What would you say to one of your favorite musicians if you were given the chance to hang out for a while? For me, this would be Aussie singing sensation turned European pop star Gabriella Cilmi — for her, it would be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Who fared better? Read on and judge for yourself.
POPDOSE was given the opportunity to hang with Ms. Cilmi (pronounced “chill me”) via SKYPE from the recording studio where she’s putting the finishing touches on her third album. It was so refreshing to chat with an artist while she’s deep in the creative process — the results of which you can enjoy for free with a track giveaway below — instead of during the typical press junket.
The absolutely charming Ms. Cilmi laughed throughout our 33 and 1/3 minutes together. Perhaps this was because of my sparkling wit and charm; more likely, she’s like this all the time. Then again, I bet her bandmates were miming to her though the studio glass.
Even if you’re new to the world of Gabriella Cilmi, read on, we’ll catch you up as we go.
POPDOSE: So everyone can hear us.
(Laughs). Everyone can hear you, I’ll go turn it down.
So do you use Skype to do this all the time?
This is my first one. Last time I chatted with someone from England it was Richard Hawley, by phone from the patio of his house in Sheffield. So now we can spill all of your secrets for everyone in the studio to hear.
Yeah yeah (laughs).
So are you finishing up the album? What are you recording today?
We are just writing a new tune at the moment. The album’s pretty much done, so we’re writing for fun and seeing if we get lucky with a little, late addition to add to the record.
So it could be a bonus track or a b-side.
Could be a bonus track or a free giveaway — you know I have this free giveaway called ‘Sweeter in History.’
Such a beautiful video, I’ve watched it several times.
Yeah it was amazing — the whole shoot was the coldest day of my life. You have to suffer for your art sometimes. We went into this lake for the big finale scene — it was so, so cold. Afterward, I remember driving back to this little town called Valvori in Italy. It was freezing cold so I turned the heaters on and was getting changed. I was in the car with a towel covering me and this old man walks past and is like “Ciao” and spoke to me in Italian as I was trying to get changed. In the freezing cold — it was so funny.
In that particular scene, the long-haired girl in your arms looks exactly like you from the ‘Sweeter Than Me’ video five years ago.
Yeah yeah, that was what I was trying to do. The rebirth scene was a bit symbolic. The whole dressed in white thing represents my innocence in a way.
I can’t believe you were born a couple of weeks AFTER Nirvana released Nevermind…
The sound on your debut album, Lessons to Be Learned, recalls vintage Sixties pop — so I was trying to do the math. You were about 10 in the year 2000, how did you discover all of this vintage music?
My uncles had loads of vinyl and they used to lend it to me. Janis Joplin is such an inspiration and I’m a massive fan of Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin. I used to jam with my mates in a garage and we used to play covers. I got to meet Robert Plant which was very exciting.
I met him backstage at a charity gig. He was performing. He was standing next to Tom Jones — right, two legends — I completely blanked out. I didn’t even look at Tom Jones. Robert Plant’s my hero — well, I have a soft spot for Tom Jones — but when your hero is right there — I was trying to talk to him, but his press were trying to pull him away from me. Robert said to his press lady, “excuse me, but we’re having a moment here.”
I got to have a moment with Robert Plant — which was beyond — Houses of the Holy is my favorite record.
So what do you say to him without being a gushing superfan when you had your moment?
I was exactly that. I was a superfan. I think I embarrassed myself a little bit. I saw him later in the cafeteria and I asked “so what are you gonna eat, the salmon or the pie?” I mean I couldn’t think of anything to say. I mean what do you say to someone who has influenced your youth so much?
You could have pulled a Chris Farley Show and said, “Remember that time, when you were in Led Zeppelin? That was great.”
Yeah! (laughs) That’s exactly the kind of thing you end up saying.
Now you’re in an interesting position for new fans here in the States who might not know about the first two albums. Let’s talk about Lessons to Be Learned (2008) and Ten (2010). You were discovered at a very young age in Australia. Did you move to England just to record or were you already there with your parents?
I got signed in Australia first, to Mushroom Records. And then like a piece of meat, so to speak, they kind of sold me. Well they shopped me around in the US and in the UK. I would play acoustic sets for labels — I was around 13 at the time — playing to the heads of all these labels. We ended up signing with Island Records in the UK and recording somehow — it’s all a bit of a whirlwind and a blur — I wound up recording it in Alice Liddell’s house in Kent, she was the real-life Alice in Wonderland.
Her home is a studio now?
Yes, a beautiful, big old studio run by this man named Brian Higgins, he’s kind of a crazy pop producer. He’s a genius in a way, but also a bit crazy (laughs).
I’m dying to know what it was like inside the “House of Xenomania.” That’s how I discovered you. I was obsessed with Girls Aloud — and then I realized the reason I was obsessed with them was because I was obsessed with Brian Higgins’ writing and production style more than the band itself.
Well, he taught me a lot. He took me under his wing and we made the record very closely together. We would listen to all of my influences and he would play me some of his. This record label, Rhino, released all of these psychedelic records in the Sixties and we would listen to them for influence. He really taught me about melody, song structure and stuff. It’s a very different way of writing — compared to how I write now. But I still have that. He has a good ear for melody — he taught me a bit about that and the art of making music. He comes at it from more of a mathematical angle than I guess I do now.
Were you 15 when you were sitting in a room with him to write these songs?
Yeah — from 14 and 15. I think I met him when I was 13.
Were you familiar with his work, with Annie or Girls Aloud?
To be honest, I was familiar with it, but at the time I was not into that kind of thing at all. It wasn’t his previous work that made me want to work with him. We had conversations, got to know each other and worked out that we could make a record together.
When I work with producers and writers, I don’t think about what they’ve done before. Every project is different. I think it was like a bit of a mish-mash of personalities, but it worked somehow. It was a peanut butter and cous cous kinda taste.
I know you’ve been saddled with “the next Amy Winehouse” label — EDITOR’S NOTE: Wikipedia goes so far as to pinpoint her sound on the the curvature of her spine — Were you hearing that sound that when you were in the studio?
Not at all — it just happened to be the flavor at the time. People were making music that was influenced from the Sixties — soul singers, that was the time. It’s the same as if you were making Brit Pop during that particular time — it’s what the people were wanted to hear, so they went and found it.
It was a really good time for female vocalists — strong vocalists — it was a good time for me to come on the scene. The attention was on the ladies.
What was it like being swept up in that? You won awards. You played Glastonbury. You were all over the world. The album was a hit in Australia, Ireland, the UK…
It was a blur. I got to play Later With.. Jools Holland. I used to watch those shows in my living room. I mean — I was born on the opposite side of the world and then I was touring Europe. It was craaaazy, crazy. It was a bit of a whirlwind.
Do you remember who you were on Jools Holland with? I love that show.
I was on with Band of Horses, KT Tunstall, Ronnie Wood. It was kind of exciting, he was bopping around to ‘Sweeter Than Me’ which I thought was pretty cool. Uh, who else? I was so nervous. I thought I was gonna wee myself. Before I go on stage I get (laughs) I get really nervous. I’m fine when I get out where, but before, I feel like I’m gonna vomit.
Do they really shoot that show in one take, with the bands in a circle?
Totally one take — you have to get it right — you don’t have a choice if it goes wrong, it’s live.
Looking back on that on that record and the whole process — there’s a track on it called ‘Love Me Cos You Want To’ that’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written. Personally, I was going through a bit of a rough time — feeling a bit like I was a music industry puppet. Everyone wanted me to pose for FHM, I was offered a contract to model for a push up bra. At the time, a lot of the people around me were interested in everything but the music. But you know, there were some great pop songs on it, and it opened me up to a new audience of people which was exciting.
I got to play dress-ups for a while — but there comes a time when playing dress-ups is not really enough — well it wasn’t enough for me so I split up with my label and my management. I just wanted to do something different this time around.
(Laughs) Oh well I definitely don’t think that I’ve got a model look, that’s for sure, I’m like five foot nothing. But, I don’t know why that happens. I think young girls in the industry, they (labels, managers and media) like to over-sexualize them. Get your boobies out for everyone to see. It’s more about the music for me and less about the boobies.
There’s the killer quote for this article!
Sadly, way before you were born, MTV killed the rock star who could look like just about anyone. All of a sudden we got the Madonnas, the Debbie Gibsons, the Britney Spears — where you had to be young and pretty to get on the radio, which is ridiculous because it’s the radio.
Yeah. It’s funny. We live in this society where social media plays such a big part in your image — imagine being back in the day when people didn’t know what the musician looked like, they just connected with them because of the voice and how the music made them feel.
That’s the way I was with the first New Order records. We had no idea growing up in Ohio in the 80s what this British underground band looked like. When their distorted faces wound up on the Low-Life record sleeve, we were like, “Omigod! There they are!”
(Laughs) There they are — yeah!
But I think it’s a great time for music at the moment, that’s what’s good about the Internet. With YouTube, you can discover all of these artists that you would have never discovered before. I guess that’s one good thing about it.
I gotta hand it to you — I don’t read that much about you that’s not about your music. You’re doing a good job of staying out of the tabloids.
(Laughs) Thanks yeah. Cameras don’t go where I hang around.
Did you go to Peru to record parts of the new album?
No, I went to Peru on a trek — it was for a breast cancer charity. I think it was nearly three years ago — it came at the right time for me. I just had enough of having to do my hair every day — having to play a person who wasn’t really me. I’m not an actress. I got offered this opportunity to go to Peru. It was amazing to be surrounded by this beautiful landscape. Being up in the mountains realizing how small you are in such a big place, it really gets you thinking. I guess that’s when I made the decision to make the record I want to make, give it the best shot I can and if it fails at least I’ve done my best.
Gabriella Cilmi: ‘Vicious Love (Original Version)’:
We’ve heard two previews. ‘Sweeter in History’ has already gotten more than 120,000 views in its first week, and then there’s ‘Vicious Love’ — did you record that a year or so ago?
Yeah — about a year ago. It’s on the record, but with a different arrangement. That one was an acoustic version of it. So yeah, ‘Sweeter in History’ is a nice taste of what’s to come on the record. If I was to pinpoint any type of genre it would be an ethereal, soul sounding type of record with influences from trip/hop, everything from Tricky to Portishead, singer songwriters like John Martyn — I’ve taken inspiration from just about everything.
‘Sweeter in History’ was a really bold choice for a single because there’s not an easily identifiable hook in there, but it’s an awesome showcase for your vocals.
That’s something I really have never gotten to do — showcase vocals — and be kind of honest with lyrics. It’s a song people can relate to. I think Ten was a feel good record. This one is more of a relatable record.
Are you on a label now — or self-releasing? What is the story?
The story is… we’re still trying to decide which label to go with at the moment and how to go about this new thing. I’m signed in Australia to Warners. But it’s all up in the air in the UK at the moment. The album’s ready to go. It’s mixed. We’re just waiting to see. Something is bubbling.
Do you have an album title yet? Or are you still keeping that top secret?
Top secret information at the moment — I’ve got a few ideas.
I was hoping to charm it out of you on this call.
On our next call — I’m sure there will be some previews of some other tracks.
Sweet. Will you be heading back to the US anytime soon?
I can’t wait to get back to the US. I started writing the record in Brooklyn. Me and a couple of the guys I play with in my live band — Adam and Beanie — we went to Brooklyn and kind of — I think you have magic sandwiches in that country. I think it was the turkey. I haven’t eaten so much turkey in my life — it’s so good. But yeah, I think the powerful magic sandwiches helped me write ‘Vicious Love.’
There’s something about the water in New York — it make the best pizza dough and the best Italian Bread dough.
It’s good. The bread is good. Seriously, I have to control myself when I’m there.
Does it feel like you’re recording more of a group record, with Adam and Beanie contributing?
Yeah definitely I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with people I love and respect — it’s like writing with mates. I write with blokes so I’ve become like one of the guys. I probably need some lady lessons, I’m hanging out with guys too much.
I’m actually the exact opposite — all my friends are girls.
I love fashion. My dad’s a hairdresser and my mum’s a fashion designer so I’ve grown up in a bit of an artiste’y family. I love watching old films — Sophia Loren is my favorite, Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn is my favorite film. I’m getting lost in black & white films, there’s a lot of inspiration for my music. On the new album, there’s a song called “The Scene” that’s really Tarantino inspired.
You had a Tarantino vibe in your ‘Sweet About Me’ video — with you torturing all these guys.
I love watching that video back — it was such a funny shoot — there was that guy hanging upside down — he was upside down for most of the day — I was worried about his health. All the blood rushing to his head and I was just singing along, having a good, relaxed time.
I was trying to figure out how you shot that — so he looked like he was upside down the whole time.
He had to go up a few times — I was quite worried while we did it — but we got through it and he’s still alive, as far as I know. Bless his heart.
Were the guys in that band, in your band now, or have you got different mates?
The guy who plays drums for me now, his brother’s in the ‘Sweet About Me’ video.
So you’re keeping it in the family.
Keeping it in the family — that’s what I do, keep it all in the family.
Are you psyched to get on tour? I see you have a couple of small gigs coming up. Where are you planning on playing?
I’m playing in St. Pancras Church in Kings Cross in London. I went to check out a gig there last night, it’s a pretty old church, surrounded by a graveyard, it’s got quite the ethereal vibe to it, it’s a little bit scary but the acoustics are really nice in the church, it’ll be nice to play a gig.
That’s gonna be a hard ticket to get, I can’t imagine how many seats are in there.
There’s a hundred twenty I think? Not very many. I’m hoping the spirits come out and help us out.
Hopefully you’ll tape that so you can put it up on your Facebook page.
One of my good friends, Aria, does my online stuff, so he’s always around with a camera snapping away and filming — so we’ll definitely put something up. Maybe we’ll see some ghost action.
Any plans to get back to the States?
I’m hoping. Sometime this year, I’d love to come back to the States. I’ve never been on tour in the States, you watch Almost Famous it makes you wanna get on the road in a bus.
That’s the whole reason I’m doing this POPDOSE gig, I saw Almost Famous and realized — I want to be a Rolling Stone writer!
This is all one step closer to that — once I get in Rolling Stone, then I’ll know I’ve made it.
You’ve made it — yeah!
So, you’re going to record a few more songs — anything else you can preview for us? Favorite new tracks?
Oh, favorite track of mine. ‘Don’t Look Back’ — I wrote a track called ‘Not Sorry’ with my brother. It’s a bit Frank Ocean’y actually.
I think it’s got to do with the lyrics. The phrasing. There’s just something about his delivery that’s honest and it feels like he’s speaking which I really like, kind of speak/singing kinda vibe on that track.
I’ve noticed ‘Sweeter in History’ is very confessional in a way.
This album for me is what I’d hand into a priest if I was going in for confession — the things I would say — definitely.
I’m really excited to hear the album — I’m hoping it will come out soon.
I’m hoping by the middle of this year it will be out for everyone to hear. Definitely.
POPDOSE has a big classic rock/record collector following, I read you one of your big influences is Suzi Quatro. How did you discover her — did you watch reruns of Happy Days?
Through my mum! When I was at school, I asked her to make me leather pants and a leather zip-up because I wanted to look like her. I went to see a show of hers – she was still rocking the leathers. She must have been in her late 50’s, she was still rocking it. I thought she was kind of bad ass, singing with the boys, one of the boys but still sexy as hell. There was something about her — she had a different kind of sexuality — she was sexy — in a good way. ‘Can the Can’ is one of my favorite songs.
That’s very high praise, I’m sure she’ll be thrilled. Back to you — I love the new ‘do — it’s very chic and modern.
Oh thank you! It wasn’t that much of a big deal cuz I’ve had long hair all my life and I’ve always wanted to cut it. You know when a little kid is given a pair of scissors, she’s just gonna cut and cut and cut, it keeps getting shorter.
You shot ‘Sweeter in History’ last May and that was more of a Pat Benetar kind of ‘do, and now your hair is even shorter.
Yes, — it’s even shorter now. Why not? Takes me even less time to do it in the morning which is quite nice.
(Laughs) — that would be ideal.
Thank you for taking the time to talk. I’ll send you the link when it goes live.
I look forward to reading it. When the album’s out, we’ll definitely get in touch and do a little preview of it.
Pop crush chatted with. Check. Beyond Robert Plant, who are your pop crushes?
Frank Ocean — definitely. Miguel — I have a bit of a crush on Miguel at the moment. I love his record, Kaleidoscope Dream.
Any chance we might see a duet or a ‘featuring’ down the road?
Oh I’m working on it. If you ever come across them, put in a good word for me. And I love Solange Knowles — I’m really into that.
I see Beyonce’s getting a lot of heat this week. I thought about that since you’re also unveiling a new sound. She’s evolving her sound and they’re slapping her around for going too far with the lyrics.
I think she’s entitled to do what she likes. I think she’s been working so hard since she was like, ten, she can experiment as much as she likes. Why not? She should have fun.
Sounds like you’re doing the same thing.
I think I have a little less pressure on me — just a little bit.
Congrats — you stay really grounded. You don’t fall in the same traps many stars do. Do you still tour with your mom and your dad or do the guys around you keep you grounded?
They taught me pretty well. I just make music with my best friends. Keep your friends close — and your family close — that’s the best advice I could give anyone starting out in this business.
Well you are just going to take the world by storm. I look forward to hearing this album and every album that follows.
Cool — thank you very much very nice talking to you!
Have fun in the room — hopefully some great music comes out today.
Yeah — thank you. Take care!