Beauty in Imperfection: An Interview with Gabriella Cilmi

Gabriella Cilmi © Jess Brohier
Gabriella Cilmi © Jess Brohier
The singer-songwriter phenomenon, Gabriella Cilmi, takes it back to basics as she discusses the inspirations and creative processes that led to the making of her latest EP, The Water.

After recording and writing the EP, I learned to see some of the beauty in imperfection and vulnerability.

Gabriella Cilmi is no stranger to the music industry. After reaching a phenomenal amount of success at such a young age as her breakout single “Sweet About Me” went global just after its release in 2007, the Australian singer-songwriter quickly became an international success, winning six ARIA Music Awards, including Best Female Artist in 2008 – but that was only the beginning. Cilmi’s young age didn’t stop her from proving that her songs, her lyrics, and her distinct soulful voice showcased an artistic and creative talent that was well beyond her years – an inventiveness that was fresh, young, but just as full of heart and truth as any of her fellow singer-songwriter counterparts out there. With her years of experience now behind her, Cilmi is back telling new versions of her story on her fervent and inspiring new EP, The Water.

The Water EP – Gabriella Cilmi

Growing up, Cilmi fell in love with music from genres that landed all over the spectrum: Nina Simone, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Suzi Quatro, and Cat Stevens – all artists who have influenced her music to this day. In going back and listening to her favorite tracks and allowing herself to be inspired by the music she loved and fusing that together with her life story from the past few years, Cilmi’s The Water creates a new soundtrack to finding inspiration, resilience, and beauty in what might feel like darkness.

For this EP, I really wanted to take things back to basics.

With a folk-fueled sound intertwined with a soulful rock essence, The Water highlights both Cilmi’s talent for songwriting and her distinctly beautiful voice. The EP conveys the effortless and beautiful deliverance of Cilmi’s songs, as her ability to bounce between genres from folk to country to pop to rock breathes meaning and emotion into the new record. Now inspired by the likes of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, dive into the stories Cilmi shared with Atwood Magazine about how the creation of this EP came to life!

Gabriella Cilmi © Jess Brohier
Gabriella Cilmi © Jess Brohier


Atwood Magazine: Congratulations on the release of your new EP! You kind of took a break from releasing music for a while. How does it feel to be releasing new music again? Is there anything you learned in that time off?

Gabriella Cilmi: Thank you! It feels really good to be releasing new music again. The writing and recording period is really exciting but also quite confronting and intense, so it’s a lovely feeling to be able to share new music and get stuck into rehearsing for the live shows.

This EP, for me, was all about learning to capture a moment without over-thinking the outcome. I had to exercise a LOT of self control, so no re-doing vocal takes a thousand times, no getting hung up on lyrics and trying to change things… I took a lot of inspiration from live shows because they are so raw and unfiltered and that’s rare in a time when almost everything is filtered.

The songs on the EP are full of so much soul and heartfelt truth. Was there any part of the making of this EP that proved difficult for you in terms of being truthful in your songwriting?

Gabriella Cilmi: Things tend to come up unconsciously when I’m writing and sometimes I don’t realise until after the song is written what it’s really about. I get really nervous playing songs to friends and loved ones because sometimes the songs may be about elements of our relationship or I may have taken inspiration from something that’s happened to them without realising it! I think there’s always an element of vulnerably that comes with making music and I do find it easier to write when I’m feeling a bit emotional about something. Plus I have Italian blood, so melodrama runs through my veins! I can’t for the life of me write anything decent when the sun is shining!

Can you talk about some of the inspirations behind the sound on this EP? Are there certain bands or artists that influenced you while writing and recording?

Gabriella Cilmi: ‘The Last Waltz’ live recording and film from ‘The Band’ was a massive inspiration! I love the blend of blues, country and soul they created and the arrangements they put together for other artists songs like “Caravan” by Van Morrison and “I Shall Be Released” by Bob Dylan. My all time favourite song is the Janis Joplin version of “Me and Bobby McGee” written by Kris Kristofferson. Kris Kristofferson is a bloody amazing songwriter. I listened to his record Jesus Was A Capricorn whilst recording the EP. That’s what really inspired the sound of [it], the idea of trying to capture the spontaneity of live performances in our recordings.

“Keep on Keeping (live)” – Gabriella Cilmi

“Keep on Keeping” is a beautiful and powerful song. Could you talk a little bit about the story behind it?

Gabriella Cilmi: “Keep On Keeping” began as a really simple melody/chant written over handclaps. I took the idea to my brother Joseph (my brother/ main songwriting partner) and we carved out a structure and turned to traditional blues for inspo. Lyrically, I had this image in my head of a woman clawing herself out of a dirt grave to take care of unfinished business. To be honest I was living a little like a zombie at the time and letting my thoughts get the better of me… I think this song may have been my subconscious attempting to wake me up a bit.

What’s your favorite thing about performing live?

Gabriella Cilmi: It’s a pretty special feeling when you see people singing along and connecting to your songs. I remember the first festival I played in the Uk ,T-in the Park in Scotland, I couldn’t believe people had come into the tent to see me play . I think it shocks me till this day that people show up to my shows. I also love the camaraderie of playing with a band. I’ve learned so much from all the different musicians I’ve played with over the years, they’ve become great friends too.

You’ve come such a long way since your first album, Lessons to be Learned. In the time since, you’ve become an inspiration to many young female artists and songwriters. Is there any advice you’d like to share with them?

Gabriella Cilmi: I think it’s important to nurture yourself as an artist, to learn what your values are and where your boundaries lie. The most important thing is that you’re making music you love and you’re having a good time making it. There have been times in my career where I’ve taken a path that didn’t feel authentic because I didn’t want to let people down or I felt like I simply wasn’t good enough and didn’t know enough to do what I really wanted. I would love young artists to be aware that it’s okay to say ‘no’ to something that doesn’t sit right with them and to follow their intuition, as I’ve always found it to be my greatest ally!

After years in the industry, has the songwriting process changed for you? Is there anything you’ve done on this EP that you haven’t before?

Gabriella Cilmi: For this EP, I really wanted to take things back to basics. When I went back and listened to my favourite records I realised there’s no fancy production and the songs weren’t written sitting in front of a computer playing a loop back and forward… These were songs that were written prior to being recorded in the studio. So for the most part Joseph and I would just sit down with some acoustics in my living-room/kitchen/studio and write in a really relaxed environment. We recorded the songs onto my mobile phone into a folder called “Skeletons” until it was time to go into the studio.

Watch: “Ruins” – Gabriella Cilmi

You say that you can’t see the light
and I pray that you make up your mind
Won’t you stop what you’re doing
and build me a shrine
Or will you leave me in ruins
like you did last time?

“Ruins” is my favorite song off the EP. In the lyrics, you mention the building of a shrine, which juxtaposes the line “leave me in ruins”. It’s a brilliant line. Could you expand on what you meant by that in the song?

Cilmi: Thank you, I’m glad you like it!!! I think in all our relationships, depending on our actions we can build each other up or we can tear each other down. I was reading “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz and he said something along the lines of ‘our words and actions are like magic spells’, and we can either cast a good spell on somebody or a bad spell. I think it’s our responsibility to do our best to cast good spells in our relationships and build something sacred instead of casting bad spells and going in with invisible sledge hammers.

What’s one thing you hope your fans might take away from listening to The Water?

Cilmi: After recording and writing the EP, I learned to see some of the beauty in imperfection and vulnerability.  I hope it might help them to do the same on some level.

Different from anything Cilmi has ever done in the past, The Water is a new musical take at her new raw and unfiltered perspective on life. From a powerful team of three – Cilmi’s brother Joseph who helped her pen the EP’s tracks and producer Eliot James – comes a new way of storytelling. Using her voice and her vision, the EP is one that’s natural and truthful, inspired by live shows and life itself.

It is the truth, sincerity, and vulnerability that lies in Gabriella Cilmi’s music that prove how sometimes all it takes is a second to acknowledge imperfection and a few words of strength and support to get you through.

The EP has forged a creative path for Cilmi that she intends to follow and see where it takes her next. If you’re ever looking for a push forward, for someone to root for you, for some way to know that you aren’t alone in your resilience, The Water is the only evidence you’ll need.

Gabriella Cilmi has recently announced a headline show at Oslo (Hackney) in London on May 27th, 2020. You can find tickets to her show here.

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? © Jess Brohier

The Water

an EP by Gabriella Cilmi

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