Few, if any, British female artists stand for as much as Gabrielle. In musical terms, she’s an award winning female singer-songwriter whose maiden single debuted at number one: a talent who finds it easy to marry the musical styles that have influenced her into a separate, distinctly accessible hybrid. And she’s a Black British artist who has been accepted by the mainstream without losing the fans who made her first release an underground anthem.
Gabrielle’s return with the appropriately titled ‘Rise’ follows a difficult time for her personally and creatively. The widely publicised reports concerning her ex-partner’s criminal conviction threatened to overshadow her musical accomplishments [which on the basis of just two albums gave her two Brits, a MOBO and an American Music Award] not to mention her creative potential. But as her music attests – full as it is of optimism, romanticism, devotion and a keen survival instinct – you can’t keep a good woman down.
‘Rise’ has re-established Gabrielle as one of the UK’s most successful singer / songwriters. Both the single and the album have topped the UK charts with the latter now selling in excess of 600,000 copies in the space of three months. Gabrielle’s success has led to Billboard calling her “the UK’s hottest female artist”.
“This album is a natural progression for me. I’m a person who will never allow myself to be put down by any circumstance or person,” she says. Gabrielle hopes however, that listeners don’t view the new album as a musical therapy session. Although the material possess an autobiographical element, it’s not a diary of the last three years.
“Doing autobiographical music allows people to nosey into what I’m about, but that’s how I’ve always written; a lot of my songs have been autobiographical, even in a round about way. I’ve always been able to write like that. It’s not deliberate and it’s not disloyal – it just happens. It’s a case of “I’m feeling like this, so I’m gonna write about it.”
You’ll be more than happy with ‘Rise’. It’s packed with melody, sing-a-long vocals and sheer warmth. Collaborations with producers Johnny Dollar (Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry), Richard Stannard (The Spice Girls), Richie Fermie and newcomer Jonathon Shorten deliver a range of styles and moods with chart-topping potential.
“When I first heard the music for the album, it spoke to me. It was like the melodies were telling me the story and all I had to do was translate it into words.”
The lead single ‘Sunshine’ is a spirited thank you to those friends you always have on hand to boost your confidence when you’re low. It debuted in the top ten when it was released in October last year. The title track – which samples Bob Dylan’s classic ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ (and comes with his rare seal of approval) – is broad in its structure but precise in its effect. Other standouts include the two-step soul of ‘5 O’Clock’ that’s as sexy as it is funky.
Then there’s the beautiful late-nite jam ‘If You Love Me’, the sly but beseeching ‘Tell Me What You Dream’ and the inevitable smash hits ‘When A Woman’ (a real Thelma & Louise joint!), and ‘Falling’ which takes Gabrielle’s Motown-meets-90s-pop manifesto and literally runs away with it.
Hackney-born Gabrielle, 30, began her career singing for free in West End clubs whilst temping in offices during the day. The big break came when she recorded a demo called ‘Dreams’ based around Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car which subsequently fell into the hands of an A&R man at Go! Beat. The track was re-recorded without the sample and ended up in the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles as the highest chart entry for a debut female act, topping the charts for three weeks. As well as having a number one record, Gabrielle’s head-turning style complete with sequined eye patch and Josephine Baker kiss curls was the talk of the nation.
In three short years, nine singles [five of which were top ten] and two albums were released establishing Gabrielle as the UK’s premiere soul vocalist. Her debut CD ‘Find Your Way’ contained the brawny ‘Going Nowhere’ and Top 20 hits ‘I Wish’ and ‘Because Of You’. But it was the release of the Bacarach & David sounding ‘Give Me A Little More Time’ from 1997’s self titled sophomore album, that confirmed what ‘Dreams’ hinted at. A sound which was to become Gabrielle. One which showed her off as a timeless artist full of classic soul connotations but also influenced by early 80s British pop. Whose distinct, evocative, vocals married the two and took us down the aisle with her. Even the Top Three collaboration with boy band East 17 (‘If You Ever’) had a mature feel to it. It was little wonder that Gabrielle would go on to cover Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’. In retrospect the song was perfect for her.
“My niche,” she admits, “is pop music with a bit of classical soul in there. I’ve got a soulful element, even if it’s not always evident, but whether it’s pop, soul or rock, it’s accessible to me . Growing up, I was a pop kid: Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’, Wham!, Adam & The Ants, Diana Ross, Soul II Soul, Lisa Stansfield, Mantronix, Chaka Khan and then I’d go into my mum’s record collection – Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Bobby Womack, Dennis Brown… so wherever you want to place me, you can place me there because my influences are so diverse. What I like, I write and sing about and if someone likes it, them I’m happy.”
By and large optimism is the watchword of ‘Rise’. Although Gabrielle confronts self-doubt, self-pity and feelings of emotional redundancy, she keeps the balance right – melodrama has no place here. ‘Rise’ is confessional without being voyeuristic; self-explanatory without being self-absorbed. It’s full of soul because Gabrielle’s aware that music is the form of escapism we all need – whether we make it, listen to it or both. As a result ‘Rise’ is, quite simply, Gabrielle’s strongest and most complete work to date.