by Andrew Miller

Gemma Hayes Fri June 20


There are certain settings in which you can expect to hear the word "postmortem," like at a coroner's convention or at a Slayer concert. However, when a charming singer/songwriter suddenly interjects it into a cheerful conversation, it can be jarring. Gemma Hayes lapses into death metal jargon when asked to reconcile two press pieces: an Entertainment Weekly brief in which she claims "I love sweet music," and a Blender review that concludes: "Few can make folk frightening; Hayes drives a stake through its pretty little heart."

"It's like a postmortem," she decides. "When I wrote the songs, I never thought about making them sweet with a little hint of darkness. Afterward, it's analyzed for you, and you have to explain yourself."

A few years ago, when Hayes was a teenage busker in Dublin, her songs didn't rate such scrutiny. She was the default acoustic opener for any major group who came to town, but Hayes harbored hopes of playing in a rock band. "I always wrote as if a band were there."

Teaming up with guitar-and-bass brother combo David and Karl Odlum and an ever-changing cast of drummers and keyboardists, Hayes started penning fuller, fleshier tunes fueled by cathartic distortion blasts. However, she also stayed true to her affection for delicate melodies. On her debut full-length, Night on My Side, these approaches are strictly segregated, with six stompers on the "Day" or A-side, and lilting lullabies filling the "Night" half.

After a confidence boosting, sold-out May gig at a thousand-plus club in Dublin, Hayes has embarked on her first American tour. She's been greeted with plenty of fanfare in features that devote equal space to discussion of her music and large photographs. But Hayes isn't one to capitalize on her striking appearance. Her website photo gallery, for example, contains shots of Hayes staring blankly into a dingy mirror, and casting a forlorn gaze upward while pacing what looks like an interrogation room.

"In the photographs, I can see how awkward I am, because it doesn't come naturally to me," she says. "I just try to keep it as close to what I am as possible."