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Gemma Cairney On Feeling ‘At Home’ In Cold Water, And Why She Hopes 2022 Is All About Love

Gemma Cairney scaled
Gemma Cairney smiling at the camera
Gemma Cairney also launched production company (Alamy/PA)

Loneliness has been rife during the pandemic, when face-to-face interaction became the stuff of fairy-tales, forcing people to get creative with finding ways to look after their wellbeing.

Radio and TV presenter Gemma Cairney found solace in taking long baths, while simultaneously listening to entire albums.

“I’m always creating and polishing my toolkit of staying sane, and I don’t know anyone that isn’t,” says the 36-year-old, best known for The Leisure Society on BBC Radio 6, where she interviews cultural icons such as Tracey Emin and Goldie.

“I have an almost religious connection to audio, sound and music. During the first lockdown, I was alone for three months and I got really obsessed with having these really long baths, where I would sit in the bath for as long as possible and try and listen to an entire album,” explains Cairney, who also founded Boom Shakalaka Productions Ltd in 2015, which produces everything from podcasts to theatre, and has fronted a number of documentaries – including radio doc What The F: The Story Of Feminism and Dying For Clear Skin for BBC Three.

She is also a big fan of mud masks, and has a pot of Nicaraguan clay which she purchased on a trip to the country a few years ago, and finds “solace in the sea”. In fact, Cairney loves nothing more than going for a dip in cold water.

“The first time I got into it was when I moved out of the city to the south-east coast, and it was just sheer fun,” she recalls. “It was thrill-seeking – a group of friends and I just going into the tidal pool, screaming, giggling, in a body of cold water, just a really fun activity.

“And I started developing this relationship with the sea, where my body would take me to it before I even had a choice in my head because I knew that it would be such a great way to start a day, to punctuate something, to get rid of bad energy,” she adds.

“If I was travelling for work, I would just make sure I was near a body of water and that always made me feel at home.”

The former BRIT School student also recalls feeling at home when she first joined the famous performing arts school as a teenager.

“I remember the first day, feeling like I’d arrived on the set of Save The Last Dance, and it just all felt super exciting,” recalls Cairney, who was born in Birmingham but grew up in London and then Horsham, West Sussex, from the age of nine.

“Once I got off the train in Selhurst, in Croydon, I was around all sorts of people from all walks of life that were all walking towards this unique cluster of buildings, where you’d have people playing football and breaking out into ballet dance, us weird theatre lot doing some kind of esoteric strange political campaign in the lunch-break in the canteen…”

The school provided endless opportunities for her to “be free to play and experiment in a creative way and learn about a history of others like us, which felt really affirming, particularly at the ages of 16 and 18,” she adds.

“It made me feel like I was part of a gang, like I belong to something.”

Gemma Cairney presenting on stage
Gemma Cairney (Jonathan Hordle/PA)

The feelings of nostalgia came flooding back when she was selected to be a mentor for Mastercard’s #ShoutOut campaign, which gives current BRIT School students the chance to showcase their work at the upcoming BRIT Awards.

“It feels really special, and a really beautiful way to kick off the sentiment I would like for 2022, which is about coming together, lifting others up, looking forward, progressing, and working together multi-generationally,” she says.

“And obviously it being a BRIT School campaign makes it personally really nostalgic and warming.”

Cairney says the brief for the campaign was very open. “It’s not specific in terms of genre or form of talent, which I think is just part of the future.

I think that is a mindset that we all need to take and kind of bust open from boundaries or boxes, and say [for example] game design is as creative as being a dancer on stage,” she explains.

“I was able to stand before the younger versions of me and my friends and say, ‘You get the opportunity to showcase your work at the BRIT Awards’, and it’s just so exciting.

I’m proud to be a BRIT School student, part of the alumni, but also ever in awe of the next generation.”

Her own career has led her down some exciting paths, most recently joining Scala Radio to present the classical music show, Gemma Cairney Gets Classical.

“It’s just been super moving, actually, being able to talk about a composer from the 17th century then play a piece of music off the back of it. It is really quite a visceral experience because often you feel really emotionally touched by it.”

In 2022, she hopes to “be in love, around love. Just inhabiting love and sunshine. I hope to continue being an adventurer, to bring people together, really have this kind of charge to try and be physically present,” she adds.

“So at the moment, I’m researching opening up a shop during the month of August, as part of the Edinburgh Festivals, actually being in amongst the activity and meeting people, which I think feels really right right now.”

And aside from that? For Cairney, it’s all about the simple joys and connection: “Keep swimming, keep laughing, keep eating good food, and keep spreading the good vibes and love”.

As headline sponsors of the BRIT Awards, taking place on February 8, 2022, Mastercard is celebrating the contribution the BRIT School has made to the UK’s creative economy over the last 30 years through its #ShoutOut campaign.

Current BRIT School students’ work will be featured in TV, print and digital in the run-up to the BRIT Awards, with Gemma Cairney as their mentor.