From the sultry opening notes of the debut single ‘Sweet About Me’, the world will quickly come to know it’s uncovered a major new vocal talent in Gabriella Cilmi.
Featuring a voice that sounds like it fell from the heavens straight into the petite and pretty form of this young vocal powerhouse, Gabriella Cilmi’s debut long player is entitled ‘Lessons To Be Learned’.
Three years in the making and recorded across three continents, ‘Lessons To Be Learned’ is a dynamic and diverse collection of songs, traversing all manner of genre from blues, pop, punk, glam, rock and beautiful balladry. It’s all glued together by Gabriella’s brilliant and unique vocal talent, and a worldliness and carefreeness that’s musically manifested into an infectious, emotive swagger.
Which is so extraordinary when you come to learn that Gabriella Cilmi [pronounced “chill-me”] is all of 16 years old.
Up until a few years back, Gabriella was just your average school girl growing up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, with little ambition of a career in music. Bred on her parents’ record collection which featured the likes of Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, Suzi Quatro, Blondie and Joan Jett, Gabriella’s earliest forays into music weren’t very promising. Her distinct vocal style saw her get knocked back for roles in school musicals, while her piano teacher told her at age eight that she lacked the discipline to go anywhere in music.
Gabriella didn’t care. Even by that very early stage, she was already starting to discover her own alternative musical path. She was soon besotted by the music of some of Australia’s biggest rockers – Silverchair, Grinspoon and Jet. She also fell in love with Led Zeppelin. Once in high school, she took up jamming with some friends in a garage band on the weekends, covering the songs of her favourite bands like Kings of Leon. Around this time, her mum organised for Gabriella to record some rudimentary demos with a friend.
But music was still very much just a hobby rather than an ambition. Then everything changed one afternoon at an Italian festa in her hometown of Melbourne. It was at this street party that one of her uncles insisted she jump on stage and do a song. Gabriella was reluctant but finally agreed, got up and belted out a version of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Most of the elderly Italian audience didn’t know what the hell to make of it, but unbeknownst to Gabriella, also in the crowd was one of Australia’s foremost record company execs, who just happened to be out for a day with his family.
And so was set in motion a most excellent adventure. Remember, Gabriella was still only 13 at this stage, but she was soon being flown around the world, exhibiting her talent to international record company execs in Europe and the US. The famous Island Records soon signed on as her international label.
Next, Gabriella travelled to Los Angeles where she began working and writing with Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper from the famed British production team, Xenomania, the people behind hits for everyone from Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue and currently Franz Ferdinand.
Gabriella laughs that those first sessions in LA weren’t quite what she was expecting. “It was a really new experience for me,” she says. “I remember going in and kind of being overwhelmed by it all. It was interesting but it was also bit weird. We actually recorded everything in a house. We were recording in the toilet. That’s the room that produced the best sound in the house. There was foam all over the toilet walls and it was like, ‘Oh yeah – this is good. Recording in a toilet. How glamorous!’ Hilarious!!”
Nothing from those first sessions in LA would survive to make it onto ‘Lessons To Be Learned’, but it was a chance for Gabriella to get to know Brian and Miranda and for the trio to experiment with different styles and slowly start shaping Gabriella’s own distinctive sound. “They taught me so much because I’d never done this before,” she says. “I learnt so many new things.” The real work for the album would begin about five months later on the other side of the world, in a famous house in the town of Kent in England.
By now, Gabriella was 14 and could only work on her music during school holidays. Still a bit uncomfortable with the idea that she was now on the path to being a serious, professional musical artist, Gabriella would lie to school mates about what she was doing on her increasingly frequent trips away from home – visiting relatives in Italy, family vacations to Queensland.
Meanwhile, over in Kent, Gabriella and Brian and Miranda holed themselves up in a magnificent house cum studio, famous for once being the home of Alice Liddell, the real-life Alice In Wonderland. It was a million miles away from the toilet in LA. “It was this huge house with a beautiful garden with a stream running through it and all these trees,” says Gabriella. “Henry the 8th used to ride his horse around there, Winston Churchill’s house is across the road.”
They spent almost three months writing and recording. Those sessions were followed by more work together in Australia, then early last year, Gabriella moved to the UK to complete the album [keeping up her schooling by correspondence] and the team went back to the house in Kent for another month of work.
With ‘Lessons To Be Learned’ finished but still months away from release, word started to get out that something very special was in the offing and things started happening quickly for Gabriella. There were gigs around London and she was asked to record a cover version of the Martha & The Muffins’ classic “Echo Beach” as the theme song of a new British TV drama of the same name. Then, at the end of last year, the producers of Later With Jools Holland, one of the most popular and distinguished music shows on British TV, got to hear an advance copy of “Sweet About Me” and insisted that Gabriella appear on their end of year show, despite the fact that the single was still ages away from release.
“That was awesome,” beams Gabriella. “I’ve always watched the show and thought I want to go on it one day. It’s the coolest music show around because it’s only about the music. It was so funny walking in there because it felt like I’d walked into my television set. It was really fun. I was just smiling all day. It was cool. I met Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones. He shook my hand and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I nearly died.”
A taste of many extraordinary things to come, no doubt. Rest assured, “Sweet About Me” will shortly blow away everyone, everywhere. But it’s just a sampler from an extraordinary debut album from a gifted new artist.
‘Lessons To Be Learned’ is the album that will make Gabriella Cilmi one of the most talked about new artists of 2008.
TRACK BY TRACK
Gabriella Cilmi talks about the songs on her debut album, ‘Lessons To Be Learned’.
Save the Lies
“Before it had a name, we used to call it ‘Rod Stewart’, because the music just reminded me of him. The song is kind of about people undermining what you’ve done, where you’re really happy with something and people look at it and think what they’ve done is better. That was the inspiration.”
Sweet About Me
“It’s really hypnotic. You could tell it was something special as soon as we wrote it. It always reminds me of something like a rocking boat. It’s a bit of fun but it’s kind of saying that we all make mistakes, so we may as well just have fun with it.”
“I met someone who I felt really comfortable with and all those feelings that come with feeling comfortable with someone. The song is kind of about that, although I’m not even friends with that person any more.”
“It’s a lot of questions. I’m always asking why do I have to do this or why is that like that? So Miranda [Cooper] and I just worked on that idea and I remember we demolished so much chocolate. So good!”
Don’t Want To Go To Bed Now
“I guess it’s about having such a good time that you don’t want it to end, but I was actually reading a catalogue that had pyjamas in it and that’s what triggered the bed thing.”
Cigarettes and Lies
“It’s this weird mix of jazz and country. It’s a bit of fun about when you have your eye on something and you want to go and get it. I don’t smoke but it kind of reminds me of an old man sitting there with a cigarette, tapping his foot.”
“That one is also a bit of fun. It’s kind of silly, but sounds cool. When we started out the riff, it was really bluesy, then it became sort of punky.”
“It’s one of my favourites. It’s one of those songs that just comes to you. It’s about when something looks really tempting, or when you’re stuck in a really bad habit. It’s always there tempting you but you have to say no sometimes.”
“It’s about not knowing what’s going to happen. You always want to know – people tell you everything is going to be fine – but everything is a gamble and you never have the piece of mind of knowing how something is going to turn out.”
“I wrote that the day after I went to the Big Day Out festival. Someone kept ignoring me and I didn’t want them to ignore me.”
Sad, Sad World
“The verses are a story and the chorus is about watching the news. I don’t like watching the news. It makes me angry. And you think, ‘Well, I haven’t done anything to make anything better.'”
Sit in the Blues
“It’s the story about someone getting used. I was reading this story about Janis Joplin and how she really loved this one guy and how he didn’t love her back. So I wrote about that. Because I really like her. She’s really cool.”
Gabriella Cilmi’s ‘Lessons To Be Learned’ is available now.
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