There are good voices, and there are great voices. And then there’s Gabrielle’s voice: a heart-warming, soul-stirring, life-lifting wonder.
It was a sensation when it introduced the 23-year-old Londoner in 1993, with her record-breaking, chart-topping, era-defining yet time-defying debut single Dreams. It was still a rare thing of beauty in the years in between, when the former club singer was continuing to write, record, top the charts, win multiple awards (BRITs, MOBOs, an Ivor Novello for Outstanding Song Collection), sample a legend (Bob Dylan, on Number One single Rise) and make the soundtrack of Bridget Jones’ Diary (with her composition Out Of Reach) as memorable as the film itself.
The combined results: over five million records sold in the UK alone. Two UK Number One singles and 10 UK Top 10 singles. A UK Number One album, four UK Top 10 albums.
And that voice remained an outlier in British music even in the long years when the singer was off the scene, in the decade-plus since she last released a studio album, while she was enjoying a private home life with her family… while occasionally popping up to meet a Pope, duet with a Modfather (Paul Weller), be coolly remixed (by Daft Punk and Talvin Singh), inspire a future world-beater (an adoring young Adele had her own eyepatch) or meet a global icon or two (Nelson Mandela, Prince).
In music, too, there are interesting characters, and there are out-and-out characters. And then there’s a character like “Gabs”. You might say it’s an appropriate nickname for a woman who is defiantly, entertainingly, energetically, honestly engaged and chattily outspoken. A woman who tells it like it is and dismisses it if it wasn’t.
The year 2013 also saw the release of a greatest hits, Now and Always, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her debut smash. Seven new songs were added to the mix, as was a Naughty Boy reworking of Dreams and a UK tour. And then, finally, step forward Michael Bolton. In 2016 the legendary crooner-slash-belter-slash-rocker invited Gabrielle to join him on the road. Back in the Nineties, Gabrielle had never been a huge fan of touring. Her kids were too small, she enjoyed the school run more than a theatre or arena run, “and I just preferred waking up in my own bed,” she smiles. “So we got this request from Michael and I was reluctant. But I thought: it’s a good way to get out there and rehearse with my band. And it ended up that that support slot was 45 minutes, a bit longer than normal – and his audience were phenomenal! And I’d grown up with him because my mum was a big fan. I just thought he was a monster singer. So to hear him live, it reignited my passion for going on the road and singing. I hadn’t lost it but, well, I’m a bit lazy…” she hoots again.
“But going out with a stripped down version of my amazing band, playing these songs I’d written that were so well received… I thought: it would be great to have a whole brand new album.
“And I have to be honest,” she adds (needlessly – she’s never not honest). “At the end of that tour, I actually got depressed that it was over. And if somebody had said that to me before then I’d have laughed in their face.” After a final rebooting of her connection with her fans during a run of headline shows styled as an acoustic Evening With Gabrielle, the lady was ready.
The time, at last, was right for the latest chapter in an extraordinary career. Last year, Gabrielle connected with a new writer/producer. Steve Chrisanthou. Based in the creative enclave that is Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, he had great success with Corinne Bailey Rae. The Grammy-nominated producer and Brits, MOBO and Ivor Novello-winning singer-songwriter clicked instantly.
“Steve played me lots of different tracks, one of them being a song called Show Me. The original version reminded me of Womack & Womack, who I love. So the music came on and I just had this little vibe. My voice wasn’t even fully there, but the music spoke to me. So I asked him to let me do a little freestyle vibe, and Show Me was born.”
The song caught the ear of BMG A&R executive Jamie Nelson. He was smitten, signing Gabrielle on the spot to make her long-awaited eighth album.
This is Gabrielle’s first album in 11 years: Under My Skin. Explaining the title, the lady says: “I don’t want to sound like I’m up my own backside, but as an artist I’m not just one genre. I can give it some pop, some soul, a little bit country. I want people to hear everything I’m doing now, and hear this album as a musical journey for people to get under my skin.” Fittingly, too, Under My Skin is being released 25 years since that first hit.
Gabrielle said “coming back is fun. It’s a new challenge, I’m proud of the work I’ve done, I’m proud of this new album, and I can’t wait to get out on the road with my fantastic band and showcase these new songs.” So the previously tour-shy artist will be touring?
“Hell yes! I played at G.A.Y. in early spring. Went on at 1.30 in the morning, sang one of the new songs – and it was deafening! Everyone was singing back to me! I was like: ‘My God! They love the new song as much as they loved the old bangers.’ So I couldn’t be more excited.
“You know, I’d almost forgotten that love from the fans,” she admits. “They tell me how my older songs were the soundtrack to their lives, got them through a break-up or a bereavement. People had real proper stories, real proper things to be worried about. That gave me some perspective, some focus. Life is not that bad, and there’s always someone who’s got it worse than you. So you appreciate your moment.
“How many people get to live their dream? As my son says: ‘Mum you only work three months a year, I’d like a job like that!’ So, yes,” she concludes with another mile-wide smile, “I can’t wait.”