Like many musicians, I’m all too well aware of the risks and consequences of joint damage and pain, especially in my own age group (let’s just say the wrong side of retirement age…) I find it difficult to imagine, though, what it’s like for Gemma Mae Anderson, though, being diagnosed with the debilitating autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 17, which means that she’s now lived with that diagnosis for longer than she lived before it. Yet her debut CD Life shows a determination to go beyond that sad situation: not only has she crystallized her experiences into a positive musical artefact, but she’s also using it to raise money for the charity Versus Arthritis. Furthermore, she’s assembled an impressive array of backing musicians, mostly Shetlanders. (Pulp’s Candida Doyle, who contributed keyboards to ‘Wherever There’s A You’, is from Belfast, but has Shetland family links and was also diagnosed with RA as a teenager.)
You might expect an album with no less than four Shetland fiddlers featured to be pretty folky, but in fact this one leans to the pop end of the spectrum, with a soupçon of country here and there.
Here’s the track list. All titles are credited to Gemma.
- ‘Open Up’ is a nice upbeat song: lyrically, it reminded me a little of Mary Chapin Carpenter, though Gemma’s voice is a lot lighter.
- ‘Ray Of Light’ is a little slower, but has a basically positive message.
- ‘Everybody Knows’ is nothing like the Leonard Cohen song of the same title: in fact, it has darker overtones, lyrically, and rather an interesting melodic structure.
- The piano-borne ballad ‘Anything’ also sounds as if it reflects the singer’s physical condition, though I guess it could apply to many other situations. Very effective, anyway.
- ‘Wherever There’s A You’ has a bouncier feel, set against a curiously 1960s arrangement.
- ‘The Way Of Life’ is another piano-borne ballad with prominent fiddle.
- ‘Today We’ll Tell The World’ balances piano against acoustic guitar behind an attractive love song. Nice backing vocals too.
- ‘Falling Forever’ is another very positive love song.
- By the time I got to ‘Not A Bad Feeling’ I was beginning to feel a bit I had overheard rather too much of a conversation between a couple. The songs stand well in isolation, but the cumulative effect is a little too much.
- Fortunately, ‘Take This Road’ changes the mood, while maintaining Gemma’s trademark positivity. It’s nice to hear viola counterpointing fiddle, too.
- ‘I Want To Believe It’ has a much darker lyrical theme, and benefits from a dramatic and vocal intensity that isn’t quite there in the preceding tracks.
- There is some of that darkness and intensity in the lyric to ‘Time’, too.
This is a very pleasant CD: Gemma sings nicely, if a little uncertainly in places. The songs are generally upbeat, with very singable choruses, even where the lyrics hint at something darker. It would, perhaps, have benefited from a little more light and shade, more variation in pace and modality, at any rate in terms of appealing to a grizzled old folky. Lord knows there’s little enough positivity and optimism in the world today, but some of the songs here suggest that she is capable of tapping a richer vein of emotion that could make for some very interesting future work. Nonetheless, Life should make lots of money for a very good cause.
Artist’s website: www.birnamcdshop.com/product/gemma-mae-anderson/