Should you happen to see Gabriella Cilmi leaping buildings in a single bound, clad in tight blue leggings and sporting a fetching red cape, don’t be alarmed. “This is my superhero record,” the Australian singer-songwriter says of her upcoming album, Ten, with a hint of laughter. “One track is called Invisible Girl and another one’s called Superman, which is quite smooth and sexy… Another track, Defender, is all about going into battle to protect people that you love. I am a bit of a guard dog like that, so if anyone messes with my friends or family then I get a bit mad.” It’s a departure for Cilmi who, following the success of Lessons To Be Learned, could have conveniently been pigeon-holed as yet another white, female Jazz and R’n’B singer. Ten, Cilmi tells us, is “not quite what you’d expect. It’s definitely more electronic than my previous album, which sounded quite retro and fifties.”
The themes of empowerment and musical diversity percolate through the entire album. “I didn’t just want to make Lessons To Be Learned Part 2, that would be a little too easy and probably a bit boring,” reasons Cilmi, who talks with the sort of self-assurance you need when you’ve signed a recording contract aged just 13. Now 18, she’s keen to show that she’s not going to conform to anyone’s expectations but her own. “I had so many different possibilities for this album and have toyed with lots of different ideas. One was to do a New Orleans piano album, but I sat in front of my piano and realised my playing isn’t quite up to the standard of Dr. John or Professor Longhair.” The artists Cilmi references – two of the most celebrated Louisiana Jazz pianists – aren’t part of the average teenager’s CD collection, but they highlight her eclectic tastes and influences. Ultimately it was Donna Summer, the seventies disco diva, who set Cilmi on her way to Ten. “One of my mates gave me I Remember Yesterday and it kind of rocked my world and inspired me, so I started listening to Giorgio Moroder, who did Flashdance and worked with Blondie when they went disco, and other things like Amy Stewart and Gloria Gaynor with I Will Survive. Powerful women on a mission.”
Now Ten is in the bag – it’s released in the UK on 22nd March – has Cilmi settled on this new sound? “Oh no, probably not,” she responds with enthusiasm. “I have a zillion ideas and don’t know which road to go down. I love all different types of music, so I’m always looking at new things to try out. I would like to make a country record one day but don’t tell my label that,” she adds jokingly. The only constant that Cilmi will admit to, is making music that people can relate to. “I remember this video of Cat Stevens playing Father And Son. The video is him sitting in a corridor playing and I remember watching it and thinking that this is why I want to make music, music that people can feel.” Returning to her musical tastes, Cilmi admits to enjoying everything from the Macarena (“because they say ‘Gabriella’ in it”) and Shaggy (at the mention of whom she bursts into song, giving a quick medley of his hits) to Curtis Mayfield and Led Zeppelin. The latter’s House Of The Holy is a particular favourite. “I am a massive Led Zeppelin fan and there’s something for everyone [on that album], with a bit of everything on it, even some Reggae. I love the variety of it.” Asked if she’s heard Them Crooked Vultures (a collaboration between Led Zep’s bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Queens Of The Stone Age Josh Homme), Cilmi says she’s only heard one track. “My brother’s into it, so I will have to go home and listen to it. I did like Robert Plant’s collaboration with Alison Krauss, it sounded really good.” There’s a pause. “I got to meet Robert Plant backstage at the O2 and made the biggest fool out of myself,” Cilmi says, unable to stop herself. “I was in the queue for food and he was in front of me, so I tapped him on the back and the only thing I could think of asking him was, ‘Are you having the pie or the salmon?’, it was the most embarrassing moment of my life.”
It’s refreshing to hear that Cilmi’s managed to keep her feet on the ground, despite the global success she’s enjoyed so early on in her career, and the number of superstar artists she’s come across in her rise to stardom. “I played in front of Ronnie Wood when I played Jools Holland. When I played Sweet About Me he was tapping his foot along with it.” Cilmi gives the impression that she doesn’t take what’s happened for granted and still gets massive enjoyment from the journey she’s found herself on. “I felt super-special playing the main stage of Glastonbury, it was the best thing in the world,” she explains. “When I got up on stage in front of all of those people, it was amazing.” She readily owns up to still getting nerves prior to performing, despite doing live shows for the last five years. “I used to get really nervous and had to do meditation classes to calm myself down, but now I find that the best way to deal with it is to use my nerves as a fuel tank, to just throw myself into it.”
Cilmi is equally open about the fact that she doesn’t know quite where she’ll be, musically, tomorrow, next month or next year. It’s a trait she finds appealing in others, too. “I would love to collaborate with Danger Mouse,” the innovative producer behind The Beatles/Jay-Z mashup, The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley and, most recently, Broken Bells, among others. “He is so versatile from all of the different artists that he has worked with. I would love him to produce one of my albums,” wishes Cilmi. “Also I would love to work with Justin Timberlake. It’s really interesting to see how he has evolved out of NSYNC to what he is doing now. He would be a good guy to take home to meet your mum. But probably not the type of guy I would take home,” she adds slyly. “I love his music. For a pop artist he is just the king, has some great melodies and when he’s on stage you just can’t take your eyes off him. Yeah, I would definitely love to work with him.” It’s this mix of youthful honesty, unadulterated talent and willingness to acknowledge and expand her musical roots that make Cilmi so compelling. So much so, that you can’t help hoping that she gets her wish.