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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