Firstly, introduce yourself
I'm Gabriella Cilmi... these are always tricky questions! Well, I’m passionate, obsessive, and always hungry. But I guess in terms of my sound, and for this record, it was really good because I got to go back and listen to a lot of the things that first got me excited about music. I went back to my musical roots. I was going for an ethereal, blues, soul kind of record.
Let’s go back to the start. How are you feeling about your first album now? Has that influenced your new album at all?
I haven’t really listened to my first album since I recorded it. I haven’t listened to my second either. I just like to move on. Obviously, they all bring back memories, and I remember writing all of the songs. Especially my first record. I have fond memories of recording it. But for this album, I wanted to start a fresh. I’ve got a new management team, and I’m releasing it independently this time. A lot has changed.
Moving onto your second album, ‘Ten’. Why the completely new direction for that?
With my second record, I didn’t really have time to sit down and write. I couldn’t take the time to find what kind of sound I wanted, or what kind of artist I wanted to be. There are a lot of good songs on the record; ‘Love Me Cos You Want To’ is one of my favourite songs to perform live. I just feel like it was taken out of my hands. It wasn’t really what I envisioned in my brain. I didn’t feel like it represented me very well. So, that was a tricky time.
Did your management at the time influence this at all?
Well, I’ve got new management now. And I feel like it was time to end things with my old management. My label offered me to do a covers record at one point, and eventually we parted ways. So, I broke up with my management, broke up with my label, and broke up with my boyfriend, all at the time. The aftermath of it, is ‘The Sting’.
All those little things were just a way of me dealing with everything that went wrong. It’s funny – the things that I used to write about on my first record. There’s a track called ‘Terrifying’. A line of the lyrics is, “I believe there's a god, making my time, baking my bread”. I used to think Debbie Harry was a genius. She wrote all these things that came to her mind, and that’s what I did. I’d just write everything down. I thought – you don’t really need life experiences to write a record. Life experiences do help though (laughs).
How did it feel to see everything change so drastically?
It was quite an easy change. It was just something waiting to happen. My dad is a hairdresser, and I kept on telling him to cut my hair. It got gradually shorter over time, and now there isn’t much of it left (laughs). But I like it. It’s like having freedom. A lot of women tend to hide behind their hair, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.
Can you tell us anything about your new material?
‘The Sting’ is all about the aftermath of my breakups. Not necessarily with boyfriends, but everything else going on in my life. I got to collaborate with Tricky. I loved his album ‘Maxinquaye’. My brother gave it to me. I really love the way he raps, and the kind of rhythm that he has in his vocals.
We wrote a track called ‘Highway’ together. It’s got a really nice string arrangement to it. The producer Elliot James, he wrote the string arrangements. He’s done everything from Two Door Cinema Club, to Noah and the Whale, to lots of ranges of stuff. He’s just amazing.
Do you have any favourite tracks?
One of my favourite tracks on the album is, ‘Don’t Look Back’. I wrote this one again with Elliot James, and that’s the moment I realised I wanted him to produce the whole record. I also wrote one with my brother. I love working with my brother. When you’re working with new people, and you have an idea. If you’re not really feeling it; you have to find a nice way to go around it. But if it’s your brother, you can just yell at him. Walk out; slam the door, then come back in the room (laughs). I like that openness.
How does releasing an album independently differ from with a label?
Well there’s a label services company called Absolute. They give you a budget – to spend a certain amount of money. Then they advise you, and help you pick out the team of people you want to work with. So, you get to choose who does your press, the people who take the songs to TV, the ones who take songs to radio. You end up working with people who are actually passionate about what you do. You get to know them.
Before, I felt like with my album covers... I never had a choice in it, and with what I wore. This time, I get to be part of the project, it’s my baby. So, it’s different. Working independently gave me the space to do what I wanted. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with it, whether it’ll be successful or not. But at least I’ve made a record that I really love. I think a lot of female artists out there are doing it at the moment. It’s such a new thing. I think eventually a lot of non-independent labels are going to have to change their structure.
Tell us about the song writing process of the new album
It happens in different ways. Sometimes I’ll just be in my room, playing my guitar. Or Adam, my live guitarist, will send me a loop. I’ll just write lots on top of it, and it somehow becomes a song. That’s how ‘Vicious Love’ was written. I actually nearly discarded this track. It was the first song I’d written for the album. At the time I was having a bit of meltdown. I’d never been out on my own before. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility. To make something that I was really proud of. Not to prove anything to anyone, but to prove to myself. I just kept writing stuff, and scrapping it.
My drummer, who was my boyfriend at the time, he’d be like, “why are you throwing this out? It’s really good.” So, eventually I was just like, no I can do this, I can do it alone. I’ll be okay. The album kind of rolled on from there.
Tell us about your new single ‘Symmetry’
‘Symmetry’ I wrote with Tom Fuller. We just kind of jammed, and he was playing the piano. There’s a lyric in the song, “this black hole is open”. It was a dark time for me. “Does your heart bleed like mine?” I guess the whole idea of the song is when you’re in a relationship, and you spend so much time with someone. You start to mirror them. You start to say things that they would say.
During your time as an artist, what have you learnt most about the music industry?
You have to stick to your guns. Try to be honest with yourself, and be honest with everyone around you.
If you had any advice to give other aspiring female artists, what would you say?
Stick with your own identity. Just try and learn as much about yourself as you can. The more of yourself that you can put through your music, the more others will respond to it. The truth does sound different.
What plans do you have for ‘The Sting’?
Well, the album comes out 4th November, and the single ‘Symmetry’ is out on the 11th November. Then hopefully a tour early next year, and another single.
Would you consider yourself a dreamer?
Yes. I dream a lot actually. I had a dream once that somebody wanted to kill me, because I was wearing yellow socks.
Do you think it’s important to have dreams?
Yes definitely. It’s good to visualise. When you finally tick something off your list. I remember I always wanted to play live on Jools Holland. When I eventually got to do that, I remember ticking that off my list. And I was like, yeah, I did that!
Lastly, who are your idols?
Musically, Otis Reading. There was a documentary about him, and ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ is one of favourite songs. Just the way his family spoke about him and everything. He seems like such a cool guy. Then it would be my mum, my grandma, and my little brother… maybe (laughs).
Pre-order 'The Sting' here, released on 11th November. Also check out the official album teaser below.
Interview by Darrell Larkin
Photography by Ben Breading