Happy 15th Anniversary to Gemma Hayes’ debut album Night On My Side, originally released May 24, 2002 (Ireland), May 27, 2002 (UK), and April 22, 2003 (US).
“I am doing the only thing I could ever imagine doing with my life, so I might as well try to make a success of it while I'm about it,” Gemma Hayes confided to The Telegraph shortly after releasing her debut album Night On My Side back in 2002. “If I got dropped by my label tomorrow, I wouldn't stop writing songs. The music is never going to leave, you see. I'm basically stuck with it in my soul.”
Born in the tiny village of Ballyporeen in Ireland’s Tipperary county, Hayes leaned on music and poetry from an early age to combat the inevitable feelings of small-town isolation. While she relocated to Dublin to attend the city’s University College following her stint at boarding school, she ultimately abandoned her studies to focus squarely on her true life’s calling to write and perform songs. She soon became a staple in the Dublin music scene, and her steadfast devotion to her craft was rewarded when EMI imprint Source Records signed her to a recording contract in 2001.
A pair of extended play releases followed before the year was over, with 4:35am and Work to a Calm setting the stage for the arrival of her debut long player in her native Ireland and the UK in May of 2002, followed by a US release with a modified track listing nearly a year later. Met with widespread critical acclaim—that is, despite a handful of myopic and misguided critiques, one of which lazily referred to her as “Ireland’s answer to Kylie Minogue” (huh?)—Night On My Side signaled the emergence of an ambitiously gifted singer-songwriter-guitarist with a distinctive voice and penchant for emotionally earnest lyrics, coupled with a wide-ranging musical palette.
Recorded at the famed Tarbox Road Studios in Western New York State, Night On My Side was produced by acclaimed soundsmith, Mercury Rev co-founder and Tarbox proprietor Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Luna, Sleater-Kinney), with co-production duties handled by Dave Odlum who has helmed the boards for Hayes’ last three albums. Harnessing inspiration from the likes of My Bloody Valentine and PJ Harvey, among other influences, Hayes’ inaugural LP unfurls as a dynamic dichotomy of sounds, all underpinned by her reassuring, hypnotic vocals and heart-laid-bare introspection devoid of pretense. While a handful of standout tracks are stormers awash in multi-layered, enveloping sonic dissonance, it is their juxtaposition with the sparser, acoustic compositions that produces a gorgeous mélange of melodies, tones and flourishes that can’t help but seduce the listener’s sensibilities with each subsequent listen.
Among the more electrifying fare, lead singles “Hanging Around” and “Let a Good Thing Go” arguably rock the hardest, with thrashing, discordant guitars and fevered percussion soundtracking Hayes’ examination of romantic stagnation and the harboring of regret, respectively. Embracing slightly more straight-ahead melodic structures, the blistering self-empowerment anthem “Work to a Calm” (included on the US version only) and soaring ode to elusive love “Back of My Hand” are undeniable standouts.
The album’s more subdued songs may not keep your heart racing and ears buzzing to the extent that the aforementioned tracks do, but what they lack in terms of frenetic energy, they more than make up for by way of their emotional resonance. Not to mention that Hayes’ crystalline vocals and confessional lyrics are elevated to the forefront, allowing her raw vulnerability to shine through, rather than being overpowered by a dense wall of sound. Highlights include the shimmering lament for a doomed relationship “Over and Over” (included on the European versions only), the inspirational “Ran for Miles,” the gorgeous acoustic ballad “I Wanna Stay,” and the lush meditation on the fragility of love “My God.”
Night On My Side was deservedly nominated for the 2002 Mercury Prize among the likes of David Bowie’s Heathen, Doves’ The Last Broadcast, The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, and the eventual winner, Ms. Dynamite’s A Little Deeper. More important than its accolades, however, Hayes’ debut envisaged the consistently impressive recordings that have followed since: The Roads Don’t Love You (2005), The Hollow of Morning (2008), Let It Break (2011), and Bones + Longing (2014)—the latter arguably her strongest album to date.
As evidenced by her discography to date, music is indeed stuck in Gemma Hayes’ soul, and the revelatory Night On My Side will forever be stuck in mine.