Harmonies of the Heart: Bob Gemmell on Music and Life

You know that feeling when a song just stops you in your tracks? The lyrics cut right through and make you think about what really matters in life? That’s the power of Bob Gemmell’s latest track “Lesson Number 2.” The opening line hits you like a ton of bricks – “The first one shows us how to stay alive. The other shows us how to live.”

Bob’s the frontman and songwriter for the band Big Medicine Head over on the west coast. With this new solo single, he’s gone for a  gentle guitar, slow drum beats and subtle piano vibe, but the words are what really get you. This song was inspired by the demise of his mother, he said

“When my mother was passing she would drift in and out of consciousness. She would tell us what she saw on the other side, when she had “crossed the river”. She also gave me short lessons – things she considered important for me to know before she crossed over. That all made its way into the song.”

The song features Bob on vocals and guitar, backed by an excellent crew including Lee Takasugi on piano, Jeffy D on drums, and Johnny McGuire shredding away on lead guitar. Together they craft this warm, immersive Americana sound that just draws you right in to Bob’s philosophical musings.

I recently got to chat with Bob about his inspirations, life experiences, and the stories behind “Lesson Number 2” and his other tracks. The guy’s got a true gift for turning life’s hard-earned lessons into powerful, thought-provoking music. Let me share some highlights from our conversation…

Listen to Lesson Number Two

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What is your stage name
Bob Gemmell is my real name and my stage name, although a lot of my music has been released by the band “Big Medicine Head” for whom I am the songwriter/signer/guitarist.

Is there a story behind your stage name?
I wish there was! My email address, however, is a different story. In the eighties there was a singer named John Cougar Mellencamp (actually, he’s still around). I thought it would be
cheeky to mashup our names for my email address, which is  bob.cougar.gemmellcamp@gmail.com.

Clever enough, I suppose, but John Cougar Mellencamp’s popularity has dimmed, and I’m stuck with this pointlessly long email address
that no one understands!

Where do you find inspiration?
I’m inspired these days by the heroism of kindness. Small gestures of grace in what has become a mean spirited world move me. I hope that spirit infuses my music.

What was the role of music in the early years of your life?
Incalculably large. I read somewhere where Tom Petty said something along the lines of “Some kids take up rock and roll to meet girls – others do it to save their lives.” I probably mangled that and he probably never actually said it, but I fall into the latter category.
I was always drawn to lyrics, and when I was a kid a good lyric could give me gooseflesh.

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I probably mangled that and he probably never actually said it, but I fall into the latter category.

Are you from a musical or artistic family?
Yes, my dad was a crooner, and my sisters sing and play instruments.

Who inspired you to be a part of the music industry?
I suppose Bob Dylan, because he showed at their are no rules – which meant that whatever path you take on your musical journey can’t be wrong if your heart is in the right place.

How did you learn to sing/write/to play?
When I was fifteen my mom wanted me to have some direction. She forced me to take guitar lessons. I took a few lessons with Danny Schmidt (father of Eagles bassist Timothy Schmidt).

He showed me some chords, and I took it from there. The most important aspect of my music I suppose are the lyrics, and I learned that craft by listening to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan albums.

What was the first concert that you ever went to and who did you see perform?
Bruce Springsteen at Winterland. It transformed me. I’m a Catholic, but going to that concert was like going to church for the first time.

How could you describe your music?
Missives from the whiskey and paisley highway. Or as it says on bobgemmell.com, “With words and melody Bob Gemmell paints an American landscape where the roads are travelled by highway kings, evangelists and lost souls – or where there are no roads at all. “

Describe your creative process.
Great topic. Most people who are interested assume that I write all the lyrics and build melody around them. That’s almost never true. I usually start in the headspace of an artist I like – say Bruce Cockburn or Steve Earle, for instance – and begin creating a melody out of the sound of words, but not the words themselves.

A may want a lot of hard consonants or perhaps long vowel sounds. The feeling of words comes as much from there sound as anything literal attached to them. It is only after I have a melody and feel through the sound of the words that I begin to wrap a narrative around them. It is also true that sometimes there is no narrative.

In those instances I use language as a camera, and capture impressions that don’t add up to a story. That might be most evident on the song “Lonesome Desert Crawl” from the first Big Medicine Head album. Incidentally, I release solo music now, but I’m still associated with Big Medicine Head.


What is your main inspiration?
The endless possibilities of the American highway, and what lies over the horizon.

What musician do you admire most and why?
Bruce Springsteen. When right wing political culture mistook his musical affinity for American culture as an indication of nationalism or jingoism, he forcefully rejected that. Plus his music has been informed by John Steinbeck, as is mine.

Did your style evolve since the beginning of your career?
Yep – for sure. My lyrics have become more true to my internal experience, rather than topical observation. Plus I fingerpick a lot more. And when I started it was all the sound of whatever I
could squeeze out of a Fender Telecaster, while on my more recent music I’ve played banjo, resonator, mandolin, acoustic guitar and of course my Fender Telecaster.

Who do you see as your main competitor?
I’m not sure I have an answer for that. I don’t think about it much.

What are your interests outside of music?
Prose – I’m working on a novel called “Tales of the Western Hemisphere”.

What is the biggest problem you have encountered in the journey of music?
I spent a number of years confusing the lifestyle with the music. Once I realized that alcohol was an impediment to – and not an enhancement of – creativity, my writing really opened up.

If you could change one thing in the music industry, what would it be?
I would like to see more acknowledgment of great writing. Outside of the Americana genre there are very few songs that are popular these days which could stand on the quality of their
lyrics. I like songs where you can just print the lyrics and they stand on their own.

Why did you choose this as the title of this project?
When my mom was dying I sat by her bedside. She would drift in and out of consciousness, and come back with tales of what she saw on the other side of the river. She would also offer
little lessons, things she wanted me to know before she left. Since then I have been fond of lesson number two.

What are your plans for the coming months?
More music! I’m working on my next release, and also a new track from Big Medicine Head.

Do you have any artistic collaboration plans?
If Taylor Swift calls and wants to pen something together I would pick up the phone.

What message would you like to give to your fans?
“Let everyone you love know how you feel – that’s lesson number two”

Mister Styx
Mister Styxhttps://musicarenagh.com
My name is Mister Styx and I'm a music blogger and an HVAC Engineer. I'm passionate about all kinds of music, from rock to hip-hop, Jazz, and Reggae as a matter of fact I am always eager to hear new sounds as music has no barrier, and I'm always looking for new sounds to explore. Hop on lets go fetch for some new sounds!

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