The British soul singer talks to 'The National' about her first album in 11 years, the introspective ‘Under My Skin’
Gabrielle on her new album and rising again
One of the benefits of being an established performer is the choice of juicy gigs.
Gabrielle may not have released an album for more than a decade, but the much-loved British soul stalwart’s career has been steadily cruising on the back of regular solo tours, in addition to key supporting slots.
Her guest appearances included UK shows with soul legend Al Green (who invited her personally), in addition to 90s pop icon Alanis Morissette.
But it was her UK tour two years ago with ballad king Michael Bolton that provided Gabrielle, real name Louise Gabrielle Bobb, with the creative spark to pen new songs.
More than Bolton’s advice to believe and trust in her artistry, Gabrielle recalls it was the fans who demanded she head back to the studio.
“I was supporting other people, but the fans still came out to see me. They were telling me: ‘Oh my God, we love you too and when are you bringing out new material?’” she says.
“The fact that these people are still coming to see me knowing that I haven’t brought out material for so many years meant a lot to me. I thought that it was about time too that I brought out something new.”
Gratitude pervades all the songs in Gabrielle’s latest record – there is even a song called Thank You. Her first album in eleven years, Under My Skin, is a sparkling, effervescent collection of smooth pop and soul that should keep the faithful satisfied.
It also serves as a welcome reappraisal of the 48-year-old’s career. Her success and velvety voice not only helped usher the UK’s previously underground R&B scene in to the mainstream, it also partly establish the retro-pop style that inspired the likes of Amy Winehouse and Duffy.
Her debut single in 1993, the ethereal pop of Dreams, may remain her calling card, but Gabrielle built her following through a string of well-received albums, including her first effort, 1993’s Find Your Way and anthemic 1999 collection Rise. Bob Dylan reportedly admired the latter’s title track, which borrows extensively from his song Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
Despite her 2007 album, the more experimental effort Always, being well-received in the UK, Gabrielle quietly walked away from her career, with the exception of sporadic gigs that included a Dubai show in 2012.
Which begs the question, what has she been doing during the past decade?
“I have just been busy living. Also, I have two children and I have been telling people I have been spending these years doing the school run,” she says, with a laugh.
“You go through your ups and downs, but you have to recognise that when life is good, it’s really good, and when it’s going not so great, it doesn’t mean you give up – it’s about recognising that if you see this journey through, there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she continues.
“You just have to be patient. There’s some people who may never have that patience. And so those of us who do, you can live to tell the tale.”
Indeed, Under My Skin is as personal a record as its title suggest.
However, there are none of the angst and yearning that coloured her early material, particularly in tracks such as the mid-tempo pop of 1993’s Don’t Talk and the folky Over You released three years later.
Where before Gabrielle mostly detailed her pain, these sanguine new songs have her sharing what she learned from those challenges.
“I've definitely come out the other side,” she says.
“I'm much older and wiser now when I was writing this record. It was a case of telling you what I know."
Gabrielle agrees the album is full of “big sister moments”; the kind of songs where she addresses the listener to let go of the past and move forward.
Every Step is the standout in that vein, a song that builds from a soulful piano intro into a large U2 style chorus.
“I wrote this song for a friend of mine who was going through a very trapped relationship. You really can't tell your friends, "oh, leave your partner" because it's not for you to do. However, when somebody's so unhappy and they want to do it, but they're in two minds, that can be difficult,” she says.
“So with this song what I was basically saying is that I can't tell you what to do, but the way to know when it's time to leave is when things start to make sense. And in the case of the song, stars will align and it will feel right. And you won't ever question it.”
In the delightfully vintage Young and Crazy, which is carried by wistful strings and an assertive bass line like those that characterised the Motown era, Gabrielle is addressing herself: “It took a moment, but I figured it out/ Who I am and what my life is about/ I’m sure that others have a different path/ But I got to be me.”
Gabrielle says the track, and much of the album, is partly addressed to her younger self who entered the industry 26 years ago complete with an eye patch because of ptosis, a condition, which causes the upper eyelid to droop.
“I wouldn’t say that I was brash. Obviously, an eye patch required such confidence to wear, but at the same time, I think the Gabrielle of yesteryear was definitely a bit more self-doubting,” she says.
“There were many times where I never felt I had the best voice. And now, I still haven’t got the best voice, but I’m confident with the voice I have because I’m loving that this is me and this is who I am. I’m not trying to emulate anybody else. So the Gabrielle of yesterday, I would say to her: ‘It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. Just believe in yourself a lot more.’”