As soon as you hear The Voice, you know it can’t be anyone else. 25 years since her debut single Dreams reached No.1 in the UK, Gabrielle’s voice remains pure, seductive and gloriously unique, one of the most compelling, natural voices in British pop history. In a world of beats-driven electro-pop and synthesised auto-tune, my, how we’ve missed it.
“It’s my own tone,” says Gabrielle. “I always want to be classy, not brassy. But still quirky. It’s not a big voice, it’s just mine.”
But here’s the thing: on her sixth studio album, Under My Skin, it’s even better. The voice, now, is big alright – expansive, soaring, powerfully sublime, in the most affecting vocal performances of her life.
Under My Skin is a lavishly-produced, classy collection of irresistibly sing-along songs, collaboratively created with producers and writers behind Corrine Bailey Rae, Amy Winehouse and Paloma Faith. In late July 2018, the single Shine, an orchestral pop epic written with production super-Swedes Tobias Lundgren and Tim Larsson, was the No.1 most-played song on Radio 2, its video seeing Gabrielle in a scarlet gown, arms outstretched, re-emerging as a stately Grand Diva of transcendental grandeur. It’s panoramic chorus – “If I could be a feather…I would find a way to fall into your heart” – may be this year’s most ecstatic pop moment. It’s also classic Gabrielle.
Five million albums sold, 2 Brit Awards, 2 Mobos, an Ivor Novello in 2008 for Outstanding Song Collection (after five previous nominations) and Gabrielle is acknowledged today as not only a stunning vocalist but a writer of instantly memorable melody. Under My Skin, her first studio album in 11 years, is quintessential Gabrielle, who “freestyles” over musical ideas, with no lyrics yet written, to create her signature sound.
“I write the melodies, the chorus, the top-lines, the lyrics,” she says. “Those choruses people have been singing for years, every melody, that’s me. This is who I am.”
Since her fifth album Always in 2007, Gabrielle’s been a working mum-of-two, spending time on “the school run” (her youngest is now 15), song-writing at home, performing one-off shows across Europe and promoting her 2013 Greatest Hits anniversary collection Now and Always: 20 Years of Dreaming. In 2016, a supporting tour with her mum’s favourite Michael Bolton (including a Royal Albert Hall performance) saw her creative flame reignite.
“It was a blast,” says Gabrielle, of the UK tour. “My audience is phenomenal and I missed it. I love being a mum but my son’s 23 now. I’m an older woman, I’m in my prime! I thought: it’s my time now.”
Under My Skin, released on her new label BMG, features several of her most stirring melodies yet, her lyrics “up close and personal”, spanning the spectrum of love, heartbreak, infidelity, discovery, friendship and defiance, written from either personal experience or those of friends and family (male and female). We’re witness to Gabrielle’s hard-won wisdom, her lyrics inspirational therapy sessions from one of pop’s most empathic souls.
“If I haven’t lived it, I can’t write it, if I haven’t felt it, I can’t write it,” she declares. “I’ve never been about concepts, I’ve always been about feelings, what inspires, what evokes. It’s my truth. Or my friends’ truth. Am I good at giving advice? Hella yes!”
The songs whip by in a rush of sensual soul-pop energy: from the glittering summertime groove of Under My Skin, to the Aretha-echoing celebration-soul of Thank You. From the sumptuous innocence of Show Me, to the redemptive, anthemic Stronger. From the brooding defiance of Put Up A Fight to the haunting vocal intimacy of Breathe. From the country-tinged optimism of Young and Crazy to the dynamic thrills of Shine.
“It’s a pop album, of popular songs,” says Gabrielle with pride. “I just wanted to write great songs. I feel I’ve achieved that.”
Gabrielle, in some ways, was the Adele of the 90s/early 2000s: irresistibly accessible sing-along music from an ordinary, gifted, girl-next door you’d have a laugh with down the pub. A Hackney-born, south London-raised, working class romantic with one languidly droopy eye-lid (the eye condition ptosis), she had dreams to sing forever. At school, the other kids laughed.
“I didn’t look like anyone else, I was chunky, I had my wonky eye,” she remembers. “In school books people would write ‘hope to see you on Top of the Pops, ha ha ha’. It was a joke. But I just loved singing. I would’ve been happy singing on street corners.”
Instead, she sang Luther Vandross covers in the Moonlighting nightclub in Soho, surrounded by female singers in “tiny dresses”, Gabrielle wearing nerdy, standard, transparent glasses, “which were cracked in the middle, I couldn’t afford to buy sunglasses”. Merging the sounds of classic soul (Motown, Marvin Gaye, Womack & Womack) alongside her first love, 80s pop (Madonna, Michael Jackson), Gabrielle’s sound was emotive, inspirational pop, writing Dreams as wish-fulfilment, originally set to Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car. A much-loved underground track, the sample was then dropped for official release on the independent Go Beat label (the sample couldn’t be cleared), becoming the highest entry for a female solo debut in chart history (No.2, then No.1). The wonky-eyed 23-year-old then turned a negative into a positive, wearing a jewel-encrusted eye-patch, both a powerful gesture embracing difference and an instantly iconic look.
Through three albums – Find Your Way (‘93), Gabrielle (‘96), Rise (‘99) – she secured nine top ten hits in the UK alone: Dreams, Going Nowhere, Give Me A Little More Time, If You Really Cared, If You Ever (a duet with East 17), Walk On By, Sunshine, Rise, When A Woman. In early 2000, the redemptive Rise was a global colossus, featuring extensive sampling of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, authorised by Dylan himself (a permission rarely given given, as was his 50/50 share of publishing).
“He just loved it so much,” says Gabrielle today. “He’s a God in many people’s eyes and for him to deem my song worthy was incredible.”
Gabrielle was now stratospherically famous: she’d appeared many times on Top of the Pops (no longer the school-girl “joke”), been in every magazine and TV studio across Europe and beyond, met Prince, The Pope and sang for Nelson Mandela in 2000 at a Brighton event organised by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“I was asked to sing Dreams for Nelson Mandela with a school choir, it was incredible,” she recalls. “And he was so chilled and lovely. He said, ‘I wanted to come up and dance’. A phenomenal human being.”
In 2001 came another Gabrielle classic, Out of Reach, written after reading the Bridget Jones’ Diary novel, before the film was even made.
“I just loved the book, totally fell in love with Darcy,” she smiles. “We had a piece of music, I got on the mic and it was instant. I felt the love that Bridget wanted, that was out of reach.”
Released as the lead single from the Bridget Jones’ Diary soundtrack in 2001, the video beamed worldwide of a sultry Gabrielle, in sunglasses she could now afford, intercut with scenes from one of the best-loved romantic comedies of all time.
“Radio had no choice but play it, it was always requested, it had a life of its own,” she says. “To this day at my shows, people sing it at the top of their voices, girls, guys, my gay following, everyone.”
Gabrielle is as a universal pop artist to the core. As an 80s kid she loved Madonna’s Holiday so much, singing along and dancing in her upstairs bedroom, “my family thought the ceiling would come down”. She had a crush on Nick Heyward “so cute, that cheeky face!” Fame was her favourite TV series, certain she was “in love” with perm-haired Bruno. Today, the songs that touch her most are the ones the whole world sings: from Adele to Ariana Grande and Beyoncé to Snow Patrol, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.
“My daughter’s all cool, she likes Stormzy,” she laughs. “And she’s ‘what are you putting Taylor Swift on for!?’ I love soul music but in my heart and soul, it’s pop first. I love Marvin Gaye but I also love Justin Bieber. I’m an absolute pop tart.”
Maybe so, but you won’t find Gabrielle twerking.
“No,” she scoffs, “my kids would be carting me off to the nut house!”
This summer Garbrielle showcased Under My Skin in performances throughout the UK, from the Jazz Café in London, to Brighton’s Pride Weekend alongside Britney Spears, Nile Rodgers, Jess Glynne and MNEK and a support slot with Tony Hadley at Leeds Millennium Square, “the most lovely man, funny, and he loves Shine”. This autumn she tours with Rick Astley nationwide, “I was in love with him when Never Gonna Give You Up came out but I can’t tell ‘im!”
She will, of course, play all those Gabrielle classics.
“I always play the hits,” she nods. “I would never dream of not, I’d be lynched!”
Always a role model for strength, positivity and embracing supposed flaws, her message today is “know your frikkin’ worth!” In the era where female empowerment is a mainstream mantra, she sees young girls and women skewed by our oppressive visual world.
“Social media is a breeding ground for insecurity,” she says. “I didn’t grow up with all these false, airbrushed, glittering, everyone in the gym, ‘perfect’ images everyone aspires to, it’s unachievable. And for guys too! As a woman I like to think I can be a role model, we need to elevate ourselves again.”
With Under My Skin it’s like she’s never been away, a life-affirming, celebratory album for a world which needs to sing, together, united.
“I was the wonky-eyed girl expected to be a one-hit wonder,” she says. “And I’m still here, doing my thing, 25 years later. And a female singer-songwriter who doesn’t have to take all her clothes off!”
Funny, gobby, fabulous Gabrielle: welcome back.
“Under My Skin is classic Gabrielle,” she concludes. “I haven’t tried to be fashionable, follow any trends, that doesn’t feel right. So I’m just enjoying doing me, what I’ve always done. And I can hear it, this is me at my finest.”•
I would certainly say Pub in the Park is up there with one of best things I have ever done, the atmosphere and buzz over those 3 days was just electric and I felt so lucky to be a part of it all. All in all, we served around 4000 dishes over the 3 days, the most popular being the Mackerel Taco which sold out on each session, I couldn’t have asked for a better crowd though as they were all willing to try the other dishes we had to offer. One of my favourite moments had to be that I got to celebrate my birthday which was on the Sunday In such an incredible way, meeting a huge amount of kind and wonderful people as well as watching The Milk who are one of my favourite bands.
Last year’s Pub in the Park festivals were so much fun, I can’t wait to bring excellence in food, world class chefs, ace music and an awesome vibe to eight locations across the UK this year.