The word ‘rock’ has many connotations, but for GEMMA RAY the most important is probably not the one you’d expect most musicians to nurse. The Essex-raised, Berlin-based singer and songwriter clings to its most fundamental definition, insisting that, when she takes to the road – as she did almost unremittingly in the year following the release of her last album, 2016’s acclaimed The Exodus Suite – she find the time to explore the landscape that touring can reveal. In Ray’s world, the word conjures up images of the grand, twisted formations she’s seen while travelling the world, whether in the immense deserts of the US or among the carved mountains of New Zealand. While others have, in recent years, helped popularise the term ‘psychogeography’ – a flâneur-like urge to explore the urban environment and its impact, consciously and subconsciously – Ray is drawn to the time-defying, time-defining outcrops that exist beyond our cities, and the manner in which this natural architecture underlines “how small we are, how trivial the most unsurmountable of our personal problems”.
It’s the development of Ray’s emotional connection to such spectacular scenes that lies deep at the heart of PSYCHOGEOLOGY, which, in keeping with its subject matter, represents Ray’s most ambitious release to date, its intricate arrangements and textures – including choral and string arrangements – the result of almost a year’s labour determinedly hewn from rare periods of time available between tours. The album, she says, is “an ode to the majesty of landscape, the enormity of nature and time, and the inevitability of every human life eventually forming a minuscule part of further landscapes.” This is arguably best encapsulated on ‘In Colour’, the most personal song on what she describes as her first entirely autobiographical album. Intended as what she feared would be her final letter to her dying grandmother, with whom she was particularly close, and written while criss-crossing America, it sees her slowly find comfort in her surroundings. As her accompaniment lifts from its initially forlorn, acoustic tone towards a gloriously positive epiphany whose melody is almost ABBA-esque, Ray experiences a moment of life-affirming clarity: “Giant valleys, deep ravines/ I see your face in all of these things”.
The song is a model for this self-produced, heartfelt eighth album, recorded in part at Ray’s own studio in Berlin’s old mint by the River Spree, but mainly by Ingo Krauss at Candy Bomber, buried deep within the Nazi-constructed buildings of the city’s former airport, Tempelhof. These historic edifices witnessed Ray emerge from beneath the shadows of her influences to claim her own unique musical territory, her voice still soaring, despite its naturally lugubrious tenor, and bathed in the ageless glamour of her tremolo guitar, one that, strikingly, she sometimes plays with a gleaming steel knife. Her mood is now emancipated, rising above the grim minutiae that can sometimes dominate daily life, and she’s certainly had struggles to confront: an on-again, off-again illness has, in recent years, left her occasionally debilitated, something to which she alludes on ‘Flood Plains’, whose central metaphor speaks of how these empty expanses have “always surrounded me/ Waiting in the wings/ That feeling drifting in”.
That said, Ray is rarely less than busy, and has repeatedly found herself collaborating with other admiring artists. She’s worked alongside, among others, Sparks (who in fact produced Ray covering their own songs), Suicide’s Alan Vega (their collaboration turned out to be one of his final recordings), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand, Thomas Wydler (The Bad Seeds), and arranger Fiona Brice. She was also invited to perform with Potsdam, Germany’s legendary Filmorchester Babelsberg, and this December she’ll join them again, this time with Peaches, Einstürzende Neubauten’s Jochen Arbeit and other special guests as part of The Can Projekt, a celebration of ground-breaking ‘krautrock ‘pioneers Can taking place at Berlin’s famed Volksbühne Theatre.
PSYCHOGEOLOGY, however, documents Ray’s troubles, yet simultaneously expresses with zeal the ways in which she’s surmounted them to find her place in the world. She may see “Troubles hide/ Taking a back seat and just biding their time” in the haunting but nonetheless beautiful ‘Land Of Make Believe’, but her conclusion is optimistic: “For the time being/ I believe/ I am free”. A Melody Nelson Gainsbourg groove may underpin reflections of “When the blue skies have left a nothingness/ And tears unspent threaten to spill”, but, Ray reminds us, cocooned in layers of ethereal harmonies and gently swirling synths, ‘It’s Only Loneliness’. “That song’s a hug for those feeling that way,” Ray adds, smiling. “I wrote the lyrics in the spirit of Ira Gershwin. They’re a bit of a cheeky nudge and wink.” Meanwhile, on the sci-fi synthscape meets girl-group dramarama of ‘Dreaming Is Easy’, she battles yet more demons, meditating upon how, “when the night falls hard upon me/ Believing is beyond me”, only to surface with the knowledge that darkness in fact frees her: “When I’m soaring through the atmosphere/ Real life disappears”.
Even the waters outside her studio window provoke a philosophical response on ‘Roll On River’, as she shifts from a gloomy outlook – “Now when it’s sunny/ I can’t see through the haze” – to a major key, almost daring revelation: “Keep rolling, river”. Furthermore, the reverb-drenched, 70s pop swagger of ‘Blossom Crawls’, scattered with echoes of Fleetwood Mac, tackles a specific incident – a panic attack in the back of a taxi – her overwrought sensation that “Blossom crawls back into its buds” transformed into an affirmative resolution to “put a stop to its cruel tricks/ Gonna get there first to soften the hit”. It was this tenacity, perhaps, that helped her compose ‘Death Tapes’, an ex-voto delivered on a wave of gothic surf-disco that confesses her renewed urge to create purely for the sake of creation: “Deeper than the sound that took my body to the ground/ I dig this hole”. It’s a hard-won attitude: “I realised I don’t have to release these albums to justify making them,” she says. “They’re something I can do for myself. That no one needs to hear them felt like such a comfort. ‘Death Tapes’ elaborates on that idea: to simply play life, to put it to music and put into a time capsule.”
“For me,” Ray concludes confidingly, “making a record is always in the end about celebrating my personal downsides or weaknesses and turning them into something that brings me joy, but hopefully speaks to others. Much of this one was written while reflecting during relentless touring and road trips, and these songs are devoted to the connection between emotion and landscape, how they mirror each other and feed off one another, as well as how this association inspires memories of loved ones.”
It’s a mindset crystallised on the phantasmagorical, unfettered title track, a cantata “where landscape breathes life into make believe”, leading Ray to a crucial, redeeming dénouement: “There are things that laid down heavy on me/ But now I’m free.” On the timeless PSYCHOGEOLOGY – a journey that celebrates triumphs over tribulations – GEMMA RAY offers rock for all ages.