In Interview: Gabriella Cilmi

image of Gabriella Cilmi, in interview

Aged only 16, Gabriella Cilmi was launched into the public eye with her hit song Sweet About Me, a song which sold over 2 million copies and reached the top ten in 16 countries (peaking at number 8 in the UK). Now, still only 22 years old, the singer songwriter is back with her third album, The Sting.

Remarkably Gabriella Cilmi was spotted at an Italian community festival in Melbourne as a 12-year-old when she gave an impromptu performance of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, witnessed by A&R executive Michael Parisi. A move to England and a deal with Island Records followed. It was the stuff of legends.

Since then Gabriella Cilmi has won numerous awards, including six Aria Music Awards (amongst them Best Female Artist, Breakthrough Artist and Single of the Year [Sweet About Me, 2008]).

Following the critical acclaim of her first album, Lessons To Be Learned (top ten in a dozen countries and over a million sales) and plenty of touring, during which she appeared on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, Gabriella Cilmi released her follow-up album, Ten. The album had a much more pop and dance oriented feel to it, driven largely by her record label. Ten spawned three singles, On a Mission, a top-10 UK hit, Hearts Don’t Lie and Defender

Now, after a split from her record label, the Melbourne-born, UK-based singer/songwriter Gabriella Cilmi is firmly in control of her own artistic direction, which is reflected in the feel of her new album. And it’s not just the sound which has changed. Gone are the long locks and dungarees from the first album, the racier appearance adopted in Ten and instead a pixie haircut and sophisticated dress style.

The writing process of The Sting lasted over three years and in working with producer Eliot James (Futureheads, Noah and the Whale), Gabriella Cilmi has commented that it was just her “in the studio with people [she] wanted to work with” (Billboard.com). The Sting admirably shows her strength of voice and is a reaction to breaking-up with her label and management. She is also heavily influenced by trip hop music as well as blues and jazz music—the influence of artists such as Janis Joplin and Nina Simone can be seen.

Gabriella Cilmi is back in control and the results are impressive.

We recently caught up with the lovely Gabriella Cilmi to discuss her career so far and her upcoming gig at the Deaf Institute in Manchester on 26 May 2014.

Hi Gabriella. Do you come to Manchester often?
Yeah, well, because my boyfriend lives here I think I’ve been coming up and down for about 5 months or so. When we first met he told me ‘I’ll only be three months in Manchester’ but it’s getting longer and longer, but luckily I like the city, so it’s ok. I’ve been up to the Northern Quarter and as we walk down the road, he’s like ‘this is where Joy Division used to play’ or ‘this is where this person used to play’ so I get a little bit of history, which there’s a lot of here.

You’re back from tour taking in Germany, Italy and other parts of Europe. How did that go?
It was really fun. It’s funny, the difference between the German way of touring and the Italian way of touring – it’s totally different. I found in Germany everything was on time, to schedule, you’d go on right when you were told to. 9.30 you’d go on stage, done by 11.30, the doors close. In Italy, they’re like, ‘oh you’ll be on at 11 tonight’, but you finish up on stage two hours later – everything’s a bit more relaxed. I come from an Italian background, so I’m kind of used to it. Before I play a gig I like to have my space for myself to warm up, play a few songs, but there were so many family members in Italy that I just couldn’t do it. It’ll probably be like that in Manchester as I have so many friends here.

I heard you first picked up the guitar at the age of ten.
Yeah, I was probably ten when I started the guitar. I had started the piano first but my piano teacher told me I had no musicality, so I started to sing more and that was fuel in a way. She wasn’t very nice. She told me to burn my piano book once! I still can’t say I’ve got the best piano or guitar skills, but I can get by and write.

I understand you’re learning the sitar also.
My brother’s bought a sitar, so we play about. It takes seven years to master, so I think I need to take quite a long chunk out of my schedule. I was hoping to see Anoushka Shankar on tour, but I missed her, although I think she’s coming back to London, so I’d like to catch that. It’s nice to listen to other music and play other music which has nothing to do with how you write.

Your latest album is called The Sting. What was the inspiration for the title?
The Sting was the last track I wrote on the album and it’s kind of a little nursery rhyme, a little dark nursery rhythm. Basically the three years whilst writing the record, I went through the most fragile state of my life. I was quite unhappy with how my second record was marketed and not really having much of a voice in making the record, so The Sting was what I could relate that experience to. It was like a fight – it didn’t kill me, it just left me a little bit sore. The Sting was the inspiration for the album.

Did the writing process differ from the first two albums?
Yeah, it was really different because when I was writing my first record, I was listening to a lot of Debbie Harry and the lyrics weren’t really about much (I talk about ‘I believe God’s baking my bread’ – I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean – and ‘there’s a caterpillar in my soul’, which I kind of guess makes sense) but it was a different approach. This time I’m drawing from more experience, it’s more confessional in that way. I got to write with Tricky, which was really cool and I really like his style, I really love the album Maxinquaye which is an inspiration for this album. He kind of speak- talks on his records, but with rhythm and I took some inspiration from that.

How long does it typically take you to write a song?
It could take anything from an hour to weeks. Usually the ones which take weeks aren’t as good. At least, that’s what I’ve convinced myself, unless maybe I’m too lazy to put in the hard work. It either has to come naturally or not at all. Sometimes you can’t leave a song too long, unless you’re Michael Jackson, in which case it took two years to write Billy Jean – so maybe I am wrong!

The new album marks a change in direction and sound from your previous material and coincides with you taking more control over your image and promotion. Was this deliberate or did it just happen naturally?
I guess it was deliberate in a way. Ideally I would have like to have had time to write the second record and work out what I wanted to do, it was just that the whole experience shocked me into doing more of what I wanted to do and changing my direction. After I broke up with my label and my management, who I’d been with since I was 14, it kind of naturally took that direction. It was really nerve-wracking at first as I thought I couldn’t do it, but then I started writing with my band. The first song we wrote was Vicious Love and I remember one of my band members sat down with me and watched me until I finished a song, as I was starting but not finishing things, crying and starting, not finishing, and then I finished that one and it all rolled on from there. All I knew was that I wanted to record an album that I could recreate live more easily than my second one, which was more synth-tastic.

You do some writing with your brother. What’s that like?
We argue quite a lot and scream at each other quite a lot! It’s quite funny because when you write with other people it can sometime be like speed dating – your publisher says ‘do you want to meet up with that person?’ You get really nervous as well, and if you don’t like something you have to ask in a round-about way ‘it’s cool but do you mind if we try something else?’ With him it’s just ‘nah, no!’ He also asks me to hurry up. It’s quite good in a way as it’s easier to be yourself. I’d like to write more with him in the studio I’ve got set up at home.

Did the shorter haircut coincide with the change of direction?
Yes. I wanted to have a fifties cut and then was watching Breathless, a nouvelle art film, and all the women in those films had really cute, short, pixie haircuts and I thought I’d try it. It’s growing now and I’m going for more of a Natalie Portman in Leon look.

Does your heritage play a large part in your music?
It inspired a lot of imagery for The Sting album and there’s a video called Sweeter In History, which we shot in Italy in a place called Casino. I was inspired by neo-realism and film and photography. The images were taken post-war, when people were living in such terrible conditions, but the photos are beautiful to look at and I felt that with the experience I went through with my music I wanted to create something beautiful out of the pain, to find the light in the darkness. So the Italian neo-realism did play a part.

Musically, who are your inspirations and influences?
Definitely Ike and Tina Turner – I remember the first time I heard River Deep Mountain High and Proud Mary – that’s what I wanted to be like, what I listened to and what connected me to music. I’m a massive Robert Plant fan – I love Led Zeppelin. I love Janis Joplin. I grew up loving blues, soul and rock. I really love Beck – his new album is amazing and I love the sounds of his records. Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky. Mainly blues, soul records and anything that sounds good. Damon Albarn – everything he does, even though he does different things, they are all threaded together by quality.

How did it feel to be stepping out on your own with full control of everything once you had left your record label?
It was kind of really nerve-wracking. I had to set up my own independent label and released this record through that. I’m now deciding whether to do that again. It takes a lot. You have to be the CEO of your own company whilst at the same time making a record. It’s tricky but it’s what I needed at the time – to have the freedom to make it without anyone over my shoulder saying ‘you have to do this’, ‘you have to make a record which sounds like that’. I never intended to write a hit song, it was just about making a good record, which is different from how a lot of records are made these days. With a lot of them, you have to find that song. If a hit is on the record, then that’s great.

What themes come through on the record?
Depression (laughs); I guess it was just really me trying to figure out who I am. There were a lot of relationships which came to an end – a lot of people who I had been working with for a long time. I really didn’t feel like I could make another record, I just felt like I’d get to the point where I’d go on stage and feel so closed of that I didn’t know what to do. So, it’s just really everything which came out of that experience.

What was it like performing live for the first time?
I think I was just shitting myself! I still kind of do when I go onstage, but not as badly. I used to be really conscious of the people around me, so I’d shut my eyes and not open them and just sing. I tried not to be conscious of everybody looking. Everybody says just be yourself, or picture everyone in their underwear – who came up with that? It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. You get more comfortable with people watching you after a while, especially when you know that they’re people who like your music and know the lyrics and you become more comfortable engaging with them. And when you’re a new artist it is really hard. With this album I feel like a new artist, with people watching to see what you’re going to do, or expecting something. So you just have to try to be not conscious of those people, which is really hard sometimes, but I think I’m used to it now.

What can we expect from a Gabriella Cilmi gig?
Well, it’s definitely live! I’ve been playing with my band for a number of years. We kind of take inspiration from the Ike and Tina Turner sound and blend it with a Massive Attack atmosphere and sound. There’s a Kanye West cover in there, which people might not expect; I used to do Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Really high boots with lots of laces (laughs).

Do you do an acoustic set?
There are acoustic moments, but not a full on acoustic set. A lot of the songs have an acoustic feel. Definitely some sing along moments.

Will you be performing tracks from all of your albums?
Yes. There will be quite a lot of new material, but definitely some tracks from the first and second albums.

What’s your favourite track to perform live?
Probably one called Left With Someone Else and I really like playing the Kanye cover. I know it’s not one of mine but it’s really fun to play – I like the sample and I really like the sound of Kanye West records. The sound of his records is great.

You’re quite big on social media and you tweet a lot and interact with your fans. How important a role do you feel social media plays in music?
Quite a big one. When I first started, I remember Myspace came out and I was like ‘What is this? What do you do on it?’ It took me a little while to get my head around it, but now I’m more connected and it’s good to share and communicate with fans and people who are coming to your gigs. They might suggest a song, which is quite cool; so if anyone has any suggestions of what they want to hear, come online and make the suggestion. You get to know a few people who come to all your shows. It’s nice. I tweet a lot about food.

Yes, I saw you tweet a picture of yourself baking a cake. How did it work out?
It was good. My brother is really good at baking cakes. He has special recipes, so I just stir and eat whilst he is making it – I prefer the uncooked mixture to the end result. I like cooking more savoury things – sauces, pasta dishes.

What’s on your ipod at the moment?
The new Beck record. It’s such a good album. I’ve just been on tour so I’ve been listening to a lot of Van Morrison, which keeps me sane when I’m on the tour bus. I’m listening to St Vincent. I’m listening to Outkast when I get ready as I’ve got to sing a song by them.

What’s planned next?
Next, I’m going to start writing my next record, tour Germany and Europe and play a few festivals.

Any final words for us?
Come to my show! Buy me drinks on stage too! My preference is vodka tonic or a mojito. Just place an order – first person to place an order gets full reign of the microphone for one minute to talk about whatever they want. Actually, I’m not sure whether that’s a good idea! (laughs).

Gabriella Cilmi performs at the Deaf Institute, Manchester, on 26 May 2014.

Mark Kelly

Author: Mark Kelly

Music lover. Gig reviewer.
Often found at the merch stand.