old’] is so important to me because it depicts that. We’re not always going to have it, it’s not always going to be a thing… I think that’s so important. I want my music to reflect my community. I don’t know if it’s doing that, but I know if I’m being honest that’s all I can do. It will come through.”
Gemma has been chasing honesty since she started out. She’s a multi-instrumentalist and a talented producer with unique, soulful, R&B vocals and an eye for the visuals – more important than ever in our Instagram-standard society. I expect she inherited the last trait from her mother, a hardworking designer and seamstress. She’s been steadily putting out music for the last ten years, collaborating with a healthy list of artists and producers including Orlando and CLU – listen to 2013’s ‘Moonrunner’, a personal favourite. As a friend and fan I know Gemma’s working 40-hours a week on her output, but we haven’t got that big Gemma Dunleavy release yet. I ask her why she’s holding back, what she’s waiting on.
“I’m waiting for honesty. I’m trying to pull what’s inside me out rather than working from the outside in. I battle so much with making music. Some weeks I’m like, ‘This is deadly’, other weeks I fucking hate myself. It’s because I work with myself. I need to be at peace with myself when I’m working.”
She applies to her music creation that same regimented routine bore into her from a childhood dancing career.
“Sometimes a week goes by and I’m having such a good week I realise I haven’t seen anyone,” she tells me. The process is something she’s trying to improve on through meditation, working out and routine.
“Imaging working 24/7 with a complete shit head. Someone who you fucking hate. You can always take a break from them, but when that’s yourself you can’t get away”.
“There are lots of things I do to make working with myself a lot easier,” Gemma continues. “Every morning for a half an hour I put Logic on and I create. Complete creative freedom. It’s not for release. I save it into a hard drive and I don’t look at it. Sometimes I’ll look back at sessions from a few months ago and a lot of times I’ll make stuff based on that.
I’m waiting for honesty. I’m trying to pull what’s inside me out rather than working from the outside in. I battle so much with making music. Some weeks I’m like, ‘This is deadly’, other weeks I fucking hate myself.Gemma Dunleavy
“Success is being able to make a living from honest music… Happiness. Being able to live in the moment, be present. I’ve realised that a lot in the last few years. I used to think, ‘I want to gig, I want to be touring, I want to collaborate with that person’, but every time I get closer, I realise that’s not what success is for me.”
Her catalogue of collaborations are serving a purpose, however. She tells me that working with someone else allows her to be “a bit more playful”. It’s a relief to hear she indulges that side of herself.
“If someone sends me a track it doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, it’s what mood that track needs. I can see the track as almost like a landscape and then whatever I put over that track is like a character that fits into that landscape, like a scene in a movie almost. Whereas my solo stuff, I feel like it has to be more true to me.
“With my collaborations I get to kind of indulge in my influences, my R&B and soul influences that I had growing up. My solo stuff comes from me a little bit more. One couldn’t exist without the other and I’m glad I have an outlet for the stuff that’s a bit less personal.”
I delve a little deeper into Gemma’s process of working and more specifically her work ethic. It seems relentless to me and if it didn’t come from her parents, where did it come from? What is it that drives her?
“I’m just a really obsessive person,” she confesses. “If I’m into something I want to get to the bottom of it.
“Dancing was very expensive and my parents spent all of their money on me. All of their money. In the moment I didn’t think of it, but when I look back… They re-mortgaged the house so I could have all these opportunities. The bathroom is still waiting to get done, 20 years later,” she laughs. “They are amazing.”
Maybe that’s why she gives it everything’s she’s got, a subconscious repayment, or guilt? We talk some more about dancing, and why the obsession with that was swapped out for a fixation on music. There are two reasons, an ongoing shin injury that eventually became a fracture being the more obvious. The second, that despite her extortionately high standards she built up, she had, in a way, ‘completed’ dancing. She was at the top of her game. But to her, music is uncompletable.
“I feel like I know as much about music as we know about the ocean,” she tells me.
“I haven’t even touched the surface. It interests me. Listening to music gives me a feeling I can’t get from anything else. Sometimes I listen to a piece of music and if I can’t understand what’s going on in that music I’ll want to delve into it and analyse.”
I’m glad it’s taken me so long to finish the solo work but I feel like I’m at a place where I’m really happyGemma Dunleavy
Gemma and I have a habit of talking for hours over cups to tea before getting down to the reason that actually brought us together. Today was no exception. As I try to figure out where I’m going to find the time to transcribe the now two-hour conversation before my looming deadline, I think it’s best to wrap things up. Is 2019 the year of Gemma Dunleavy? I mean, she deserves it to be.
“I’m glad it’s taken me so long to finish the solo work but I feel like I’m at a place where I’m really happy,” she replies.
“Next year I’m going to have my first release. I’m taking with labels… There is one track that is completely finished and then I’m probably going to do a video for that and release it early next year. I’m not too sure what the long-term release plan is. I don’t know if I’m going to release an EP or singles or… I might do four singles and an EP. I’ve been working away on that, and then I’ve been working on some other stuff I don’t really know what to do with, or if I’ll do anything with it. It’s more textural, experimental stuff, like soundscapes that I just really enjoy making.”
No matter what 2019 brings, Gemma has already impressed her biggest critic – herself.
“I’m so glad with where I’m at now. The stuff that I’ve done and the stuff that I haven’t done… It’s on my own terms. I can’t wait to have it out there. It’s something that I’m proud of and if someone has an opinion on it, it can’t come at me. I’m working on stuff now that feels like the truest it’s ever been for me.”