Gabriella Cilmi: Who's that girl?

Her 'Sweet About Me' was the most-played song in the UK in 2009. But now Gabriella Cilmi has ditched the bluesy image and reinvented herself as a sexy electro-pop siren. Gillian Orr finds out what's behind the transformation

What do you do when you had the most played song in the UK last year? Why, completely change your sound and give yourself a new image, of course!

Joking aside, this is just what Gabriella Cilmi has done. Gone is the baggy-jean-wearing, bluesy soul diva whose hit single "Sweet About Me" sold 2m copies and had critics drawing comparisons with Amy Winehouse and Anastacia. In her place is a sexed-up, electro-disco pop star. Who dances.

Carrying the risk of alienating your fans, such a radical change may not seem like the wisest career move, but in the ever-evolving world of pop, if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward.

Cilmi was born just outside Melbourne, Australia, where she grew up idolising Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin. Attending an all girls' high school, she couldn't find anyone to form a band with, so befriended some boys from "the dodgier school around the corner" and started jamming Silverchair songs with them in a garage.

At 13 she was scouted by a Warner Music exec, promptly flown all over the world for meetings before signing to Island Records. At 16 she released her debut album, Lessons to be Learned, which she co-wrote with hit factory Xenomania. A nomination for Best International Female Artist at the 2009 Brits followed. Now she is preparing to introduce the world to her new sound on her second album, Ten. It's almost impossible to grasp that she's still only 18.

The girl who meets me in a west London hotel bar certainly doesn't seem it, anyway. She's confident, serious and extremely focused. It's not surprising considering she's been surrounded by adults since she started working at 13 and has spent much of her teen years away from her family.

Asked about her new sound, she's matter of fact: "I wanted to do something completely different, I had originally thought I'd write a New Orleans piano record ... then I dabbled in some urban sounding things, but that wasn't really working. Then my band-mate Adam, gave me a Donna Summer record, I Remember Yesterday, and I fell in love with it. She was using that electronic sound but it still had soul."

Ten, so named because it's her lucky number, is full of catchy disco-pop dance numbers and ballads that confirm Cilmi has one of the most impressive vocals around. She co-wrote all the tracks with various producers and it's clearshe has discovered something else over the past two years: girl power.

Her new single, "Woman on a Mission", sees her proclaiming "I am a woman on a mission/Nothing can stop me, I'm stronger than ever/I wanna see this through". Elsewhere on the album there are tracks called "Defender", "Invisible Girl" and "Superman". "I wanted to have a superhero theme", she explains. "It is aggressive but it's really fun to play live, it has a lot of energy". She says that she has trouble telling people how she feels to their face, preferring to do it through music. "When I'm angry with people I write them a letter".

So what is she so angry about? "I want people to treat me with respect, I want people to know I'm not just a flash in the pan". It's fair enough after her monster hit "Sweet About Me" threatened to eclipse the artist behind it.

The new up-tempo beats also mean that she's incorporating some dance routines into her upcoming live shows. "It's kind of weird, because I've never done a dance routine in my life but I'm up for it. I'm never going to be like Beyoncé, but, you know... "

The big-budget Barbarella-inspired video for "Woman on a Mission" sees Cilmi dancing and posing in various skimpy outfits in outer space. It's a world away from the girl who sloped about a rehearsal studio in jeans for the video to "Sweet About Me".

Although it's only been two years since Cilmi released her first album, a lot has happened in the world of female pop. The first time round, the charts were full of girls like Duffy, Adele and Amy. Since then, the electro-pop sirens have taken over and these girls' images are almost as important as their music. Cilmi in her plain black vest and natural make-up would look dated against Florence, Gaga, La Roux et al, who now dominate the charts. Of course, playing dress-up and sexing things up is hardly something new in pop music, but it's so ubiquitous at the moment, anything less seems a bit lazy. Even Lily Allen, who rocked quite a low-key look of dresses and trainers for her first album, vamped up considerably for her second offering, taking to the stage in an array of sexy outfits and face glitter. The female pop landscape, it seems, has changed.

Cilmi tends to agree about creating an image. When asked what she thinks constitutes a good pop star she says "I like it when they write their own songs and when they kind of step into character and become larger than life". She adds: "I guess I've changed to celebrate my body" but she refuses to say that she felt pushed into it by the media or her record label, instead insisting that it was a personal choice. "I guess there is pressure for chicks to look a certain way, but I've never done anything I'm not comfortable with".

At 18 she may have already won awards, played the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, performed on Later... with Jools Holland and met her hero Robert Plant but does she ever feel like she's missed out on her youth? "I actually went back to my school for the formal, listened to dodgy R&B on the dance floor and decided. It was between sitting my final exams and playing the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury so I chose Glastonbury. I still don't think it was the wrong thing to do".

'Ten' is out now

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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