Gemma Khawaja’s a singer and guitarist, originally from The Midlands, but for a few years now she’s been based in Norfolk, where she’s been steadily building up a reputation with appearances at the region’s folk clubs while also enhancing her profile further afield, notably by supporting artists such as Alasdair Roberts, The Furrow Collective, Lynched and Stick In The Wheel – whose Ian Carter is responsible for the production of Such Mortal Sport, her latest release (which follows two limited-edition EPs). Back in 2013 Gemma won the Islington Trad2Mad Competition (a competition across the World Wide Web for unaccompanied solo singers), singing Higher Germany – an a cappella version of which now appears on Such Mortal Sport (I wasn’t aware of Gemma back then, but the present reading is both accomplished and persuasive).
Although the majority of the songs on Such Mortal Sport are traditional in origin, Gemma’s treatments are enterprising, made her own by her innate ability to focus with pinpoint accuracy on expressing the songs’ universal stories and themes. This she does by singing directly and honestly, with a real authority and assurance, often feeling the need to adapt received or accepted tunes in order to better bring out what she refers to as the richness and beauty of the old melodies. Ian’s deliberately back-to-basics, no-frills recording reflects Gemma’s determined and uncompromising delivery, which can be judged nothing less than highly captivating, and absolutely compulsive listening; it really does feel as though you’re sat in front of Gemma, in the same room, and she’s communicating the essence, the weight and strength of these songs directly and personally to you. Initially at any rate, her singing style may come across a touch too fierce, even declamatory, on some songs (this may even be in part due to the full-on nature of the recording), but as time goes by you’ll warm to her singing through her sheer forthrightness and the unashamed power of her conviction. Her vocal presence is commanding, though with the confidence of youth rather than the (sometimes less than welcome) imperiousness of an older and more experienced singer.
Gemma’s own simply picked but intricately effective guitar forms the principal accompaniment, with Ian helping out with tenor guitar on just two of the songs (with some added minimal percussion on Bide Lady Bide). Gemma’s playing is sensitive and complementary, at the service of her thrilling vocal delivery, and admirably unobtrusive. Gemma generally takes the less easy option in arranging the songs, often as not eschewing using – or tweaking – the more “accepted” tunes, and in so doing she challenges our preconceptions and forces us to experience the stories in the songs anew or afresh. Her take on the shanty Lowlands is a case in point, and even her account of The Snow It Melts The Soonest (albeit admittedly learned from the singing of Anne Briggs) is made very much her own. Gemma also takes lyrics from the poetry of Robert Herrick as the basis for two tracks (Come A-Maying and Hold With The Hare), and further Herrick quotes grace the artwork for the hand-crafted insert sheet that continues the cover artwork’s hare motif. The disc is available both as a limited-edition CD and digitally through Bandcamp.
Considering Such Mortal Sport in comparison with Gemma’s earlier recordings, I hear a progression in terms of an even closer identification with her material and deeper expressive insights, but there is still a definite sense of greater insights to come. But I shall always appreciate Gemma’s honesty of expression, a quality that’s indelibly imprinted on her vocal cords, and I shall continue to enjoy this album on the further replays it’s sure to guarantee.
Such Mortal Sport is Out Now
Gemma is also on: Twitter