By Sam Bleazard
Born to a Seychellois mother and an American father who was a band member of legendary Motown group ‘The Four Tops’. Gizelle Smith was raised in Manchester and has always had an eclectic mix of influences. She came in to the mainstream consciousness as the leader of the Hamburg based outfit ‘The Mighty Mocambos’, on their breakthrough collaborative album ‘This Is Gizelle Smith & The Mighty Mocambos’.
She recently completed the recording of her new solo album “Ruthless day”, a collection of songs soaked in raw emotion.
As we settle down to do the interview she tells us that her day is just beginning (it’s mid-afternoon on a bright crisp day at the end of January). However it doesn’t take her long to enliven our conversation with a broad Manchester accent that darts around in a free flowing chat, looking at music through a very refreshing lens.
The Cocoa Diaries, as always, was lucky enough to be there…
So what has been keeping you awake Gizelle?
It was a really late night last night, I went to see my boyfriend who was playing bass.
Sounds like fun – have you had a chance to play your new album (out at the end of March) with a band yet?
Thanks for asking. Back in September we did a gig in Pizza Express in Soho, that was literally the first time we’d performed those songs, quite terrifying really. I’m also aware that music listeners sometimes expect similar things that they’ve heard before from you, you know, music in the same vein.
How difficult is it to commit to the sound you want?
I’m focusing on working my vocals hard at the moment. In answer to your question, not too difficult, because I have a clear idea in my mind of what it is I want to do. My producer shares the same vision, and the musicians are all on the same page too. For the music heads out there I always go to an analogue studio, and record straight to tape.
Were there things going on in your life that influenced your approach to the album?
This album was written from a bit of a weird place. My first album was a few years ago with the Mighty Mocambos, and when we recorded it we weren’t expecting anything in particular, so it was unplanned in that sense. The “Ruthless Day” album was kind of similar as we didn’t have a set of songs we wanted to do. I just put in what I was experiencing at the time. To be honest I was in a really tough place. It’s why I named the album Ruthless Day. My mother was very ill apart from anything else so it is a very emotional album. I should also say though that I include everyday stuff. This can be everyday emotions, artwork I’ve looked at, stories I’ve read, great literature. I take my emotions and put them into a character.
The album is out on 30 March – what are your plans?
To be honest I do music so that I can perform. I enjoy song-writing but am not that keen on recording in the studio or photo shoots. Even music videos, while great to look at, I can take it or leave it. My focus is getting onstage and hanging with like-minded musicians. I get positive energy from the crowd and from my contemporaries. In terms of live plans, I’m looking to get on the festivals circuit, but we’re also touring with the band in France. My ideal scenario would be to tour for six months of the year, and then rest for the other six months – but I don’t think it’s going to happen! (laughs)
Any songs from the album that are special?
I’ve noticed when I perform (the first single from the album) Sweet memories, I can really go off on one, it’s quite a psychedelic and rocky track. I have quite a big punk influence in my locker as well, so I take it a bit heavier than the normal funk and soul you might be used to hearing. I really like things having a heavier, dirtier sound. Ruthless Day is another very personal song for me, and it’s very rare that I get emotional onstage, that cut me up in terms of emotions. But now that it’s happened am looking forward to exploring that further in future performances.
What do you remember about your family growing up?
When I was born, I was on tour with my Dad for two years, when he came to Europe to play. Which I do remember. I have very early memories, it’s surprising but even as an infant for some reason I remember staying in hotels with him. I wasn’t aware of it consciously but it was clearly training my brain in some way. I knew I was always going to be a musician, although my mum would always hit me with ‘you have to do something more stable’, you know the typical things parents say! And with Dad, he didn’t necessarily want his kids to go into the music industry but I think he’s glad I did now.
Were there one or two key turning points in your life?
That’s a good question. Yes, most definitely. One was when the singer Aaliyah died. I studied sciences for a long time, in fact I thought I would do forensic science as a career at one point. I mention that because I really liked Aaliyah, not necessarily for her music, but I distinctly recall watched this interview with her which I saw just after she’d died. In it the last thing she said was, if you have a dream you have to go for it. When I saw that I know that I said to myself, don’t hold back in following the path you want to follow. I thought she was so right. I then started looked at Universities that hard courses for composing music. I was quite shy back then, but as fate would have I trained as a composter from that point and my producer did the same masters.
Longevity is often the dream of every artist, are there other projects you’re keen to pursue?
Yes there are. I get told off regularly (laughs). I want to do a lot of different projects, and I’ve already decided I’m going to start leading my next album in a punk-funk and punk-soul direction. Quite heavy.
I’d like to write a West End musical in the next five years. They’re my two main things. I get lots of work from producers from time to time who are looking for music to add to what they’ve got but I’m always told I need to focus! My view is that you do things at the right moment, go with what feels instinctual.
How would you describe yourself?
Well I don’t want to be known as just a singer. I write and I orchestrate my music, and that’s everything from arranging and recording all of the vocals myself. It might be insecurity but I really don’t want to be regarded as just one thing, because that’s not doing me justice, not least because of the effort I know I’m putting in.
You mentioned artistic insecurities – but you seem confident as a person.
I am pretty confident but it’s been fairly steady in the sense that my confidence grew just from getting older and wiser, you know picking up little successes along the way. I suffered from stage fright quite a bit in the early days. I really wanted to perform but I was terrified. It really helped me as a person just growing up and being forced to be outgoing, all that life stage stuff like going to Uni and living alone.
Do you have a view on being a woman in the music industry?
I know it’s a big debate at the moment but I don’t sit there and think about being a woman, I just do what I do. There’s lots of conversation about more consistency to the wage gap and other related issues, but if all these things are in your head all the time they could drive you mad in my view. I think I’m fortunate because I don’t even consider gender.
We leave our final thoughts on the music…
How would you describe the creative process you go through in your head when you want to capture your ideas?
Well I play trumpet, trombone and a bit of cello. I’ve also just given myself a year to learn the bass so that I can start playing it onstage. When I write horn lines, I mostly sing them into existence as I can use my voice in so many diff ways. I actually hear horns and backing vocals sitting quite closely together.
You hear horn lines in your head?
Yeah, I just adlib stuff then I record it. Certain lines will poke out in my head and I can pretty much hear everything I want to do. I’ve played in big jazz bands, and have listened to brass heavy music, so it’s second nature. That said I don’t like smooth music, because I have an ear for heavy, raw stuff that you can get your teeth into.
Anything ‘raw’ you can recommend?
Here Lies Man. They are basically a similar style to me, verging on punk funk, they’re wicked. Like an off-shoot of the Dap Tone guys you should check them out. And also Chicano Batman, really interesting.
And with that it’s time to bid Gizelle farewell…but we’ll be checking her album out when it drops “Ruthless Day” is released on March 30. Follow Gizelle’s Facebook page for upcoming performances and release dates here.