'I'd like to think I paved the way for anyone who has hang-ups on the way they look'
Soul singer Gabrielle, who conquered the charts in the Nineties, is back with her first album in over 10 years. She talks about what inspired her to get back into the studio. By Joe Nerssessian.
It's been a long 11 years since soul songstress Gabrielle released her last album. The 48-year-old boasts two Brit Awards and one of the best pop soundtracks of all time with Out of Reach, recorded for Bridget Jones's Diary in 2001.
And finally she's back. A return to the studio was motivated by a desire to tour new music. She admitted it was unfair on fans paying to see her sing the same material.
"They needed new material and I was ready because it means I can go back on the road again," she says, sitting on a sofa in a small room inside BMG's west London offices.
She got back on the road and signed to the label after supporting Michael Bolton and being surprised at her disappointment when the tour was over.
"He reignited my ambition to go back on to the road," she says.
"I loved him but if someone had said you were going to miss this when it ends, I would have told them to f*** off, don't even try it.
"But it was getting back out there. The seats were filled and I was really chuffed.
"I was singing my songs for 45 minutes and I realised I actually liked this. By the time it ended, I really was depressed."
She says all of this at a rapid pace, occasionally launching into footnotes which are more often than not left unfinished.
Dressed all in black with beautiful gold rings, her hair is short, but styled to cover her right eye, which has a drooped eyelid.
It was her eye - which is affected by a condition called ptosis - that initially stopped her from dreaming of being a pop star. It didn't stop her clambering onto a table and singing an original song in the school canteen though.
Nor did it stop her years later, singing over the tannoy during her first job at a supermarket.
Despite citing those two incidents, she admits she was ashamed about dreaming of being a pop star.
"I didn't look a particular way, I had a lazy eyelid. How dare I even imagine that I could possibly be a singer? It wasn't an aspiration I had.
"It wasn't something I would have told people because it would have been ridiculous. Who do you think you are? There's no one on TV who looks like you.
"Even when I was moonlighting in a nightclub in Greek Street in Soho, there were always people that were thinner than me, had better voices than me.
"So again my stage was confined. I was happy with that - if that's all it ever was, I'd have been happy."
She proved her doubters wrong though and grins with glee as she recalls someone signing her school leaving book with the sarcastic message: 'See you on Top of the Pops Ha Ha Ha.'
"I kept the book. So carry on laughing. I'd like to think I paved the way for anyone who has hang-ups on how they look. If I can do it, then you can be whatever you want to be."
The album, Under My Skin, comes out next month but Gabrielle has been blown away by the reception to lead single Show Me, which she co-wrote with Steve Chrisanthou.
He helped Corinne Bailey Rae make Put Your Records On a smash-hit.
"He played this amazing piece of music and I just said to him, 'You need to get that mic up'. I'm quite a freestyling kind of artist. If I do a melody and start saying things, if I'm off-mic and you haven't recorded me, I couldn't tell you what I had just sung.
"The best thing for me is to get me recorded as soon as I hear the music and sometimes what I do the first time is the right thing. So I went in the studio and Steve was coming at me, I was just having a ball."
A mother-of-two, Gabrielle realised the industry had changed in her time away from the spotlight. One thing that has stayed the same, however, is that it remains a male-dominated environment.
"I walked into the record company and met a whole heap of staff and they were like, 'This is your team'.
"And for every woman, there were like five men. It's something we've been tackling since the beginning and we're still tackling it on all aspects.
"If this is a place the inequality needs to be addressed then definitely, but for years I've been used to there being more guys at everything I do."
But she does notice a slight shift, she says, citing Adele as an example of there being less of a demand on stars to fit this narrow, rigid look.
"She's freaking incredible and she's here as a role model for so many women, including myself. I am in awe of her."
With track titles including Won't Back Down, Put Up A Fight and Stronger, it's no surprise Gabrielle is pitching Under My Skin as an inspirational album. She also confronts domestic violence on Every Step after a friend once ignored her advice to leave her partner.
"Sometimes we stay in things through fear, the stars align and it's actually a golden opportunity to leave. It's hard watching someone who is crushed emotionally and all you can do is advise them. They give you excuses and you just want to physically remove them because they've got their own reason, it's hard to stand there with your hands tied. The reality is nothing happens before its time and obviously they're not ready."
One of Britain's most successful female singer-songwriters, Gabrielle, who has sold more than five million records, is excited by the next stage of her career but, as always, remains level-headed.
"I'm not really that ambitious," she says. "Just to have a new album, go out and performing new songs makes me happy. I just love what I do."
Under My Skin is out on August 17 on BMG