Following a life-changing encounter with a snowman, Gabrielle Aplin’s new album, Light Up The Dark is cementing her place as one of the UK’s brightest pop talents
Words: Huw Hopkins Images: Richard Ecclestone
Late November 2012: a young couple huddles around a laptop watching X Factor. As the programme slips into the first of many ad breaks, the pair fizz with excitement – what they have been waiting for is about to arrive.
Despite both being great musicians and songwriters, neither had songs featured on the show. Instead, the girl, just 20, beams with pride as she hears her fragile voice singing an ethereal version Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘The Power of Love’, which plays over the top of the story of a snowman facing the bitter winter weather and crazy Christmas high streets to find the perfect set of gloves for his snowlady friend.
John Lewis had done it again. Its Christmas ad now firmly a British institution – and it was Gabrielle Aplin’s voice and song that would go on to be played on every TV and radio, and in every supermarket and shopping centre around the country that festive season.
“I soon realised, it was going to annoy us in a month’s time.” Gabrielle says. “There was a joke among my friends because we couldn’t get away from it. We’d be in a hotel lobby and there it was again – on TVs and radios everywhere.”
Three years later, Gabrielle ghosts down the stairs on Graham Norton’s Friday night primetime chat show in a sparkly blue catsuit to perform her new single ‘Sweet Nothing’. Following the song, she sits on the famous red couch alongside Hollywood royalty Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan – the YouTube acoustic guitarist from a little village outside Bath had made it.
“It was really exciting,” Gabrielle says of the experience. “It’s the biggest TV thing I’ve done in the UK so far. It always feels like an achievement because it’s so hard to get these things, so it’s quite an honour.”
Yet despite the excitement of the occasion, Gabrielle owned the couch. She looked cool, calm, and behaved like she had already been doing this sort of thing for over eight years – which, of course, she has been. “The line-up was incredible but they were all doing exactly the same thing as I was doing: just sitting down and talking. I try to see these things as just having a chat, which I don’t find hard to do.”
This confidence has grown naturally, but it’s on display even on the earliest public display of her talent – a YouTube video of her playing ‘My Heart’ by Paramore on the piano at Sheldon School near Chippenham. Today that video is still available has over 268,000 views at the time of writing.
Her head of year there, Mr Paul Weller – no, not that one – noticed her musical talent early on, even if she didn’t study the subject. He says: “We had to keep kicking Gabrielle out of the music rooms and send her back to her art lesson. She was always a bit alternative, which came from her family, and she had a hippyish side to her. It was always a chase to get work in from her, but most people remember her for the music side, which she always worked hard at in terms of going to auditions.”
Gabrielle’s entire career exists online, documenting her transformation from a shy teenager with a raw voice and a chopped haircut, to a young adult growing in confidence busking with a friend in the rain (sporting a massive sweeping fringe – they were popular at the time), before finally becoming the star that you can see rocking out on national television today.
“I was about 14 or 15 when I started putting things online,” Gabrielle says. “I didn’t know what would happen at the time, I just put them up to share among my friends. After a while I started to notice people were watching them and more people came back each time.”
An entire generation now aspires to have a commercially successful social media presence, whether it’s skit comedy, video game reviews or being a singer-songwriter. And that area of YouTube that isn’t taken up by cute animals is usually full with people trying to build a career. But in 2008, this wasn’t the case.
“When I was doing it, I didn’t see it as the way to make it in the music industry. No one had really done it, apart from maybe Justin Bieber, but not in terms of making it as a songwriter. I think it’s amazing that you don’t need a big label to release music anymore. A lot of people are managing to have careers from it and I think it’s important to have another outlet – it’s like an open-mic night on the internet.”
Returning fans to her page were soon asking for downloadable songs, EPs and albums, but with no record label behind her at this point, Gabrielle did what any naïve kid does, and with no business or legal knowledge she came up with Never Fade Records (named after one of her songs,) and started releasing material on iTunes.
“I was releasing EPs before I got signed and I needed to license my music somehow. I eventually got signed and obviously I don’t release music through Never Fade Records anymore, but those original releases started funding themselves, then they started making money that I couldn’t put into myself because I already had a deal, so I started putting it into other artists.
“It’s just my manager and me that run it today. We keep it small because we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew but we’ve done three releases: Bite The Buffalo, from Bath; an EP for Saint Raymond and his first release – he’s now signed to Warner Brothers and doing really well – and I’m also working with a girl called Hannah Grace. We did one song and now we’re working on another. It’s not really hard work because I want artists to do what they want.”
While Gabrielle is keen to give her artists freedom, she appreciates the importance of a big label. She says: “I’d be a hypocrite if I was against big labels, but I am aware of the way the industry works, and the way it generates itself is changing. You should always act as if you don’t have a label and work as hard as you can.”
Hard work got her to this point, but achieving this level of success requires more than just grafting, it takes talent, toughness and a strong support network – something Gabrielle had growing up.
Read the full interview in the new issue of Acoustic Magazine (issue 114) available now…