Thea Gilmore didn’t set out to write a political album.
But as the songs on Small World Turning came together, she realised there was no way of avoiding what has been going on in the world creeping in.
The resulting album sees Gilmore turn in some of her most fiery lyrics, bolstered by a (justifiably) righteous sense of anger that courses through its 12 tracks.
And now she’s out on the road with her ‘sort-of folk super-group’ including Matt Owens from Noah and The Whale on bass and Katriona Gilmore, from Gilmore Roberts on fiddle, as well as her long-time musical foil and husband Nigel Stonier. The tour swings by The Wedge on May 30.
Small World Turning is Thea’s 16th album in 21 years, but this one has seen her not only returning to her folk roots sonically, but also her roots in terms of release. It’s been put out on her own Shameless Records. ‘Shameless by name and nature,’ she laughs.
Did she set out to write a record that skewers the current state of the nation?
‘I try really hard with every record I do not to consciously shoot for anything, but the prevailing political climate at the moment is difficult to ignore and when you try to write songs, for me anyway, I find it very hard for that to not seep into the songs. There are a lot of people who say you shouldn’t bring politics into your songs, but I’m afraid I really don’t agree with that.
‘Politics is everywhere and it affects every aspect of our lives. You’d be denying the current state of things, and just denying being alive if you ignored it. It wasn’t that I was consciously trying to make a political album, but it’s a pretty terrifying time to be alive, and that influenced everything.’
One such song is The Revisionist, a powerful denunciation of the rewriting of history by the right.
‘I’m really shocked and terrified by the rise of populism in this country – it’s been horrifying to watch, racism is on the rise, anti-Semitism is on the rise, it’s all absolutely appalling, and I can’t believe how quickly we seem to be walking backwards.
‘And I’m pretty terrified by that – and yes, there is anger, it’s not a world I want my kids growing up in.’
As you can tell, this is not something that Thea is willing to meekly accept.
‘Absolutely. It should be important to everybody. Everybody has their own unique ability to make small changes in everything they do, whether it’s trying to change the way they live in terms of the environment or trying to make their country a welcoming place for people. Everybody has the capacity to change stuff.
‘I’m really lucky, I have a voice, I get to stand on stage every night and if I weren’t using that for something I believe in, then I wouldn’t be doing my job right.’
Following a brief snatch of the old standard Mockingbird, first track-proper Cutteslowe Walls sets the tone of the rest of the album. And it relates back to her native Oxford. The walls were built in 1934 to separate private homes from the neighbouring council estate, and remained in place until 1959.
‘I never knew that story until about eight months ago. I think I read it on BBC News about the fact they were resurfacing the roads, and they resurfaced right up to the divide that would have been the Cutteslowe Walls, if they were still there.
‘I did a bit of research, and thought it was an incredible and terrifying story – and what a brilliant metaphor for what's going on in the world today. Particularly in this country in terms of ignoring the poverty that is right on your doorstep.
‘It's still there, that sensibility, to keep the poor away from the rich, so they don't have to look at them. It's utterly shocking.’
Over the course of her career Thea’s sound has embraced rockier aspects, as well as more polished pop and the occasional dabble with electronics. This album though definitely emphasises her roots side.
‘Again, it wasn’t something I set out to do,’ she explains. ‘I tend to let the songs dictate the direction the record’s going to take, and these were very rootsy songs and they had a particular feel to them. But once I got that idea, both Nige and I said let’s hark back to Rules For Jokers, all the way back in 2001, and kind of make it a sister album to that, and I think that works, it serves the songs well.’
It’s also blessed with a stellar supporting cast from the folk world – Cara Dillon, Lakemans Sam and Seth, Gilmore Roberts and Ciaran Algar, among others.
‘As soon as we knew the direction, I’ve made so many friends in the roots world and it felt right to ask them – and you can but ask.
‘But they’ve all been amazing, they’re the most generous bunch of people I’ve ever come across, they’re all utterly lovely human beings, and they know their stuff and they’re fantastic to work with.’
She duets with Cara on the track Grandam Gold, a phrase dating back to Chaucer describing a miser’s tight grip on their wealth.
‘I'd never sung with Cara before. I've done a couple of festivals with her and then I helped to organise a festival in my hometown and I got her up to play at our festival, so we got to know each other quite well there. Her and [husband] Sam are such lovely people to work with.
‘Her voice is a gift from god, it’s such an amazing voice.’
Hearing the ballad back for the first time had an unexpected effect on Thea.
‘I cried! I don't cry very often, but I cried, I couldn't believe what a beautiful noise she made, she's just extraordinary. I'm an old hand now at making albums, so it's unusual to be that moved by anything that I'm doing, personally, but she certainly did it.’
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Thursday, May 30