Gemma Cullingford is the acclaimed musician, songwriter and producer with two solo albums ‘Let Me Speak’ and ‘Tongue Tied’ to her name. Luke Wright is the dynamic performance poets with a stark but witty take on 21st century British life. Together they have a “fear of missing out”.
‘FOMO’ is the 4 track extended play release by Gemma Cullingford and Luke Wright. The pair have known each other for around 20 years within the Suffolk arts scene with Luke’s then poetry collective AISLE 16 often compering for bands which Gemma was part of, the 2021 lockdown sparked an idea for an electro-poetic collaboration.
With shades of renowned punk-poet John Cooper Clarke and East Midlands duo SLEAFORD MODS, ‘FOMO’ is an enjoyable but abrasive dance friendly commentary that covers toxic masculinity, dance aversion, inner demons and the fashion for self-improvement.
ELECTRICITTYCLUB.CO.UK spoked to Gemma Cullingford and Luke Wright about their fear of missing out and much more.
How did you come together to do some electronic disco poetry?
Gemma: Luke and I have known each other since the early 00s when Luke’s poetry collective AISLE 16 who were based in Norwich used to compere shows at Norwich Arts Centre and I was often one of the bands in those shows back then. I had dabbled with a similar concept in the mid-00s with another of AISLE 16 – our mutual friend Yanny Mac – when I first purchased an eMac (remember those?!) and started teaching myself Garage Band. We formed a kinda fake band called DED DOG briefly and wrote a few tunes where I’d cut up Yanny’s poems and put them to a backing track. I’d always fancied trying that again.
Fast forward to 2021 when my first solo single came out and Luke took a shine to my instrumental tune ‘104’. He dropped me a line to say how much he liked it and I asked him if he fancied trying a collaboration with his poems over my music. He was game and a week later we had these 4 songs! We’ve only just got round to releasing them though as we’ve both been super busy with our own projects (Luke is still mega busy and successful!)
Luke: I really wanted to collaborate with Gemma but I was too nervous to ask, so it was very nice that she did. I remember walking along the coast with ‘104’ on repeat just improvising lyrics over the top, it was such fun in that was a very bleak period.
Had John Cooper Clarke’s albums with Martin Hannett like ‘Disguise In Love’, ‘Zip Style Method’ and ‘Snap, Crackle & Bop’ been an influence?
Gemma: I’d never actually heard them, so no!
Luke: I’ve been JCC’s regular tour support for about 12 years, and been gigging with him regularly for years before that. He was a huge influence on me when I was starting out, but less so for the albums, more as a live poet. I do know those albums, and I love tracks like ‘Valley of the Long Lost Women’ but on the whole, I prefer the poems without that music.
Was featuring both your voices a conscious move in the concept of this EP?
Gemma: As always with me there are no conscious moves or concepts, it’s just what feels right. I like the contrast in our voices and I think they balance each other out a bit. The track ‘FOMO’ was a song I’d had sitting around for a good few years which only had part vocals. When Luke put his poem to it, it fitted magically!
Luke: The other tracks were made from scratch and come together quite organically. ‘Therapist’ was a poem Gemma cut up and put over music. ‘Ballroom’ was a track I wrote lyrics to. ‘Beast’ was a track I cut up and made into a more traditional pop song shape then wrote lyrics to. But ‘FOMO’ was a little different in is much as Gemma had done all her bits and was already quite attached to the song as it was and sent it to me with the caveat not to be offended if she didn’t use anything I added to it! In the end, I used a poem that already existed called ‘William Hague in a Baseball Cap’, about male insecurity in a time of female empowerment. By far the most lyrics of any of the songs and it just sort of worked.
Where has the world’s “fear of missing out” come from? Why does it appear to be a bigger issue now than it was before and has social media amplified it?
Luke: I used to get FOMO really badly and then I got married and had kids and missed out on absolutely everything, the point where it was pointless to care about it. But then I got divorced and entered into a long distance relationship. My girlfriend was often going out with her mates while I was stuck at home with the kids hundreds of miles away, which left me feeling like a teenager. Only I was a lot fatter.
Countering that “fear of missing out” is ‘Ballroom’ which recalls Gary Clail, is this a fight for the right NOT to party? It’s a fascinating paradox…
Gemma: I love Luke’s lyrics to this as an introvert! I often feel awkward on stage and I don’t move around much so I could totally get behind these lyrics. I do love a dance after a good few drinks though, but I mean a REAL good few! Plus I love writing danceable music yet I don’t like clubbing or raves etc. I’m full of contradictions, me!
Luke: I’m really glad you like this one, Gemma, because I was a bit meh about it. I was writing a poem for the Kennedy Foundation For Human Rights. There were 30 poets, each writing about a different article of the UN Convention For Human Rights. Mine was article 20: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” I had a metaphor in my poem about a dance floor that didn’t really fit, so I developed it here. This is about social media to an extent, about trying to remain above the fray, not to get involved in group think. And it’s about dancing!
The ‘FOMO’ tracks and its lines about being “pale male and stale and not all men” and “I am the sh*t Morrissey says in interviews” are all part of a starker observation about toxic masculinity?
Luke: I wrote this in 2018 when there was a lot of discussion around toxic masculinity in the wake of #MeToo. As a left-wing liberal person, the media I consume, and the people I follow, are very progressive, so my online life seemed to a succession of posts saying “UGH MEN!” This piece isn’t complaining about that, I think most of this discourse was sorely needed. It’s just feeling it a bit and also trying to be funny about it as well. Sending up the woundedness, lampooning myself.
Are things improving since #MeToo or is the continued adulation of high profile misogynists like Andrew Tate and Donald Trump proof that there is a long way to go?
Gemma: Women being heard and taken more seriously and the general awareness of misogyny are improving perhaps, but unfortunately I don’t think it’ll stop certain types of folk from needing to feel powerful and belittling (and worse) women in order to do so. Through talking about it and forming social movements, it equips women with knowledge and awareness. I’m only just waking up to certain things. I’m realising that behaviour – both from and aimed at all genders and walks of life – can be oppressive and it’s things that I might have just accepted as being normal before, but actually it’s not right at all. It’s all so very subtle and how we’ve all been conditioned in society. This country is a lot better than some but as a world, I think we’ve all a looooong way to go.
Luke: I’m not surprised that figures like Andrew Tate have come to prominence. It’s a backlash against stuff like #MeToo. But those of us on the side of progress just need to keep pushing back. I am the father of teenage sons who are appalled by Andrew Tate, so it’s not a lost cause. It’s about education and bringing people with you. I can understand the howls of anger from women about male behaviour but if you want to take a new generation of boys and men with you, the discussion needs to feel inclusive so figures like Andrew Tate can’t get a look in.
‘You Are Making Progress With Your Therapist’ is a typical Gemma backing track, but how much of the monologue was already part of something already written, how did things develop to completion?
Gemma: ‘Therapist’ was the first track that came out of this collaboration and I wrote the music the very night that we decided to collaborate. Luke recorded and sent over the poem and I popped it over the top of the music and repeated the line to make a kinda chorus out of it. At the exact same time, I sent Luke an instrumental track and he wrote a poem to go over it, which ended up as ‘Ballroom’. So both tunes happened pretty simultaneously and very quickly. Which then spurred us to create two more…
Luke: It was poem I’d just finished. It worked being split in two. It’s my favourite of our tracks.
There’s some great Moroder-esque programming and keys work on the backing track of ‘The Beast’ which really adds to the narrative tension but who is that beast that is angrily being referred to?
Gemma: Thanks! That was another song I’d had kicking about for a couple of years which needed vocals. I sent that to Luke and he chopped it up a bit and put a snarly John Lydon-meets-Shaun Ryder-esque vocal to it.
Luke: F*ck knows that this is about. I used all the lines I liked best in my notebook. But… it is kind of about an old rockstar shuffling around the town years after fame and riches have passed him by. I do actually know someone like this. “The Beast” is rock n roll, I think.
What is next for you, would you like to do more collaborations?
Gemma: I’m taking a bit of a break from performing to recharge my batteries. Performing, promoting and touring really takes it out of me and I’m a bit of a home bird, I get overwhelmed quite easily. So I’m gonna take a break from performing and writing until the urge to do more comes – which I’m sure it will! In the meantime at the moment I’m enjoying my DJ venture with my partner – we play vinyl only singles and I get immense enjoyment from playing other people’s songs that I love and that have shaped me and my musical tastes!
I do have a Christmas song to come out but I’ll not be performing it live anywhere. However, knowing me, I could be eating my words in a few weeks – but right now, this is my current plan. I would totally be up for more collaborations with Luke in future but he’s an extremely busy guy. Make sure to check out his shows. Seriously good stuff!!
Luke: I think we should do another song! Saying I’m busy makes it sound like I’m working on a series of glamorous projects, in reality I’m just driving from town to town playing small theatres. I’m a long distance driver who does a bit of poetry on the side.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Gemma Cullingford and Luke Wright
The ‘FOMO’ EP Launch takes place at Karma Café in Norwich on Friday 1st September 2023
To celebrate the release of ‘FOMO’, Gemma Cullingford and Luke Wright have teamed up with brewery Iron Pier and artist Duncan Grant to create a limited edition tropical hazy pale ale, available online direct from https://ironpier.beer/collections/cans/products/fomo-5-3-440ml-can
Text by Chi Ming Lai
1 September 2023