Interview: Gemma Cullingford

Gemma Cullingford
Gemma Cullingford

Gemma Cullingford: “When lockdown hit I saw the spare time as a gift…I realised how much I’d needed time to process everything…”

The bassist of 90s indie band KaitO and one-half of Norfolk’s Sink Ya Teeth ponders her past and going solo

Ex-KaitO bass player and one half of Steve Lamacq favourites Sink Ya Teeth, Gemma Cullingford, has been making waves with her first solo album Let Me Speak. The album got to No 11 in the Official Record Store Chart and No 31 in the Official Independent Albums Chart. Produced during the Covid lockdown from her home in a town near Norwich, the record is a much more personal work but one that still takes in influences from her beloved electronic and industrial music background.

As she prepares her next solo album, we took the opportunity to talk to her…

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What music did you listen to when growing up?

“As an infant, I was a huge Kylie Minogue fan, I think The Locomotion was my favourite. My parents didn’t have much music on so I would listen to the Top 40 every Sunday on the radio, or sometimes hear the kind of music my brother was playing, he was into Johnny Hates Jazz, Pet Shop Boys and Fleetwood Mac. And New Order. I didn’t like any of those at the time, but now I’m a huge New Order fan, and I love The Pet Shop Boys too.

“Then, at around age 16, I got into more indie, Britpop and underground bands – Super Furry Animals and Flaming Lips were my faves for a while. Then came Riot Grrrl and post-punk and electro-clash which all influenced the music I make today.”

Did you enjoy music at school, and what were your first instruments?

“I did do recorder at primary school, and I started learning the flute with private lessons really quite young at six years old. I don’t remember enjoying music lessons at school, it was a lot about theory and reading music, which I could do but didn’t really enjoy. In fact, I got into university to study music and media, but again the music part was far too theoretical so I eventually dropped the music side.

“I learnt most about music out of school, and especially once I started the guitar at age 13, it was my peers that taught me the most. Every Saturday my best mate and I would wander into Norwich and find the alternative kids to hang around with, in the city park, and I eventually set up a band with some guys who were older than me and from different schools.

“I did my first gig at Norwich Arts Centre aged 15 and I remember being allowed to take a day off from school to go and record a demo in a proper recording studio: Purple Studios in Great Yarmouth!”

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Tell us about KaitO.

“I’d been gigging around Norwich in my first band, Moggy, for a while and had joined as an honorary member a band named Fleece, who I did my first John Peel Session with aged 17. The singer of Fleece said that a band called Scully – later to become KaitO – were looking for a bass player and handed me their demo tape. I fell in love with their music and their style and practised and practised for an audition and got in. I just felt there was something special about them.

“We released a few different records on Fierce Panda, Devil in the Woods, SpinART and Blast First [a sub-label of Mute] and toured America quite a bit. We also got to tour with some brilliant bands: Clinic, Sea Power, Liars, Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Le Tigre… Before diminishing in about 2005.”

Gemma Cullingford

Gemma Cullingford: “Just cos I’m not gregarious and didn’t go to art school doesn’t mean I don’t have something to express.”

How did the band Sink Ya Teeth come about?

“My other half in SYT is Maria [Uzor], and she was a solo performer in Norwich and was gaining popularity. She wanted a band to perform with her and was looking for a female guitarist.

“A mutual friend suggested me and similarly to my KaitO story, I heard her music and loved it, practised, auditioned and joined her band. We were offered a few gigs but kept having to turn them down as not everyone in the band could make every gig, so Maria and I decided to branch off as a duo cos it’s much easier to organise two of you than a five-piece band.”

Tell me about your solo album Let Me Speak?

“When lockdown hit I saw the spare time as a gift. Whilst I was in full health I didn’t want to take it for granted and wanted to make use of the time. For no other reason than I think my mental health could have suffered if I hadn’t been creative every day, as it was a weird time for everyone wasn’t it? Just something ominous in the air.

“As it turns out, the rest and solitude were exactly what I craved at that specific time. Sink Ya Teeth had been working so hard for several years, and we’d just released our second album. We had to stop all gigs and promotion. I realised how much I’d needed time to process everything, and I do think that putting Let Me Speak together was part of that process.

“I’d had a turbulent couple of years in my private life prior to lockdown too. Not all the songs were created during that time but many were, and the whole lot was put together during lockdown, along with making my own videos, doing my own photos – with help from my boyfriend, etc.

“I’m not really comfortable performing or creating in front of others, the idea of ‘having a jam’ for example with other musicians fills me with dread. And if I had my way I would practically live in my studio and not do many live gigs at all.

“But I also like to keep growing and am always striving to improve myself. Most of the books on my bookshelf are all about self-help, so I’m constantly looking for ways to better myself, so I find it hard to stop creating.”

Did it help you find your voice?

“Yes, I think so, at least made a very good start. I do feel heard now. And validated. Before it came out, I was so eager to have my own identity and to prove to myself and everyone that I was more than just a reliable timekeeper and organised bandmate. That I was creative too and had ideas. Just cos I’m not gregarious and didn’t go to art school doesn’t mean I don’t have something to express.”

And it was all recorded at home?

“I have a very humble studio set up. Literally two Yamaha flat response speakers, an iMac which I use Logic Pro X to record on, a Scarlett 2i interface, a D5 mic and a pair of headphones. I have invested in a better condenser mic to record my next album but it’s still a pretty basic set-up.

“I’d get up and walk my dog, listening to an idea with fresh ears and a clear mind, that I’d bounced down the night before. A lot of ideas come when I’m walking my dog, so I’d sing a melody line over the top and record it on my voice memo on my phone so that I didn’t forget it and get working on it straight away when I got home.

“Then I’d bounce it down before relaxing for the evening, all ready to listen again with fresh ears the following morning, and then repeat the process. Pretty much every single day. It’s similar now but with other obligations and responsibilities so it’s slowed me down a bit, which I welcome.”

Gemma Cullingford

Gemma Cullingford: “I don’t listen to much other music properly when I’m writing otherwise I do absorb it and it ends up influencing my songs, and then I feel like I’ve cheated…”

What music would you say influenced the album?

“Well, it’d be everything I’d ever listened to really wouldn’t it? I don’t listen to much other music properly when I’m writing otherwise I do absorb it and it ends up influencing my songs, and then I feel like I’ve cheated and not used my own voice.

“When I know it’s definitely subconscious though, then I don’t mind if it sounds similar to something else. But I can say who I like and who I think my stuff sounds like in places, which would be a bit of New Order, A Certain Ratio (after playing live with them lots it was hard not to be influenced), Daft Punk, Julee Cruise.”

Tell the story of the song Lizard?

“My boyfriend actually wrote the words to this song. Although they came after the music was written. Apparently, it’s about a drunken dream he had.

“My lyrics are not quite so, I’m not sure what you’d call it, gothic? poetic? deep? as his. He’s helped me with a lot more lyrics recently as now that lockdown is over my lyric writing has dried up again. It’s like I have a mental block with words and that’s why music has always been my preferred way of expression.

Your first solo single was Wide Boys. What can you tell us about that?

“This was inspired by the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement mostly. But it’s also about all those shady ‘wide boys’ that are in control of the world and the people on the street who can’t see that they’re manipulating us all, hence ‘open your eyes we’re all the same, puppets on a string’.”

What inspired Let Me Speak?

“This is about past relationships. Where enough time has passed that you can talk to an ex with objectivity and calm about what went wrong, find closure and move on.”

For you, what are the highlights of the album?

Queen Bee and Let Me Speak: as they were the first I ever wrote where I wrote both the lyrics and music, so they’ll always have a special place as I was so happy I’d managed complete songs on my own.”

Why did you choose to cover Ode To Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry?

“When I first heard this – I’ll be honest and say I’d actually never heard of it before a couple of years ago – I was firstly struck by the sound of it and the melody. When I listened again I paid attention to the words and was just captivated by them. So I decided to cover it and make the words stand out and tell it like a story.”

What are your plans for the second album?

“I can’t say too much about the next album except that it’s now written and going into production. I can’t say when it’ll be out as manufacturing has very long queues these days, but I’m hoping September 2022. It’s a nice progression from Let Me Speak, still dark and dancey but perhaps a little more polished? I’ll let the listener decide when they hear it.”

What else have you got coming up?

“I have a couple of gigs in December in Brighton and Oxford, and am in discussions with promoters about some for 2022 but nothing concrete yet – watch this space.

“I have a Christmas single – a cover of Walking In The Air – coming out in December on Outré. I’d been toying with that idea for a few years and again it came together super quick once I started recording it. Then in February, I have a remix EP coming out with collaborations from A Certain Ratio, Julia-Sophie, The Secret DJ, Means Of Production and Baabi Al.

“In lockdown, I did a little collaboration with poet Luke Wright over the course of a week. We wrote four songs in that week, and we hope to release that in the spring of 2022. Then album two in autumn/winter 2022. And I hope to fit in a few low-key gigs in between releases too.”

Gemma Cullingford’s solo album Let Me Speak is out now on Outré. Find out more on her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

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