Gemma Sugrue is a passionate singer, teacher and entrepreneur. She spoke to iSing editor Line Hilton about balancing the demands of the music business with her artistic instincts.
I meet many wonderful singers on a day to day basis, most of whom are working their socks off trying to figure out how to make a living out of their passion. It’s not easy; to succeed a singer must master many disciplines from the arts through to business.
One person who has deftly risen to this challenge is Gemma Sugrue. On our first meeting I was bowled over with her passion for helping singers and building a sustainable career of her own.
As well as forging a successful solo career in Ireland, she is a partner in Voice Works Studio, a singing school with 300 students and 17 teachers which has now spread across three locations.
I spoke to her about her journey so far and balancing the business with the art.
When did you start singing?
I figured out I had a talent for it in primary school. Sometimes when the teacher went on a break, she’d get me to stand up and sing. I became known as the girl who sings. Other kids were good at sports, I was good at singing.
How did your professional career start?
Straight after completing my leaving certificate I was asked to audition for an Irish show, The Spirit of Ireland, which was going on tour around Australia. I was only 17 and I got the gig. I deferred my college place and went on tour – and was thrown in at the deep end. I covered costume changes for the dancers. I would do four or five songs throughout the show. The song keys were set in a classical vocal setting, so I was singing a more legit style. After doing the show for a while, I started doing a bit of embellishing and added a few riffs. I was told by my manager very quickly to rein that in.
How long did that gig last?
I did that show for two years and it took its toll. I was very young and found the schedule – and sleeping on a bus and eating takeaways – challenging. A lot of the musicians were in their late 20s so there was a bit of a party culture. After a while I was hungry for college, so I went on to start my B.Mus in classical vocal performance.
Did you want to be a classical singer?
When I started singing lessons at 16 my vocal coach was very passionate about that kind of music and was very excited about me singing it. I got swept up in all of that. I loved the idea of pursuing what I perceived to be high art. It was all that was available in Ireland at the time. If you wanted to be formally educated in singing and music, it needed to be classical. By the time I finished my MA I had changed. I couldn’t commit to that style. My soul wanted other kinds of music.
How did you gain experience in non-classical singing?
I went to the UK. I started teaching halfway through college and I found that my students were looking for something other than classical from me. I had a lesson in the UK with Kim Chandler. She opened my eyes to the other part of my voice, a part I had ignored for years: my chest voice. I had such a good twangy head voice that I could get away with doing gigs with just head voice. She mentored me over Skype for about two years. I would bring everything that came up with my students to Kim, and she’d help me troubleshoot things. She helped me change my technique and how I viewed myself as a singer. Now I’m a full-time contemporary singer.
What other challenges did you face?
I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of understanding other styles of music – soul, jazz and funk. I gained a lot of experience from singing in a jazz trio on a weekly basis. That helped me explore being off the dots and to play with music and improvise. When you come from a classical background you’re very attached to what’s written on the page.
How did you learn the business side?
In college I started a wedding singing business. I set up a website and sustained myself through college by doing church weddings every weekend. After college I set up a singing school with my friend, Laoise Leahy. At times being an entrepreneur has been the primary focus of my life and at other times it has taken a backseat. Right now, I’m more of a performer and less of a business person.
What were your goals when you decided to focus on the contemporary genre?
I didn’t aspire to be a superstar. I wanted to be a very good technical, functional singer and a good vocal coach. I wanted to be a singing teacher who could demonstrate technique in an authentic way and understand and explain it.
Have your goals changed since then?
I think I’ve always been afraid of going out there as an artist in my own right. But in the last year or two I’ve been exploring that. I’ve written my own music and plan to release it this year. I think the longer you’re established in your community and known for one thing, the harder it is to step outside of that. You’re a little bit more vulnerable. I worried people might be judgmental, but I’ve let go of that now. I have something to say, and I want to put it out there. I had to wait for a time when the business was stable enough to allow somebody else to manage it, so that I had space to pursue my own music.
What are your tips for getting wedding function gigs?
- Don’t scrimp on how things to look and sound. A bride is visualising her day and the aesthetic is important.
- Make sure your website looks slick. If it costs an extra hundred or two hundred pounds, it’s worth it. You’ll make that back on one or two gigs.
- Get professional photos taken that suggest the magic of a wedding day. They don’t have to be completely obvious, like you in a church, but they need to suggest romance, love and beauty.
What did you have to change to make the transition from entrepreneur to artist?
I only have so much creative reserve. I found that when I was focusing on the business, I had nothing left at the end of the day to sit down and write a song on the piano. I’ve had to roll things back to focus my creative reserve on writing and performing. I really find with performing, especially high-pressure stuff, you need a lot of psychological space. You need to carefully allocate your time. At the moment I’m allowing the performing side to lead. I need to allocate creative energy for that.
What sort of strategies do you use to do that?
I’m careful about what I say “yes” to and watch out for stress levels and adrenal fatigue. I try to be strategic about my timetable and stay in a creative mind-frame. Because I’m writing and performing, my personal life is really important. That sounds weird, but it has really fed my inspiration. I’ve allowed my personal life to come back in again. When I’m in business mode I can get very focused and obsessive about it. Now that I’ve been in creative writing mode I’ve been much more up for engagement with my personal life.
What’s next for Gemma Sugrue?
I’m releasing a single in June and have a series of gigs coming up with our national orchestra, it’s called the RTE Concert Orchestra. We do this show with a DJ called Jenny Green recreating 90s dance classics.
Then, I hope to do a tour of my own music. In July I’m going over to VocalizeU an artist retreat in LA and I’ll be there for two weeks, which will be fun.