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Gemma Dunleavy’s debut EP is a rallying cry for her community

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Gemma Dunleavy moves through genre like a phantom, gently plucking sounds here and there and weaving them together into something evocative and eerily familiar, but at the same time still new. Over the years that talent – plus her undeniable voice – has seen Dunleavy collaborate with the likes of Murlo and Swing Ting, and now she’s deploying on it on her first solo EP.

Made in collaborations with Dr Martens Presents – a platform which offers support to independent artists, to work on, and present, creative projects that otherwise might not be possible – Up De Flats blends elements of R&B, UK garage and more traditional Irish folk into a celebration of Dunleavy’s upbringing on Sheriff Street, Dublin. A working class area of the city, the flats shaped the singer-producer in countless ways, offering support and community when she most needed it. Each track of the release tackles a stereotype associated with the area, exploring addiction, the cyclical nature of life on Sherriff Street and more. More than anything though, Dunleavy uses the project to champion her community and shout about its importance to her and to Dublin.

To mark the release of Up De Flats – and ahead of her Instagram livestream with Dr Martens Presents on 16 July – we caught up with Dunleavy to delve deeper into the EP, how lockdown changed her plans for the project and the role Sheriff Street has played in her life.

Some of your earliest collaborators and breakout moments came from the world of club music and experimental electronics. Are there particular artists from this space which you connected with growing up?
Yes, club music was a huge part of my life. From a young age I was listening to my older cousin’s clubland tapes and in my teenage years a lot of time was spent around local parks listening to Maniac 2000 etc. or making my own ‘mixes’ by recording the best songs from the late-night radio shows onto the one tape. I wasn’t super familiar with the artists back then, I was just drawn to anything with a good vocal and driving beat. You’ve Been Cheating and Telling Me Lies was a staple for my teenage years. Still, these days whenever I’m doing an improvised set I find myself falling into that vocal hook!

From your own perspective, tell us about Sheriff Street, your own personal relationship with it and how it inspired this EP?
Sheriff Street is the place where I was born and reared. It’s a North Inner City area that has always been looked down upon because of the high rates of crime and drugs. It’s still suffering from the remnants of the 90s heroin epidemic but the community here is like no other. I grew up calling my neighbours my cousins, that’s how close we are here. Everyone has each other’s back because everyone knows what it’s like to have to struggle.

This record was made in conjunction with a documentary I was working on in response to some aggressive redevelopment plans in the area. I was feeling frustrated, eating, breathing and sleeping protecting our community, so naturally, the theme trickled into the music I was making. A lot of the documentary audio made its way into the EP.

Each song is from a different perspective of a stereotype I grew up around. They each represent something I’ve experienced, someone I’ve been, someone I am or someone I’ve lost. The track Return explores the cyclical patterns of behaviour, in Setting Son, we hear from the perspective of a jaded mother nursing her son who is an addict. It explores hardships and grief, but most importantly the sense of community. The title track Up De Flats is an attempt to try to articulate how you can love a place and a community so much that it feels part of your soul. It’s laced with my neighbours, friends and family’s voices and I feel like a part of my DNA is in there, it simply wouldn’t exist without my community.

Can you remember experiencing outsider’s demonisation of the area?
Yeah it would happen often when I was younger and it’s still prevalent today. It used to really get to me, I always felt very protective of my upbringing and the people who raised me. I’ve been brought up by the strongest women, I have little old souls growing up around me, feisty and ready to stand up against anything. We are filled with emerging talent from musicians to boxers. I don’t worry about judgement anymore because the grit and soul that comes from the people of Sheriff St. is not something you could buy with a fortune or learn in any university and no amount of power or demonisation can take that away from us.

How do you think growing up in that area has shaped you as an artist?
It’s shown me the value of community and given me the support of a thousand cradling arms when I wasn’t getting it from my work. I feel constantly grounded and no matter where I go I feel like I have an etheric cord to the North Wall.

Why is preserving community important for art? Is that something which feels especially relevant now?
Where you have community, you have grit and character and what is art without character? Community gives us stories to fuel our art, we breath together we feel and experience together. I think that during lockdown we all got a desperate need and want for community. People were connecting like never before. Strangers saying “hello” again, neighbours collecting shopping and organising street bingo.
Personally, I feel like the lockdown was a reminder of how close we were to losing community in this fast-paced way of life. It was a reminder of how important it is to preserve it where we can, some beautiful videos were made during lockdown, highlighting communities coming together, and seeing that in itself just shows how important community is for art.

Talk us through the traditional Irish musical elements of the EP? Why was it important for you to include these?
It was never a conscious decision to have traditional Irish elements in my music at all. I used harp to help me frame a spoken-word piece one time and something just clicked, it felt like the perfect vessel for my story. I’ve worked with Roisin Berkley on my last two releases and I never truly feel like my music is complete until we get together. We speak the same musical language, she plays what I feel but can’t articulate.

Talk us through your home recording setup? Which rooms have you turned into studios?
My bedroom is half-bedroom, half-studio. Right beside my bed, there’s a tiny desk with my sound card and laptop on it. I have a digital piano, a pair of Rokit KRK speakers and a really nice SE Gemini mic that is on loan from my cousin. My mic stand has been fashioned into a T-stand for my parrot Charlo who likes to sit with my while I make my music. It’s about as DIY as you can get but there’s something nice about being able to lay down ideas on your way in or out of bed, I always get the best ideas then.

How has lockdown inspired you creatively and shaped the sound of this EP?

I feel like this record might sound completely different had we not been in lockdown. The initial idea was to take the sense of community into the studio, something I have never done before as everything is mostly made in my room. I wanted the studio to be a mixing pot of musicians and ideas with no time to overthink my own ideas, the main goal was to have fun framing the concept.

After the first week of recording, lockdown hit and we had to finish the record at home. At first, I found it really difficult to get the ball rolling, the space and time sent me into a state of creative paralysis for the first couple of weeks. Myself and Brendan Jenkinson eventually finished off the record by having remote studio days working over the phone and voice notes. This felt like it might be a challenge but there are so many moments and choices on the record that could have only happened from working the way that we did, having lots of space and time separately and coming together at the end of the day to amalgamate those ideas.

How are you feeling now with lockdown easing and the EP almost out in the world?
I feel a mixture of things, it’s hard to be excited right now with all of the injustices going on around us in the world but it’s also such a blessing to have something to keep you going. I feel proud and excited to have my EP out in the world and I’m looking forward to being able to get in a room to perform and exchange energy with a crowd again. I think the moment I feel that level of connection again, everything will be okay.

For more on Dr Martens Presents click here.

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