“My boots keep getting stuck on the gum on the floor,” Gabriella Cilmi observes. The dirty surface belongs to Mayfair’s version of a bohemian dive, all shadowy corners and murals of topless, brazen rock chicks. Though Cilmi had one of the hits of the summer of 2008 with “Sweet About Me”, and her naturally throaty voice drew comparisons to Amy Winehouse, success since has been patchy at best. This low-key gig in advance of her third album, The Sting, has the feeling of starting again.
Cilmi is nervous. Her red torch singer’s dress splits on the way to the stage, and its zip works its way down her back during the night. The stage-lights’ heat bothers her, but the atmosphere is cold. Though hardcore fans hover, there’s awkward silence as well as applause between songs. You don’t often see someone who’s been marketed as a pop singer in such a bare, unforgiving situation. Her six-year career may make or break with The Sting. And Cilmi, who moved from Melbourne to London to chase her dreams into the music industry’s maw aged 13, is still only 21.
Understandably given her age, Cilmi felt her second album, 2010’s Ten, didn’t represent her. There’s more consistency to tonight’s music, played with a basic rock four-piece. Songs deal maturely with variations on themes of romantic crises and infidelity, often with an intriguing, unpursued edge of extremity: “Vicious Love”’s title is typical. Relationships in the lyrics are emotionally bruising, but Cilmi is left unbowed. She applies the same spirit on-stage, bouncing and bending, trying to rev up and let her appealingly unhistrionic voice rip.
The band, relaxed to a fault, talk among themselves between songs, and kick into Cilmi’s big hit “Sweet About Me” while she’s kneeling on the floor sipping a cup of tea. She isn’t phased, and finishes with songs which show some of the careless daring that made her leave Melbourne. Kanye West’s great “Blood On the Leaves”, with its fragment of Billie Holiday’s lynching requiem “Strange Fruit”, is followed by her almost equally bizarre new single, “The Sting”.
In a basement in half-glamorous, half-tacky Mayfair, Cilmi has just paid some of what used to be called dues. It’s all been strangely amateurish for 2013’s airbrushed pop world. But she shows some talent, and guts, and she still has a chance.