She may have started 20 feet from stardom, but Gemma Sugrue is stepping into the spotlight.
The singer, having worked as a backing vocalist with everyone from Brian Deady to Bon Iver, is currently recording her own material, having enjoyed a two-year stint as vocalist with Jenny Greene and the RTÉ concert orchestra.
Using her classically trained vocal virtuosity to follow in the footsteps of some dance music’s most memorable divas, women like Loleatta Holloway (‘Ride on Time’) and Rozalla Miller (‘Everybody’s Free’), Kerry-born Sugrue says that her time with Jenny Greene’s phenomenally successful live dance project marked a turning point in her career.
“It’s so satisfying, and to have the power of that orchestra beneath you is massive,” Sugrue says.
“You’ve won before you’ve even gone out on stage: the crowd is already screaming and excited, so it’s a total buzz. I suppose it’s changed my priorities a little bit, because I really wasn’t putting my own performance first.”
Sugrue, 33 and an MA graduate of Cork School of Music, opened a vocal coaching school, Voiceworks, in Cork following her studies. Co-founded with fellow CSM graduate Laoise Leahy, Voiceworks now has over 300 students and 14 tutors in three locations: Cork City, Bandon, and her native Killarney.
“At the time, I felt that singers specifically weren’t catered for; there were lots of stage schools, or classical conservatoires, but we were looking for somewhere for contemporary singers to go to,” Sugrue says.
“As we say ourselves, somewhere we would have liked to have gone when we were teenagers.”
In the six years since opening Voiceworks, Sugrue has poured her energies into teaching and a wide variety of collaborative projects, where she has graced many stages employing her vocal talents as a backing singer.
Tall, willowy and blonde, Sugrue channels a 1940s-style glamour on stage, but she also brings her passion for vocology, the science of voice, into her work.
“Backing singing is a skill I really enjoy,” she says.
“You have to be a bit of a vocal chameleon and be able to blend well, harmonise well and support the artist properly. Then, as a lead singer and a songwriter, you’re stepping into the lead role as an artist. But I do think I’ve gained the confidence over the last two years to share my own music and perform it.”
That confidence has been fostered by the Jenny Greene project, she says: “Before that, it was all about my students, but when I got to do that gig I just went, ‘Oh my God, I love this.’
“So I’ve been on that journey with that project for the last two years now and it’s been amazing.”
Currently recording two tracks, ‘Sure Of Nothing’ and ‘Solid Ground’, which she’ll also perform as part of her appearance with Cork supergroup FreezerRoom at Live at St Luke’s, Sugrue says that song-writing goes beyond stepping into the spotlight to interpret the work of others.
“I’m always teaching about the integrity of singing and song-writing, and I’ve spent an awful long time trying to find my own integrity in it,” she says.
“I want to make sure it’s authentic. I had written music before, but I felt like I was just saying stuff for the sake of saying it; now I feel like I’ve finally found something that I really wanted to express and say, and I had to wait until that happened. And I feel like I’m there now.”
What brought about that personal change? Sugrue says that it’s partly just the maturation process of having left her 20s behind: “The older you get, the more perspective you have. It’s not necessarily that things have happened, it’s just that I’m able to see them and understand them in a much better way, and express them.”
But she also retains a deep respect for the work of singing other people’s songs, citing chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, who she has worked with, as a favourite for her interpretations of songs written by everyone from Jacques Brel to Tom Waits.
While retaining her directorship of Voiceworks, Sugrue is recording her own material with a view to releasing an album’s worth of tracks next year, but says she hopes to release each song individually.
“I feel that that’s how people are consuming music right now,” she says.
“So I thought it would be interesting to release something like that; I’d love the barometer of seeing how each track is doing individually. People just aren’t really doing albums anymore.”
Following the better part of a decade living in Cork, Sugrue moved to Dublin in July of this year.
“I didn’t have to, but I felt it was right,” she says.
“There’s an amazing Cork community of musicians and singers and friends that I’m always up and down to, but I’m developing really nice relationships in Dublin now.
“I’m connecting the dots between Dublin and Cork. I invited down some Dublin musicians for the jazz festival and they were blown away by the musicians they saw, and I was like, ‘exactly, now can we all make music together please? It’s a really small country.’”
The future is bright, but not exactly in focus yet for Sugrue, who says she plans to keep collaborating as much as possible in as broad a range of projects as possible.
“I’m not good at planning, but I know I need the diversity of it all,” she says.
“I get so much out of coaching and teaching, but I love meeting new people and getting to work on new projects too. I’m excited to be doing these big gigs, and performing my own music, but I want to keep everything going.”
FreezerRoom on fire with dream-team of musical talent
FreezerRoom’s gigs are evolving into a dream-team of Cork musical talent: Stage shows see guest musicians like Jack O’Rourke, Joe O’Leary — the former Fred frontman who came out of retirement to record a self-penned track with FreezerRoom last year — and Gemma Sugrue rub shoulders with the core of Graham White and Rory Dempsey.
Former members of The Shades, White and Dempsey have collaborated for 15 years, but for their latest album, Fire on the Ocean, they teamed up with guest vocalists and song-writers including O’Leary and O’Rourke as well as Ray Scannell, Wallis Bird and Fish Go Deep hitmaker Tracey K amongst many others, and went back to their big-band roots to put together some very large ensembles indeed.
The supergroup brought more than 20 live musicians onto the Hazel Wood stage at Electric Picnic this year to launch their album.
They followed this up with another similar gig, aired live on RedFM from Cork’s Old Oak, for the Sounds Of A Safe Harbour festival.
Next up, they’ll be appearing with full live band, Gemma Sugrue and her Voiceworks Choir, Joe O’Leary and further guest artists for a night at Live at St Luke’s.
FreezerRoom and guests is in Live at St Luke’s in Cork tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets: uticket.ie/event/ freezerroom-live-at-st-lukes