How I wrote ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle
Learn about one of the 90s’ biggest pop smashes and the highest charting debut single by a female solo act
The pop music of Gabrielle was a soulful thread running through much of the 90s and early 00s. Combining iconic originals like Give Me A Little More Time, Sunshine and Rise with memorable covers such as Walk On By and If You Ever (a duet with the boyband East 17), the Hackney-born artist had that ineffable knack of sounding both timeless and contemporary.
That she also featured on iconic movie soundtracks like Love Actually (Sometimes) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (Out Of Reach) helped to make her one of the most recognisable voices of the era. She recently returned with the album, Under My Skin, giving fans and critics the chance to hear that her music has lost none of its classic charm.
It’s fair to say that her success might not have been possible if it weren’t for her debut single, Dreams. Released in 1993 it immediately grabbed the attention of listeners, entering the UK Singles Chart at No 2 – at that point the highest debut entry by a female solo act. Here, Gabrielle tells us all about the song’s genesis…
“Dreams started out as a poem in my little blue diary, which I had by my bed. It was fully written a good two or three years before I actually went into a studio. I lived in Brockley in South East London and at the time I wrote it I was going through a situation where I just wanted to sing. I would meet different people and they would promise that they could do stuff for me, like, ‘Yeah we can get you into the studio,’ and it would never happen.
“The opening lines of the song are, ‘Move a step closer / You know that I want you.’ Although it appears as if it’s a love song it was about the fact that every time I would take steps towards having a music career it would move 10 paces out of my reach. I felt like I was made to sing, it didn’t even have to be on a stage, it could have been in a pub. I just wanted to sing but it felt like it wasn’t going to be a reality. It was almost like being in a love affair, but the love affair was with my music. Dreams was written out of frustration and it was a fantasy.
“A few years later I was in the studio with a friend of mine. We went to record a love song that I’d written and the producer was a guy called Tim Laws. Later I got a phone call from him and he said, ‘We really love your tone, would you come back without your friend?’ which was so mean. But I didn’t mind going back without her because when we would sing in nightclubs she had her record, her dubplate – it was the instrumental to a song that she’d written. I didn’t have that. When I’d go to a club I was singing to Luther Vandross’ So Amazing. So the fact that I could go back in the studio and maybe have my own song one day – I was prepared to leave her at home and go alone!
“When I went in, they said, ‘Do you think you can write to this music?’ And it was Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. I was like, ‘Yeah I can do that,’ so I was going to take it home and write the words and then go back and present it to them but I’m a lazy cow and I took the music home and forgot about it until the day I was supposed to go back to Byfleet, Surrey on the train.
“I hadn’t written anything, so I got to the studio and said, ‘Yeah I’ve got this song,’ and it was Dreams and I was like, ‘I wrote this for it…’ lie, lie, lie. I hadn’t at all, I just didn’t have anything else and the best thing I could do was blag. So I spent ages in the studio trying to fit the lyrics of Dreams to Fast Car and it worked and Dreams was born.
“That first version of Dreams was out on a white label and then it caught the attention of my label and they loved it so much, they thought it was the perfect pop song. Of course, they played it down at the time, they don’t want you to know how great they think you are. We couldn’t get sample clearance, but the label still wanted to release it and so we had to change the track. We had Richie Fermie come in and he took out Fast Car and replaced it with something not too dissimilar.
“Musically what was done by the producer was so incredible, it doesn’t sound dated and you could probably play it for another 20 or 30 years. I hear it and think, ‘That does sound great.’ So I can’t take sole responsibility for it, even though I wrote the lyrics. That moment where you hear the chords, it still puts a smile on my face.”
“We did end up in a little bit of trouble because Tracy Chapman’s people had heard the Fast Car version and thought that I’d plagiarised the song, even though I didn’t nick anything from the song – I just sang my melody and lyrics over the backing track…”
“Then the new version of Dreams was able to be released properly. People say that when they heard it, it sounded so fresh. At the time everyone was doing dancey stuff and then you had this guitar-sounding song. The sentiment was so lovely and easy. When I’ve spoken to people over the years they all have a different story for what that song meant to them and people can say exactly where they were when they heard it. For whatever reason, they’ve taken that song to their hearts and I’ll be eternally grateful.
“Some artists will let you know that they hated singing the song that they’re best known for but I’ve never had that problem, I love it. I know my audience would never let me get away with not singing it, and I wouldn’t dream of it. To this day my love affair with Dreams has been a crazy but beautiful one that I never want to let go.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell