"I see people wearing the songs ... that’s something so special to me."
After being approached by footwear brand Dr. Martens' platform for up-and-coming talent, Dr. Martens Presents, to create a project with their support, Dublin's Gemma Dunleavy jumped at the chance to record an EP that encapsulates the community spirit of the city's Sheriff Street, an area unfairly demonised in the 90s for crime and violence, where she grew up.
Self-written, produced and released during lockdown and traversing R&B, two-step garage, neo-folk and traditional Irish harp, Dunleavy's debut solo EP, 'Up De Flats', sees the artist step in the shoes of the characters she's grown up around and witnessed face every stereotype under the sun.
Here, Dunleavy tells Lizzie's Lowdown about the "heartwarming" and grounding reaction to the songs from the people who inspired them, how Amy Winehouse, Laura Marling and The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson's honesty and vulnerability influenced her raw and soul-stirring songwriting, and how lockdown added a special touch of "magic" to the songs - which wouldn't have been possible in the same room as producer Brendan Jenkinson.
Your writing is very visual. Where did your natural flair for storytelling come from?
Thank you! I come from a big family of mad stories and experiences, there were always gangs of kids and adults in my house growing up so you kind of had to have a USP to get your voice heard. I’ve always been a yapper so it definitely wasn’t difficult for me.
You write from other people’s perspectives so naturally as well. Would you say that comes easily to you because you’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand so many stereotypes on your doorstep?
Yeah, I’m definitely an empath, I feel like I absorb pain and joy from the people close to me. The stories and perspectives I talk from in the EP aren’t things I've witnessed from afar. I feel like I've felt every emotion and struggle in each song myself almost as much as the person I'm speaking for - so I think having a broad perspective on each situation myself made it easy for me to step into the shoes of each character.
What’s the reaction been like from the people you wrote about to the songs?
It’s been really heartwarming seeing the kids from my area sing, 'shouting up de flats from the rooftops', and also seeing people become emotional and connecting with songs like ‘Setting Son’ or ‘Stop The Lights’. The reactions have been raw and honest and not specific to any particular elements, I see people wearing the songs if that makes sense. That’s something so special to me. There’s something very rewarding in it, to speak the same language as someone's pain. I’ve spent so many years trying to make sense of and articulate the pain and joy in equal parts that I see in my area and community and I feel like I've finally reached a place of understanding. It's surreal to see other people feel like they've had it articulated for them through a song I made. Even though they’re difficult or traumatic issues, knowing someone else has the same experiences kind of puts your feet on the ground, makes you feel connected in solidarity. That’s why ‘Up De Flats’ for me feels so joyous because we’re all connected again, but this time it’s in our joy instead of our pain.
Setting Son is such a raw account from a mother of an addict. Tell us about that song?
That song was made in an instant during an improvisation with myself and my guitar while I was waiting for one of my students to arrive for a music lesson. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I listened to the recording that I realised it had captured the very essence of something I always found hard to articulate. There’s something about a mother’s love, that even in their child’s most darkest and shameful moments they still see their beauty. When someone close to you is destroying themselves from drugs you see the bad sides but you also still see their good qualities, their love, their struggles, their efforts and interests - even though they might be fading away. It’s like a sun set. We know its about to leave us and, while we see the shadows it's casting, we can also see and appreciate the pink and purple hues behind the chimneys or the moment it shares the sky with the moon before it leaves us in darkness.
Which song kicked off the EP and did you go into the project with a specific idea of how you wanted it to sound sonically?
'Up De Flats' kicked off the project, it was the first hook I came up with and became the binding ingredient for the rest of the songs. I didn’t have any preference on how it would sound, I was really open with that. I was more fixated on telling the stories right and doing justice to my community and the concept of the record. Once I had that right, I experimented a lot with the sound and saw it like dressing the stories/personalities in certain outfits. Whatever framed them right, stuck. It didn’t matter about the style/genre.
How did that develop throughout the process? I imagine you translating a feeling into a sound if that makes sense?
Yeah that’s exactly it! I had certain moods that I wanted to create. For example, on 'Stop The Lights', I wanted sounds to accentuate the aggressive energy of the frustration and anger and then in contrast at the end the second voice, which represented the voice of a passed loved one, needed to be soft and angelic in contrast. Once we had certain sounds that created specific feelings, we used them again in other tracks to create that same feeling and help tie it together. The harp in 'Up De Flats' influenced the flecks of harp you hear in 'Cruisin', to bring the lighthearted, playful energy to the soundscape.
How important was the addition of the harp to articulate the feeling of that spoken-word piece?
That was essential. I’ve worked with Roisin [Berkley] for a long time and I just adore how she plays the harp. I love to tell stories and I feel like Roisin plays the harp in such a conversational way so we can almost communicate with each other using different languages. She plays what I can’t articulate but exactly what I was feeling. I knew she’d nail framing the spoken-word piece. I feel like the harp sets the perfect scene for that character.
What were the challenges of creating the EP in lockdown?
Before lockdown, we had a really nice buzz in the studio, creating and moulding the songs together with different musicians. I felt like I was constantly being excited and surprised by what we created and the community I was talking about throughout the record was almost being replicated in the studio. It was magic. Having that removed was definitely a challenge, but myself and Brendan Jenkinson finished the record remotely through voice notes and back and forth. And then a different kind of magic started to happen, we were working individually and coming together after a day or so of working on ideas and I feel like most of those ideas that made it to the finished EP might have been interrupted if we were in the room together.
On recording in lockdown, Dunleavy said: "A different kind of magic started to happen."
You write much of your music in your bedroom/studio. Is that where you write best?
Yeah, it's my comfort zone and where I feel most myself. For some reason the best ideas are always recorded/written in the moments where nothing is set up properly. So often times when I re-record in the studio I end up going back to the version recorded in my room with my parrot yapping in the background.
Honesty is integral to your music. Which artists growing up did you connect with for their honesty?
Laura Marling, Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill, The Beach Boys are a few artists whose songs don’t translate in the same way when someone else sings them. They feel like THEIR stories. I always felt a purity and innocence to Amy Winehouse’s songs in the same way I felt it in Brian Wilson's writing. I would spend hours deciphering the metaphors in Laura Marling’s lyrics, layers of meaning to one line or phrase. And with Lauryn Hill, I genuinely felt like I was learning every time I listened to her words, every song was an earworm, a soul-shaker but also something to think and meditate on. I feel like each of these qualities became something I searched for in music after that, vulnerability, purity, analogies and a sharpness all dressed in sugary melodies and pillowy harmonies.
Have you had any interest from any labels? How would you define success?
Yes, I released my single before 'Up De Flats' called 'Better 4 U' on B4, a 4AD sister label. I loved working with them; they weren’t just a label but my friends so it all felt very natural. Success to me is getting to do this for a living and feeling like I’m doing it right. There might be perks with that, like world tours, dream collaborations, the first album goal etc ... but ultimately if you don’t feel like you’re doing it YOUR right way. The tour, the collaboration or the album isn't gonna make you happy, you know?
What’s your creativity like in lockdown. Are you still writing constantly?
For most of the lockdown, I was finishing the EP, and I put it out pretty soon after the last day of recording. Now that its been out for a couple of weeks, I’m working on new ideas again and I’m really enjoying feeling like I’m in a good creative flow while something I have out still feels ‘new’ to people.
Finally, you released the EP with Dr. Martens Presents. Tell us about the work they are doing with independent artists like yourself and the freedom they gave you with this?
It really was a dream to work with Dr. Martens. I grew up wearing Docs all the time. I come from a family of dressmakers so I was always dressed in clothes made by my aunties and my ma always paired them with Dr. Martens.
Revisiting my childhood for these songs felt so cathartic and raw and it felt very fitting to have Dr. Martens in on it because often times I would be looking through old photos to get a memory back and I’d be wearing my Dr. Martens boots and I’d get that little nod of reassurance from myself like, 'Ah it’s meant to be'.
They were so brilliant from the PR team to the content team and everyone in between. I had full creative freedom, and constant support when it came to the live-stream, the PR etc. I built a relationship with everyone I worked with and I genuinely felt so looked after.
This project would still be an idea in my notes on my computer if we hadn’t collided through my inbox last year.
It’s also been great to have the kids from my family and my area in the promo video we made. Having them see themselves in a video made by Dr. Martens is so exciting and it means the world to me. To see their little faces when they saw themselves on the screen was so amazing and it shows them that they can be anything no matter where they’re from. That to me has been the best thing I could have gotten from this and I’m so proud to have Dr. Martens bring that to my community.
Gemma Dunleavy’s EP 'Up De Flats' is out now worldwide.
For more information about Dr. Martens Presents head here.