That Thea Gilmore’s latest album is as pretty as it is thought-provoking, as bewitching as it is bold, will come as no surprise to her army of admirers. Since releasing her debut as a teenager nearly 20 years ago, the Oxfordshire-raised, Cheshire-based singer and songwriter has gained global acclaim for making music not only of extraordinary beauty, but of rare honesty and insight.
What will surprise fans is how The Counterweight sounds. Fifteen albums in, Thea has all but abandoned her trusty acoustic guitar in favour of an iPad and a piano. The change forced her out of her comfort zone in to exploring new methods of composing as well as new ways of recording.
“I’m not someone who plans albums in advance,” says Thea. “I don’t decide what subjects to write about or how the songs will sound. But I knew I needed a change. I didn’t want to write another acoustic guitar album. I’d done that enough already.”
The iPad she had used only sparingly before. The piano, she claims, she can’t play.
“Using an instrument you can’t really play imposes limits,” says Thea. “If something sounded right, I kept it, but a proper pianist might be horrified. The iPad I’ve previously used for vocal arrangements, but never to write entire songs. It’s a brilliant tool for framing lyrics in a way you just can’t do on guitar.”
While, sonically, The Counterweight marks a fresh start, its outward-looking themes – the shifting political landscape, our absorption in technology, America’s gun culture and the search for hope in times of trouble included – bear striking similarities to Thea’s 2003 breakthrough album Avalanche. So much so, in fact, that the singer considers The Counterweight a companion album to Avalanche, or more accurately, “its more mature older sister”.
“After Avalanche, my lyrics became increasingly personal,” explains Thea. “I went through depression, which informed a lot of my subject matter. This time, it quickly became clear that the wider world was the focus. All but one of the songs were written in 2016, such a monumental year that it was impossible for me to not address what was going on. I found myself taking a long hard look at how we’ve changed since 2003. And for the most part, things haven’t improved.
“I remember around Avalanche thinking that we were heading down a rabbit hole. I wrote about how technology was dominating our lives, but little did I know… We’re now its slaves, not its masters. Our attention spans have become so tiny that unless you confine yourself to 140 characters, no one listens. Tackle politics like that and you end up with Trump and an unelected Tory leader. You can’t pick your way through important debates in sound bites, but that’s what we’re doing. I’m not anti-technology, but you have to use it right.”
Despite its hefty themes, The Counterweight is as catchy as it is current, delving in to disco and pure pop and boasting glorious strings, intriguing samples, shimmering soundscapes and pretty piano. Where it might have been mournful, it’s often airy and optimistic. Where it does delve in to darkness, it also glimpses light.
“I find the best way to ram a point home is to mask what you’re doing by making people sing along,” says Thea. “It’s like subliminal advertising. People don’t realise you’re shouting at them if you’re singing a sunny tune.
“There are ballads on the album, but they’re uplifting rather than mournful. A songwriter’s job is to get people thinking, not make them so despondent they don’t act. You may as well stick your head in the oven right now if you can’t see a crack of light in dark times.
“The really upbeat songs were mostly made on the iPad, but the biggest difference between this album and Avalanche is the space in the songs. My approach to songwriting has changed dramatically. At 23, my aim was to weave in as many words as possible and make them look like they were doing a little jig. Now I’m all about brevity. I think the space tells as much of the story.”
The Counterweight opens with the hypnotic Fall Together, its siren-like, two-note piano motif introduction luring the listener in to a dramatic tale of a relationship pulled back from the brink. Recorded in the grand surroundings of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, the Steinway the star, it’s the album’s most personal moment.
In complete contrast, second song Leatherette takes a largely electronic swipe at soulless ‘serial retweeters’ and society’s fixation with fame and wealth and sets it to a retro melody and bossa nova beats.
“Those two tracks begin the gradient of how outwards-looking the album gets,” explains Thea. “Most of the songs were recorded in The Loft in Liverpool, where we made Avalanche, but Fall Together was crying out for a grand piano and the Philharmonic is just around the corner. Unfortunately, the recording ran late and Teddy Thompson was playing there that night. His manager was almost banging down the door by the time we wrapped up.”
The contrasts continue throughout The Counterweight. Sounds Good To Me, a shoulder-shaking ode to rule-breakers, nestles next to Rise, a traditional piano ballad. Reconcile is a poppy track about tech that centres on a sample of a 45-year-old Mellotron. New, a four-to-the-floor celebration of fresh starts, follows the haunting The Lucky Hum, about being alert to the beauty around you. Whereas the spectacular Slow Fade To Black features a dozen-strong string section that harks back to Jacques Brel, the sparse Johnny Gets A Gun, inspired by a documentary on the Columbine school shootings, was created entirely on the iPad.
“I’m fascinated with how entrenched Americans are in what their liberties entail,” says Thea. “Their gun culture is terrifying, but it’s their idea of what freedom means that I was trying to address. I wanted the handclaps in the song to sound like kids in the playground, to highlight the disconnect between the deep sense of community you’re supposed to feel at school with the loner immersed in video games who feels completely outside of society.”
On the day Johnny Gets A Gun was recorded, the MP Jo Cox was shot.
“That was such a strange and terrible day,” recalls Thea. “News of the shooting came through just as we arrived at the studio and by the time we’d finished the song Jo had died. It seemed so resonant to be singing about misfits and outsiders at such a tragic time.”
The Counterweight’s stately, spine-tingling closer The War includes several direct references to the late Labour MP in a call-to-arms for change.
“I thought we’d finished the album when I wrote The War, but I knew it had to be on there so we added it in the final days of mixing,” says Thea. “It’s a song about dark times, but mostly it’s about strength and hope.
“Since becoming a parent, I’ve felt more like a warrior than I thought possible. You fight and fight to make sure your kids have a future. It’s a great source of strength.”
As, for Thea, is the knowledge that music still has the power to incite change
“When I did interviews round Avalanche, I said I’d like to be making music at 70,” she laughs. “I meant it, but in all honesty, had I thought about it, I never would have believed it. I feel so unbelievably lucky that I’m still here, still able to put songs out in to the world without compromise. And maybe, fingers crossed, make a difference.”