At 18, most of us are just starting to lose the awkwardness of teenagehood, gaining full control over recently lengthened limbs and starting to behave like human beings. But 18-year-old songstress Gabriella Cilmi (pronounced “Chi-l-me”, not the suicidal sound produced by the hard ‘c’) is far ahead of all that. Not only fully in command of herself, with an air of easy self confidence and charm, she has also had massive chart success with “Sweet About Me”, a bluesy pop tune which sold 2m records and was the most-played song in the UK in 2009. Her first album “Lessons to be Learned”, released in 2008 when she was just "sweet" 16, led to a Best International Brit Award nomination last year and scooped a whopping six Aria Awards.
The Australian-born vocalist, who has recently released her second album “Ten”, spoke to The Independent about her early rise to fame. The following are extracts from our conversation:
When I was a child my family always used to be like “sing, sing” and I’d be like, “no, no!” But my cousins and I always used to do little Abba renditions and cheesy things like that. Of course, each member of my family believes they “discovered” me and they all have different stories about it. The best one is that I was apparently able to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in tune aged two. The age keeps getting lower and lower. My dad even says I came out singing. But I was probably screaming [laughs].
I just loved singing. I idolised Suzi Quatro and used to dress up as her in all-leather outfits when I was about 10 years old. I used to go to biker shops and buy massive biker boots. I used to steal my parents’ record collection. I was a bit stuck in the past, obsessed with psychedelic rock, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin.
It was a Rolling Stones track that actually got me noticed. I was in a band with some boys in high school and used to jam with them in a garage. But I got signed when I was 14 after I was heard singing “Jumping Jack Flash” at an Italian Fiesta. My parents are Italian, so every year we go to the Fiesta Della Madonna in Melbourne to eat lots of cheese and wine. Anyway, I got up to sing because my uncle forced me to. I really didn’t want to, it was so embarrassing! But I did. And there was a guy from a label [Warner Music] there, called Michael Parisi, and it went from there.
I guess it was kind of unusual for a 14-year-old girl to be obsessed with that kind of music. But I did also have a thing for the Spice Girls. Not to say I was totally cool. I really wanted to be Geri Spice. My dad’s a hairdresser and he cut my hair like Posh Spice once, in a bob. Anyway, I hated it ‘cos I wanted to look like Geri. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen [points to her long dark locks], and now I look back on it ask: What was I thinking? Why was she your favourite Spice Girl? Scary Spice is definitely the best!
When I was about eight-years-old my piano teacher told me I had no musicality and didn’t have the discipline to pursue music. I’ll always remember it because it made me feel awful. And she said it front of my dad too. But then, I guess pianists have to start when they’re really young, like four. Perhaps she only worked with geniuses. But what a way to trash someone’s spirit! I didn’t become a singer to prove her wrong, but I guess I have done. [Sticks her tongue out and makes a face]
I started recording when I was 14 but it took me three years to complete my record. I was living a double life really. I was at school most of the time, but then occasionally I’d fly to London to record in the studio. Studying gave me a good balance. I just went with the flow really. I didn’t chase it and all the doors opened easily. Obviously things were difficult sometimes, but you’ve got to expect that. It was definitely hard the first time I read a bit of criticism in the press. God, it hurts! But you just get on with it.
On the new sound:
For the new album “Ten” I set out to write a modern disco record. I wanted to take a risk with the new album, to do something different. People have told me not to alienate my audience, but you have to experiment don’t you? I mean its only my second record. I don’t want to have already created the greatest record I’ll ever make, because then it will all be down hill from here.
My next single, “Hearts Don’t Lie,” really captures my new approach. It’s got this really funky base line inspired by Betty Davis- I love Betty Davis, all that attitude! She used to play with Funkadelic and Parliament. Actually, I met George Clinton recently. Pretty exciting! – The album was also influenced by Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” and Amy Stuart. I guess I look for strong female influences.
On strong women:
I think its great there are all these females out there like Lady Gaga, La Roux and Florence and the Machine. I don’t where all the males have gone! I think they need to get their act together. But I think it’s great all these new female artists are so different.
When Sweet About Me was released there was no female singer around who wasn’t compared to Amy Winehouse. Me, Amy, Duffy and Adele were all been chucked in the same barrel. But before that there weren’t many female vocalists who weren’t poptastic or in Indie bands. So at the time, because I’m Australian, I was like: “Who’s this Amy Winehouse chick and why am I always being compared to her?”
“Hearts Don’t Lie”, from the album “Ten”, will be released 7 June 2010