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That Gabrielle dismisses her five years out of the limelight with a shrug and a smile won’t surprise her fans. The self-confessed shy singer may have sold more than 10 million records, but she was never one to work to pop’s regular treadmill schedule.
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“I was notorious for taking three years between albums,” laughs Gabrielle. “I love making music, but not 365 days of the year. I’m probably just lazy, but I can’t force myself to write songs. I have to long to be back in the studio and feel good vibes when I’m recording.”
Working at her own pace and refusing to tailor her music to trends has always paid off for the Londoner who topped the charts with her debut single, Dreams, two decades ago, had ten Top 10 hits, won two Brit Awards and began her last sabbatical shortly after being awarded an Ivor Novello for Outstanding Song Collection in 2008.
Her unexpected return on producer Naughty Boy’s star-studded, chart topping album, Hotel Cabana, on the slinky, sepia-tinged song Hollywood, may have been her first release in five years, but she returned to writing and recording, as well playing occasional big gigs abroad a couple of years ago. Before that, however, she considered herself retired.
“I was adamant I would never make music again,” admits Gabrielle. “I’d had enough of being in the public eye. I’m not a celebrity - I always tried to stay under the radar when I wasn’t promoting an album. I had my website shut down and I told people I was retiring.
“Looking back, it was a bit extreme but I decided to just be a mum, which is what I did. I didn’t miss music because making music had stopped being fun for me.”
A couple of years ago Gabrielle rediscovered her passion for music almost by accident. Several producers had been in touch, trying to lure her out of retirement. She kept saying no, but agreed to meet Grammy Award-winning producer Syience (Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Mary J Blige, Ne-Yo) at a studio in London.
“He was doing a session with another singer and I just popped in to say hi,” recalls Gabrielle. “I loved the vibe and the music they were creating. All of a sudden, I wanted the singer in there to be me. Being in that particular environment, on that day, flicked a switch.
“He played me some wicked tracks he had. I was vibing off his tunes while he was recording. There was no alcohol and definitely no drugs, but they had a disco ball spinning and a party going on. Seeing people being so creative, with so much natural energy, reintroduced me to my first love. It was exciting!”
With no label pushing her for material, Gabrielle not only took her time, but experimented with different producers and different styles of music. She wanted to keep her classic soul sound, but make it contemporary. In 2010, she played her first gig for two years, with a brand new band, at a Formula 1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi and adored being back on stage. That evening, she went to an after-race concert at which Prince was playing. When she arrived, Prince requested she join him on stage. Gabrielle got up and danced, but she didn’t sing.
“Honey, I’ll tell you why,” she howls. “Nicole Scherzinger was up there with him, looking all slim and fine. No way was I standing next to her! But I was side of stage for this spectacular show of Prince playing all his hits. Let me tell you, if your interest in music is waning, go see a Prince gig. I was so happy and high I knew I had to get out there again.”
Then, last year, came the call from Naughty Boy, a huge fan, who had tracked Gabrielle down through her publishers to ask her to guest on his album.
“When the call came, I was flattered,” says Gabrielle. “I knew he was hot and happening. I thought this could be exciting. As soon as I met him, it was a no brainer. His concept for Hotel Cabana was so refreshing – all of the artists had to do something different than they’re known for.
“He and Emeli Sandé had already written the song Hollywood. I never normally sing other people’s songs, but Naughty Boy persuaded me. He told me to make it my own. It was an incredible project to be part of and funny for me that the other guests were artists like Tinie Tempah and Ed Sheeran. I’m the veteran, the surprise in there, and I loved that. We may be doing some gigs together in the future, but if not, I’m singing Hollywood at my shows. I recorded it, I’m claimin’ it!”
By early summer this year, Gabrielle had recorded more than enough songs for an album. After a meeting with Island Records president, Darcus Beese she signed a new deal with the label, which will release six of those songs on new album Now & Always – 20 Years Of Dreaming, alongside some of Gabrielle’s best known hits, including 2000 chart-topper Rise and the Top 10 singles Give Me A Little More Time, Out Of Reach and Sunshine.
With the new songs come a new sound – or rather, several new sounds. The DBH-produced It Takes Time is a beautiful, beats-backed, midtempo ode to moving on, full of hidden hooks, which could be about a regular relationship, but may well be about Gabrielle’s recent relationship with music. Knew Me is a ballsy, ‘60s-influenced soul stomper produced by Syience that announces Gabrielle’s return with a triumphant vocal in which you can hear how happy she is to be back. Perhaps the most surprising new track is first single Say Goodbye, a brilliant, broody break-up song with a nagging refrain that takes her distinctive voice in to completely new territory.
“Say Goodbye is probably my favourite of the new songs so far,” says Gabrielle. “The producer, Paddy Byrne, played me an amazing piece of music as a sample and I sang over it. I wasn’t convinced it would work because it sounds so different to what I’ve done in the past. But the vibe on it is amazing – I absolutely love it.”
Also on Now & Always is the funky Holding On For You and the title track, a bittersweet, haunting love song set to strings and piano. Then there’s the made-for-the-dancefloor Show Me What You Got. The seventh new number is a classic, revisited – Naughty Boy’s sumptuous, cinematic reworking of Dreams, recorded from scratch, with new vocals.
“I didn’t think we should mess with Dreams,” admits Gabrielle, “but Naughty Boy did an amazing job. It sounds nothing like the old version. When I heard the rework, I was astonished – it was as if I just realised what a beautiful song Dreams is.”
The rest of the new material Gabrielle has been working on with producers including MNEK, Biff and Bless Beats will be unveiled next year. For the first time in her career, Gabrielle won’t vanish between albums. Or as she puts it – “I’m the new Rihanna!”
In fact, she’s the old Gabrielle, but sonically in the here and now and looking to the future. Or as Naughty Boy puts it – “No one in the world sounds like Gabrielle. She doesn’t have a big voice, but it’s so distinctive. No other singer has ever sounded like her and no one ever will.”