Anathema indeed, but Thea Gilmore strikes an enviable pose within the clatter of the mainstream. Still just 35, she has over 17 years carved out a unique career from the solid rock of the music business and been producing astonishing, genre-bending albums at a startling rate.
Born in Oxfordshire in 1979, Thea was surrounded by the records of her father; Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell were never far from her fingertips.
“As a kid, that group of songwriters felt intensely relevant to me, even though I was growing up in the musical black hole of the late 80’s,” remembers Thea. “I knew those guys had started making music long before I was born but I was still hearing about them, about new records they were making or their importance to other, newer artists.
“I drew the obvious conclusion that music was a lifelong relationship. But when I got absorbed into the industry and saw first hand how it could chew up artists and spit them out again, it was a bit of a shock. It made me angry. Luckily for me I was a belligerent little toad, and decided that I had to have a different type of career, one more like all those artists I’d admired.”
And so she began to pick her way quietly through the minefield. No acquiescing to a hyper-sexualised vision of female artistry, no courter of tabloid fervour, Thea Gilmore has been a true musical maverick, settling for purity of vision and creative honesty every step of the way.
Gradually, organically, Gilmore’s fanbase grew bigger with every release. Never photographed falling out of a club at 5AM or glamming up on a red carpet just to gain column inches, never chasing fame or chart success she somehow landed them anyway. Some of her biggest moments have seemed almost accidental, random.
After ‘Juliet’ became a Top 40 single in 2003 her stock rose, she played bigger venues, toured the US four times in 2004, and in the process garnered many heavyweight admirers including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Neil Gaiman.
“It was a slow, frustrating road in some ways. I long since made peace with the fact that I’d probably never be a household name or a girl on front covers but there were more important things to me. Music never stands still, music and its business are constantly in motion but I was determined to connect with people on the most direct level… looking them in the eye and saying ‘This is me, this is my song… come along for the ride!’ And you know what? They did. I began to grow a solid fanbase from the most fundamental source of human connection. That’s what music should always be about.”
But in the shifting musical climate of the mid-noughties her refusal to compromise and throw what she describes as ‘industry shapes’ saw her entering a turbulent time both professionally (switching record labels twice in the years, parting company with her longstanding manager) and personal (she was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2005).
Remarkably the momentum and quality of output never stopped and when she achieved her first Radio 2 A-list record through the unlikely medium of a Christmas themed track in 2009, all doors were open again and her passionate cult following found itself joined by legions of new admirers.
In 2010 the album Murphy’s Heart saw her back in the public eye, and the following year London, her collaboration with the late Sandy Denny, was used by the BBC as the London Olympics song of choice in 2012, reaching no.5 on the iTunes singles chart – all of which set things up perfectly for her fourteenth album Regardless. A melodic suite of songs partly inspired by her new experiences of motherhood, it entered the charts at no. 21 in May 2013 – her first-ever Top 40 album placing.
The past few years have seen Thea become a regularly playlisted artist on BBC Radio 2 and her list of high profile fans have grown to include Sting, Richard Thompson, Martha Wainwright, writers David Baddiel and William Boyd and actors
Steven Mangan and David Morrissey, to name a few. These days she is as likely to produce an intelligent, witty pop anthem as she is a dark twisted folk epic, her appeal as broad as her ever increasing fanbase.
Now on album number 15, Thea released Ghosts & Graffiti, a compilation with its own twists – part new album, part retrospective and with a scattering of guest artists in the form of Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, I Am Kloot, Joan As Policewoman, The
Waterboys and John Cooper Clarke. The album includes various all-new songs that sit alongside six newly-recorded versions of old material, selected jewels from her back catalogue and all her recent A-list radio hits.
Acclaimed author Neil Gaiman, a long-time fan of Thea’s, has written the liner notes, and sums up Ghosts & Graffiti with typical eloquence: “So this is… what? It’s not a greatest hits album (although it has some of Thea’s finest songs on it). It revisits songs, re-examines them, re-presents them, sometimes alone, sometimes with collaborators.
“This is an important album, in a world in which albums are disposable and music becomes muzak and wallpaper and pleasant background hum. It presents one of the finest songwriters of her generation on top form, hitting like a hurricane, slicing like a razor, showing us how good she is, and, in a world in which indie is just another brand, like the organic shelves in a supermarket, how utterly and fiercely independent she has always been.
“Revel in it, enjoy it, listen to it and marvel. And when you have, tell the world how good Thea is. It deserves to know.”