April 20, 2016

Featuring: Gemma

Felicia Douglass branches out on her own with Gemma.

Felicia Douglass is most recognizable by her voice. You’re most likely to hear her harmonizing with Brooklyn avant garde pop band Ava Luna, which she’s been a member of since she was asked to join by a high school friend after graduating from college. But you can also hear her voice chopped up in the background of Toro Y Moi’s “Harm in Change,” or ethereally floating over electronic artist BAILE’s beats on his last EP, or pairing with Diane Coffee on the seventies-inspired and aptly titled “Duet.” The list goes on and on. You can recognize Douglass’ distinct voice for being sweetly soulful, like having the voice of a diva like Mariah or Whitney without the drama. These qualities give her versatility to stand out on any kind of song, whether it’s an electro banger or a minimalist, haunting track like Ava Luna’s “PRPL.” But for all of the contributions Douglass has made to other songs, she had yet to fully push herself into her own musical project. This all changed when she began an unexpected collaboration with fellow musician and friend Erik Gundel as the duo Gemma. 

Douglass had been peripherally involved with music since her youth. She grew up in Manhattan in an apartment that she describes as “basically half a studio” due to her father’s involvement with the music industry. But even with the freedom of living in a city, she didn’t really frequent shows and participated in school choir, piano lessons and ballet instead. When she decided to leave New York to attend Connecticut College, she ended up pursuing a degree in graphic design, which is a medium that she’s still heavily involved with today – she designed album covers and directed videos for both Ava Luna and Gemma. But it wasn’t as if Douglass wasn’t recording solo music in her spare time. If you poke around the Internet enough you can find a handful of bedroom recorded tracks that she’s posted under her own name on various streaming sites. “I started writing songs when I was a teenager, but more like simple pop songs with just piano and voice,” she remembers. But Douglass found it difficult to remain active with her own music and instead focused on singing back up and writing parts for other artists. “With my solo stuff I’ve never been that motivated to release it in a real way,” she said. “It’s more for myself, maybe put them on Soundcloud, but when you’re working on a project all on your own, it’s hard to put a fire under it.”

One day, Douglass noticed electronic tracks that Gundel had casually posted on Facebook and found herself captivated by what she heard. She immediately reached out to him to collaborate and the early seeds of Gemma were planted. Gundel, who also releases music under his own name, eventually agreed to work with Douglass and the two set out to make a song best defined as a “summer jam.” The two began passing pieces of songs back and forth over email despite living about ten blocks from each other in Brooklyn. One song came after another, and another, and the two realized they had enough material for a full album. They turned out to be a perfect musical fit, with Gundel able to hone Douglass’ instrumental drafts that in turn perfectly complemented her voice. Although Douglass loves making dance and disco-inspired music, she’s often concerned that it will sound too cheesy, which was an internal issue that Gundel helped alleviate. “Erik made most of the instrumentals on the track,” she said. “I like making beats too but I don’t have the attention span to produce them. I like starting things as drafts and Erik is really good at crafting sounds and spending time on it.” They played their first show as Gemma last spring and their album, As Ever, was released on October 5 on Inflated Records.

 As Ever is an album meant for long days and even longer nights in the city heat as Gundel and Douglass intended it to be. You can move your body to more songs like “As Ever” and “Lessons” – Douglass mentioned she was listened to a lot of old Janet Jackson while writing the album as she was inspired by her level of confidence. But others offer a more meditative look on feelings and relationships like the charming “Good Grace” or the static “Vibro.” Gundel’s innovative beats are both catchy and complicated and unlike anything else you can hear today. Although Douglass had already been contributing her own lyrics to other musical projects, As Ever is the first time she lets her talent as a lyricist take center stage. Douglass notes that Gemma is a project that the two actively tried to keep light. “Erik’s songs are so bubbly and bright,” she said, “When we first started working together we just wanted to make really enjoyable summer songs, things that you could just bop around to.” The name Gemma was picked because of its ambiguous nature (is it a group or just one person?), and Douglass thought “it was positive and bubbly, it’s simple – you can’t overthink it.” 

Gemma also finally gave Douglass a chance to make a grander statement as an artist and as a person. “The subject matter feels like a more bold, or aggressive version of me,” she said. “It’s like when you go through things and after the fact you have so much to say but in the moment you just freeze up.” Douglass doesn’t delve into the subject matter except noting that some of the songs are more personal while others are more general ideas. The lyrics don’t offer many specifics, except an instance of running away with a sandwich on the spoken word “With Mayo”. But it’s evident on the ten tracks of As Ever, Douglass is finally finding her place as the front person of a band. It’s the first time that Douglass is booking her own band's shows, figuring out a live performance, and making her own rules. But instead of stressing, she welcomes this role and enjoys thriving in it. Working on Gemma has also helped her accept her strongest asset. For a long time, Douglass said she struggled with reconciling her relationship with her own voice. “I wouldn’t beat myself up about it, but I always wanted a more powerful voice,” she said. “I lacked power in my voice, but after time, I realized that it’s fine. Some people have soft, silky voices and some people have powerful, loud voices. It’s just about realizing your strengths and going with it”.

Since the release of As Ever, the two have continued to quietly work on another album that has no deadline. Douglass has continued to offer her voice and songwriting skills to other projects, with upcoming collaborations with artists like BAILE in the works, while simultaneously working a service job so she can keep her schedule more open for music. She still struggles with being able to balance a job, music, art, and just the general life of a creative person which includes “working a lot, not sleeping enough, and playing a lot of shows”. But regardless of what she ends up doing next, Douglass has decided to embrace and grow as a musician, which was a goal she had originally set for herself a few years ago. “It’s not like I always had a dream a dream to be in a band,” she said. “I didn’t even think I’d be in a band until Ava Luna and that was still pretty random. It’s funny to think back on now since music is so important to me that I don’t want to do anything else.”

Watch the video for "As Ever" below:

Listen to Gemma on bandcamp.

Written by Emily Thompson