AT sweet sixteen, she had a hit that sold over two million copies. After a couple of discreet years, the down to earth, Australian- Italian is back. With a new style, a new do, and a new sound, there is no doubt that she will do amazingly well with her new music.
Pillow’s Faye Smith meets Gabriella Cilmi.
After a few mishaps trying to find Soho House in London, I am shown to the room where Monday night’s gig was taking place. It’s on the second floor with a few scattered couches and a bar against the back wall. Gabriella Cilmi is doing her sound check for that night’s performance. It’s a surreal experience hearing someone do their sound check whilst you’re in the same room as them. She sounds incredible.
When meeting her, it’s hard to face facts that we are the same age. Gabriella has grown up in the public eye since the age of thirteen with a lot of ups and downs along the way.
For example, the infamous FHM photo shoot back in 2010. She was just nineteen: an age where we all think we’re really grown up, but looking back we’re actually not. Commenting on the experience, she says: “It was presented to me like this is the only cover we can get for you on the front of the magazine. We can take this photo and do it the way you want. I thought I was going to have approval of all the shots [but] they ended up choosing the shots without me.”
Gabriella has a lot to say about the way the music industry works, focusing on how women are viewed.
“There is a tendency for women to be over-sexualised in this industry. [However] I think it’s really good to be confident with your body. It has to come from the person. They have to want to do [those kinds of shoots] themselves.”
If she could give any advice to any young person starting out in the industry? “If something feels off and you’ve got a gut feeling saying it’s not right, don’t do it. Think about what kind of artist you want to be and try not to change.”
However, she doesn’t have any regrets: “If I didn’t go through it, I wouldn’t have known. Now I know.” She goes on to say that she thinks things through now. Looking back, she had no control over her album cover, Ten: “I really didn’t like it.”
She still looks back and remembers the good times. “I got to play G.A.Y which was cool. I got to dress up like an alien covered in silver and [I wore] some kind of Aztec contraption on my head. That was quite fun: playing dress up in G.A.Y. My whole body was literally covered in silver paint. It was brilliant.”
Talking about fashion and beauty – kind of – Gabriella has changed a lot physically since we last saw her in 2010.
A stark difference is that her hair has been chopped. “It happened gradually. I cut it to here.” She points to her shoulders.“It was after I broke up with my boyfriend but it wasn’t about that. I swear it wasn’t about that!” she assures me. “My dad’s a hairdresser and I’ve always wanted my hair short. I’ve had long hair all my life. It just kinda happened.” Does she miss having long hair? “No, not really. I’ll probably have long hair again one day, but I still keep on cutting it to keep putting shapes in. I’m not growing it yet.” I tell her that I’d die if I cut my hair. “Hair is good for swinging it around but people treat you differently if you cut your hair.”
Talking about her new look, she claims that people think she looks “more put together.” She recalls a time during her school days when she was having a school photograph taken. A teacher – “she hated me. [She was] prim and proper – grabbed my brush and [pulled] my knots out, ripping out my hair. It was a scary moment for me. It was the worst school photo ever.”
Gabriella’s style has changed since her (younger) young years. She has toned her style down a lot more now. It’s not so in-your-face with the shiny metallic dresses. Now, for her album cover and video for her new single, ‘The Sting’, we see her in plain black. It’s a very mature approach, which suits her new haunting sound extremely well. As everybody says, you cannot fail with the simple Little Black Dress.
The day we meet she is wearing a royal blue dress with a black leather jacket complete with comfortable wedges and a large amount of jewellery. It’s simple yet thrown together. “I feel like I have expressed myself through my style. I wear loads of jewellery that has some kind of significance whether it’s spiritual [or not]. I wear a lot of Mother Mary’s, or even skulls which represent life and death.” She says that even the colours she wears can express how she’s feeling.
Her number one beauty tip? “When you’re doing eyeliner – it’s not that good today. I had a hard time today – use a really thin, like the thinnest Mac brush, or do I use the second thinnest?” She contemplates that thought. “The thinner it is, the more you can control it. Otherwise, you end up with one bigger than the other, and one up there.” She points to her eyebrow. I admit to her that I can’t do liquid eyeliner. She says, “Sometimes I have days where I can get it right, and there’s others where I get it terribly wrong. The small brush has [definitely] helped me.”
Musically, she has matured. Her voice is the same but her sound her different. Gone are the disco sounds, here are the haunting melodies that make you think about the lyrics and what Gabriella is trying to say. She calls it “ethereal soul pop. It’s got a little atmosphere to it, but it’s still quite live sounding. It [was] a lot of different things at the time [that triggered this new sound]. I started listening to Otis Redding, my favourite soul singers, and a lot of Trip-Hop like Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. [I wanted] to use guitars and interesting sounds [and I wanted] the lyrics to be really honest.” Instead of wanting to write a ‘cool’ song like she used to, Gabriella will now have one thing on her mind that she would write about: “something that’s happened, or some kind of feeling that I have. It’s definitely a different kind of mindset. Who knows? I might go back to old ways,” she says, laughing.
Even though this is the direction that Gabriella wants to go in – she’s following her heart, her dreams, her passion – she still feels pressure. “[The new music was] something that I started out from scratch with different management, [a] different label. I made the record to a certain extent the way I wanted to. I know that I’ve done something that I feel proud of now. Whatever happens, happens [but] at least I know I can do it. I can make a record.”
Gabriella’s name has popped up in British singer, Ed Sheeran’s, song ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.’ I ask her about it and she tells me a little story… “Ed Sheeran supported me a couple of dates when I was on one of my tours. I just remember that he was like a little entrepreneur. I remember him telling me, like ‘You need to sell more t-shirts.’ I remember him speaking to my mum once like, ‘Really, she needs to sell more t-shirts.’ And then, my friend told me, ‘You’re in some rapper’s song.’ Like, rapper? I looked it up and it was Ed Sheeran! When I saw him last time, I was like ‘What’s that supposed to mean? Are you taking a dig at me or something?’ He was like, ‘No!’ I think it’s just ‘cause my name rhymed,” she explains, laughing.
Gabriella was discovered singing covers of Led Zeppelin at the age of thirteen, so imagine how excited she was when she met Robert Plant. “I’m a massive Led Zeppelin fan and I got really star struck with him. He was standing next to Tom Jones and I completely ignored Tom Jones. I mean, I like Tom Jones but he was next to Robert Plant.” You see, even singers get star struck by other singers so much that they ignore music royalty like Tom Jones! “I was in a line in the cafeteria and I remember I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him, ‘What are you going to eat? Pie or salmon?’ He was having the pie. I had the salmon. Afterwards I said [to Robert], ‘I love you. I’m sorry, I just have to tell you I love you.’ [Later], his PR came up to him and they were like, ‘Excuse me, you’ve got something to do’ trying to swing him over, and he was like. ‘Erm, just wait a second, we’re having a moment here, can’t you see?’” Gabriella laughs, gushing. “I was like, ‘Yeah! I had a moment with Robert Plant!’ He acknowledged my existence for a moment.”
Who would Gabriella love to collaborate with? “I love Frank Ocean. I would love to collaborate with him. You know when you love someone’s album and then you see them live and you hear how it sounds live? [Also], it’s the way he sings – like the rhythm he sings in – [that] I really like, and I love his lyrics. It just made me like him more. When you go to a gig and like someone more after it, I think that’s when you know [that it’s really good].”
The next question was something that I was dying to ask, only because it’s really interesting to see what the preferences are of the singer. So I did. I asked her, ‘Sweet About Me’ or ‘The Sting’? Her response: “I’m going to say ‘The Sting’ now because that’s my new single.” Which is her favourite? “Anything that’s new and I haven’t sung a million times is my favourite. But, of course I have a soft spot for ‘Sweet About Me’. If it wasn’t for that song then I wouldn’t be here, making a new record.
Monday evening; an intimate gig for a selected few – that filled the entire room! – was being held at Soho House. Gabriella was feeling pretty excited. “I always get a little nervous before I have to perform, especially when things are an acoustic set up. You’re more exposed. Everyone can hear every little nook and cranny, but it’s good. It’s exciting.” For this special performance, there was a little added bonus for both the band and the audience: free cocktails! “[They’re] named after me. There’s one called ‘Sanctuary’, and another one called ‘Cilmi Paloma’.
Before a show, Gabriella does her warm up to ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ “which is one of my favourite songs by Janis Joplin who is one of my favourite singers. [Also] I’ll have a little bit of whisky, and a hug.”
From who? “If my mummy is there, definitely my mummy. Otherwise, the next best person.” I try to find out – in the nicest way possible – if she is a bit of a diva when it comes to having specific requirements. She laughs, claiming “I’m not that much of a diva.” However, sometimes she feels she has to look after her voice better so she does it Chris-Martin-from-Coldplay style. “When he plays the stadiums, he’ll turn the showers on so I do my version of that, but not in stadiums. [I do] my version of the Chris Martin shower steam routine.”
To finish off the interview, I decided to go for a quick fire round:
Worst date ever?
Once I went to a gig with this boy. It was one of my favourite bands and he said they were shit.
Most embarrassing moment?
Oh my God! I have this really embarrassing moment. I was about 15 at the time and I went to this island in England. I went on a doughnut on the back of a speed boat and I had to go on with this boy. He was around my age who I didn’t even know. [He was] some posh boy. I didn’t want to go on [it] anyway. I was just like seriously, I am not going on. I’d fallen off before and I thought I was drowning. Anyway, I fall off, and my undies got knotted up round one leg so they weren’t even on me. [Plus] there was this random boy there! So I was like, ‘Oh my god! Get me a towel!’ so he had to swim to shore and bring me a towel through the water. And my knickers were in a twist. Literally. [It was] really embarrassing.
What are you listening to right now?
I bought Minnie Riperton. She has this song called ‘Les Fleur’ [which] I just listen to on repeat, on repeat, on repeat. That’s my jam at the moment!
Material thing you can’t live without?
My iPod. And eyeliner!
I played a gig – a world music festival in Tunisia – and there was Band from Mali there and they play kind of traditional music. We jammed downstairs together which was kind of a cool moment.
To be honest, I’m not that rebellious. I’m too chicken to do anything! I wish there was someone here to help me… I used to sneak into private properties to lie on their lawns. That’s not really rebellious. I’ve walked into someone’s dressing room and walked back out. Or, there was a band… They left all their underwear on the floor in their dressing room and I took pictures and I was gonna expose it, but I never did.
Gerard Butler… I saw him and was like; can I shake your hand?
THE REVIEW: Gabriella Cilmi at Soho House
By FAYE SMITH
Not only was I lucky enough to grab a moment with Gabriella, I was also invited to her intimate gig on Monday evening.
She was fashionably late.
That didn’t matter as everybody was enjoying the free cocktails named after her. Complete with an excess amount of Don Julio Blanco tequila, the two cocktails were delicious – that’s coming from someone who doesn’t exactly enjoy the Mexican liquor.
Dressed in black for the gig, Gabriella wore a leather skirt and top combo complete with long silver necklaces and ankle boots.
She seemed a little shy at first, but then cracked some jokes about the cocktail she drank saying “it’s not so sweet.”
The keys player took a little longer than the rest of us to catch on to the joke, which Gabriella teased him about a little.
When she sings, Gabriella seems like a completely different person to the girl I met earlier that day. It’s as if she steps into the music bubble and completely loses herself in it.
The visible comfort between the three musicians – singer, guitarist and keys player – made the gig that much more intimate. It was as if we were merely friends watching them play in Gabriella’s living room or garage.
She showcased music from her new album.
There was a mixture of feet stomping tunes with emotional ballads during the set.
The likes of Symmetry, Left With Someone Else and The Sting saw Gabriella stomping her feet, dancing around the small stage and nodding her head along with the rest of us. Those songs were more energetic with guitar sounds that were heading towards – but didn’t quite get to – the rock genre.
Sweeter In History, Don’t look Back, and Highway were songs that tugged at your emotions and made you think about what she was singing about. They were softer and sweeter. Gabriella was swaying and on her knees when singing these songs.
As for Love Me Cos You Want To… This was heart wrenching. Whilst she was singing with her eyes clenched shut, it was as if she was in emotional pain. Beautiful.
Her sound is a mix of soul and blues with a little bit of jazz thrown in.
Her voice is distinct: husky (in the most feminine way possible!), soulful, and powerful.
She has come a long way in a few short years, and she won’t be going anywhere for a long time yet.
The Sting is out 2nd September.
The album, also named The Sting is out 28th October.