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Gilmore, Thea

Thea Gilmore

Singer, songwriter

When American independent singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco sang "I could be the million that you never made," she could have very well been singing about Thea Gilmore, a British singer/songwriter who has made a virtue out of her autonomy. While major recording labels have offered her contracts, she is content to create and distribute her albums through Shameless in United Kingdom and Compass in the United States. "When they say, 'We'll give you a modest amount of money and you can choose who you work with and how you sound,'" she told Caroline Sullivan in the Guardian, "then I'll talk." The bottom line for Gilmore is more about making good music than financial success. "It gets made if you believe in what you're doing," she told Nick Hasted in the Independent, "it comes from somewhere inside you that not many other people can reach. Nobody can tell me how to get there. I have to do it on my own."

Gilmore was born in 1979 in Oxford, the same region that produced British bands like Radiohead and Supergrass. Her father, a chiropractor, provided her with a sound musical background when he introduced her to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles. Later, she listened to Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and the Replacements, and generally avoided the bands that were popular with her peers. Gilmore, who began writing poetry at the age of 15 to cope with her parents' divorce, won awards for her writing. She left home at 16, hoping to turn her poetry into songs, and found a job working at the legendary Woodworm studio, where the folk-rock group Fairport Convention had recorded. There she met producer Nigel Stonier who listened to a tape of her early songs. "She had this quiet intensity about her, and striking intelligence," he told David Bowman in Salon. "I guess you kinda knew she was someone who'd be successful in whatever field she chose." Stonier agreed to produce her first EP.

In 1999 at the age of 19, Gilmore released Burning Dorothy on Shameless Records. She consciously chose a low-key start to her musical career, hoping to avoid the quick rise and fall of many young singers at major recording labels. "I figured that there weren't many people having sustained careers in the music industry any more," she told Andy Coleman in the Birmingham Evening Mail. "I wanted a chance to develop my music at a pace that suited me, not to be bound by industry standards." In 2000 she released her sophomore effort, Lipstick Conspiracy.

Gilmore's break came with her third album in 2001, Rules for Jokers. Unlike her earlier efforts, she utilized a full band to create a sound that ranged from folk to rock and everything in between. The acoustic guitar and lyrical barrage of "Apparition No. 12" reached back to the surrealism of 1960s Bob Dylan, while the brash "Benzedrine" combined the best of punk and new wave. "Pleasingly intelligent and forthright with her original lyrics and offering an interesting variety of musical sounds," wrote Jenny Ivor in Rambles, "this girl is mature before her time." The album received another boost when Gilmore signed with American label Compass.

After Rules for Jokers, Gilmore went back to the studio to record a song for a Bob Dylan tribute albumand unintentionally recorded her fourth album. After finishing Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" rather quickly, she remained behind while the band took a break at the local pub. Alone in the studio, she started writing and soon had enough material for several songs. "When the band came back," she told Bowman, "I asked them to play what I'd written. It was recorded in two days. We didn't intend it to come out until the point where it was sitting on the table in front of us and we said, 'What are we going to do with this?'" The seven compositions became Songs from the Gutter, released at the beginning of 2003.

Later that same year Gilmore returned with Avalanche, an album appearing on many "best of" lists at the end of the year. "In a dingy pub on the other side of the pond," wrote Sarah Liss in Toronto's NOW Magazine, "Tom Waits is reborn as a 22-year-old woman with a voice steeped in red wine and regret and a gift for lyrical storytelling that'd make any writer feel like a pathetic hack." She was joined in the studio by electric guitarist Robbie McIntosh (from the Pretenders), cellist Oliver Kraus, and Stonier on keyboards, a band that created a vibrant underpinning to gentle ballads like "Juliet (Keep That in Mind)." "She's already proved herself one of Britain's most potent lyricists," wrote Colin Irwin in Mojo, "but with producer Nigel Stonier also turning in a match-winning performance, Avalanche nudges her into a new recording arena entirely."

The release of the Avalanche single "Mainstream" caused a small controversy: Its cover art by Ian Brown mocked Mattel's Barbie doll. When the company threatened a lawsuit, the cover was withdrawn. Speaking about the uproar, Gilmore explained that she really wasn't sure what sparked Mattel's objection. "I'm pretty sure Mattel couldn't give a d**n what Barbie has come to represent as long as their end-of-year figures add up," she told Adam McKibbin on the Suite 101 website.

Gilmore's gifts as a lyricist and prolific songwriter separate her from her peers and have made her something of an anomaly in the music business. At the age of 23 she has recorded five albums and found a modicum of success without relying on major label advertising and distribution. In 2004 she embarked on her first North American tour and began recording an album of covers, including a version Neil Young's "Old Laughing Lady." Her multiple styles and do-it-yourself mentality defy easy categorization, but she wouldn't have it any other way. "Some people write me off as some waily folky woman." she told Bowman. "Other people think I'm rock. In terms of an image, if you want to be cold and corporate about it, it's hard to decide who my target market is. There isn't one. There is no box that I can be put in."

For the Record

Born in 1979 in Oxford, England.

Released debut, Burning Dorothy, 1999; recorded Lipstick Conspiracy, 2000; released Rules for Jokers on Shameless Records in the U.K. and Compass Records in the U.S., 2001; released Songs From the Gutter and Avalanche, 2003; embarked on first American tour, 2004.

Addresses: Record company Compass Records, 117 30th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, website: http://www.compassrecords.com. Website Thea Gilmore Official Website: http://www.theagilmore.com.

Selected discography

Burning Dorothy, Shameless, 1999.

Lipstick Conspiracy, Shameless, 2000.

Rules for Jokers, Compass, 2001.

Songs from the Gutter, Flying Sparks, 2003.

Avalanche, Compass, 2003.

Sources

Periodicals

Birmingham Evening Mail (England), October 31, 2003, p. 38.

Guardian (London, England), October 23, 2003, p. 8.

Independent (London, England), January 4, 2002, p. 13.

Mojo, August 2003.

NOW Magazine (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 25, 2003.

Online

"Divine Nine: Q & A with Thea Gilmore," Suite 101, http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/11982/105020 (February 26, 2004).

"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Salon, http://www.salon.com/ent/music/feature/2003/09/29/gilmore/index_np.html (February 26, 2004).

"Thea Gilmore," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 26, 2004).

"Thea Gilmore: Rules for Jokers," Rambles: A Cultural Magazine, http://www.rambles.net/gilmore_rules01.html (February 26, 2004).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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