It is a bright morning, the morning after the great storm when lightning struck the Tyne Bridge and flood water cascaded down Grey Street. Newcastle upon Tyne is in a state of recovery. Landslides block Metro lines. Limpid pools lie in their tarmac troughs. I make my way past sandbagged doorways, already late.
In a café called Teasy Does It on Heaton Park Road, alt-country singer-songwriter Gem Andrews has made a quiet corner her own. Looking up from the luxury of a steaming Americano and the Guardian on her Macbook, she rises to greet me. “Kayaking to work is fun, when you think about it,” she smiles, ignoring my tardiness.
After touring extensively in America and Europe, and supporting the likes of Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart and Laura Veirs, the twenty seven year old Liverpudlian is currently preparing for the official launch of her eagerly awaited debut album, Scatter.
“It’s great to get something out there,” says Andrews, looking at the album cover with a certain understated pride. “When the first thousand CDs arrived, I couldn’t stand to open the package. I was terrified there’d be a mistake – something would be upside down or the wrong way around. But I got my housemate to open it and everything was fine.”
Andrews has little reason to be nervous. The cover photo of her album is deeply captivating in its own right – a shot which lays bare her diverse artistic tastes and musical influences. “I got that idea from Underground, the album by Thelonious Monk,” she confides, “the idea that every object has been placed strategically and has an importance”. NME and Rolling Stone photographer David Walla was Andrews’s first choice for her album shoot. “I gave Underground to David, and we started piecing together how we might recreate Monk’s cover,” she explains, “we finally decided to take the shot in my living room”.
Andrews sits to the right of the photograph holding her beloved Gibson J45 Custom as her dog, Sugarpie, adopts a classic His Master’s Voice pose. Scattered around the room are mementos from her time spent travelling and touring: a Howl sticker from City Lights Books in San Francisco, a Janis Joplin poster from Vancouver, a Frieda Kahlo print, an Edward S Curtis photograph of a Native America from an exhibition in Arizona, along with a headshot of Andrews’s own mother when she was acting with the RSC.
Leonard Cohen’s debut album is rested carefully on top of a portable record player, while Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Love Over and Over takes pride of place on the jukebox. “Kate and Anna McGarrigle are my favorite singer-songwriters,” admits Andrews, “they almost make you want to give up, because they were just so good.” Meanwhile, in Cohen she recognises a songwriter who has the ability to “lend emotional weight and intensity to fleeting moments or the most basic of objects.”
As we talk, a luminous orange teapot arrives at our table and Andrews kindly pours me a cup of Fujian white tea. The café in which she has chosen to meet is a haven from the bustle of central Newcastle, particularly today when the weather seems to have disrupted almost every aspect of life in the city. At the table adjacent to us, two men play chess. Behind them, a woman sits alone reading. Without warning, the wind slams the café door violently shut. Everyone jumps. The rainbow flag attached to the blind flaps violently. A brief reminder of yesterday’s weather.
I ask Andrews about the theme of nature which I have noticed in her songwriting. The final song on the album is titled “Storm”, and is a rich retelling of a dream where the music builds to wrap around the listener like an approaching thunderstorm.
“I have always lived in the city,” she reveals. “When I moved to a caravan on a farm in County Durham we were living in the middle of nowhere. Everything on the farm was in tune with nature and the weather. Even with the slightest gust of wind, our home rocked. You couldn’t help but become part of the landscape”.
Andrews then relocated for a brief period to the west coast of Canada, where she found further inspiration. “I had just gotten out of a relationship and moved to Vancouver. On one of the first nights there I had a dream, and that was the basis for “Storm”. It was my mind’s way of settling things. When I woke up, my enduring memory was of being enveloped by that northern landscape, feeling free from it but also deeply saddened for the loss.”
The title track of the album, “Scatter” also charts the mournful breakdown of a relationship whilst keeping a watchful eye on the freedom of nature. One of the song’s most beautiful lines reads: “I’m lonelier with you than I’ve even been / watch the leaves at the window as the wind catches them / and I envy them”. Andrews admits that the line is a nod to a fellow songwriter and friend, Tania Davis. “I adored a line that she wrote: ‘the leaves are not sad that they’re leaving the trees’ and I was fascinated by the sense that change is the only thing you can ever depend upon.”
The eighth track on the album, “Ladybird” written by Nicky Rushton, is a tender meditation on the reversal of roles between parent and child as the latter becomes the carer as the former grows old. Andrews comments on how she deeply admires the dignified nature of the song, and its use of vivid natural imagery as a daughter leads her ailing mother to the garden: “she points with her eyes / and to my surprise / she said ‘do you see the tree’? / so I showed her with my hand to where the willow tree stands / she said ‘darling its weeping for me’”.
Andrews’s own parents played a significant role in her love of music. Her father, a jazz musician, gave her a guitar when she was six years old. Her mother always used to sing and liked listening to Emmy-Lou Harris and Nancy Griffiths, which Andrews admits “always caught my ear”.
Saxophone was Andrews’s first passion, although she started writing poetry at fourteen and songs at seventeen. “I always loved writing and playing with language, although I threw many of those early works away. I was really ruthless.”
Scatter charts the singer-songwriter’s life from eighteen to twenty six, a period during which she has co-founded the Muma Moonshine Festival, the North East’s only festival celebrating LGBTQ artists, toured the American deep south, west coast and much of Europe, and recovered from a broken back after falling from a horse.
Songwriting has always proved a cathartic experience for her. Andrews speaks of writing as a “way of throwing yourself into another world, having a break from yourself. You write for different reasons throughout your life — sometimes simply because you have to.”
Scatter documents important changes in the artist’s life. The album’s opening track “Part Tenderly” was written when she was eighteen, yet displays a sage like understanding of love. Despite being a song about how to end a relationship, Andrews admits that it was penned at the beginning of a love affair: “it’s one of my favorite songs, and I always found comfort in it. Almost straight away I knew I wasn’t in the right place or with the right person. Performing the song laid claim to that”.
In its entirety, Scatter succeeds in delicately pinpointing specific moments in a love affair. “Alright,” one of the most memorable tracks on the album, is an earnest love song for Andrews’s parents, written from the perspective of her father. Some of its most deeply moving lines include: “if you need some time alone / like a bird in the Spring / I’ll fly north / if you’re craving my company / I’ll be so close to you / you won’t need a shadow”.
I ask her about these lines specifically. Andrews takes a short sip of coffee and pauses. “I think that it is the ultimate romantic gesture” she says finally, “that act of allowing a partner the space to grow and develop whilst still being constant in love and support.”
The following track, “Cold Stone Floors,” provides a dramatic counterpoint to “Alright,” with its edgier vocals and rasping rock guitar kicking up the tempo – a song about giving a new lover a “tour of your darkest moments”.
A talented team of musicians collaborate on the album, including the outstanding multi-instrumentalist, Gabriel Minnikin, who plays electric and twelve string guitar, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, accordion and harmonica. Andrews’s own vocals are feminine yet forceful, her phrasing both sensitive and intuitive. And while her song arrangements offer rich atmospheric settings for her heartfelt lyrics, they neither intrude nor overpower. The result is a deliciously dark alt-country debut for this talented singer-songwriter.
Sunlight splashes off the puddles outside. “I’m pretty wired, Darren” admits Andrews, toying with her fifth cup of coffee. I think it’s a signal to wrap things up. Before leaving, she shows me a film to which she has written the soundtrack. It’s a documentary called 100 Faces directed by Alan Lyddiard, which tells the story of Newcastle’s homeless and vulnerable populations. Andrews’s music wraps tenderly around their words. I learn later that the documentary was screened recently at the Royal Opera House in London – perhaps another subtle indicator of the musician’s burgeoning success.
As we walk towards Heaton Park before parting company, our conversation turns once again to nature and the weather. Andrews describes how she has always been interested in the way that America’s terrain and climate dictate the lives and livelihoods of its people, and in turn find their way into the American folk song. I suggest that the landscapes represented in her songs are classically English, despite her album having a distinctly American alt-country aesthetic.
“I find a real honesty in American songwriters such as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, but it’s important to write about what you know,” she replies, looking thoughtfully at the puddles, “and just sometimes that includes this crazy British weather.”
The official launch of Gem Andrews’s debut album, Scatter, will be held at the Cluny 2, Newcastle upon Tyne on 2nd August 2012 . Limited edition pre-sale copies of Scatter are available online now at www.gemandrews.co.uk