Interview: Gabriella Cilmi talks sexism in the music industry - 'I had to dress as a sexy alien'

The singer had to appear topless in FHM at the age of 18

“I find it really hard to watch,” admits Gabriella Cilmi about The X Factor. “Some of the contestants have great voices but as soon as there's a bad comment and they start crying, I feel like crying. I can't handle people getting hurt on live television. It's really cruel.”

Cilmi memorably claimed “there's nothing sweet about me” on her huge hit, “Sweet About Me”. However, in person – our conversation takes place on a sunbed on the rooftop of Shoreditch House in London – the 21-year-old singer is perfectly charming, disarmingly honest and quite clearly a little damaged from her early experiences in the music business.

The Melbourne-born prodigy's plush, smoky vocals have been compared to Bessie Smith, Macy Gray (she sounds uncannily like her) and Amy Winehouse, and her new, heartfelt album, The Sting, is a showcase for her contralto vocal range. Cilmi never needed a TV talent show to get noticed, frankly.

By the age of 13 she was being courted by four record companies; including an American one that took her “to LA for acoustic sets in boardrooms in these awkward situations”.

Cilmi, aged 15 and still at school in Australia, signed to Island Records UK, moved to London and started working with hit-makers Xenomania and their star-making producers Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper. The pair supplied the teenager with one of the most infectious, radio-friendly pop tunes – “Sweet About Me” – of the past five years, right up there with “Video Games” and “American Boy”.

“We all went to Paris and bought loads of these obscure Parisian psychedelic records,” Cilmi enthuses.

“Sweet About Me” is inspired by a riff from one of those records, and it was written really fast. You know when it's really good, because it just comes out like vomit – word vomit.“ Her debut, Lessons to be Learned, bagged six Aria Music Awards in Australia as well as nominations at the UK Brits and Q awards, while ”Sweet About Me“ sold two million copies, was a top 10 in 16 countries, and spent 37 consecutive weeks in the UK singles chart.

Her second album, Ten, didn't fare so well. Cilmi's record label tried to sex up her image and her lyrics: she simpered about being a “super-hot ride” on “Superhot” and exclaimed “I love it with your hands all over me” on “Superman”. In 2010, aged 18, she appeared topless in FHM magazine and her “close-knit, tight Italian family” were a tad put out.

“My dad was really upset and said, 'right, you're not going back to London', she says. ”At the time it was sold to me that I would have approval over all shots, but it turns out we didn't. I was in Australia at the time it came out and I just bawled my eyes out. I did the shoot, so I can't really blame anyone else for doing it.

“There's nothing wrong with women celebrating their bodies, but I was so upset because I didn't want to do it,” she adds. “I've had some really great men working on my campaigns but sometimes they can get really carried away.”

Everything came to a head when Cilmi had an anxiety attack before going up on stage at a sports event in London.

“I had to perform ”On a Mission“ dressed as a sexy alien and I thought, 'this is so far from where I wanted to be, how did I end up doing this?'” she says. “I remember bawling my eyes out.”

Tears seem to have been a feature of her nascent career, with Tricky making Cilmi blubber when they worked together on “Highway”. “Tricky was scary, he made me cry at one point. I was emotional at that time and I walked out the door and when I came back he said, 'you take this job way too seriously, you should do something else, like boxing'.”

After Ten nose-dived in a sea of smutty lyrics and daft videos, Cilmi divorced from her management and record label, who wanted her to do a romantic covers album. She felt “down” and “not in a good place”, enduring some barbed remarks from the record company releasing the record in the US. “They told me to stop wearing dark make-up around my eyes, and to lose a bit of weight,” she laughs.

“My first record felt natural, whereas the second wasn't a natural progression for me, I felt like I was banging my head against a wall,” she admits.

“I didn't think the album was marketed the right way, it didn't feel comfortable and I didn't think I was being myself. I felt like I was acting. People say there's an element of acting when you perform but, for me, I can't act.”

So Cilmi cut off her long hair and assumed total control – “it's all down to me now”. She has embarked on a new direction (two of the most loaded words in pop music: it usually implies a fall from grace) with a more low-key, soulful album that smacks of her biggest influences: Otis Redding, Janis Joplin and Cat Stevens (“Tea for the Tillerman is one of my favourite albums”). The stand-out track is the Lana Del Rey-like “Vicious Love”, which nearly didn't cut it.

“I was about to throw the song away,” she says, “but my drummer and boyfriend at the time said, 'what are you doing?'. He sat me down and forced me to do it.”

Cilmi, who is no longer with the drummer, confesses that she “was a little bit heartbroken making this record, but don't tell anyone, I don't want to do a Taylor Swift,” she quips.

The Sting is a robust, earnest record that should garner her a bigger audience, but Cilmi promises to deliver a more chipper album next time.

“A lot of the record is me feeling a little sorry for myself, that feeling of wanting to please someone so much but you just can't,” she goes on to explain.

“Mainly I felt like I disappointed people and myself, but I feel a lot better now and the next record's going to be really happy, with nursery rhymes,” she says.

Chances are her old record company will rue letting this talented artist go.

Gabriella Cilmi's new album, 'The Sting', is released on 4 November, and her single “Symmetry” on 11 November, both on Sweetness Tunes

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy