Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1067

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Feature

GABRIELLA CILMI: Lessons learned

Gabriella Cilmi
Gabriella Cilmi

While the concept of a teen Aussie songbird dominating the UK charts and airwaves with a bouncy, catchy pop smash is hardly groundbreaking (think early Kylie/Danni; Holly Valance), 16-year-old Gabriella Cilmi’s smoky, bluesy vocal tones - which have even seen her dubbed by some “the new Amy Winehouse”(!) - certainly add a more soulful twist to her mainstream success.

Indeed, with the seven-week British Top 10 run of ‘Sweet About Me’ making it arguably THE enduring summer radio smash of 2008, Australian/Italian Gabriella has additionally become the youngest-ever chart-topper in her Antipodean home-land; while also seeing her debut single’s accompanying album ‘Lessons To Be Learned’ score heavily internationally. And, while its diverse musical moods may see cuts like the aggressive, in-ya-face ‘Save The Lies’ and hypnotically psyche-delic ‘Einstein’ showcasing Gabriella’s youthful, snarly-rock-chick side, for ‘B&S’ readers there can be no disputing the mature, poised-beyond-her-years appeal of quality tracks like the Bacharach-tinged, orchestral soul shuffler ‘Sanctuary’ or the smoky, hip-shaking blues-noir of ‘Cigarettes And Lies’ and starkly haunting late-night lilt of ‘Sit In The Blues’.

Currently preparing for her highly-anticipated appearance at this month’s V Festival 2008 (plus her first full-headlining UK tour in October), a bubbly Ms. Cilmi (pronounced chill-me) enjoys a breezy introductory chat with ‘B&S’ from her now-London home. First topic on the agenda being her Top 10 debut LP.

“I guess the title ‘Lessons To Be Learned’ has always been a line that jumped out from the single ‘Sweet About Me’. Plus it kinda sums up the whole experience for me, because I’ve been recording this album for three years - I started when I was 13!”, begins the fast-talking singer/ songwriter: “So, during its making, I had to learn so many things! I moved from Melbourne to London last year. So I had to learn how to communicate with adults and just get my opinion across really fast, as well as learn just basic everyday things like how to catch tubes! And musically, because I have so many different influences, I guess I’d describe the album as ‘a bit scattered’ ! If I had to pinpoint it down to any one genre, I’d say it’s pop/blues with a glam-rock edge! Basically because, while I love singers like Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, my mum always liked (Seventies British glam-rock) bands like Sweet and T-Rex. Which I guess prompted me to inject some element of fun into the music too.”

With Gabriella having co-written her album (mostly with Xenomania, the UK team behind hits for Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and Girls Aloud), she admits many of the songs do reflect her own life experiences: “I just wanted to make sure every song had a bit of me in it. And I can genuinely say, looking back on it now, that listening to it is like flicking through a photo-album! Because every song MEANS something to me. Like I remember I wrote ‘Sanctuary’ about a mate of mine who I felt really com-fortable with - though sadly we’re not friends any more. Then, at the time I wrote ‘Einstein’, I was actually studying pi at school and not quite understanding the point of it all! I was like ‘Tell me, when am I ever gonna use this, when there are so many OTHER important things going on in the world?’! While, when Brian Higgins (the album’s producer) first played me the track to ‘Cigarettes And Lies’, its whole western-y kinda bluesy feel actually reminded me of one of my uncles who smokes all the time and lies to himself that it’s good for him! So for me each song does have it own special little memory.”

While Gabriella’s Italian parents never quite managed a pilgrimage to their homeland during their daughter’s childhood (mainly due to geography and finances), they nevertheless remained an intrinsically Latin family, surrounded by hot-headed, eff-usive Catholic relatives. A background which nevertheless indirectly, and surpris-ingly, led to her early choice of a career in music: “Yeah, I grew up in suburban Melbourne, within walking distance of all my relatives”, she recalls: “And, though I always loved music and used to jam with my mates, I actually just kinda fell into a career in it through coincidence. Coming from an Italian family, every year we’d go to this Festa de la Madonna - a religious thing, where we first go to church and then on to a hall where people auction off their cheeses and wines for charity. And the year I was 13 - because the usual ABBA tribute band hadn’t turned up - my uncle got me to up onstage to sing! So I sang The Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, not knowing there was a guy from (prominent Australian independent label) Mushroom Records there. And, after my performance, he actually ended up signing me to a development deal! Which was kinda funny, because I think he was the only one in the crowd who liked me that night! Because I remember this opera singer coming on after me getting a much better reaction. Which, considering most of the audience was related to me, I thought was pretty poor. But then I guess I’ve had the last laugh!”

Intent on making her a global consideration, Mushroom introduced Gabriella to a selection of international record companies. One of whom - Island in the UK - ended up signing her to a five-album record deal. Since which time she’s progressed from an early-teen Led Zeppelin obsession into a youthful, contemporary and credible pop act who’s also opened up to the impact American soul and blues-rock singers had on her early upbringing: “Yeah, I guess it just comes from listening to singers like Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and my dad and mum’s love of Tina Turner”, she acknowledges openly: “Though I never once - on any of the album tracks - said ‘I’m gonna make this one more souly’ or whatever, I do love the way singers like those just let everything out to where it’s kinda like healing in a way. I particularly remem-ber Janis Joplin’s version of ‘Me And Bobby McGhee’, as well as Tina Turner sing-ing ‘Proud Mary’. While with Nina Simone I used to love watching this tape of her performing songs like ’Ain’t Got No - I Got Life’ live at Ronnie Scotts. I guess it was the degree of passion that those women sang with that really caught my attention. And then, when you become a singer yourself, I guess you just subconsciously take different things you appreciate from different people.”

The single 'Save The Lies' is released August 18. The album 'Lessons To Be Learned' is out now, both through Universal Records/Island Records Group

Gabriella plays The V Festival 2008 August 16 (Stafford) and 17 (Chelmsford). Her headlining UK tour runs from October 2 to November 3 inclusive
Words PETE LEWIS

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