IT has been a pleasure chatting with...
Gabriella Cilmi as she discusses her new single, Ruins. I wanted to understand the story behind the song and how it feels being back after being away from music for a few years. She reveals her favourite albums and some of the artists who have driven her – I ask if she is excited about performing at St Pancras Old Church on 7th November.
Cilmi tells me how she chills away from music and, hailing from Melbourne, what she thinks of some of the other Melbourne artists striking hard right now; when music came into her life and what advice she would give to artists emerging at the moment – she ends the interview by selecting a classic Joni Mitchell track.
Hi, Gabriella. How has your week been? How are you enjoying the weather at the moment?
Yes! There’s nothing quite like the U.K. in the sun. It reminds me of the Enid Blyton books I used to read when I was a kid. Our flowers have started blooming too, so we are being visited by pretty bumble bees and butterflies. I’m definitely happier in the sun and especially this week because I FINALLY released some new music. Yay!
Ruins is your new single. (It is one I love). Can you tell us how it started life and whether there was an inspiration behind the story?
I’m glad you like it (smiles). It’s always nerve-wracking releasing something new.
By the time Ruins came along I knew that I wanted to take things back to basics. My brother Joseph (my main songwriting partner) and I started revisiting some of our all-time favourite records such as the Janis Joplin’s version of Me and Bobby McGee and diving into Americana’s finest, particularly Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. We became really inspired and wrote most of the songs stripped back on acoustic guitar.
Ruins was one of those tunes that came about pretty quickly, It was the first time Eliot James and I had been in the studio together since he produced The Sting about five years ago. We basically blasted some Carole King; Eliot sat at the piano and I just started to sing whatever came into my head. It’s a song about how easily relationships can fall apart when we neglect them. Lyrics-wise, I was inspired by someone close to me…
Hope they don’t mind (smiles).
How does it feel to be back with a new single after a few years? Are you surprised by all the love and positive reaction Ruins has acquired?
I’m really, really grateful that people have stuck around to listen. You never know what the reaction is going to be when you release something new and it can be bloody nerve-wracking, especially since I’ve been away a while. Things are really different now with social media: you can hear straight from the people who listen to your music and it’s been really cool to hear people are liking it (smiles).
Your last album was 2013’s The Sting. To me, it sounds like quite a vulnerable and soul-searching album. The mix of styles and sounds is amazing. Were there particular artists who inspired the songs on The Sting?
I was in a very vulnerable place: I kind of found myself alone for the first time since I was thirteen, without management or a major label backing me...but it turned out to be a really positive, liberating experience in the end. I wrote a lot of the tracks with my live band and even did a writing session with Tricky, whose record, Maxinquaye, was definitely an inspiration. I was listening to a lot of Kate Bush at the time as well (who's an endless source of inspiration!).
It might be premature to ask but might we see an album or E.P. coming along later this year? Are you in a pretty fertile creative state at the moment?
Yes. An E.P. is on its way. All of the tracks have been written; it’s just a case of finishing touches. I’m constantly writing, although I find it much easier to write when the weather’s a bit crappy…I’m a bit of a sun worshiper…
You were born in Melbourne but are based over in London. What are the main differences regarding the music scenes in Melbourne and London? Do you manage to get home often?
I try to get home once a year. I see a lot of artists from Melbourne in London, now that the world is such a small place (which is great!). Most recently, I saw Tropical F*ck Storm who are a great Aussie Noise-Rock band, although not for the fainthearted - and I’ve seen Courtney Barnett quite a few times too!
Great Melbourne-based artists like Sampa the Great are really striking hard right now. Do you think we need to spend more time looking the way of great Australian artists?
Considering we are such a small country, I think we do produce a hell of a lot of good music. From Sampa the Great to Stella Donnelly, there are so many unique Aussie artists about right now, and the more that we can champion the better.
I first discovered music at the age of two or three and the first song I remember is from Tears for Fears Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Do you recall the exact moment music came into your life? Which artists would we have found in a young Gabriella’s collection?
Well. My mum has a picture of me standing in front of the radio as two-year-old, bopping to Shaggy’s Oh Carolina; apparently it was my favourite. She also says I used to attempt to sing I Will Always Love You while in the pram. For me, the first time I really had an emotional connection to music was listening to Cat Steven’s Wild World. My mum played it a lot but I do remember it really hitting me right in the chest. I love Cat.
I am a huge admirer of Kate Bush and her music. I love strong female artists in general; those who innovate and have a rare beauty. I get the sense you share that sort of desire when it comes to music? Are you a fan of innovative artists like Kate Bush and Björk, for instance?
I love them both. I really delved into Kate Bush’s records whilst writing the sting and I think in a sense her strength as an artist helped me to navigate my own career during a time when being independent was new to me. Her melodies are so unique, kind of like string lines…and she uses her voice like no one else I’ve heard. The Kick Inside and Hounds of Love are my favourite albums but This Woman’s Work is an absolute masterpiece of a song.
I love Björk, too. Jóga is my favourite, but Army of Me and Hyperballad are bangers and have some brilliant lyrics!
Given how busy you are, you might not have too much time to check out upcoming artists. Are there any you have come across that you recommend we investigate and get involved with?
Last year, I discovered an artist called Bedouine. I saw her play at The Islington in London and loved it! Her music transports you straight to the Canyon. I would definitely recommend checking her records out. She just released a newbie called Bird Songs of a Killjoy. It’s gorgeous.
IN THIS PHOTO: Bedouine/PHOTO CREDIT: Joyce Kim for Monocle Magazine
Although there is imbalance in music regarding gender, 2019 has been a year dominated by women. Does that give you a lot of encouragement or do you feel we still have a long way to go before there is parity?
I think there has always been a lot of women in the spotlight, but a lot of men behind the scenes. Things are definitely changing as us ladies are feeling empowered to take the reins of our own careers. It’s so exciting to see more female producers and engineers and a relief to see women heading labels and publishing companies. We still have some way to go but we are on the right track.
If I had to take three albums to a desert island, I think I would take Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside (my favourite ever), Paul Simon’s Graceland and Jeff Buckley’s Grace (or maybe Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon). If I was to ask you for your choices, which records would you select?
I love all of those records, especially Ladies of the Canyon. This is a really hard question, but…
Astral Weeks - Van Morrison
Pearl - Janis Joplin
Tea for the Tillerman - Cat Stevens
And, if I could have one more, Houses of the Holy - Led Zeppelin (I can’t stick to three. Haha).
Do you have a standout memory from your time in music so far?
Playing Later… with Jools Holland was a highlight! Also, I remember playing my first festival (T in the Park) and thinking nobody was going to come and watch me as five minutes before the show the tent was empty, but when I went on stage the tent was full and the crowd were so lovely! It was a moment.
If you could support any artist alive today, who would that be and what would you have on your rider?
It would be Robert Plant…purely for selfish reasons because he’s one of my favourite voices and songwriters of all time! On my rider, I would have a Japanese banquet, watermelons; mangos and coconut ice cream.
St. Pancras Old Church is a gorgeous, intimate venue and you are playing there on 7th November. How excited are you about that and have you ever played the venue before?
It’s such a lovely venue. I played there about five years ago when I released The Sting. There’s something about performing in a church like St. Pancras. Even if you’re not spiritual, the environment is something special. I’m really looking forward to the show in November. It will be the first time playing my new tunes live (smiles).
In terms of the set, will it be mainly acoustic and what might we expect if we come along? Do you think there might be any other gigs before Christmas?
I’m not entirely sure what the set will be like yet. Last time I played, we managed to fit a full band in there so anything is possible! I’m talking to some musicians at the moment but I want to make sure it feels special, as it will be my first time performing in London for a while.
There are no other gigs planned as yet but definitely watch this space; hopefully there will be more to come!
A lot of upcoming female artists look up to you and will want to follow your lead. Is there any advice you would offer them?
I think it’s important to have a clear vision of where you want to take your music creatively before you take it out into the world. You want to make sure, when you start to build a team, you are all on the same page as well.
Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you and go easy on yourself!! Trust me, there have been times when I’ve felt like nothing seems to be working or I’m not being productive enough. I’ve found that being patient and kind to myself, especially creatively, is better than putting myself down and thinking I'm not good enough.
It has been over a decade since your breakthrough hit, Sweet About Me, came into the world. Does it seem crazy looking back - and what advice would you give to your younger self?
It feels like a very pretty, colourful and blurry dream now, but I have a lot of great memories! I was always very nervous, especially when it came to doing interviews and live T.V., so I would tell her to relax; everything is going to be fine (smiles).
Do you ever get much chance to chill out away from music? What do you do when you get time to hang and relax?
When I’m in Australia, I go to the beach loads! There’s nothing like swimming in the ocean for me. I’m also into making clay pinch pots at the moment. I’m not sure I’m that great at it, though…I’ve decorated the apartment with them and most people can’t work out what they are (smiles).
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Let’s play Ladies of the Canyon (Joni Mitchell), the title track from one of your faves! Also, one of mine (smiles).
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