The singer’s words and world reflect that of her breakout hit, ‘Up De Flats’, penned in homage to the much-maligned Sheriff Street area of Dublin’s north inner city.
Behind the headlines and the heroin epidemic that was transported into the area by Dublin’s underworld are thousands of ordinary people trying to raise families and live their lives as best they can.
When the papers, police and politicians washed their collective hands of those innocent people the community turned inwards creating its own support bubble. If nobody else would help them, then they’d help each other as best they could. Gemma Dunleavy is a product of that resilience.
Up De Flats
Throughout our conversation those words repeat over and over again: authenticity, community, family. These ideals fall sacred from Dunleavy’s mouth like a prayer: in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost.
“It’s important for me to talk about the flats and my community, but it was never a plan to make a song about that, it kind of just happened,” says Dunleavy of her inner city celebration.
“That’s what I talk about every day. My friends slag me – they’re like, ‘oh if you can’t find Gemma at a party, she’ll be over in the corner talking about the sense of community in Sheriff Street.’”
Gemma Dunleavy reflects that the song is in part prompted by the gentrification of Dublin. “I was really clinging onto the guts of our community because we used to have lots of aggressive redevelopment going on and I was trying to push back against that, so I guess any music that I was making it was very hard for it to escape those topics.”
Up De Flats is also powered by a bittersweet sadness brought on by her career success. “I have a type of guilt because I have this community that built me up and made me the person I am, but then I’m legging it off to chase my opportunities. So, any time that I’m here I feel like I want to immerse myself in it.
”One of the ways Gemma immerses herself in the community is by running free music classes for local kids. And who better to learn from than Dunleavy who attended the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul McCartney.
“I got to meet him loads of times. He’d just rock up and do a masterclass of a Friday or one on one lessons,” explains Dunleavy of the former Beatle.
Another highlight was attending a masterclass with Mark Ronson who “played loads of outtakes of Amy Winehouse’s vocals on ‘Back To Black’ in the studio, he opened the ProTools session. Just seeing that was deadly.”
Gemma formed a band for a brief time in Liverpool with Belfast producer Unknown and some of their tracks found their way to ex-Cocteau Twins bassist turned Bella Union label boss and DJ Simon Raymonde.
Unknown was a short-lived musical experiment for Dunleavy but she impressed Raymonde so much that he reached out to her following the band’s demise. When he unexpectedly attended one of Gemma’s Liverpool gigs their unlikely friendship solidified into a professional working relationship when he invited her to sing a track on his new band Lost Horizon’s debut album.
“It was so bizarre,” reflects Dunleavy. “I was so honoured. It was really one of those moments where I was like ‘wow this is great.’”
I sent off the first vocal I did for him and I wasn’t intimidated at all because I’d know him well, until my uncles who were mad into Cocteau Twins were like ‘what you’re doing a track with him?’”
The sudden family interest “was kind of getting in the way a little bit and I just did the song and sent it off at 2am and he text me back within 5 minutes saying, ‘you’re my heroine.’”
Raymonde invited Dunleavy to tour the UK including Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Among the star-studded line-up for the show were Marissa Nadler and Ghostpoet. “I’d never played to a place like that, then there was a crowd of diehard Cocteau Twins fans outside looking for autographs, it was insane.”
“I tried to go outside to get a bit of fresh air and got bombarded by people looking for my autograph. I got so overwhelmed that I ran into the dressing room and rang my ma and said, ‘you won’t believe it there’s people outside saying are you Gemma Dunleavy, can I get you to sign this?’ and my ma was pissing herself laughing at me.
“She never listened to the Cocteau Twins and she was texting all her mates saying ‘Oh Gemma’s over in London with the Cocktail Twins’. Nothing will bring you back down to earth like that. It was so surreal, but it felt like it was part of my world.”
Indeed, this willingness to explore new realms has stood her in good stead across a series of collaboration throughout her burgeoning career with artists such as DJ Murlo and Swing Ting.
“That’s sort of been my main thing,” says Dunleavy of her early work. “I’ve been doing collaborations for years. I was always making my own music but I just wanted to wait until I had something that felt like it was really right.”
“It was a really fun sense of escapism to step into a character and be like ‘okay, this is what this song is going to be about’. I loved doing that. It really helped me if I was going through writer’s block because I had learned a new way of writing.
“I would imagine the instrumental as a movie scene and – depending on the climate, the weather, the colours – I would become the character that fits into that scene. It was so fun.
I got to do loads of shows with DJ Murlo and Swing Ting. I’d be doing gigs in Soup Kitchen (Manchester) and ended up going to SXSW. I feel like I got to make all my mistakes in collaborative projects,” she says laughing.
"I would imagine the instrumental as a movie scene and - depending on the climate, the weather, the colours - I would become the character that fits into that scene."
Being as those community relationships are so close to Gemma Dunleavy’s heart, she was apprehensive about how they would react, not only to Up De Flats but the EP as a whole.
“I was most concerned about people from my area approving of the song and the whole EP because I was very much aware that these are not my stories, they’re everyone else’s. That’s why for the EP I had to step into 6 different characters and tell the story from that character’s perspective. I couldn’t tell it from my perspective because it wouldn’t have been fair.”
Dunleavy takes this responsibility seriously and refuses to neutralise who she is to further her career.
“People outside of Sheriff Street don’t really know that much about us other than what the papers write and now I’m in a position where I have one foot in Sheriff Street and one foot in the arts world, which has always been quite elitist,’” says Dunleavy, alluding to the obstacles faced by working class people trying to enter the arts world.
“I’m so proud of the song Up De Flats because when people are giving me feedback they talk about how warm it makes them feel and this is what tamed me so much in my teenage years when I had to see friends and family being slandered in the papers.
While Gemma Dunleavy is unsurprisingly wary of the media, she has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of people from outside her community.
“People around here can smell when something’s authentic and when it’s not but I didn’t think authenticity mattered as much as it did across the board. That was a lovely eye-opener for me because you see so much stuff, whether it’s art, music, people, conversations and especially with the time and the climate we’re in, there’s just so much bullshit. I feel like there’s only so much time I can spend in the music world before I need to come home and sit at my auntie’s table – where she’s blowing smoke all over me – and have a hearty conversation and I feel like me again, ya know?”
“I just didn’t think authenticity mattered as much as it did, and it really clearly did, especially in the time that we were in. People were really craving that, you know, because I released my EP in July and I think that shocked me and it was so, so nice and warm just to realise that it mattered to people.”
“I was very much aware that these are not my stories, they're everyone else's."
The video for Up De Flats, directed by Rosie Barrett, struck a chord with people in Dublin and helped get the message of the song out in the perfect manner.
“When we were making the video I wanted it to almost be like a documentary style ‘day in the life of me’. So, let’s just get my friends, my family and my neighbours – tell them we’re gonna be at the end of the road.
“The joy that you see in that video was just our area in a nutshell,” reflects Dunleavy, proudly recalling, “my neighbours came out, one of them brought her decks and all the kids came out. We’ve doing that every Saturday since March, doing community bingo. So, it was just a reflection of what we’ve been doing.”
As well as her passionate community work, Dunleavy has been busy creating music this year including writing sessions with James Vincent McMorrow, Sorcha Richardson and the Narolane roster of Denise Chaila, God Knows and Murli, but she hopes 2021 will primarily be about her solo material.
“I’ve been working on new music for a while but I’m starting to consolidate it into some sort of a project, which is really exciting and refreshing but I feel like I might need to take some time away from the internet world to fully make that happen,” she says, alluding to the great modern addiction of doom scrolling.
“There’s a concept and I’m making music responding to that. I’ve loads of different tracks, but I might just make the whole musical body and then decide whether I’m going to break it up into an album or an EP or singles.”
Gemma Dunleavy sold-out a string of socially distanced shows in Dublin and Cork but those shows had not prepared her for what was about to happen when she announced a date in The Academy Green Room in Dublin.
“That sold out in just under an hour, which was insane,” says Dunleavy, still clearly amazed at the demand for tickets. “I thought the socially distanced shows sold out so quick because people were sweating for a gig but to have The Academy Green Room sell out so quick that another date was put on… I’m making a huge plan for those shows. I really want to make them so special.”
“I’m so grateful for every appreciation for my music and especially because of the topic(s) it’s about. I’ve never felt proud to talk about drug addiction in my family and it’s not because I’m ashamed, it’s because I don’t want to argue with people and that’s what I’ll do to the death of me to protect the people I love.
“To tell our story and not have to do that, to tell our story and be able to fold my arms and smile and be like ‘oh, thanks’, that’s just the warmest feeling ever. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
“The joy that you see in that video was just our area in a nutshell”
Dunleavy works in a local primary school and recently appeared on RTE‘s Home School Hub. The reaction of the kids to her performance is equally heart-warming as it is troubling.
“The kids in the school were just so proud of me,” says Dunleavy, before noting, “one of the kids (3rd class) said to their teacher ‘oh, our area is famous and it’s not on the news for anything bad’. That just goes to show you that an 8-year-old notices that.”
Dunleavy, however, is more saddened than surprised that a child already thinks they are less than other children having lived a similar experience herself.
“I went on The Late Late Toy Show and I remember my dance teacher saying ‘speak nice’. Everything was about speak nice and make yourself better than you are – talk posh, don’t talk the way you do because that’s common and we don’t like common. I would’ve loved to see someone like that.
“Stephen Gately lived around the corner from me, my parents are friends with his parents. I used to go around with a big bag of teddies and pictures for him to sign. I was obsessed with Boyzone and I used to think ‘oh my God, he’s from Sheriff Street then of course I can do this’.
“So, seeing the kids reaction to it just says it all really, ya know. And I know for a fact that I won’t be last person from Sheriff Street that ends up on telly because the talent down here is unbelievable. The kids are incredible. If you could bottle and sell their confidence you would be billionaire. I just can’t wait to be able to bring those kids onto any platform I can and be like, ‘look at what we have, shove that on the front of yer Herald.’”