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After hunting high and low, Gemma finds a true sense of home in West Cork

September 13th, 2023 11:40 PM

By Martin Claffey

Gemma Hayes feels in a creative space. ‘I found it hard to write in London,’ she says. ‘The sense of space and quiet in West Cork allow me to delve into life emotions so much quicker.’ Photo: Rich Gilligan)

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Acclaimed singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes took the decision to leave London for West Cork during lockdown. The change of lifestyle has seen her creativity sparkle as she returns with a new album and a much-anticipated live gig in Clonakilty

SOMETIMES, things happen for a reason, when you least expect it. Three years ago, when Covid struck, the decision to make the move to West Cork came up by accident for Gemma Hayes.

The singer-songwriter was living in London with husband Stuart Musgrave and their young children Max and Miah when Covid prompted a change in life direction, sweeping them back to Ireland and a new life in Baltimore.

‘Originally it was supposed to be temporary,’ says Gemma. ‘We planned to stay in my mother in law’s holiday home for the summer and we haven’t left. Now we don’t want to leave.’

Leaving London for Baltimore might have happened almost on a whim but it’s proved a sound decision. 

‘I love it here in the summer, you’ve a feeling that no one is coming to West Cork to work,’ says Gemma. ’There’s a jovial energy about the place.

‘And then winter comes and it’s completely different. The tourists are gone and it’s wild, so exposed to the elements.

‘It’s heavenly.’

Gemma has lived in sprawling cities like Los Angeles and London but she grew up surrounded by family in Ballyporeen, and the return to a rural lifestyle in West Cork has hit home for the Tipperary woman. ‘I feel aspects of going back in time here. People still go picking blackberries here. It brings me back to my own childhood; like in the 80s, if you are bored, you can just go outside. It’s so different from London.

‘It is a beautiful place to raise kids.’ 

Moving to Baltimore was also a step back in time in many ways for husband Stuart. Stuart, whose family own the retail giant which bears their name, spent much of his childhood in Baltimore. When the family made the move back to Baltimore from London, Stuart accepted the challenge of being the church warden for St Matthews and began the concert series as a fundraiser to pay for badly-needed renovations at the Church of Ireland building.

Stuart hatched a plan for a ‘Live at St Matthews’ series of music and cinema events. It’s proved a stunning success.

‘It’s totally Stu’s baby,’ says Gemma. ‘When he suggested it, I said ‘are you mad?’ But he doesn’t do things by half. He saw the potential for it as this 80-seater venue. 

‘All of a sudden he’s put the church on the map as a venue. There’s a real word of mouth aspect to it.’

Live at St Matthews has featured sellout shows through the summer, from the likes of the Frank and Walters, David Kitt, and John Spillane playing the 200-year old Church of St Matthew.

Gemma has also sold out shows there over the summer, performing with her long-time collaborator Paul Noonan and Lisa Hannigan, herself now another West Cork resident. ‘I love working with Paul and Lisa (the trio will perform a sold-out gig at Cork’s Everyman Theatre on September 24th). I know Paul since I was 19, he used to be my drummer and we get on so well. 

‘I’m a great admirer of Lisa. I got to know her down here. She’s just an immense talent,’ says Gemma.

Gemma and her family are starting to feel more and more settled out west, and enjoying the joys of Baltimore, of Skibberee; she says buying their own home in the area is something they are keen to explore.
‘Once you get settled in a place like Baltimore, it’s hard to go. I would be very sad to leave the place. The plan is to stay as long as we can – my mother in law might get a shock reading that in The Southern Star that we’re not leaving her summer house!’ 

Living in Baltimore allowed her husband Stuart Musgrave to become involved in fundraising for the Church of St Matthew, which prompted the ‘LIve at St Matthews’ concert series (Photo: Shutterstock)


Gemma says there’s a massive difference creatively from the relentless metropolis life in London to the wild edge-of-the-world experience on the edge of Europe along the Wild Atlantic Way. 

‘I found it hard to write in London,’ she says. ‘I’m not inspired by nature or sea as such but the sense of space and quiet in West Cork allow me to delve into life emotions so much quicker.’

She has six albums to her name since Night On My Side was released 21 years ago. With time, and life experience, some things come easier.

‘It’s easier from the point of view of that you are not that when you create something, you’re not too concerned if the masses like it. I used to be worried about how the music would be perceived.

‘But then the harder part is juggling family and creativity. And the lack of sleep! Being a musician is so unlike most jobs – there’s no clocking off.’ 

Like so many other West Cork youngsters, her two children Max (9) and Myah (7) headed back to school after enjoying the joys of summer – and like so many other West Cork parents, it helps open up more head space and time for the parents. 

Reaction to Gemma’s first single in nine years, High and Low, was extremely positive. She performs at Clonakilty Guitart Festival on Thursday Sept 21st. (Photo: Rich Gilligan)


A lot has changed in the music industry since Gemma released her last album Bones and Longing in 2014. 

‘Everything has changed,’ she says. ‘I kind of wondered how do you release an album now? Do you actually release an album when everything is streamed. So I had to get used to that.’

It appears the wait was worthwhile judging by the first single release from the album, High & Low, an acoustic track released in June. Ironically for a song about disconnection, it resonated with listeners and has been received extremely positively.
The accompanying video was recorded in Whiting Bay in Waterford, and was directed by talented Dubliner Allyn Quigley. ‘Allyn was filming in the area so he had one day off so we really just had to go for it,’ says Gemma. ‘I think he captured the mood of the song. It’s kind of ethereal – a little lost.’

The next single from the upcoming album is called Feed the Flames. ‘I’m talking to video directors at the moment and it should be out in October.’

Gemma admits to being a perfectionist with her music, tweaking and revisiting all of the time. But all of the tracks on album are from which the two singles will appear are now ready, and it is expected to be ready for general release early next year. 

In the meantime, there’s opportunity to catch Gemma live at the Clonakilty Guitar Festival at DeBarras on Thursday, September 21st, at 9pm. 

The famous old Clonakilty venue is a familiar setting for Gemma, who has performed many times there over the latter half of its 40 years. 

‘I think I’ve played in DeBarras for ever album promotional tour. It’s a wonderful place. It hasn’t changed at all in many ways. It’s a great place to cut your teeth, it hasn’t really changed that much over the years.

‘I love the way it doesn’t matter if you are a newcomer or an international act, you just go up and do your thing. And it helps it’s not too far from home!’ 


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