*Originally written in 2005 (or something)
Gemma Hayes crept into the charts with a series of folksy rock songs, garnering the attention of fans and critics. It wasn’t until her first album was released to acclaim that people started to take note. Nominated for the Mercury Prize (not really much of an honour anymore to be honest) it was a fusion of rock, pop, and folk, with husky Irish vocals, anguished and honest lyrics, gentle melodies, and some interesting arrangements. The chart success in Mainland Britain wasn’t huge, but she became a bigger name in her home land, and a series of tours and festivals spread her name to wider shores. Night On My Side wipes the floor with most singer songwriters which have come out of this decade- those one hit wonders, those one trick ponies who won’t go away- there is a touching quality to her tender moments, and an unchained rage in the heavier songs. Everything is on show here, a dangerous thing for any artist to portray as it can lead very quickly to obsessive fans who feel they know her intimately from the words and emotions on display here. Gemma would leave the madness of, oddly enough, LA while she mulled over her next move. While she has continued to produce great work, this remains her most respected.
‘Day One’ opens the album in a fairly bleak fashion with the raspy vocals, soft guitars, and harsh ideas. It is a folk style song, with a country and Irish twist. The highlight here is the lyrics, covering violent images with dedication and love, but it is over very quickly. It is a decent opener, setting the listener up for what is to come, but I feel she had better non album tracks from this time such as Gotta Low which could have been added.
‘Hanging Around’ opens with distorted riffs and opening refrain from Gemma before exploding into big verse and chorus melodies ensuring that this would be a live favourite for years to come. On the surface a simple love song, the lyrics show greater depth on closer examination as she opens her heart to none and all. Above all though, it is a jump around song with some unexpected guitars from a small blond girl from Tipperary. This one proves that she can rock- when I saw her at Glastonbury a loud guy in the audience kept shouting ‘You Rock!’ at her, and asking her questions- she always answers, another nice feature of her live performances. After a chat between the two of them he made his way to the stage and gave her a shot of whiskey which she gratefully downed to huge cheers before continuing with the set.
‘Back Of My Hand’ starts with almost harpsichord sounding guitars and lyrics of desperation. Gemma’s voice here sounds like she is singing just to one person, just to you- one of the many reasons she has a fairly rabid fan base. This is another tale of lost love where she sings of the pain it can cause, but also that she knows of the strength to move on. The emotions move from the aforementioned desperation, to bitterness, to going on with head held high, mirroring the feelings of a real break up.
‘Over And Over’ slows the pace a bit, an affectionate love song with Eastern strings and deliberately sandwiched between two grief stricken and angry songs. This one deals with almost losing the person you love but preventing it just in time, all played to dreamy guitars and gentle tunes.
‘Let A Good Thing Go’ is probably Gemma’s best known song and a fan favourite. With its instantly recognizable introduction, sad and drawled vocals, big melodies, and excitable guitars it is as much a sing along at live performances as Hanging On. Again we get insight into Gemma’s thoughts and feelings, and her experiences with life and love through her words which never shy away from truth. While other songs on the album speak of people leaving her and the pain it causes, this one talks about the stark realization that she has ended something herself and now regrets it. Regardless of the gloomy subject matter, the audience never fails to bounce around to this one.
‘Ran For Miles’ knocks you offside by opening with gentle notes and beats which would typically make you think of lazy summer nights, then cracks you over the head with the emotional vocal delivery and lyrical content. You can almost hear the tears welling up with each line of the verse, and the tender climbing notes of the chorus never fail to leave you with a lump in your throat. It isn’t until the end that she belts out the final few lines, unleashing all the pent up emotion and you don’t know whether to smile or cry.
‘What A Day’ shows Gemma’s more experimental side with strange noises, chords fading in and out, and a distorted drum loop. Again the lyrics are packed with honesty, but simple, and the melody is soft. I don’t think this one is particularly memorable and something like Evening Sun would have suited the album better, but it’s still an okay song for the middle of the album.
‘Tear In My Side’ brings back the heavy guitars and is probably the loudest song on the album- not that we’re talking growling territory, just distortion and punching the strings rather than stroking them. The song simply repeats the refrain over and over with growing instrumentation and emotion. There are a few breaks in this growth where the background noise fades leaving the second refrain to repeat in a softer manner. This too grows louder before returning to the original refrain with even more feeling and sound. This is another great song which people tend to forget from the album.
‘I Wanna Stay’ is a beautiful track with an ever so minor country sprinkle (good as I can’t stand country music) on top. It is a quiet love song which for another time paints a picture of those lazy summer nights, just you and the one you love challenging the sun to never set. Simple lyrics which show devotion to one and nothing else, soft music, and airy melodies which will float through your mind all day. The song also features a hidden acoustic track at the end, just guitar and the sound of children playing.
‘Lucky One’ opens with mermaid/siren haunting vocals with Gemma insisting that someone is the lucky one. There are soft picked guitars with sudden distorted blasts and noise which increases through the song until it peaks with a blast off. Gemma continues her refrain as the wall of sound swells before fading off to Gemma’s light whispers.
‘My God’ is mostly glorious. The sad thing is that this is never played live. The lyrics are strong, story like, touching, the guitars wavering in the background while the vocals are packed with emotion and pleading.
‘Night On My Side’ closes the album in familiar style with laid back guitars and vocals, a few grains of country, and yearning lyrics. The melody creeps into your unsuspecting memory because everything is delivered in such a gentle, unassuming fashion. The hidden track ‘Pieces Of Glasses’ comes in after this, one of the softest songs on the album where Gemma admits a series of faults in typically tragic style.
Night On My Side is a brilliant debut, showcasing a growing talent. She already had much experience playing the bars in Dublin and releasing 2 EPs before this came out so her performances her are assured and confident. It is in the lyrics where her candor and strength truly lie here, slightly ironic given that she displays and lack of confidence in the subject matter. In an age of dreary middle of the road songwriters, Hayes is a breath of wonderfully fresh air, a unique voice who isn’t afraid to do things her own way rather than pandering to any chart style. If you’re looking for a new female voice with strong lyrics and memorable tunes, look no further.