Gig preview: Gabrielle, York Barbican

Gabrielle

Gabrielle

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Five years ago Gabrielle believed she was through with the music business.

After a singing career spanning a decade and a half, in which she’d scored two Number One singles, a pair of Number One albums, Brit Awards, Mobos and and an Ivor Novello for Outstanding Song Collection, the then 38-year-old from the London borough of Hackney was preparing to hang up her microphone to become a full-time mother.

“That’s what I thought anyway,” she says cheerfully today. “I was sticking to it at the time.”

Her record label, she explains, was going through “a lot of changes”. “The person who signed me left to run another label. I’d been on this journey with a lot of familiar faces around me; [suddenly] I did not recognise anyone. I thought, ‘My God, maybe I’m not supposed to be making music any more.”

The final straw came when a record company executive dismissed her 2007 album, Always, as “a bit retro” – at the very point when Amy Winehouse was selling millions with the faux Motown and Stax sound of Back To Black.

“I thought I did not have the right people around me at the time,” Gabrielle says. “It was far easier to make that decision [to retire] because I was not happy.”

It was a “chance meeting” with the American record producer Reggie ‘Syience’ Perry – who’d worked with the likes of Beyonce, Jay-Z and John Legend – that changed Gabrielle Bobb’s mind. At the time she was visiting a friend in the studio. “Hearing music that was fresh and funky and seeing another artist in the vocal booth that was not me – I wanted to be part of that. I blame him,” she laughs.

Then she was approached by the young British hip-hop producer Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan. “He’s young a very fly,” says Gabrielle. “He came looking for me – we’re signed to the same publishers.”

Khan wanted her to sing the song Hollywood, which Emeli Sande had written for his album Hotel Cabana. Gabrielle was initially unsure. “I can’t sing like Emeli,” she told him. “She’s got a fabulous voice. When I heard it it sounded so great I wished I could have written it.

“Naughty Boy said, ‘Be yourself, do what you would do’. That was the green light. He’s so huge; it was humbling and amazing.”

Gabrielle’s new album, Now and Always, includes a radical, trip-hop style reworking of her signature tune Dreams, which went to Number One in 1993. She admits she was wary of tampering with the track. “I did not want to do it,” she admits. “[I said] ‘What do you mean, do Dreams? How can you touch something that’s still getting played?’ I thought [Naughty Boy] would re-do the music, I didn’t realise it would require me to do another vocal.”

Though she admits she did the new recording “kicking and screaming”, she says: “In the end I was proved wrong. I fell in love with it, I’m really proud of it. I wish I could take responsibility to say it was my idea, but it so was not.”

In past interviews Gabrielle has admitted she had a difficult childhood because of ptosis – so-called ‘lazy eyelid’ – which led to playground taunts.

Today, she reflects: “It’s funny, I never saw myself as being bullied. I became a hard person. Some kids are so badly bullied they end their lives – the extent is so severe. I was not a wallflower. I was gobby Gabby.” Rather than shrink away from unkind comments, she would use the “shock factor” with bullies, describing her eye operations in detail. “I think I was a bit of a tough old bird from an early age,” she admits. “Self-deprecating.”

Yet in her songs themselves over the last 20 years, Gabrielle has often shown her vulnerable side, in a way that’s been empowering. Judging by her 10 million record sales, it’s a quality that many others can identify with. “I write songs that simply tell it how it is,” she says. “I don’t go round the houses.”

There has been personal heartache along the way, notably separation from the father of her son. Tony Antoniou is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his stepfather.

Gabrielle has never been to discuss her private life yet she is heartened that others can take positive messages from her lyrics. “I’ve had people come up to me and say thank you for writing that song – it empowered me to get out of a negative situations.”

Twenty years on from the debut release, she takes greatest pride in “just the fact that I’m still here”. Growing up watching Top of the Pops, she never thought she would one day appear on it herself. “I loved singing but I never thought I would have the confidence to have a Number One single.”

Then there were the awards. “The first Brit was amazing, there were a couple of Mobos too. It was validation for me.”

Meeting Nelson Mandela while she was performing at a Labour Party conference was another high point. “He said he wanted to sing and dance along. I remember being so excited by that.”

She’s looking forward to her first tour in six years – even though, she admits, she’s often a “nervous wreck” before she steps on stage.

Beyond music, she would like to appear in a film. “I can’t act for toffee,” she says, “but I would love to play something in a movie, something that’s funny. To show another side of me, that would be kind of cool.”

Somthing like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would be ideal. “A girl can still dream,” she sighs.

March 22, York Barbican, 6.30pm, from £25. 0844 854 2757, http://tickets.yorkbarbican.co.uk/

European Unison composer Ruth Spencer Jolly

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