“What you learn,” says Gabrielle Aplin, sitting in the offices of her self-founded record label in central London, “is that there’s no manual for this.”
It took her, Gabrielle admits, longer to realise that than it might have. But then, life in the music industry isn’t conducive to stepping back, pausing for reflection and taking stock: the pace is too fast, the demands too high, the schedule relentless. Sucked into the vortex as a 17-year-old music student in Bath, releasing her first EP, Gabrielle only began to take time out two years ago, when a combination of events forced her to reflect on what she did and didn’t want from the life she had chosen.
The outcome of that process has found Gabrielle writing the songs she’d always wanted to write and brings with it a new and entirely different chapter in the singer’s career. Freedom, healthy living, looking after herself, rediscovering the joy in everyday things: you can hear the new-found perspective in the songs Gabrielle has released since what she describes as her “day of reckoning”. Sonically different though they are, Waking Up Slow, My Mistake and Nothing Really Matters all exude the same sense of relief and liberation. As she ties up the loose ends on her forthcoming third album, Gabrielle is ready to reaffirm her love for music.
But there were darker days, she says, when she questioned everything, and struggled for answers. Things finally came to a head two and a half years ago, on a visit to Japan. “I had a real identity crisis, a real case of imposter syndrome, I was there to do some Billboard shows, I’d been there loads of times before and I love it. But it can be overwhelming, a sensory overload. We were staying about half an hour outside the centre of Tokyo it was beautiful but it was so hot that you struggled to breathe. And I had a meltdown, basically.”
She says all this matter-of-factly, not attempting to soft-soap her recollections. “When you’re 17 and doing things for the first time, you don’t think about it. So it’s: ‘Of course I can go off on tour for two months and not eat or sleep. What could go wrong?’ The problems come when you stop doing that for a while, and then try getting back into it. You realise that it’s not normal. We were doing promo and two shows a day there, and they work you hard. I was doing an interview for this really cool magazine, and I went into the changing room to put on some different clothes, and just started sobbing. My manager asked me what was wrong and I said: ‘I don’t know, I just want to go to bed.’ I kind of lost it. And that was the moment where I thought: ‘Ok, there’s either something wrong with me, or with my life in this industry. Or it’s a bit of both.’”
That night, in a daze, Gabrielle went for a walk. “I was walking for ages, in the dead of night, not even thinking about whether I was safe or not, and with no idea where I was. It was almost like, ‘Well, if something does happen to me, then I’ll get to go home.’ And I remember thinking about that later and going: ‘Hang on, this can’t be right. Something needs to change here.’”
When she returned to Britain, Gabrielle did two things, fast. She wrote a song to herself - Dear Happy - and she saw a therapist, “someone who has worked in the music industry so she understands it completely, which was extraordinarily helpful. She gets that there’s no routine in that world, and that humans need routine. And I started writing about that experience; all the new songs reflect the realisations I had about myself, and the effect making music - and performing it, promoting it, all of that - had had on me. That I’d be on a roll and then when it stopped, I’d spend a day staring at the wall. I realise now that it’s ADHD, but I didn’t know that before. It feels like I’m writing a letter to myself on these songs; that’s what the album is primarily about.”
Moving to Brighton from London turned out, she says, to be another act of self-preservation. “You can find yourself in a bubble. What I’ve done is remove myself from it. I don’t care about the things that I don’t need to care about. You can get sucked in, and find yourself at a fashion party, your day’s work is to turn up, play the game, have your picture taken and leave. I respect people who manage to do that, but I can’t anymore. It’s soul-crushing.”
Finding new ways of working and, crucially, new ways of living became a fundamental part of Gabrielle’s renewal. And developing her passions and interests outside music inspired her to make a new kind of record. A committed vegan, she took time out to enjoy the simple things in life, including cooking meals for family and friends. From this sprang her own YouTube cooking series #FoodWithFriends which gave her a new outlet creatively. And having dogs to look after became a grounding experience, giving her a sense of ‘home’ once more that chimed with her strong advocacy for animal rights.
The process of putting the pieces back together didn’t make Gabrielle feel fragile; on the contrary, it gave her renewed strength, and greater perspective. “There’s a song on the album called Kintsugi, which is inspired by the Japanese art-form based on the idea of ‘precious scars’, where they glue precious ceramics back together with gold. That became incredibly significant for me.”
Rolling up her sleeves and releasing her own records on Never Fade has opened her eyes, she says, to the limitations of being part of a corporate structure, and made her realise just how constricting that can be. “I’ve worked with some brilliant people in the industry, but it can’t help but become safe and formulaic. There can be a reluctance to take chances, when everything rides on where, say, a new song charts, or how well a video performs. It’s great to now be in a position to go: ‘That didn’t work, let’s try this instead’, and to have the flexibility to do that. The amount of times I went in thinking, ‘I’ve got this genius idea’, and they’d go, ‘Wow’, and then, because no one had done it before, it wouldn’t happen. And then someone else would do it and they’d be like, ‘We should do that!’ But I get it. No one wants to be the first person, but they’re happy to be the second. So it’s nice to be able to go: ‘Great, let’s make it happen’, instead of it being this big long thing.”
Never Fade works on a collective principle, with past releases including work by Saint Raymond, Hannah Grace, Sonny and Anna Straker; the label’s regular live sessions have hosted performances by Ward Thomas, Newton Faulkner, Hudson Taylor, Lewis Watson and Nina Nesbitt, among others. Gabrielle describes its ethos as “casual but deeply committed”. Open-mindedness informs the Never Fade’s decisions; old-fashioned attitudes and behaviour are out.
“People want songs. People who are really consuming music, they don’t care about all the other stuff; they just want some songs. It’s really important, I think, to release music as often as possible; and to challenge the traditional ideas of timing, marketing and all that. I don’t think albums are dead. I love albums. But there are so many different ways to approach that now. I loved the way that Marina rolled out Froot, and what Bruno Major did with A Song For Every Moon, released one song each month. That way, you’re collecting an album, and that’s such an interesting way to approach it. There are so many independent artists doing great things.”
There are still traces of the pastoral folk-pop of Gabrielle’s gold debut album English Rain and the guitar-heavy follow-up Light Up the Dark, most notably in the way Gabrielle constructs melodies and channels her emotions but other elements – including electronica, and synth-pop – dominate the mix, creating a joyful, pop explosion that expands her musical palette further than it’s gone before.
“Beck’s been a huge inspiration, the way he can go, ‘I’m going to do a country album’, and then he’ll do a folk one next, or a rock album. I can’t just do the same thing over and over, I’d get bored, and it would be shit. I’m not going to sit there and go, ‘Ok, I’ve done well with a song that has tinkly piano on it, or a rocky guitar, so that’s all I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’ It’s like going out and thinking, ‘What shall I wear?’ So it’s: ‘What should this song wear?’ The process may be the same, I’ll start out on the piano or the guitar, but then it’s a question of how you dress it. I stopped trying to be cool, or caring about doing what was expected, and that’s liberating.”
And with that, she is gone - back to Brighton “to walk the dogs in a field, in the sunshine. Because that’s what’s joyous.” You can hear that joy all over Gabrielle’s new album. It’s like she has finally found her true voice, and learnt how to listen to it, too. Out of the dark and into the light, she’s paused for reflection and written her own manual. And written, too, the songs of her life. Just watch her soar.