This week on Twitter I saw an independent musician ask whether getting a Liam Gallagher haircut and picking up a guitar might be the best chance he had for building an audience and getting some recognition. His tongue was, of course, planted firmly in his cheek. Despite being an obvious joke it made my heart sink. For a huge number of people the term “indie music” has come to mean only guitar music…no frills, no art or artifice, just straight up, trad rock. There is something more than a little depressing about that.
The real heart and soul of “indie” was always in the labels themselves, independent of the influence of the big labels, releasing and promoting new music, songs by bands and artists who were too strange, too experimental, too irregular and too far out. Where punk, which kick started the independent label explosion, was still instantly recognisable as rock and roll, there were now labels and artists ready to take a chance on a genuinely revolutionary musical form; electronic music.
For a while at the start of the eighties electropop threatened to remove, forever, those noisy guitars from pop music and usher in a world of constantly evolving, forever exploratory and thrillingly off kilter pop music. From those early Human League recordings, the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Yazoo and the angular delights and thrills of the Krautrock faces like Kraftwerk and Faust it seemed like something really new and unfamiliar might become the future of music.
Instead of one form erasing another, the two sat side by side in near perfect harmony. Like that Paul McCartney song with the bloke from the Jackson 5…are we allowed to talk about him? Anyway, that harmonious coexistence soon led to things like Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” with the formerly fey and winsome indie kids responsible for “Velocity Girl” turning into classic rock ’n’ rollers, reimagined by a combination of the right drugs and the right producer. Madchester further fused the forms thanks to both ecstasy and the Haçienda. Bucket hats were as common on the terraces as they were at illegal raves during the acid house explosion.
Something was happening.
Then things took a strange turn thanks to what would become Britpop. For all the energy and media interest of that scene, it wasn’t what you could call forward thinking or experimental. Despite the likes of Dubstar, Saint Etienne and even Underworld (thanks to their inclusion on the “Trainspotting” soundtrack) enjoying the grudging approval from the new bucket heads, the era of exploration and collaboration between the worlds of rock and electro/dance was over.
I blame Oasis.
But that’s another story.
Four blokes with guitars became the default setting for “indie” music…and things have stayed pretty much the same for almost thirty years now. That isn’t entirely true of course, nothing in the world of pop can ever be entirely true. Things aren’t objectively true when it comes to music… with notable exceptions (don’t ask…it’s all about opinions, innit?).
Anyway, all of that brings me back to something approximating a point. It can seem, for some musicians, that unless they talk very loudly about how important The Beatles were, bleat endlessly about how important “Definitely Maybe” was for them and, crucially, make music that sounds exactly like both of those things, then they are never going to get the attention of certain sections of what is left of the music press or the blogosphere.
Don’t believe me?
Go and check out the last five acts covered on almost any music blog and see how many of them were “indie” acts of the sort I am describing…or how many of them were “singer-songwriters”, which is the same thing except they don’t have a band.
And so I turn to Gemma Cullingford.
Her debut album has arrived on independent label Outré.
An indie artist.
Certain blogs should be all over this…let me take a quick peek…
Cullingford is a singer and a songwriter.
Surely someone on one of those sites has written about her…
I wonder what could lie behind that lack of coverage.
Who can say, who can say.
It might have something to do with the fact that Gemma isn’t particularly interested in creating anthems, if by anthems you mean a song that goes verse, chorus, verse, REALLY LOUD TAKE ON THE CHORUS and then a guitar solo. Nor is she labouring under the impression that music ended when The Beatles did. Nothing on this album sounds like “Hey Jude” or “Eleanor Rigby”. Thank God. Crucially, nothing here is in any way, not even distantly, connected to the sort of music made by people with that haircut and that “swagger”.
That’s what “Let me Speak” isn’t.
What is “Let me Speak”?
“Let me Speak" is deeply affecting, defiantly political, wildly personal, fiercely intelligent and gloriously uplifting electro-pop of the highest quality. It is both pop as performance art and performance as art. The influences are there if you want to hear them…New Order and Depeche Mode on the surface, A Certain Ratio and Throbbing Gristle at the core. Take something like “Wide Boys” which sparkles and shines, coming across like a dance music, dance hall, Afrobeat, experimental and psychedelic rock anthem…this is rock and roll, this is not rock and roll, this is pop for the pure and broken hearted. Something like that.
That glorious mess of influences and inspirations cuts through every one of the ten songs here assembled, and make no mistake, these are songs that have been carefully assembled. Nothing here has simply “happened”. This is music that has been built from the floorboards up. You can feel it in every beat. You can feel the effort that has been expended. This is the aural equivalent of finding yourself in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and being confronted with Dali’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”, your breath is, literally, drawn from your body and you can do nothing but give thanks that such a beautiful thing has found you…and I do believe that is how it works, beauty finds us.
But the beauty in “Let Me Speak” is, much like “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”, not the airbrushed vision of beauty of Instagram selfies. No, this is the beauty of the real world…where the brilliant and the uplifting often sit side by side with darker and more dangerous things. “I Like You” is a love song…you can tap your toes and move your body as it floats and pulses around your head…it is glacially cool…sensual and sexual…but there is something sinister and unsettling at the heart of it; maybe like love itself.
That ability, or desire, to find depth in her work is what sets Cullingford apart from so much of the “indie” music that clutters up social media and heritage media too. My own journey into electronic sounds is in its infancy and had it not been for a piece in Electronic Sound I would have missed “Let Me Speak” entirely. That, of course, is down to how heavily my own social media is weighted towards the very music that I began this review berating. But discovering both album and artist has reassured me that my suspicion that the true innovators and creatives are not to be found draped in a Pretty Green parka or sporting a feather cut, but are, instead, working and searching tirelessly for something new and, often, new ways to say it.
In her interview with Electronic Sound Cullingford spoke of the discomfort she feels about playing live but of her desire to make music and to have it heard too. That tension can also be found in the songs, they are often delicate and intimate affairs while also being forceful and strident at the same moment. I wonder if it is these contrasts, these conflicts and these diametric oppositions that make Gemma Cullingford something more than “just” a musician, a singer and a songwriter? There appears, to me, to be something grander and more significant going on…shall I say it? Is it possible that she is an artist?
People fling these labels at people with gay abandon, not pausing to consider what they actually mean or if the person is worthy of them. Genius is difficult to define and even more difficult to accurately attach to someone in the arts but artist may be less difficult. If someone is producing work that is both inspired and inspiring, that has been born from challenge and that challenges, that is personal but universal, that is careful but carefree, that is crafted and crafty…then that is one, possible, definition. Once you start thinking about it like that, and not as Simon Cowell uses it (someone who sings loudly and in tune), then it becomes difficult to really find someone worthy of the label.
I think that “Let Me Speak” provides all the evidence that anyone would require to feel comfortable, and confident, in calling Gemma Cullingford an artist. I’m grateful that it exists, more grateful that I discovered it.