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Arts / Gemma turns pain into positivity with charity album

Singer to raise funds for Versus Arthritis with 12-track record

Gemma Anderson. Photo: Ben Mullay

WHEN the flare-ups are at their worst, Gemma Anderson’s rheumatoid arthritis means she is completely dependent on other people to help her through the day.

After being diagnosed with the condition at the age of just 17, the primary teacher from Walls has now spent more of her life with the autoimmune disease than without it.

But a deep-rooted love for music – and singing in particular – has been with her longer, and she is using her voice to raise money for an arthritis charity by releasing her own original album.

Gemma is best known musically for singing with local group The Bashies, but it’s only her name on the front cover of the album Life as she goes ‘solo’.

Cover photo by Lakota Clubb.

Saying that, the record – which will raise money for UK charity Versus Arthritis when it is released digitally on Friday (13 December) before getting a CD release at a later date – enjoys something of an all-star cast of local musicians.

From Freda Leask, Jonathan Ritch and Arthur Nicholson to Jillian Mouat, Archer Kemp and John Robert Deyell, there is enviable talent plastered all over the 12 original tracks, which span genres like country, pop and rock.

Pulp keyboardist Candida Doyle, who has Shetland family links and herself was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a teenager, also appears on one track.

Doyle, in fact, picked Gemma as a woman ‘making a difference’ in the music industry as part of a BBC feature last year.

“She’s done something with a situation that I’ve lived with and made something positive with it,” the Pulp keyboard player told BBC Radio 5. “She’s handled the mental trauma and the physical trauma by putting it into words and songs, I really admire that.”

Gemma said the idea for the album was first born back in 2015 following conversations with local music therapist Alice Mullay.

“I went to music therapy and we went through the songs I’d written and I asked her if she thought it would be a possibility to make this into a charity album,” she said.

“I can’t run marathons or anything like that that people usually do to raise money.”

The recording at Mareel began in 2017, but busy lives saw the process take a little longer than expected.

“I’ve been working full-time as a primary teacher and there’s a few people on the album who are away at sea, some of them are really busy, some are parents,” Gemma said.

“Whenever I could get them I got them to record some pieces. The push has been from October. I was constantly in Mareel in the October holidays. I was like ‘it has to be done by Christmas or it will never be done’. It was great fun, and I learned so much.”

She said there is a “huge range of music on it, because there’s so many different musicians – hopefully there’s something for everybody”.

The album is getting an initial release on the digital platforms iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon, Google Play and Google Play Music, with delays in the process meaning a CD is not quite ready yet.

However, there is set to be a full launch in the new year once the busy festive season is out of the way.

The 12 tracks on Life are heartfelt tunes, with Gemma writing the lyrics and melodies, and the guest musicians penning the accompaniments. “The songs on the album reflect the emotions that life throws at you,” she said.

“I use specific events in my life, and sometimes what is happening to other’s lives, to give me inspiration.”

Gemma’s passion for music – and singing – stems back to her childhood, thanks to the “always enthusiastic and encouraging” teacher Christine Guy.

She later picked up the fiddle in primary four, joining the groups New Tradition and High Strings when she was in secondary school, while she was writing her own songs at 13.

When Gemma was 17, however, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

The NHS describes it as a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints.

For Gemma, “a lot of the time you could probably hardly tell I had it, but I’m never not in pain in some of my joints”. The wrists, though, tend to be worst, especially during debilitating flare-ups.

“I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis for 18 years now, and when I first got it, the medication wasn’t very effective at all,” she said. “And still, I feel rheumatoid arthritis isn’t a very well understood disease.

“I get medication, but everybody’s rheumatoid arthritis reacts very differently to different medications. They can’t tell you if this certain medication is going to work.

“You can have big flare-ups and they can’t tell you why you’ve had it, and if it will happen again, or when it will happen again. It’s a very random and unknown disease, there’s no cure and nobody knows why you get it.

“There’s still a lot of research needed, and when you’re living with it it’s quite scary, when nobody can actually answer the questions you’d really like answered. So it’s hugely important [to be raising money for Versus Arthritis].”

Gemma credits her “absolutely amazing” husband – as well as her mum – for helping her during the worst moments where she is left unable to use her hands.

The teacher and musician, meanwhile, said she got in touch with Pulp star Doyle a number of years ago after taking heart from the fact that she managed to perform in a chart-topping band while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

“She’s very inspirational,” Gemma said, “because she’s so get up and go and gets on with her life and is happy and is really a lovely person. It’s good to see you can still be like that when you’ve had this for so long.”

The last word should perhaps go to Gemma’s introduction in the album booklet, which thanks the listener for buying the record and supporting Versus Arthritis.

“Raising money for research into this disease could help discover more effective treatments and possibly a cure,” she writes.

“My greatest wish in life would be to live without pain and to be able to look forward to the future with hope.”

To donate to Versus Arthritis, visit the charity’s website.