It’s been almost 30 years since Gabrielle burst onto the music scene with her 1993 single Dreams.
The singer hasn’t bowed to industry pressure and has taken time throughout her long and successful career to care for children and put being a mum first. Fans adore her for music that feels just as contemporary today as it did when it was first released.
Here, in The Big Issue’s Letter to My Younger Self, Gabrielle talks with Adrian Lobb about music, relationships, meeting Nelson Mandela, struggles during her teenage years and her experience with the press after being catapulted to superstardom.
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At 16, I was an 80s pop child who just loved music. I was buried in pop music. We had Adam and the Ants, Haircut 100, Culture Club, Michael Jackson, Madonna – whatever was happening in the top UK Top 40, I’d be there. It was my turn to wash up on Sundays, so I’d be in the kitchen, radio on, listening to the Top 40 countdown and enjoying every minute of it. It was a great time to be a pop music fan. We also had a TV programme called Fame and everyone would know when that was on because it sounded like my bedroom ceiling would collapse. I was trying to dance and sing along and I was in love with the character Bruno, with his lovely curly hair. I was the only girl and had three brothers, which meant I didn’t have to share a room. So I got to blast my music and dance without fear of anyone coming in and interrupting my flow.
We weren’t rich but I felt rich. It was not until I was older I realised we didn’t have much money. My mum held down three jobs so we never went without. I used to go with her to her morning cleaning job to earn my pocket money before school. My mum is a grafter. She made sure we had what we needed. I never had to worry – I had my own TV and life was good. We lived in Brockley and when I was growing up I thought we lived in a lovely neighbourhood. Years later somebody in the press was talking to me as if it was some ghetto area. But for me it was lovely.
I would tell my younger self it’s OK to dream, my darling. Because as much as I wanted to sing, and as much as I was confident, there was no one like me in pop music or on TV. No one to represent this girl with a lazy eye who has not got this picture-perfect face. So that wasn’t a dream I could have said out loud. If I could whisper in her ear I would say, you are going to be OK. Don’t be afraid to have those dreams. You’re entitled to them just like anybody else. And dreams definitely can come true!
People would have probably preferred me to hide in the corner because of my lazy eyelid. But instead I would stand on the table at lunchtime and sing in front of the whole school. I was quite strong and confident when I was 16. I’d love to go back and tell her, girl, I’m gonna write you some songs so you’ve got some songs that are going to truly represent that little pop kid that you were and you still are to this day. I would love to be able to play my younger self the Rise album. Louise Gabrielle Bobb would love those songs. I’d tell her to listen to that and [2018 album] Under My Skin – these are the songs you need to hear because this represents who you are and who you’ve always been.
I would say buckle up kid, it’s about to get wild! My younger self would be shocked if anyone had said she would have a bit of fame coming her way and that she was going to land in the charts with the highest ever new entry for a debut single by a female artist. Dreams went straight in at number two then went to number one! If you’d said that to the girl with the lazy eyelid who wasn’t the most popular girl and who, according to some people, shouldn’t really dare to dream? Wow. But I’m glad I didn’t know because it’s made that success even sweeter.
I would stop my younger self from going up to Jean Paul Gaultier shouting, I love you. He looked at me like, who is this fool?
When I entered the music industry I became really self-deprecating. I once opened up a newspaper and it had an article about the five fattest girls in pop – I was one of them and so was Geri Halliwell, who’s teeny weeny weeny. No wonder people had eating disorders. So I would tell my younger self to be kind to herself so she won’t be in that position of saying something awful about myself because if I said it, then it doesn’t hurt as much as somebody else saying it. I have got to a place where it’s OK to be me but I battle every day to not make fat girl comments about myself to people.
Every time I stepped back was solely because of my children. I enjoyed being a mum so much, so I don’t regret being around for them because kids do stuff so quickly. I didn’t want to miss those pivotal moments. They’re big and doing great now. So although my career advice would be not to leave it so long between albums, because it was a nightmare for my record label when this successful artist wouldn’t come back for three or five years between albums, at the time it was right for me.
It’s OK to trust your gut. It’s OK to believe in yourself. It’s OK to not always listen to those who claim they’re telling you things for your own benefit. Sometimes we listen to people who actually have their own agenda, and even if they’re close to us or loved ones, I would tell my younger self it’s OK not to always take that advice. I had a lawyer who said forget about Dreams because I was having legal difficulties with it. I paid him no mind.
If it don’t feel right, run. That’s what I’d tell my younger self about relationships. Don’t try to fix them, don’t try to modify them, if it’s not right, run! I give that advice to everyone and think everyone needs to pay attention to it. We end up staying in things longer than we should because we’re trying to explain away certain actions of the other person. Sometimes it’s not meant to be. So if it don’t feel right, take flight.
I’m not into politics but I was happy to grace the stage at the Labour Party Conference with that guy they called Two Jags – I forget his name [John Prescott] – because Nelson Mandela was going to be there. They asked me to sing Dreams with some school kids and I bit their hands off. Because that was my opportunity to meet this most iconic, lovely man. He fought for freedom by any means necessary. I wondered how this man could be locked up for so long and have so much love for people after all that – it takes a certain kind of human being. So it was an honour to meet him.
I would love one last conversation with my stepdad. My mum never married him but I always saw him as my stepdad. His name is Vernon Henry and he was very musical. When I used to say I wanted to sing, he was very supportive. He died in 1992 and my first single came out in 1993, so I wish I could have a conversation with him about making it in the music industry and he could see my success, because it was a dream that we shared. He was pretty cool. I wanted him to be my dad, but he wasn’t.
If I could relive one moment from my career it would be the first time I got a Brit Award. I would watch that show on TV at home, just a normal schoolgirl, so to be part of it and win in 1994 was amazing. I’d want to rerun that night to remember it too, because I was a bit pissed. I have got pictures but I don’t have a lot of memories of it. I would also stop my younger self from going up to Jean Paul Gaultier at the Brits shouting I love you. He looked at me like, who is this fool?
When I hear my older stuff on the radio, I feel like it could have come out now. Dreams could have come out this year. And Out of Reach as well. So I’m really chuffed when people tell me it sounds timeless. I’ve been blessed that I had great producers and musicians who would give me amazing music and allow me to do my thing. Twenty-eight years after my first song came out I will take that, thank you very much. In my lifetime I’ve had lots of incredible moments. I don’t know if I took them all in as much as I should have done, but reflecting now, all I can say is, wow.
Gabrielle’s new album Do It Again is out now on BMG.