I always knew Gabriella Cilmi was a liar. Even before the young pop starlet swept into the room, decked out in all black, an outfit which complements her long, dark hair and olive European descendant skin, I harboured my suspicions.
See, when Cilmi sings, “Nothing’s sweet about me,” the opposite couldn’t be truer. The doe-eyed 16-going-on-25-year-old is saccharine sweet, and – may I add – far too attractive for a teenager. If this was George Orwell’s utopia, the Thought Police would have been onto me the first seconds of the interview.
I’ve caught up with Australia’s latest pop princess mere hours before she graces the stage as support for James Blunt, shows that mark her inaugural Australian tour. Sweet About Me is sitting atop the charts and her debut disc Lessons To Be Learned is a week away from release. If she’s nervous, she hides it well, or she’s got a fantastic makeup artist. Reclining in Michael Gudinski’s private office tucked away within the labyrinthine bowels of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, with her pointy shoes sticking out from underneath her tucked-up legs (sorry Mike, shoes on the lounge), Cilmi’s adopting her best diva impersonation but failing miserably. She’s no Mariah Carey.
“My mum always used to play music around the house,” she begins when I start the conversation by asking her whether music has always been a part of her life, “but I always used to like watching it on TV, so she’d always have videos of Suzie Quarto playing Can The Can, or Sting or T-Rex, and I always liked watching it and listening to it too. I was just one of those people that always used to sing around wherever I went. It was just part of me.”
Inevitably, in what seems to be a rite of passage for musically and non-musically inclined kids alike, Cilmi was enrolled in piano lessons at age 8 but “my piano teacher told me I had no musicality when I was 10, or younger, which was really strange so that kinda crushed me a bit.” Not one to give up, Cilmi pursued the singing trail and eventually picked up the guitar, playing covers of Jet, Led Zeppelin and Kings Of Leon with friends in her garage. “Janis Joplin was my idol. All I wanted to do was scream,” she laughs.
So how does a Melbourne teenager, daughter of Italian immigrants, move from angsty rocker to soulful pop princess? Quite by chance, it seems. “Every year we’d go to this Festival thing, or Fiesta, and we’d go to church before and then afterwards we’d have this party and it’s all for charity so people auction off their homemade cheese or wine or salami, whatever, for charity,” she explains, laughing that those are the types of “events where you’re like – “I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go’, but you end up going.” Coerced by her uncle to sing The Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash, the song didn’t go down well with the older Italian crowd but was a hit for one man in attendance – Michael Parisi, the head of Festival Mushroom Records.
Signed by the age of 13, Cilmi was sent on whirlwind world trips, showcasing her material in New York, LA and London, playing “acoustic sets to different record company executives in, like, board rooms, with maybe two people staring at you.” Living the ultimate Hannah Montana life, she would meet with record labels during school holidays, but back in class she’d tell her friends that she was visiting relatives in Italy or travelling to Queensland. “I didn’t want to tell them in case things didn’t quite work out,” Cilmi explains. “I’d just go to Queensland and come back with no tan!” See! I knew she was a liar!
Despite what allusions her first single, Sweet About Me, may make, Lessons to be Learned is far from rooted in the soul aesthetic that many people assumed after first hearing Cilmi’s mature notes. ”[The album’s] a bit all over the place,” she smiles, saying that at one stage it was going to be called Messy, which would have given nefarious music critics way too much fuel if they hated the record. The song has also given birth to the epithet “The Next Amy Winehouse”. Then again, Duffy, Adele and almost every other singer coming out of the UK at the moment is being tagged with that comparison by a short-sighted media, something which Cilmi is acutely aware of. “I was recording the album before I knew she existed, so I’m like, people can say that but once they hear the rest of the album, hopefully they change their mind..”
No doubt their minds will change. It’s a multifaceted record: you’ve got the Ronettes groove of Sweet About Me, opener Save The Lies which melds Stevie Wonder slap bass synthesiser and – “90s pop arrangements, and more down-tempo tunes like Awkward Games and the Morcheeba-esque Einstein. “I think it’s because I like so many types of music and I guess I just tried heaps of different things,” posits Cilmi about Lessons to be Learned’s diversity.
Another element in the song writing process were her collaborators, UK production house Xenomania, whose back catalogue includes Girls Aloud, Rachel Stevens, the Minogue sisters, Sugababes and even Franz Ferdinand. She spent a year in the UK writing the album with Xenomania, in a quaint house in Kent that once belonged to Alice Little, the muse for Lewis Carroll’s titular protagonist in Alice in Wonderland. “It was just funny working with people [who are] really pop producers,” explains Cilmi, who comes from a rock background and professes mushy love for the Followill family. “But we came up with something in between what we both liked, and it worked really well for us. I did kind of learn a lot [from them].”
It’s been three years since Cilmi first signed on the dotted line, a marathon journey for anyone, let alone a woman growing up with the added pressure of record labels on her small shoulders. So now that Lessons to be Learned is on the eve of a release, how does she feel about the record? “I feel like it’s a good way to introduce me to people,” she answers. “But things that were about something that meant something to you back then don’t mean as much to you later on. It’s just funny to think you’d write about that. You can pinpoint different memories to your songs; it’s kind of like a photo album in a way.”
And with a sweet smile and a polite handshake, Gabriella Cilmi is whisked off to another interview, a concert and pop superstardom.
Check out the video for Sweet About Me to see where you stand on the Gabriella Cilmi mini-phenomenon.