Gabriella Cilmi has undergone a world of change. The Australian singer still has that earthy, deceptively powerful voice. But much else in her life has been tweaked or shunted. After two albums recorded for one of the world’s most powerful music companies, Cilmi has independently released her third set, “The Sting,” through her own label Sweetness Tunes. She’s changed management. She’s even cut her locks.
With all the change, Cilmi (pronounced “chill-me”) has placed herself in charge of her destiny. Produced by Eliot James (Futureheads, Noah and the Whale), the album was released in November through Absolute in the U.K., and licensing to various territories in Europe. “The whole idea of ‘The Sting’ came as an aftermath to breaking-up with my label, and management and boyfriend at the time," she tells Billboard.com. "The lyrics side of things were influenced by what I was going through. It was all a bit of sting. But nothing killed me.”
The process of recording the album was refreshing, healing even. “I had no A&R guy, no-one telling me what to do. It was just me in the studio with people I actually wanted to work with,” she explains.
Cilmi’s just 22, but she has the maturity that comes with having experience riding the music industry’s biggest rollercoaster. It’s been some ride.
At just 16 years of age and signed to Island Records, Cilmi had a genuine international smash with her sassy, infectious debut single “Sweet About Me,” which sold more than two million copies and has had upwards of 23 million hits on YouTube. The following year, Cilmi cleaned up at Australia’s ARIA Awards, winning all six categories for which she was nominated. Master songwriter Robert Forster, one half of Australian indie greats the Go-Betweens, was moved to describe “Sweet About Me” as his favorite Australian song of the past 20 years.
At such a tender age, Cilmi had already endured both sides of the fame-game. In the days after her big ARIA night, sections of the Australian print media attacked the singer for her unprepared speeches, and some claiming incorrectly that she had been drunk. “When you are in the spotlight for a minute or two, there’s always going to be some bad press. That’s ok. I can deal with that now,” she remarks.
Cilmi’s “discovery” is the stuff of legend. She was spotted as a 12-year-old, delivering the goods to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” at an Italian community festival in Melbourne. As luck would have it, A&R executive Michael Parisi was in the audience, and the journey began.
Cilmi has good memories of 2008’s “Lessons to be Learned,” the debut which introduced her to the music world. But her reflections on her 2010 sophomore album “Ten” are brutal. The set produced the club-vibed song “On A Mission,” which peaked at No. 9 in the U.K. Though it’s not always about the numbers.
“On my second album, I felt musically I’d really lost myself. And it had become a lot about the imagery rather than the quality of the music,” Cilmi recalls. “I didn’t even go on tour with that album. There was a cover with FHM. I never wanted to blame anyone; I still made these decisions. I just found it really hard to speak up and say 'no.' The whole time I was feeling uncomfortable. I’d come from jamming with my mates in the garage to doing Led Zeppelin covers."
The music she was making "wasn’t natural to me," she explains, and "I was encouraged by people around me to dress a certain way. It’s sad that people think that you have to over-sexualise musicians to sell records. I don’t have anything wrong with sensuality or a woman showing off her curves. But there’s a tendency to objectify women in the music industry. Madonna has done it all before. It’s been done a thousand times. People need to find new ways to shock. In our lives, who knows what’s going to be on our screen.”
The notoriously difficult second album “was like a cyclone that carried me away. But, I wouldn’t be where I am now having the freedom that I have, and the knowledge that I have now if I didn’t go through that. As cliché as it sounds, it’s true. I wouldn’t really change it.”
Cilmi got out of the funk of her second-album blues by making music and meeting new like-minded people. “And I went back and listened to a lot of music that made me fall in love with music to begin with. I’d gone through the stage of being so upset, so kinda depressed with the whole industry, I just wouldn’t listen to music. It was painful to even listen to music that I loved. I’d become quite numb. I gradually started listening to music I really liked, and got me excited about music to begin with. I pulled out my Janis Joplin records, and Otis Reading, Nina Simone, and started listening to the blues that made me fall in love with music.”
A copy of Tricky’s 1995 trip hop masterpiece, “Maxinquaye,” landed in Cilmi’s hands. Those Bristol beats and loops “had a really big influence” on the album. “And there’s some nice string arrangements on the record. That’s my favourite bit of recording it, watching the strings being put down. It was a magical moment. I wasn’t expecting any of that to happen. You just don’t know.” Cilmi’s other favourite moment was working with Tricky on opening track “Highway.”
Billboard.com spoke to Cilmi via phone at her “other” home in London. She’ll spend Christmas in Australia, and she's looking ahead to releasing “The Sting” Down Under in 2014 and supporting it with live dates.
She's published by EMI/Sony ATV, her booking agent is Steve Backman at Primary Talent, and she’s managed by Jeni Raskin at Kin Entertainment. U.K. and European live dates will kick off from March along with a new single and a deluxe edition of the album.
The album is licensed through Ferryhouse Records in Germany/Switzerland/Austria, and further licensing pacts will be announced soon, explains Raskin.
Cilmi will never say never to signing with another major. “I’d never close the doors on anything. But it’s certainly been a good experience building an album yourself.”