Gabriella Cilmi is a singer/songwriter born in Australia and currently based in the UK.
She was discovered by Michael Parisi (president of A&R for Festival Mushroom Records) when she was 13, while singing the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" for her uncle at an Italian festival. She was then flown overseas to be showcased to a number of international record companies, including Island Records, who ended up signing her.
In 2004 she met Xenomania's Brian Higgins in Los Angeles. Michael Parisi said that Xenomania understood where they were coming from: "We needed to sit with her and watch her develop".1 Higgins thought her voice was "wild and loud, but certainly not trained".2 A year later, when Gabriella was 14, she returned to L.A. and spent three days writing with him and Miranda Cooper. Gabriella has voiced that those first sessions weren�t quite what she was expecting: "It was a really new experience for me. I remember going in and kind of being overwhelmed by it all. It was interesting but it was also bit weird. We actually recorded everything in a house. We were recording in the toilet. That's the room that produced the best sound in the house".3
Nothing from those first sessions made it onto her album, but it was a chance to experiment with different styles and slowly start shaping Gabriella's sound. "They taught me so much because I'd never done this before", she says. "I learnt so many new things".3
The real work for the album would begin about five months later in the Xenomania house in Kent. "The town was full of old blondes, very wealthy people sitting in teahouses having tea and scones. I tried to have a scone, but the teahouse wasn't really me", Gabriella said. "It was an inspiring place to be. There were beautiful gardens and trees and streams. We had two weeks of summer while we were there. It was great to clear the mind and focus"4. "Normal studios have this smell and they make you feel claustrophobic but because this was a homely feel I could relax. Like, there was a couch in the room where I would record so I think I could take it easy"8.
Higgins has said that "with a voice like that, she had to be involved in the creative process because it would be difficult to write something for her". Gabriella recalls him playing her Led Zeppelin's "Rain Song" and saying: "You've got to experiment with different parts of your voice and show your sensitive side".2
Gabriella said that it made her change: "I stopped imitating. That was when I realised I had to find my own voice".4
In the studio they'd listen to old Aretha Franklin records next to the Doors and they discovered that Higgins' and Gabriella's parents shared a common love for 1970s glam rock. Gabriella would play him Jet and Kings of Leon and Higgins would play her the Smiths and David Bowie. "[My] mum used to play David Bowie and T-Rex, but Brian showed it to me in a new light. I've learnt heaps about songwriting", Gabriella revealed. "I can appreciate how much effort goes into stuff like the Sugababes. Now I listen to music in a different way. I've learnt a good song needs to have a hooky melody, but that doesn't mean it has to be cheesy. Pop can be cool". 5
Gabriella's voice and retro sound have often been compared to Amy Winehouse. Alongside with Duffy and Adele, she was dubbed as one of the "new Amys".6 Brian Higgins saw it as unfortunate timing. "Gabby's first version of the album was delivered to me in September 2006, which meant I hadn't even heard [Winehouse's] Rehab".2
Higgins has described Gabriella as a "great singer" with a "serious voice, this lost voice from somewhere in the last 50 years".7 "She's special in the sense that she has a maturity belying her age, but that doesn�t imply dullness. She�s tough. She holds her own and has never lost her composure, even under someone as overbearing as me. When I've said something like 'You're not trying here', she obviously wants to strangle me, but in a really good way. She's able to deal with my intensity and demand for results. That, to me, is the most striking thing about Gabriella".2
She says Higgins was driven. "He is a very determined man. I could see it in his eyes fire. I knew when I was in the studio, I had to deliver. There was no question".4
Working with Gabriella wasn't a common territory for Xenomania, as they usually dealt with strict deadlines. "I was one of the first people they started working with who was different to what they'd normally done", she noted. "They've had so many hits they can try new things".5
Nonetheless, she admits that she "had to make a pop-sounding record to appeal to as many people as possible". And even though Gabriella and Higgins came from different backgrounds, when they worked together "it just gelled": "When it came to our differences I guess we both kind of compromised and came to a decision in the middle".9
Gabriella, Higgins and Miranda spent almost three months writing and recording in Kent. Those sessions were followed by more work together in Australia. Then, in 2007, Gabriella moved to the UK to complete the album and the trio went back to the house in Kent for another month of work.3 They wrote 60 songs in three years. The result was Gabriella's first album Lessons To Be Learned, released in 2008. Miranda Cooper said it was "the happiest album-making experience" she's had. "It was brilliant to do something organic and not be up against a deadline. I thought I'd have to write kid songs, but it wasn't like that at all".2