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Nine Songs

From a teenage crush on Wham! to the inspirational power of female artists, the legendary singer talks Helena Wadia through the songs that defined her.

21 August 2020, 08:00 | Words by Helena Wadia

Talking to Gabrielle about the songs that mean something to her is like listening both to a child describing the first time they tasted ice cream and a bride delivering emotional wedding vows. It’s sweet and excitable, but also deep and passionate.

A pure love for pop music, strong women and oddballs comes tumbling out of Gabrielle’s mouth. She’s so excited about her favourite songs, she initially asked to include eleven of them, and talked at length about each one. Shalamar’s “A Night To Remember” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” didn’t make the cut, but deserve honorary mentions, because cutting them felt like I was cutting out a piece of Gabrielle’s soul.

Most of the songs Gabrielle’mentions are part of her adolescence as an ‘80s pop child. She tells me she's loved many genres - soul, reggae, rock - but ultimately for her music was all about having fun - and fun meant pop. “Everyone wanted to be ultra-cool and pretend they didn’t like pop, but there’s nothing more fun than a classic pop song. When I’d listen to a serious song, I’d think, ‘That’s nice, but what’s that really about?!’”

Gabrielle’s Nine Songs are intrinsically tied to memories, emotions and nostalgia. “It takes me back to being young and having a sudden appreciation of the magnitude of the music that was out there, from here to the States to the world”. From hanging out in Peckham with her cousins listening to Chaka Khan, to swooning over George Michael, Gabrielle paints a picture of a vibrant and excitable childhood in East London.

She also gushes about the strong women that she looks up to - Caron Wheeler, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson - and talks about them as if they are worlds apart from her; not realising that young women look up to her in the same way now as she looked up to them then. “It was only years later, as I got older, that I realised how much these women had impacted me and given me someone to identify with. I look back at them and think, ‘These women are strong to the core.’”

These are also women who, like Gabrielle, don’t stop producing incredible music or giving back to their fans. Gabrielle released her debut single “Dreams” in 1993, which topped the UK Singles Chart the same year. From then on she was frequently and consistently in the charts. By 2001, she already had a huge greatest hits collection. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of her number one album Rise, have been moved to next year. "We announced the shows early in the year and people were already tweeting about how much they’re looking forward to hearing the songs again. It feels wonderful. I can’t believe the album is 20 years old. I constantly get messages about what the songs mean to people, and I can’t wait to go back in time with them for this nostalgia trip”.

Here, Gabrielle goes on her own nostalgia trip, self-deprecatingly joking about how old she is with tongue-in-cheek humour, but describing the artists she loves so much like a teenager fan-girling them backstage at a show. “It was all so innocent and fun back then”, she laughs, “I just didn’t have time for seriousness. Actually, I still don’t now.”

“Back To Life” by Soul II Soul

“Out of all the songs I’ve chosen, I feel like I can never hear this song enough. It takes me back to that whole era, especially when I hear Caron Wheeler on vocals. Soul II Soul have featured so many amazing vocalists, but she was my favourite.

“This song felt like a movement; everyone was feeling it. It was different, it was a vision, it was funky. They were doing something different to everyone else, and visually it was eye-opening. Everyone else had slick kind of look, but they had imagination and a vibrant naturalness.

“I was young, and I didn’t know who I was or what singer I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to be like Caron Wheeler. Everything associated with her was so cool, she had these amazing dreads, and I remember she had a sports car that opened up at the sides. And essentially - I wanted to be in Soul II Soul, I wanted to be Caron Wheeler.

“When I hear “Back To Life” I turn back into a kid. My son says to me that I’m a big baby, because I never really grew up, so that’s what I love about the song, it transports me back to that feeling.”

“Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” by Culture Club

“When Boy George first appeared, nobody knew if he was male or female. In fact, the assumption was that he was female. He was very intriguing, and very ambiguous, and I was fascinated. And the fact that it wasn’t about sex or sexuality made it more intriguing - I remember when he said; ‘I prefer a cup of tea to sex’.

“For me, the ‘80s were very much a visual time. You had Culture Club, you had Marilyn, you had Duran Duran, and they were all competing in a way, especially for who was the best dressed. But most of all, I was just mesmerised by Boy George, but I was also mesmerised by his voice. He was this white guy singing with a kind of reggae vibe, always keeping the intrigue, always being phenomenal.

“The way Culture Club sing “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” is so emotional. Me and my friends would sing it at the top of our voices, thinking we sounded exactly like the record - we obviously didn’t. It also felt like a bit of a fight song - kids in the playground used to use it as a dissing. They’d look you up and down as if to say ‘do you really want to hurt me?’ So it always reminds me of my school in Peckham.

“I got to meet Boy George properly for the first time last year in Switzerland. Our managers are friends, and my manager got him to come and watch the show we were doing, because he knew what it would mean to me. Thankfully, he didn’t tell me before the show, because I would have been too nervous, and almost a bit scared.

“So I’m singing away, I look to my left and there he is, just standing there. I was so excited and he was cool. He’s like a God to me. They say ‘Don’t meet your heroes’ but he didn’t let me down.”

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!

“What young people don’t realise is that these guys were hot! They were beautiful. We all had pictures of Wham! on our walls. The tan, the beautiful short hair, the white T-shirts, the leather jackets. In our deluded heads we all thought we could be their girlfriends. It was fun and I enjoyed every minute of it.

“This song was so refreshing, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” takes me back to being in the classroom and being young. We would make up different dances to this song at sleepovers. It was all so innocent.

“Maybe its my age talking, but we didn’t have a lot of swearing in music like we do now - it was light-hearted and fun, and this is just a great pop song - and that’s what it’s all about. When I see those same school friends now, this song plays in my head.”

“Waiting for a Star to Fall” by Boy Meets Girl

“I’d be in the kitchen, the Top 40 would be on a Sunday, and I’d sing this at the top of my lungs. It’s more than a beautiful love song, it’s magical. It can take you away. Whenever I hear it, it brings a smile to my face.

“Some songs in life are throwaway, but this is the opposite. My best friend at the time, Carlos, questioned my taste in music when I’d listen to this, but I’d throw it off because I loved it. We had a compromise, if he had to listen to Boy Meets Girl, I had to listen to Bobby Brown, who he loved. And I ended up loving Bobby Brown too, but I’ve always been a pop kid.

“People used to label my work as soul music, and I used to resent that. Because “Dreams” isn’t soulful! “Sunshine” isn’t soulful, and nor is “Out of Reach”! Stop pigeonholing me!

"I think when people see these songs they’ll be surprised about how much of an '80s pop kid I was. I loved Bros - they were Peckham boys and I used to go to school in Peckham. I love that pop music encompasses so many different things and it’s unpretentious.”

“What's Love Got To Do With It” by Tina Turner

“I always mention Tina Turner. My favourite era of hers is around the Private Dancer album, and I bought that album for my Mum. I later had to re-buy the album for her, because I played it to death. I was enamoured by her - her hair, her legs, her figure. She was a woman.

“She wasn’t really a writer, but the way she would deliver those songs was phenomenal. I never got to see her in concert in real life, but I’d tune in to the TV and watch her shimmy shimmy shimmy around the stage, and you’d know - this is someone to be in awe of.

“Later on, I watched the movie which showed she’d given birth and less than 24 hours later she’d come onstage and performed, and I realised how critical we all are. You never really know someone’s life until you’ve walked in their shoes. It’s about the individual and their ability to endure a heavy burden.

"Tina was called from bed after giving birth to do a show, Tina’s husband beat her, and she’s still here, thriving. I learnt from her what it is to be a woman. She survived all those things and we learnt from her how to stand up for ourselves. We, as women, we are strong. And she taught me that.

“What’s Love Got To Do With It” was one of the biggest songs, and I’d play it everywhere - at school, at home. But years later when I’d go through things, I’d realise - that’s my song.”

“Teardrops” by Womack and Womack

“I cover this song when I do shows, because of the energy in the song, the way it breaks down, and the stunning vocals. Covering the song so much made me appreciate the musicality of it, and the way it all fits together.

“Linda Womack’s voice wasn’t high-pitched or aggressive, it was alluring and simple, and the delivery of the song is beautiful. When we perform it onstage now, the audience response to it is amazing, it’s so high energy.

“It’s interesting, because “Teardrops” is so high energy and it’s a party song, but it’s still a beautiful song about broken hearts and infidelity. The reason it’s been covered so many times is because it’s got that duality, it’s heartbreaking but beautiful.”

“Holiday” by Madonna

“Every time they’d play the song or the video to “Holiday”, I’d be in my room trying to do the dance and trying to emulate Madonna. It was just the fact that she was fun, but you couldn’t mess with her. The boys were scared of her, the girls were looking up to her.

“And the music. The music was so good. “Holiday” was my first introduction to her, and to this day it always evokes the idea of summer and everyone being Madonna-mad. Whatever you were doing, if she came on TV or if her song came on, you’d have to stop and watch or listen - and often dance. I’ve never been a dancer, but when her songs came on, honey, I was a dancer!

“I went to watch Madonna a long time ago, when she played the Brixton Academy, and I thought she was as incredible then as she is now. She’s stronger at 60 than most people are at 30, and I think she’s still cutting edge and unpredictable. She’s always been bold and taken control.

“Societally, we have such a negative view of ageing women. You still hear people trying to put Madonna down, but no-one puts men of that age down. I mean, Mick Jagger and that lot, they’re incredible - but they look like the living dead! And no-one, rightly, cares.

"When Jagger gets onstage and struts his stuff like a young man, no one says anything - and he’s 15 years older than Madonna! No one worries when the Stones are onstage doing what they do, but everyone mentions Madonna. The sexism in ageism is something I hope I’ll see slowly erode in my lifetime.”

“Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson

“For Janet to emerge as a solo artist alongside her incredibly famous brothers in the Jackson 5 was so impressive. She was the youngest, and a woman, and she managed to come out of that dynasty and not be in the background. She held her own.

“People like Chaka Khan were freestylers, but Janet was so precise. She had the whole military vibe and she was on always on point. The bottom line is that when Janet came on, she brought it, and there was nothing she could do wrong. The “Rhythm Nation” video is just so spectacular. It was like she had an army. Her face is so serious when she dances, and she’s tight.

“I would watch her in interviews and in Fame, and I’d remember she had a whispery sort of voice, it was never loud, but when she got onstage it was huge, like a monster was unleashed. Onstage, she’s like the epitome of ‘talk to the hand’ - you have no business talking to Janet Jackson because she’s too fly. If anyone else said ‘talk to the hand’ you’d think ‘That’s rude’, but if Janet did it, you’d shut up and say okay.

“I wanted to be everyone, but if I had to choose one person, I wanted to be Janet Jackson.”

“I Feel For You" by Chaka Khan

“I would have sleepovers at my cousin’s house in East London, at the top of the house in the attic room. She had the Chaka Khan cassette, and we would be up there blasting it, singing “I Feel For You”, over and over again. I can’t explain what it was like being 12 or 13 and listening to that.

“I always remember Chaka Khan’s fishnets, high boots, a jacket that was almost like tails and huge hair. She had the look, she had the songs, she had the dances, she had the energy. Her free-styling dances were so impressive, it was an escapism to me.

“I think the way that she and powerful artists like her present themselves is so opposite to who I am. I think I’m very boring in the way I visually present myself as an artist. Some people might say that I was edgy because I came out with an eyepatch - but I had to cover up a lazy eyelid that I wasn’t ready to show the world. I didn’t want people looking at me.

“Maybe that’s the self-deprecating part of myself talking, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself ever, and I think it’s why I look back so fondly on so many great visual artists like Chaka Khan, because they remind me of being young and getting lost in the music. I could just be taken away”.

Gabrielle's Rise Again tour is due to start November 2021 and her Kew The Music show has been rescheduled for 10 July 2021
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