Gabrielle: ‘I was chuffed to be part of The Masked Singer’

ITV’s show The Masked Singer has been the ratings hit of the year so far, and a welcome diversion for performers who have seen touring and recording schedules put on hold during the Covid pandemic.

Gabrielle

For singer Gabrielle, it’s also chance to return to the same kind of prominence she achieved in the 1990s and early 2000s with singles such as Dreams, Rise, Out of Reach and Give Me A Little More Time.

This week the 51-year-old Londoner releases an album of cover versions of songs she performed en route to the semi-finals of The Masked Singer. Called Do It Again, it also includes two original tracks, one of which, Stop Right Now, is the album’s lead single.

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She says her experience disguised as Harlequin was “crazy but brilliant at the same time”.

“Initially I wanted to quit on the first day of filming because of that darn mask that is beautiful to look at but a b***h to wear, it was hot,” she says, roaring with laughter. “I don’t know if I ever really 100 per cent got used to it, but once I stopped being a big baby and put on my big girl pants, you had to work through it because I wasn’t the only one – if you look at some of those costumes they were crazy and big. My mask was hot but you know what? It had to be done.

“When I was approached to do the show, I thought, ‘how hard can this be?’ I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was, but I’m so glad I toughed it out because it was fun, and it was even more fun to watch after we’d recorded the show, just being able to watch all the unmaskings and realise ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know that person was there’. It was a thrill and I’ve got to say I was so chuffed to be part of such an amazing show.”

To prepare for programme, contestants worked with a vocal coach. “They try to teach you how to disguise your voice,” says Gabrielle. “To be honest, I thought I had it down to a tee; I didn’t know how bad I was at concealing my voice. By the time you combine having to remember a song, sing the song, being really hot, having panic attacks – I felt very claustrophobic under there and I was battling all these things on a weekly basis – that was just killing me. Apart from that, it was fine.”

For a working singer like Gabrielle, the opportunity to perform on television was welcome. “That was one of the appeals,” she says. “Like everyone else, all the shows I was due to do for the summer in 2020 just came to halt, so to be approached to do The Masked Singer was a godsend. I didn’t want people to forget I’ve actually got shows to do at the end of this year.”

Do It Again comprises a mix of classic and contemporary songs that Gabrielle sang on TV. The show’s producers suggested Jimmy Durrant’s Smile, she says, but she ventured Falling by Harry Styles and Everything I Wanted by Billie Eilish.

“My whole life, I’ve never just listened to one genre of music,” she says. “Having Falling or Smile or Diamonds (by Rihanna) wasn’t anything unusual. I will listen to rock then I will listen to pop then I will listen to soul. I just fell in love with these songs. I remember the first time I heard Falling was Harry Styles singing it at the Brit Awards, I thought, ‘it’s stunning, I love him’.

“For me to have such a mixture it was a wonderful thing to do. I had fun with those songs.”

She reveals Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary have been among her favourite “shower songs” for years. “Whether in my hotel room with my manager or my make-up artist before the days of lockdown, or at home, I’d be singing Sam Cooke or Tina Turner. There are so many shower songs – it’s embarrassing to confess that’s how they ended up (on this album). I was influenced by my mum’s music, but I was also an 80s pop child. I’d listen to a my mum’s music – a bit of soul, a bit of reggae – but then I would listen to Madonna or Culture Club. My influences have been varied and wide and I love that.”

Putting her own stamp on a well-known song was satisfying, she says. “Obviously it’s quite scary when you’re looking at the type of songs that I chose, Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly or The Jackson 5’s I’ll Be There are huge songs, but it was a case of saying to myself I’m not trying to be like those artists in terms of singing note for note what they were doing; it was just me being myself and singing the way that I do, having my own little take on it.

“I do understand why people would say ‘those songs sound so amazing, why do you want to mess with them?’ But I hope people will recognise it’s just me having fun and appreciating them and paying homage.”

The two self-penned songs on the album were originally earmarked for an album of original material that she had begun before lockdown. Gabrielle says: “I couldn’t wait for Stop Right Now to be a single because that was a song I sang dancing around the kitchen and the idea of having people hear it was really exciting for me. Can’t Hurry Love was another one I had so much fun writing.

“Although this album is not completely new songs, those two songs showcase what I love doing, which is writing. These are just snippets of more stuff which is to come.”

It’s 30 years since Gabrielle co-wrote her best-known song Dreams, which went to Number One two years later. She was then a shy performer, who wore an eye patch to cover ptosis. In terms of what she has learned since then, she says: “Just having more confidence and learning that when I do listen to myself, that’s when I get into less trouble. I don’t end up doing things I don’t love, because that’s what happens when you get swayed. The lessons are: trust yourself and when it feels right you’re on the right track; when you’re umming and ahhing you should bin it, and that’s not just about music for me, it’s about life and friendships, you just want positivity. But for my career, it’s just follow your gut and enjoy it. I’ve learnt if you’re not enjoying it it’s time to jump off the train and find something that excites you and floats your boat.”

Throughout her career Gabrielle has been a fighter. From a working class upbringing, as one of four children raised single-handedly by their mum who juggled two jobs while qualifying to be a social worker, she often had to battle against music industry stereotypes, and media intrusion when her former boyfriend was jailed for murdering his stepfather.

“When I began my career in ’93 all the girls around me were really skinny, I was wearing an eye patch, I had really short hair,” she says. “From the outset it was fighting that I wasn’t a stereotype but people took to me. They didn’t mind the fact that I wasn’t showing both my eyes, I wasn’t skinny and I couldn’t sing like Mariah Carey and all those amazing singers who have such a huge range.

“Although I was at one stage beating myself up because of my insecurities and I’ve had to fight, I’ve been relatable. I haven’t been slow in coming forward and explaining things that happened in my life, my experiences, people can identify because I’m real and I’m not afraid to talk about it. Sometimes a problem aired is a problem shared, so when I’m singing my songs and writing from my personal experiences, and it was like therapy, people were able to identify with it. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to fight - whether it’s my emotions, having to deal with that and get myself together, or fighting things that happen and just realised that I will not be brought down, even though I might be emotionally down - people can identify. I only know that because when people to the shows or send me messages saying how I’ve helped them go through things when they’ve had personal battles in their life and they’ve read about my personal battles or listened to the songs and said that they can relate. If that’s helped keep me here 28 years later then that’s not a bad thing at all.”

Do It Again is out on Friday March 5. She plays at York Barbican on November 10. www.gabrielle.co.uk