Sink Ya Teeth bassist Gemma Cullingford has found her voice and is stepping into the spotlight with a solo album of electronic songs about love, death and getting the boiler mended  

Gemma Cullingford, bass player and shrinking violet of Britain’s foremost post-punky indie-electro-disco two-piece Sink Ya Teeth, has released a solo album called ‘Let Me Speak’ on the fine and upstanding Outré label. Constructed from synths, bass guitar, thumping great stripped-down beats and, most importantly, Cullingford’s semi-detached vocals, it’s the document of a woman literally finding her voice and taking a big step outside of the Sink Ya Teeth comfort zone she has built with Maria Uzor.  

It came together, like many projects emerging into this contagion culture we now inhabit, because time stopped. When Sink Ya Teeth released their second album, ‘Two’, the duo headed out on tour. They were planning to drop into the Electronic Sound HQ at some point to sign a handful of records and have a chat. All seemed well with them. This was, however, February 2020.   

“We did three dates,” says Cullingford. “We were going by train, doing these sweaty little venues. Going up to Leeds on the morning of the first date, I was like, ‘Maria, I’m not too sure about this…’, because the pandemic was really starting to ramp up. By the time the tour was halted three days later, everyone at our publishers was already working from home. Some of them didn’t come to our gig in London because they were self-isolating. I’m surprised we didn’t get it.”  

Perhaps they did get Covid and were asymptomatic. Or maybe, given that a track on ‘Two’ is called ‘The Vaccine’, they saw it coming and knew what the drill would be. It’s worth mentioning at this point that it’s a very warm and sunny day, and Gemma Cullingford has come to meet me for the first face-to-face interview either of us has done in 18 months. It’s a huge deal.   

“Being on trains, every time I saw someone cough I was horrified,” she recounts, looking suitably horrified. “You realise how many people rub their nose and then touch things. I was like, ‘God, this is just awful!’. On the TV, I saw people stuck on cruise ships, and I was petrified of being quarantined in a hotel because ours weren’t the nicest. I couldn’t imagine two weeks in one of those rooms. I went a bit crazy on the last night, so as soon as I got home I was like, ‘Right, we are locking ourselves down!’.”  

In the earliest days of Sink Ya Teeth, it felt a little like a low-key experiment. Two musicians, both veterans of the underground scene, getting together to see what happened. They put out a couple of seven-inch singles and much fun was had at sporadic gigs around their home city of Norwich. It soon spiralled, with the patronage of Manchester stalwarts A Certain Ratio and rapidly rising media excitement leading to mounting expectations for the group’s eponymous debut album. Cullingford and Uzor signed a publishing deal with Mute in 2019, but they don’t have a manager and they run their own record label. They both have day jobs too. It’s quite the juggling act.  

You might think the steel door banging shut on Sink Ya Teeth just as ‘Two’ was being released would be hard to take, especially with the tour also evaporating before their eyes. But because of their already paranoid and frazzled state of mind, they hit the fuggedaboutit button with a combination of speed and relief.  

“We were actually a bit overwhelmed with things,” confesses Cullingford. “When we played in Norwich, I found it really difficult. Everyone wanted to talk to me, but I just wanted to hide, to be invisible. But when you stay in the dressing room, you feel you should be out there, in the middle of it, or you feel rude, or like you’re not getting in the zone. I couldn’t handle it.”  

Was it because of Covid?   

“It was because I didn’t want to be seen,” she says. “It was the pressure. Playing Norwich is scary for me because I want people in Norwich to love us, but I don’t enjoy playing in front of my friends. I prefer going to places where I don’t know anyone. A month or two before, I remember saying to Maria, ‘I just want to go to a desert island for a year’. Then the pandemic happened and I was like, ‘Did I bring it on?!’. It was as if someone had answered my prayers.”   

Here’s the paradox that is Gemma Cullingford. She loves a job that involves doing a great many things she finds almost impossible to do. She wants to be in a band and play music for people, but she doesn’t want to be seen. She hates having her picture taken. She hates doing videos. She enjoys playing gigs, but she was pleased when society shut down and she could retreat to her Norfolk bolthole. And all of this is somehow captured on ‘Let Me Speak’.  

“I’m not comfortable in the limelight,” she continues. “I like creating music and I want people to hear it, but in order for people to hear it you have to put yourself out there. Even touring with previous bands… I didn’t enjoy it much.”  

She knows what she’s talking about. Her first band was KaitO, a four-piece rock outfit fronted by Nik Colk, now of Factory Floor. KaitO slogged around America several times, plying their Sonic Youth shouty guitar wares.  

“When KaitO toured America, which was when I was in my early 20s, everyone would be going out at 11pm, while I’d be going to bed. I’ve always been the same. I have to drink quite a lot to feel sociable, which then makes me feel a bit ill and tired… and I’m not good when I’m tired. I need space, which you don’t get on tour. Luckily for me, Maria also likes her own space these days. We’re pretty good at giving each other loads of it, so it works.”   

And so ensued 15 months of semi-rural isolation. Sink Ya Teeth’s touring was cancelled. Everyone’s touring was cancelled. Everyone’s everything was cancelled. As 2020 trudged on, the news of daily death rates and footage of mass graves and reports of health systems collapsing around the world made you feel as if you’d woken up in a dystopian movie scripted by Stephen King. Yet for more people than would probably care to confess, society closing down came as a blessed relief. The enforced break certainly gave Cullingford some much-needed respite.  

“Lockdown was heaven for me,” she admits. “I know that it was terrible because of what was happening, but in my house, in my little world, I felt I could do anything I wanted without any outside judgement. It was just me and my boyfriend and my dog. And I was able to come out with lyrics! I’ve never done that before!”  

The knotty issue of lyrics cropped up the last time I spoke to her. In Sink Ya Teeth, she hides behind her bass guitar (“my armour”), leaving vocalist Uzor to write all the words. But lockdown unlocked Cullingford. And that’s what this record of hers is all about.  

“What with the good weather and the garden, I’d often sit there in silence – because I love silence – and ideas began to bubble up,” she says. “I was able to write a couple of things… nothing very deep, but something. I guess you put it in the Petri dish and you look at it later and ask, ‘What was that about?’, and then you sort of examine it. I felt really brave.”  

When the tracks started to come together, she quickly realised she had quite a lot of material.  

“I contacted Graeme at Outré,” she says. “I was like, ‘I think I’ve got this album…’. I felt invisible – I reckoned I could put it out because no one’s there and no one’s going to hear it – and yet I wanted it to be heard. So I just went for it. Maybe another year or at a different time in life I wouldn’t have dared but, well, I’d recently celebrated a big birthday, I don’t have any kids, I know music is me, and I know this is me. It’s sort of like that thing of finding yourself when you get a bit older.”  

Musically, ‘Let Me Speak’ gnaws on a similar bone to Sink Ya Teeth, but the record is most notable for Cullingford’s vocals – breathy and whispered, sometimes spoken – and the flashes of lyrical strangeness, which burst out like unexpected fireworks in the night sky.   

Take ‘Queen Bee’. On the face of it, the stabbed chords and driving disco beat evoke a nightclub of naked electro minimalism with a dash of Gary Numan’s ‘I Die: You Die’ thrown in. But the words take it into an altogether different realm: “He came round, straight from prison / Didn’t care how cold it was, Davie Dixon / He screwed me in the bathroom / And left me on the floor / What’s wrong with you David? / What’d you do that for?”. It’s pretty shocking.  

“They were the first lyrics I ever wrote!” says Cullingford gleefully.   

‘Queen Bee’ appears to be a deadpan description of a tale of abuse and exploitation. And it is exactly that, but not quite how you might imagine.  

“It was just before Christmas,” she says. “My boiler had broken down and I called a company who sent this guy to my house. They were rip-off merchants, really. He did a lot of that tut-tutting tradespeople do, leaning  on my washing machine, phoning people up, wasting my time.”   

Screwed over in the bathroom, then. Where the boiler was.   

“I know he wouldn’t have pissed around as much if my boyfriend had been there. I felt violated by the time he left and I wished I’d stuck up for myself more. So ‘Queen Bee’ is me, telling the story of how it might have been if I’d been my own superhero. Gemma sticking up for herself. But I hate conflict,  so I would never do that.”  

Still, inspired by her boyfriend’s suggestion she use something that had made her angry as a way of getting underway, the track unleashed the lyric writing for ‘Let Me Speak’.  

“There wasn’t much thought behind it, to be honest,” she says. “It came together so quickly, I don’t really remember doing it. A lot of what I do, I just bash out.”  

Another standout moment is the cover version of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode To Billie Joe’. Cullingford has excised Gentry’s mysterious narrative from its beautiful country music setting and replanted it in Suicide-esque electronic minimalism, her detached English delivery giving the song a fresh incongruity that only emphasises its obscure emotional undertow.  

“I didn’t know ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ until recently,” she says. “When I heard it, I fell in love with the tune first. Then I read the words… and they’re amazing. I didn’t stop thinking about them for weeks and every time I sang it I thought, ‘What were they throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge?’. She sings it very jolly, doesn’t she? It’s really a pop song, but I thought it deserved something quite dark. I remember thinking the beat behind it was a little like a heartbeat. But that was just tinkering, so I read it in my normal voice and left it.”  

Gemma Cullingford seems surprised when I tell her there will be a demand for her to play live and ask how she will deal with that side of a solo career. She won’t, she says. She’s not going to play live, she says. And what about Sink Ya Teeth? What’s happening there?   

“We’ve got some gigs booked in the autumn,” she replies. “I don’t feel great about them, to be honest. We’re headlining loads that are way past my bedtime!”  

As you’ll probably have guessed, her enthusiasm for a return to the life  of a gigging musician is notable by its absence.   

“I feel like I want to stay in my nice safe house… and yet I love it when I’m actually playing and after I’ve done it. I contradict myself so much. I love silence, but if I listen to music it has to be loud and through headphones –  I have to be really absorbed in it. And not wanting to be seen, but wanting  to be seen at the same time. One of the reasons I chose black and white for my album artwork is because a lot of people say I see things in black and white, but also because of these contrasts in my personality – being shy  but having to perform.”  

It’s an illogicality and an expression of anxieties that a lot of people will understand as we enter into a post-lockdown reality. Maybe the message  we can take from ‘Let Me Speak’ and its delicate yet thunderous soundscape is to get stuck in, but take care of yourself…  

‘Let Me Speak’ is out on Outré

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