Gemma Laurence Selects Beautiful Moments For Lavender
Gemma Laurence has released two singles that herald her upcoming sophomore album, “Adrienne,” and “Lavender.” The latter turns out to be title track to the new collection arriving in November from Better Company Records/The Orchard, and proves that Laurence’s songwriting and her sound have developed. She hasn’t left behind her banjo, but this time she went into the studio with Charles Dahlke of The Brazen Youth and came out with more options for instrumentation and the encouragement to create her own “rock anthem” for “Lavender,” a song that reaches out to a transgender friend in their moments of suffering.
Gemma Laurence writes the upcoming album from a place of queerness but also a place of celebration, looking back on past relationships and selecting beautiful moments in time as her central images. She also crafts characters in her storytelling which inhabit the same world and similar moods. For her first album, Crooked Hearts, she was intentionally reactionary about problematic relationships and wore her heart on her sleeve. For the upcoming album Lavender, she finds beauty in some of those same moments and brings them forward for reflection. I spoke with Gemma Laurence about the transitions in her storytelling and her sound, as well as what we can look forward to on Lavender.
Americana Highways: I noticed that you worked with Charles Dahlke of The Brazen Youth for Lavender, who also runs Ashlawn Recording Company. Was that the first time you’ve worked with him?
Gemma Laurence: Yes. I did the whole album, Lavender, with Charlie, including the singles “Adrienne” and “Lavender.” He’s one of these incredibly cool self-motivated people who is the most relaxing person to be around. I was a little intimidated to work with him at first because I’m a big fan of The Brazen Youth. I was put in touch with him through Micah, The Brazen Youth’s drummer, who I met forever ago through a mutual connection.
I went down to the farm, where Charlie records, in the middle of Connecticut, with lush rolling fields. He and his mom run a farm, a coffee shop, and an AirBnb. Artists can go up there and stay and record. It’s really cool. I went up there for a week and we did the whole album in a week. He brought so much life to the album, which was initially just a bunch of guitar/banjo songs.
AH: I’m deducing, from looking at these two singles, that there’s quite a range of sounds on this album. What did Charlie think of that?
GL: He loved the different moods on the album, and I think that’s what drew him to it in the first place. I had solo voice-demos at first, with banjo or guitar, and I sent them his way. “Lavender” actually started out sounding more similar to “Adrienne.” It was written on a banjo, stripped back, and folky. Later, when we tried recording it in the studio, there was something about it that wasn’t working. It was too sing-songy, which didn’t really serve the song or the message at all.
Charlie asked, “What if we made it a Rock song?” I said, tentatively, “Yes, but show me what you’ve got.” So we dimmed the lights in the studio, lit some candles, and started jamming. Charlie started playing a bassline, I played an acoustic guitar, and Micah [Rubin] came in with drums, and I realized, “This could be a rock anthem.” I’d never written anything like that before, and I think that’s Charlie’s touch on it. He really listens to what songs could be. He brought a different life to every single song on the album in a way that I don’t think I could have done by myself.
AH: That’s lovely to hear. Sometimes it’s easier to try to bring songs into the same zone sound-wise, and it’s harder, I think, to let the songs each be as different as they might need to be.
GL: We did have a conversation when we came into the studio about what I wanted the overarching theme to be, and I knew the album very well, living with it for about a year and a half during the pandemic. I knew that I wanted it to read like a collection of short stories or vignettes. Largely, it explores different expressions of my queerness, femininity, and sexuality. Each song is kind of about a different person from my life or about myself.
I wanted each song to be driven by different images drawn from different moments in my life, whether it was 4 o’clock, the golden hour, walking down Morningside Heights, or in somebody’s twin-sized bed in Burlington, Vermont. I think Charlie really helped create a world around each of those songs which still tied them together in the end.
AH: I did notice a lot of cool visual elements which help bring the audience into the song. It’s almost impossible not to see them.
GL: I appreciate that! That was the goal.
AH: When you were working on the album, did you write toward the goals you just mentioned, or did you use those goals to select from among songs that might go on the album?
GL: It all sort of fell together. I have a very specific way of writing, which is that I usually don’t write songs that don’t end up being recorded. I spent a long time workshopping each song, and when it was ready, I knew it would go on the next album. I’m a very slow writer. Each song took quite some time to come together. But I finished each one, I thought about it, and its vibe, and thought about other associations that I had with the same vibe. That’s how “Adrienne” came together, using a similar character from another song on the album, but in a totally different space.
They all kind of tied together in the way that a collection of short stories might come together, where similar characters pop up. Each character has their own story. I remember it as making an album, thinking, “I want each song to live in its own space, but I want them to all tie together somehow.” I take a lot of influence from poetry, so most of what I’m thinking when I’m writing songs is, “What are the themes? What are the images here? How are they going to tie together?”
AH: Do you know of the book Dubliners? You’re reminding me a little bit of that, because of the separateness of the characters in the short stories, but the ways in which the stories feel like they belong together.
GL: I’m so glad that you brought up James Joyce. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, who I read in high school and college. He was actually a big inspiration for the album, along with some other writers. There’s the book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s got an overarching narrative and separate characters. She’s a Maine novelist and I think the author lives in my town. There’s central character holds things together, even though she’s not super-likeable. That was a big inspiration.
AH: I would not say that the speakers in these songs are unlikeable, but I would say that they are very honest and don’t try to present themselves as any better than they are. There’s a lot of vulnerability in “Adrienne” in the way the speaker presents.
GL: That was the goal in that song. I wanted to create complete tenderness and vulnerability in that character. They are unabashedly looking back and saying, “Hey! I remember that one-night stand. Let’s talk about it! How are you doing?” At the time I wrote it, I was in a safe space, hanging out at home and reading Adrienne Rich, so the song is about the person who showed me Adrienne Rich in the first place. Back then, I read Twenty-One Love Poems, which are similar in being vignettes. The song is kind of inspired by one of those poems.
AH: I was thinking about that song, and the one-night stand, that the character knows the moment was decisive in their life in some way, but that doesn’t clarify why or how, necessarily.
GL: I love that. I feel like with any person who comes into your life, it’s significant in some way. On almost the last scene of Season Two of Fleabag, there’s a discussion about how we tend to place value on the length of relationships rather than how important that person was to you in your life. That really resonated with me. It’s so true. A lot of the songs on the album are kind of like that, looking back on previous relationships from years ago, not even making any judgement on them.
I feel like my first album was very reactive, looking back and saying, “I was hurt by that.” But with this album, sometimes it’s about the same people, but I’m realizing, “That was a beautiful time in my life, and I’m going to capture one moment from it that was so magical in this song.” That helped me come to peace with things. We really should remember the good parts, but it took me years of distance to realize that.
AH: I hope I get to that point regarding all my past relationships. I feel like I’ve gotten there on some of them, and I see what you’re saying.
GL: [Laughs] I’m still not sure I’ve gotten there on all of them!
AH: Along these lines, I was going to ask you about the song, “Judas” from your first album, Crooked Heart. That’s a brutal one! Something I loved about it, though, was the moments that are contrasted. It’s not downplayed how these experiences of the good and the bad contrast when you’re going through a breakup.
GL: I felt so betrayed when that relationship didn’t really work out. That’s what I meant when I said that some of those songs were very reactive, because I wrote that song the day that it happened. I wrote it on banjo, and my friend who plays fiddle improvised a part, and we went to an open-mic that night and performed it! It felt so empowering. It’s one of those songs that’s unabashedly angry and spiteful that I hope connects to people who are feeling angry and spiteful, because that’s totally valid. Feel your feelings. Ironically, I’ve also written some nice songs about the same person. I feel I can be more objective now. You can see some of the beauty in certain moments in “Judas,” too, like sitting on the bathroom floor and talking.
AH: I was going to bring that up, because I think that you use similar moments in these earlier songs, but the equation is different. In the previous album, the songs have a harsher aspect too, whereas these new songs, as you’ve said, tend toward the positive.
GL: I look back on my first album and sometimes I say, “You could have been less angry!” But I’m glad I have a time capsule for where I was then. They capture a different time in my life.
AH: Having made this heavier song, sound-wise, with the song “Lavender,” would you do something like that again? Did that shift your view of your own music?
GL: Absolutely. I didn’t even know that I could write rock songs. I wasn’t convinced that I could write towards drums or bass, even. I just thought I’d be a singer/songwriter and go to open-mics with my banjo. It really wasn’t until I recorded with a full band, then moved to New York and started my own band of all-queer women that I realized I could. They are now my touring band and my best friends now.
Now that we’re playing shows, “Lavender” is usually one of the ones we start with. I’ve started writing more Rock songs to work for the live set. On the album, “Lavender” is probably the harder sounding song, but there’s another with a Nora Jones, Jazz sound to it, and a couple with more drums. It was just really liberating to play with more instruments and get more sounds on my palette. You can expect some more rocking songs on the album, but also some quieter ones, and pedal steel was something that we used across the whole album.
Thank you, Gemma Laurence, for chatting with us!
Find the link for Gemma Laurence info and music here: https://gemmalaurence.com